Obfuscation, denial and hubris: The government’s VAWG strategy

On 21 July 2021, the UK government published its new strategy for tackling violence against women and girls (VAWG). This followed a public consultation that received an unprecedented 180,000 responses.

The strategy paints a devastating picture of life for women and girls in England and Wales. In the last year: 7.3% of them were victims of domestic abuse; 2.9% were victims of sexual assault; 132,000 women were raped; 892,000 were stalked; and there were approximately 759 cases of forced marriage, and 2,024 cases of ‘honour-based’ abuse.

27,255 girls in England and Wales have been victims of female genital mutilation (FGM) since 2015. The numbers of sexual offences recorded by the police have tripled since 2011.

Sexual harassment online and in public places is widespread and commonplace but unquantifiable because most incidents are not reported or recorded. 44% of those responding to the national survey assessed it as worse now than five years ago. We aren’t told the sex of these respondents, but as most sexual harassment is aimed at women and girls and is often not noticed by men, it is likely that most female respondents think it’s got worse.

Domestic abuse alone is estimated to cost the country £74 billion a year.

Victoria Atkins MP, Minister for Safeguarding, makes an extraordinary statement in her foreword to the strategy: “These crimes are conducted by a minority of people, yet the consequences reach far and wide across society.”

Of course, they are committed by a minority of people! Men make up a minority of the approximately 60 million population of England and Wales. Women are not sexually assaulting and raping themselves. Almost all of these crimes are committed by men and the crimes are so common, so normalised, so frequent, that the only rational conclusion is that most men commit them some of the time at least. It is just not feasible that these crimes are committed by a small number of unrepresentative men. They are simply too widespread. They are practically universal.

Why would the Minister for Safeguarding not want to make this reality clear in the foreword to the government’s strategy for dealing with this systemic and destructive issue? Does it not suggest that the government lacks the will to actually deal with the reality?

Victoria Atkins’s obfuscation is emblematic of the root of the problem – that as a society we are not only unwilling to hold men to account but are also, it seems, determined to give them a free pass.

We see this in the way that the mainstream media reports even the most extreme forms of VAWG. For example, men who murder their wives and children are invariably portrayed as loving family men. Women often make a fuss but a few weeks later, it happens again. If we can’t even let ourselves see the truth of such extreme violence, how can we expect to hold to account the men who merely upskirt young women on the tube or the boys who send unsolicited photos of their penises to their classmates?

In this world, women simply don’t count as full human beings. That is the reality that the strategy paints. But it never really stops to consider why this should be. It never stops to consider why women and girls are considered expendable, as fair game. It doesn’t really engage with this reality. Not really.

Pornography

Page 35 states that there was widespread consensus among the responses to the consultation about the role that “violent pornography” plays in violence against women and girls.

This is a curious way of framing the problem – as if most pornography is not a problem and only “violent” pornography is. But it doesn’t define what it means by “violent” pornography – and by only focusing on “violent” pornography, it suggests that most mainstream pornography is not violent. But this is simply not true.

More than 10 years ago academic research into the most popular porn films found that 88% of the scenes contained physical aggression directed at women, such as gagging, strangulation, spanking, and slapping. Things have got much worse since then.

Suzzan Blac spoke at a recent webinar about her research into the porn on PornHub. She chose PornHub because it is the most popular mainstream site, is free to view, and has 115 million hits a day.

“Like many women who don’t watch porn, I had no idea about it’s true content. You just assume that much of it is ‘adults having consensual sex’ with maybe a bit of hair pulling and slapping going on. How wrong I was!

I could not believe what I was seeing, I thought that these things could only be seen on the dark web.

I watched women being sexually and violently abused, humiliated, degraded, raped and tortured.

These were not sex videos; they were crime-scene videos. There were women being raped when they used their ‘safe words’ in ‘kink’ videos and when they were sleeping or passed out from alcohol or high on drugs. Drug addicted prostitutes unaware that they were being filmed. Women being suffocated with plastic bags, water-boarded, strangled, manually and with ligatures. Women being hanged with ropes. Many are ‘professional’ videos but a significant number were uploaded by users, often with no consent from the women involved.

One man filmed a woman with her neck in a noose, standing on a chair. He would kick the chair, let her hang for a few seconds, then pick her up, place her back on the chair and do it again and again.

I watched a tied-up naked female being shot continuously for fifteen minutes by a man with an automatic BB rifle. I watched women’s breasts tortured with needles, cigarettes being stubbed out on their nipples, and breasts already heavily bruised being punched or stood on by men in heavy boots. I watched women having their genitalia whipped with nettles or being sharp whipped, causing deep lacerations, some were ‘live streamed’ with requests from paying men.

Many of these videos have millions of views and endless derogatory comments underneath along the lines of ‘loving the torture and seeing women suffer’.”

This is the material that children are seeing from ever earlier ages and that large numbers of boys are addicted to by the age of 12. This is the material that many men, and perhaps most under 40, masturbate to on an almost daily basis.

