Why I support criminalising pornographic depictions of rape.

I’m writing this in response  to the confusion and misinformation  circulating about the campaign from Rape Crisis South London, supported by the End Violence Against Women Coalition, Law Professors from Durham University including Professor Clare McGlynn and Professor Erika Rackley, Rape Crisis (England and Wales) Women’s Aid and many other individuals and organisations to amend existing Extreme Pornography legislation in England and Wales to include images of rape.

To begin I want to say thank you to everyone who has expressed their support and to the women and men who were unsure about the campaign and contacted either myself or other campaign supporters for more information, one of whom suggested I write this public response. I’m doing so not in the hope of getting everyone on board, I understand and oddly support dissent within feminisms (I think as long as its respectful, it makes us interesting), but rather to make clear what the campaign is and is not about. I also want to locate myself within what I am about to say. These are my thoughts and my words and may not be representative of Rape Crisis South London or our campaign supporters.

I come as a practitioner working with women and girls aged 14 years and over who have experienced sexual violence at any time in their life. I have worked at Rape Crisis South London, London’s oldest Rape Crisis Centre, for over 7 years and it is both the hardest and the best job in the world (we’re recruiting for helpline volunteers at the moment too – small plug but if interested email helpline.coordinator@rasasc.org.uk for info). My skills are in understanding the impacts of sexual violence, understanding and practicing therapeutic intervention/support, sexual violence prevention with young people and training for the national Rape Crisis helpline. It is from this work that the campaign came into being.

This campaign is about closing a loophole in the extreme pornography legislation in England and Wales which misses simulated images of rape. Wider existing legislation already covers the possession and distribution of images of someone’s rape, alongside the possession and distribution of the rape of under 18 year olds.  It is crucial to understand that the law as we are asking for it already exists in Scotland. Theoretical possibilities about what may or may not be captured by the amendment need not be theoretical, we have a reference point for how it operates in practice.

We are defining ‘rape porn’ itself as pornography that explicitly and or contextually depicts rape i.e. ‘Pizza girl raped’ ‘Anal rape’ ‘Blonde slut rape’. The amendment we are seeking would, like Scotland, focus on context in ascertaining whether an image is defined as rape, context including how the image is described, accompanying sounds, narrative and so on. The amendment does not criminalise consensual BDSM pornography. The failed Simon Walsh prosecution has been raised as evidence that the amendment is flawed. It is important to remember this prosecution a.) failed and b.) was made in respect to the law as it stands. The amendment we are asking for in fact widens the participation in consensual acts defence. The law as it stands is over-inclusive because it allows for the criminalisation of many average depictions of consensual sadomasochistic (BDSM) material but also under-inclusive in its exclusion of the vast majority of pornographic images of rape.

We have been clear throughout the campaign that we are not targeting BDSM pornography and are not conflating the two. We see a clear difference here and I personally have been quite surprised that others do not, which has led me to think, perhaps mistakenly, that people have not truly engaged in the content we are campaigning to legislate against and have reacted rather than responded to the campaign. Our own early unpublished research into the differences between BDSM and rape pornography showed that, based on very early stages of a comparative view of rape pornography and BDSM porn videos, there appears to be discernible stylistic differences between the two, which if administered well the legislation will pick up on.  Many of those who have challenged the campaign draw a distinction themselves between what they are supporting/practicing and rape, using terms such as ‘consensual non-consent’ or ‘ravishment’. The amendment would not make more prosecutions of consensual BDSM activity more likely, but in fact would signal a shift in focus from images of consensual BDSM activity to images explicitly eroticising, and legitimising, rape. (for a much more detailed discussion on this please see here).

The campaign is not about scenarios where actresses who are eighteen are digitally altered to look far younger. This is a mistaken claim which I think may have been drawn from comments I made about how the IWF (Internet Watch Foundation) work out the age of people in videos who look much younger than 18. The IWF can use digital imaging for age verification. The reason the IWF needs to do this is because to the average person the people in the videos appear underage, indeed that’s the very loophole we’re talking about. These young women look underage, the viewer is told they are underage, and all contextual factors in the videos encourage the viewer orgasm to the fact that they are underage. It takes sophisticated software to ascertain they are not.

The campaign is clear about who will be held legally responsible for rape porn. The Extreme Pornography legislation of 2008 brought about a possession offence, targeting the users of pornographic material by enabling prosecutions to be brought, for the first time, against anyone downloading, and therefore generating the demand for, such material. This was a response to the ways in which the growth of online pornography was outside the reach of the Obscene Publications Act 1959. We are seeking an amendment to this legislation thus still a possession offence.

The campaign is not presenting a causal argument about why some men rape. Working within Rape Crisis I would never work on a campaign that sought to take away any responsibility for choosing to rape from the rapist themselves. It is fundamental to everything I do and for this reason I know it is nowhere in any of our campaign literature.  We speak of cultural harm in the same ways that we know as feminists there’s cultural harm in Facebook’s refusal to remove ‘rape joke’ pages. We speak of the legality of rape pornography in England and Wales as a legitimisation of rape. Debates on causal links are a red herring.