These are not films of mutual, loving sex between consenting equals. Instead, they show women and girls reduced to objects on whom acts of sex and violence are acted out. Women and girls dehumanised, degraded, tortured, and stripped of all humanity. Crime scene videos.

This is what many, perhaps most, men and boys get off on.

This is catastrophic. Cataclysmic. Apocalyptic.

History has shown that dehumanising, degrading and objectifying human beings is always the first step in committing violence against them. When a human being is dehumanised and objectified, treating them with contempt becomes second nature. When governments sanction the dehumanisation and objectification of a whole group of human beings, mass violence against that group becomes inevitable.

This is what we as a society are witnessing happening to women and girls – so it is no wonder that reports of sexual crimes have tripled in the last ten years, the same years that have seen the expansion of online porn and the internet into most homes, and smartphones into most pockets, including schoolchildren’s.

What does the strategy plan to do to tackle this reality?

Does it call for the immediate implementation of Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act that was passed by Parliament in 2017 and has provisions for robust age controls on all online porn? Shamefully no. Even though age verification is used successfully on gambling websites, the government has declined to implement it on porn sites.

It appears that the government has fallen for the propaganda of the porn industry and its lobbyists because the Online Safety Bill, which the strategy claims “will make the UK the safest place to be online” will repeal Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act and replace it with “recommendations” rather than a legally-enforceable requirement for age verification and only on websites that include “user-generated content.”

As far as we can see, the British government is planning to let the big porn industry police itself. That’s the same big porn industry that, thanks to activism by Laila Mickelwait and others, has been shown to facilitate sex trafficking, to knowingly host rape and child abuse videos, and to operate without any ethical boundaries whatsoever other than maximising profit no matter what the cost in ruined lives.

You will forgive us therefore if we are dubious about the government’s commitment to tackling VAWG.

For a detailed critique of the government’s plans for pornography in the Online Safety Bill, we recommend the ‘Expose Big Porn’ report from CEASE UK.

Pimping websites

We are similarly dismayed by the proposals for dealing with prostitution advertising websites. These websites not only directly profit from the prostitution of the women advertised but they also facilitate third parties bringing new women and girls into the sex industry and have significantly lowered the barriers to getting started pimping and sex trafficking.

Contrary to what sex trade lobbyists claim, these websites do not provide failsafe features for screening clients.

The potential profits of pimping/sex trafficking websites are eye watering, mostly with very little risk. So, it is no surprise that there has been a huge expansion of the sex trade coinciding with the development of these sites over the last decade. The scale of pimping and human trafficking that takes place through these websites vastly outstrips the capacity of any police force to deal with appropriately.

The UK has binding legal obligations under international law to prohibit all third-party profiteering from women and children’s prostitution and to work to reduce men’s demand for it, which drives sex trafficking. And yet, once again, the solution put forward in the strategy is that the “Government will work with adult service websites to explore a set of voluntary principles to counter exploitation on their sites”.

So, the British Government will treat companies that are directly engaged in pimping and facilitating human trafficking as legitimate partners. These companies, like the big porn companies, have been shown themselves to be ruthless and to be concerned only with maximising profits no matter the cost in devastated lives.

Sex for rent

The hypocrisy of the British government is further revealed in the strategy’s concern about the advertising of “sex for rent” arrangements, whereby male landlords offer accommodation to financially vulnerable women in return for “sexual services.” This is a form of prostitution – so why should advertising these arrangements be treated differently from advertising prostitution?  Is it because this practice affects middle-class women? Or perhaps it’s because the men who advertise these arrangements are not large corporates?

The strategy says: “the Home Office is working with the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government and the police to better understand the effectiveness of existing offences in tackling the issue of sex for rent, and whether further reform is needed.”

The current Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) advice is that posting adverts for ‘sex for rent’ may fall under Section 52 because it is “inciting prostitution for gain.” But surely this applies equally to the pimping websites? So why are they considered legitimate partners to the police but the individual men who advertise their spare rooms to hard up young women are not?

Does the government see the girls and young women advertised on the pimping websites as trash who deserve their fate and this makes the predatory websites and individuals who feed off their prostitution OK? Or is it because the government is so blinded by its neoliberal capitalist aims that it cannot see the harm that the big corporations behind these websites cause?

Whatever the reason for the different treatment, it hardly encourages confidence that the British government is determined to protect its most vulnerable and to implement its legally binding obligations under international law.

Prostitution

Given the strategy’s lackadaisical approach to porn, it is hardly surprising that the section on prostitution is a damp squib. Apart from a paragraph about the limited information on the prevalence of prostitution and a brief statement that those involved in prostitution are unlikely to report crimes against them, pretty much all the strategy has to say is:

“We know that prostitution and sex work can lead to the exploitation of women and involve sex trafficking and modern slavery. It also may lead to harms arising from the inherent vulnerabilities involved (such as the increased risk of robbery, sexual assault or, for online activity, the risk of images being recorded and used without consent).”