The charge of attempting to police people’s sexual fantasies through this campaign is a very difficult one to negotiate. Here I do not pretend to have all the answers. I am also personally and politically committed to an ethical sexual freedom, but I would ask whose sexual freedom are we defending and what does that freedom look like?  It is simplistic to believe sexual fantasies are natural when we know the impacts of socialisation across all other aspects of our sexual and social being. I wonder if, wider than this campaign, we could have a conversation about interrogating where and how we get pleasure, bringing ethics back into the discussion rather than the individualist conception of freedom that seems to have dominated so far. Again, I have questions not answers here, (what is an ethical orgasm?) but that’s what makes me think we’re not even close to living the ethical sexual freedom this campaign has been charged with removing.

This leads into the second point needing clarification that has been made about fantasy in relation to this campaign. The rape pornography we have seen is not pornography depicting the fantasy of being raped. It is depicting the fantasy of raping. We looked at the top 50 rape pornography sites, and all explicitly located the viewer as the perpetrator, fulfilling a rapist fantasy. Directions to the viewer include ‘nothing is better than seeing these good looking sluts getting raped’, ‘these girls say no but we say yes’, it is ‘time to become Tough Guys. Right now.’ It is a male voice talking to a male consumer. There may be rape pornography directed to an assumed ‘victim’ fantasy, both male or female, or with a female/male voice talking to a female viewer, but across the top 50 sites, we didn’t find any.  That’s not to say that self and/or socially defined women may not be masturbating with the material but research tells us that men are lead producers and consumers of pornography. They are producing and consuming material focused on orgasming to a woman being raped. This isn’t what ethical sexual freedom looks like to me.

It has also been implied that we jumped on some bandwagon post the convictions for Stuart Hazel and Mark Bridger to push forward this campaign. That anyone would try to suggest this of women who have devoted their personal and professional lives to campaigning to end violence against women and girls is disheartening and incorrect  The  suggested ‘handy’ alliance between anti-porn feminists, social; conservatives and the censors is more a product of timing and media flow rather than design and mutuality. Conflating the campaign with conservative agendas is lazy journalism and may go further in helping maintain rather than changing unequal gender relations.

Finally, for the feminists who have expressed their opposition to the campaign. We’re coming from different places but that’s what makes us powerful. We need to not lose the differences but we also need to actively refuse to compete.

If you support the campaign, thank you.

If you don’t support it I hope you can now base that on the facts.

Campaign petition is available here. Campaign briefings and material here.

14 thoughts on “Why I support criminalising pornographic depictions of rape.

  1. Pingback: A Response to Rape Crisis South London’s “Why I support criminalising pornographic depictions of rape” | Trans*- and Sex Worker-Inclusive Feminism, Genderqueering and Polyamory

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  5. I was sent here from your Guardian debate piece. Thanks for articulating the distinction between consensual BDSM porn and rape porn, and for getting into the difficult but, I think, really crucial question of the ethics and social conditioning of sexual fantasies. There’s more to say about this, but it can’t be intelligently discussed while the causality macguffin keeps being made the centre of attention. Thanks, too, for the very important work you do.

  6. I think your forgetting that just because it looks that way to you doesn’t mean it looks that way to everyone else. You can’t start something a valid movement on an opinion, it makes you look no better then conservatives who try their hardest to limit gay rights, because they believe it’s wrong.

    • It doesn’t sound like you know the sites being discussed here. This is not a case of ‘looking’ like rape to me or to anyone else. These are sites who define themselves as hosting depictions of rape for masturbation. Their web addresses include the words, for example, real rape, brutal rape, HQ real rape. The descriptions for the videos are things like ‘this is 100% real. Watch these dumb sluts get raped’ ‘this slut gets what she deserves, watch her scream.’ I am unsure how and why you are linking this to the gay rights movement.

      • Your point?Unless you hunt down the videos being hosted and prove each every single one is indeed rape you really have nothing go on but the url or thumbnail title.So you bascially want to stop something because you believe it must be wrong because you don’t agree with the usage of the word. Hence the conservatives try to limit gay rights with any sort of logic they can find.

      • Point was in response to your spurious claim that whether an image was defined as rape was based on subjective opinion. The EP law is a possession offence no need to ‘hunt down’ producers. Westminster government has committed to making the amendment to put our legislation in line with Scotland’s. Again I find you linking this to gay rights, bizarre.

  7. The problem I have with this sort of legislation is that it has already been found empirically to be either ineffective or actively counterproductive. A very brief search of pubmed turns up dozens of abstracts of research spanning a number of decades, all comparing availability of pornography, including violent pornography, and rates of sexual offending. Almost every study comes up with the same conclusion: Availability and type of pornography either has NO effect on rates of sex-related crime and rape, or in fact has a REDUCING effect (suggested explanation: availability of fantasy material actually reduces desire to go out and perform such acts in real life).
    So we’re introducing laws that criminalise fantasy, restrict consenting adults in what they can do, make and watch with each other, cost incredible amounts to enforce, and in actual fact don’t serve their intended purpose or may even make the problem they’re supposed to solve worse.