Not only is this statement not a strategy, it appears to be predicated on the false understanding of prostitution as a consensual arrangement between equally situated adults and that it only becomes a problem when something extraneous happens – such as “exploitation” or robbery or sexual assault.

This ignores the extensive evidence that for the vast majority, involvement in the sex industry is the result of naivety, financial desperation, or coercion from “boyfriends” or others – and that once embedded in prostitution, it is difficult to get out – meaning that any idea that “sex work” is a consensual activity between two equally placed adults is wishful thinking that should have no place in government strategy.

It also fails to recognise the obscene amounts of money that can be made by exploiting women and girls’ prostitution and that CEDAW places a binding obligation on ratifying countries to prohibit all forms of this – whether by “boyfriend” pimps, drug dealer pimps, sex trafficking gangs, or international corporations who run “adult services” websites.

It would appear that the government has fallen for the propaganda of those who lobby for the full decriminalisation of the sex trade and has failed to consider that prostitution is in itself a form of violence against the women and girls involved, and that it affects men’s attitudes and behaviour, making them more likely to rape and engage in all forms of VAWG.

It is of extreme concern therefore that the strategy does not recognise prostitution as a form of VAWG and does not include any strategies for reducing men’s demand or for addressing the inequality and poverty that make women and girls vulnerable to being drawn into the sex industry – as required under Article 9 of the Palermo Protocol.

‘The prostitutor’ – painting by Suzzan Blac.

Prevention

The Conservatives have been in government since 2010 (in coalition with the Liberal Democrats 2010-2015). During this time, they have implemented extreme austerity measures that have resulted in a huge increase in poverty, with women hit much harder than men.

Professor Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights visited the UK in 2018. He found that 14 million people were living in poverty in the UK, with 1.5 million of them practically destitute. Many women have no choice but to turn to prostitution to keep a roof over their heads and feed their children.

He concluded that:

“The social safety net has been badly damaged by drastic cuts to local authorities’ budgets, which have eliminated many social services. The bottom line is that much of the glue that has held British society together since the Second World War has been deliberately removed and replaced with a harsh and uncaring ethos.”

And yet the strategy is silent about how this increasing poverty and inequality between men and women is directly contributing to VAWG. For example, it is increasingly difficult for women, particularly mothers, to survive independently. Women are once again being driven into economic dependence on male partners. This gives the male partner disproportionate power within the relationship, and makes it more likely he will be abusive and violent. Social security changes and defunding of services for abused women make it hard, if not impossible, for women to leave a violent partner.

While the strategy acknowledges that the number of prosecutions and convictions for rape and other forms of male VAWG has fallen, it does not connect this with the brutal and deliberate defunding of the criminal justice system and changes to legal aid over the last 11 years – which have resulted in a criminal justice system on its knees and rape being practically decriminalised.

And yet, on page 45, following the harrowing description of the terrifying extent of VAWG in the UK, the strategy claims that the UK is a “world leader in preventing VAWG.” As if!

The strategy claims a “relentless focus on preventing these crimes from happening in the first place.” This and some of the plans are, of course, welcome. However, the funding allocated to the measures are mostly derisory given the scale and the costs of the problems. For example, £300 million funding this year for “supporting victims” – which works out at about £20 per victim. Wow! Thanks, guys!

They want women to “feel safe” in public places – not to actually be safe – and they are investing £5 million in preventing VAWG at night “in venues and on related routes home.” This works out at about £20 per mile of road in Britain. Not sure how that’s going to help. But thanks again guys!

There is no mention of measures that might actually make women and girls feel and be safer – such as cracking down on strip clubs, lap dancing clubs and other “adult entertainment venues,” and kerb crawling. Of course not! Measures such as these would send out a real message to men that they are on notice to stop treating women as sex objects.

It really is as if the government is afraid of – or in thrall to – the men’s rights activists.

The strategy emphasises consent education in schools, but does not question how the normalisation of the sex industry in all its myriad forms inevitably changes everyone’s understanding of consent.

The sex industry is predicated on what is essentially the purchase of sexual consent – or to put it another way, the payment is to obviate the need for consent. How do we know this? Because if he were to use her in that way without payment, it would be considered rape. She consents to the money and acquiesces to the sexual activity. That she is obliged to feign enthusiasm or at the very least to hide her aversion does not change this dynamic.

The scale of the sex industry and its normalisation in the UK is such that it is leading to an erosion of the understanding of what healthy, free and enthusiastic consent looks like. But the strategy does not even mention such considerations.

Conclusion

While the new strategy at least acknowledges the extent of the problem and puts forward some welcome suggestions, overall it is underwhelming. It does not have a coherent analysis of the underlying causes of male VAWG and refuses to face the awful truth. We have little confidence that it will bring about the change that women and girls so desperately need.


For more about Suzzan Blac’s artwork, see https://suzzan-blac.webnode.com/

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