    As a sex-positive but incurably empiricist feminist-aligned woman who happens to enjoy BDSM and so-called ‘violent’ pornography, including, yes, simulated ‘rape’ scenes (the more obviously fantasy the better, but hey… who says where the line is?), I’m keen to discourage a change in law that will not only restrict my personal freedoms, but potentially make me LESS safe instead of more. If predatory-but-lazy guys who currently enjoy rape fantasy porn are prevented from accessing it, will they, in fact, be moved to get off their asses and come looking for me? The available evidence seems to point more that way than the other and I find that rather worrying.

    I can entirely understand folks finding such material triggering or distasteful and wanting to avoid it, or make it difficult to access by accident (in my own case I found both negotiated in-person SM play and porn viewing beneficial as a part of my personal recovery from abuse, but YMMV). However I think it is incredibly important to distinguish between personal feelings of disgust, dislike, or even fear, and things that are actually harmful, as opposed to playing a potentially important role as an outlet to prevent sex crime from happening in the first place.

    “It has been found everywhere it was scientifically investigated that as pornography has increased in availability, sex crimes have either decreased or not increased. … Further this finding holds nationally in the United States and in widely different countries around the world. … The only consistent finding is that adults prefer to have the material restricted from children’s production or use.”


    “Of particular note is that this country, like Denmark and Japan, had a prolonged interval during which possession of child pornography was not illegal and, like those other countries, showed a significant decrease in the incidence of child sex abuse.”


    As has been pointed out elsewhere already, rape is already illegal, as is child abuse. If we want to strengthen the laws around women/children/people in general’s rights over their own bodies, I think there are many ways we can do that, but all the data says that this is not one of them.

    • Thanks for engaging respectfully. If you are interested in research, as I am, you will know there is actually widespread disagreement on availability and types of pornography influencing sexual offending, widespread disagreement on pornography influencing behaviour and absolutely no agreement on anything near causality. In response to the articles you post I’d suggest also checking out two Rapid Evidence Assessments which give an overview of the disagreements in the area – the first focused on the impact on young people but addressing evidence for adults also (http://www.mdx.ac.uk/Assets/BasicallyporniseverywhereReport.pdf) and the second evaluating the evidence on harm on adults of exposure to extreme pornographic material conducted for the Ministry of Justice when the initial EP legislation was being drafted (http://www.melonfarmers.co.uk/pdfs/rapid_evidence_assessment_280907.pdf – hosted on a site you may find interesting anyway about censorship and the media).

      As REA’s cover vast amounts of research I’d recommend them over individual articles as there really is so much disagreement in this area (however this article http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13552600008413309#.UrAS6GRdVDI is good in its complicating of any research claiming to find definite evidence that pornography either increases or decreases sexual violence such as Diamond’s above:

      “On a global level, Court (1984) has observed that the increased availability of pornography from 1964-1974 corresponds to sharp increases in rape reports in the United States, England and Wales, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Australia and New Zealand. Similarly in Japan and Hawaii there was a reduction in the numbers of reported rapes following the introduction of restrictions on pornography. However, again, because of the many variables in this type of exercise, no firm conclusions concerning the relationship between pornography and sexual violence can be stated.”

      I agree with you it is extremely important to differentiate between personal feelings and levels of harm – indeed this campaign would not have been successful if it was built on the former. I wish there was such a thing as predatory but lazy guys. There isn’t. Men who are going to rape are going to rape. Many have been shown to use rape pornography as part of their deliberate pre offence strategising (see the recent rapes and murders by individual men of Jane Longhurst, April Jones, Tia Sharp, Georgia Williams – also see evidence in the second REA posted above) but I would not argue rape pornography makes men rape and likewise think it dangerous to suggest it stops them raping. What it does do, which as feminists we actively campaign against, is firmly align rape with sex, be it sexual fantasy or sexual practice. When we are working towards an understanding of rape as rooted in power, and particularly in an unequal gender order, the change in legislation will help send a powerful message that rape is a crime. Personal sexual practice and fantasy is not affected by this change. Practice consensually and fantasise what you desire, explore and adventure further than what is ever going to be produced by the fundamentally male driven pornography industry.

  8. To me, these arguments are all reasons for changing pornography- ruling that all non-solo pornography should include a disclaimer within the video/website emphasising the importance of consent, ruling that the content of a website should represent all sides of a relationship- NOT banning it. I could use the old ‘slippery slope’ metaphor, but as far as I can see (from the recent porn filters etc.) we’re already halfway down it. The law is also quite poorly worded, so in its current form I can’t say I agree with it at all.

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  10. Pingback: Extreme pornography and the law: it’s complicated | Katrina Zaat

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