This is an edited transcript of our ‘Talking with men and boys’ webinar that was held on 11 April 2021.
Siobhan: Hi there everyone and welcome to this Nordic Model Now! webinar today. Thank you all so much for attending. Before I introduce our speakers, I’m going to quickly explain what the Nordic Model is so that anyone who isn’t sure can understand where we are coming from as an organization.
The Nordic Model has three key elements. It decriminalizes those who are prostituted and provides services for those involved in prostitution to get support to leave the industry and rebuild their life. Buying sex becomes a criminal offence with the key aim of changing behaviour.
Along with all this, there need to be strong laws in place against pimping and human trafficking, a public information campaign, education in schools and colleges, training for the police and judiciary and other frontline staff, investment in real and viable alternatives for women, and measures to address the poverty and inequality that often brings so many women in particular into the sex industry.
For those that don’t know, the Nordic Model was first introduced in Sweden in 1999, after feminists had conducted large-scale research on prostitution and talked extensively to people who both bought sex and sold sex. The women who sold sex told of their paths into prostitution, about the men who bought them, about the relationships with pimps and drugs, about how prostitution affected them, about the violence and shame that they had experienced and about the survival strategies to cope.
What the researchers found is that prostitution is an extreme and concentrated version of the general relationship between the sexes; therefore, it makes no sense to punish the women involved. They are the ones whose choices are limited, and getting out of prostitution once embedded is very difficult; sometimes impossible.
It became clear to the researchers in Sweden that prostitution exists because men buy sex, so if they wanted to reduce prostitution, and the trafficking associated with it, they realized what they had to do. The most effective way to deal with it was challenge the men to change their belief that they have the right to buy sex from another human being, and that’s the whole point of the law. Just as the law against smoking in pubs in the UK is not about demonizing or criminalizing smokers, it’s primarily about changing attitudes and behaviours.
Just so we’re clear, we talk about women because women are generally the sex most affected by the sex industry but the Nordic Model applies to everyone regardless of sex or gender on both sides.
In Sweden, there was much resistance at first from the police and those in authority, but this was improved after training was introduced. That is really key. What’s really interesting, is that after more than two decades, the law has widespread public support in Sweden, particularly among the police and among women, and also among young people of both sexes. It’s one of the few places in Europe where prostitution and inward trafficking have not actually expanded much during that time frame.
A few other countries have followed Sweden in implementing the Nordic Model, with varying degrees of success and commitment, and with some slight differences. Those countries include: Norway, Iceland, Israel, France and the Republic of Ireland.
This is what Nordic Model Now! is campaigning for: a human rights-based approach to prostitution, legislation and policy.
Just to make it clear, we do not believe that male violence is either biological or inevitable – it’s socially constructed and therefore it can be changed.
What we’re essentially talking about is a message of hope, and the feminist message that male violence isn’t inevitable, and that a different kind of world is possible. That doesn’t mean that bringing about social change is easy. The attitudes underpinning prostitution are ingrained in all of us, and the social norms of it are deeply rooted, which we will go into a bit more detail about today.
We’re in an increasingly divided society, it’s predicated on us being divided so that we don’t stand together in resistance, so that we don’t realize what we have in common and fight for common causes, but even so, change is possible – it just needs to be fought for. We must stand together as women and men against the inhumane prostitution system and we hope from this webinar that you’ll take away that message of courage and determination.
We’re going to have three short talks and we’ll follow that up with a discussion. You might have seen that a group called DecrimNow have recently published an open letter to MPs, and this open letter was calling on MPs to vote against any attempts to introduce the Nordic Model in Britain. Instead, they’re calling for full decriminalization of the entire sex trade – that includes pimps and brothel keepers.
Our first speaker is going to tell us why he thinks that’s a mistake. His name is Bryn Frere-Smith. Bryn is an ex-UK police officer and human rights investigator. In 2018, he founded the Blue Bear Coffee Company, which is a social enterprise that raises money and awareness for organizations fighting human trafficking and cares for survivors of those abuses. He’s also the host of The Justice and Coffee Podcast and an active anti-trafficking campaigner.
You can read Bryn’s talk on his LinkedIn blog.
Siobhan: It’s really interesting to hear Bryn talking about the example of Sonia and the link between prostitution and poverty, economic factors and lack of opportunities for women in particular. It’s interesting to hear someone who’s worked in both policing and indirectly caring for survivors, and the very nuanced thoughts he’s had from his experience. That’s how a lot of us come to advocate for the Nordic Model. Thank you again, Bryn.
Our next Speaker is Gemma Aitchison. Gemma is a working class radical feminist. She runs Yes Matters UK, which is an organization to support the rehabilitation of children who’ve suffered sexual abuse. Her work includes challenging the lack of access to justice for women and girls, compulsory sex education and she has presented research to the European Parliament on the dangers of gender stereotypes, in particular around the objectification of women and girls. Gemma would like us all to know that she is the sister of a murdered girl, a survivor of child sexual abuse, rape and domestic abuse – and she doesn’t care that it’s ‘not all men’. Gemma, I’ll hand over to you.
Gemma Aitchison: The first thing I want to address is sexual objectification and the reason it is important. It is part of pornography. It is part of prostitution and the sex industry and it is the root cause and has a direct link with violence against women and girls (VAWG).
This is not my opinion. This is an informed view. Thousands, if not millions, of reports in every field you could imagine say that the sexual objectification of women and girls has a direct link to VAWG. It cannot be separated.
I have heard the argument that sexual objectification is in fact empowering and I just want to go into that a little bit. Sexual objectification. When you think of an object. The object is there to serve the needs of the subject. When you think of women, we see this in childcare. We see it in pornography. We see it in prostitution. We see it in unpaid labour. The object is acted upon by the subject.
There is no such thing as an empowered object. An object doesn’t have desires to act upon the subject. That’s not how it works. It’s the other way around.
No matter how “good” an object you are, you are never going to be empowered.
The other thing about objects is that they are replaceable and disposable. We see that when we see a domestic homicide rate at a historical high at the same time that we have a historical low in rape convictions.
The fact that as long as I’ve been alive, a few women a week have been murdered by their partners and that is the acceptable status quo. There’s been no public panic about it. There’s been no change in dealing with it. There’s been no public or government reports about how we’re going to address that pandemic.
It’s just been acceptable – because we’re women. We’re acceptable collateral damage because we are objects.
The dehumanization of groups happens before violence towards those groups. There’s a very famous quote where objectification is the first step in any violence because it is the first step in the justification of that violence.
We’ve seen this throughout history. We’ve seen it in racism. In the slave trade. We’ve seen it towards Jewish people. We’ve seen it throughout the world and throughout history. The othering. The dehumanization of the group happens before acting upon the group – because the object is acted upon by the subject however the subject wants.
This we see in particular in pornography, which is what I want to talk about today. Some people argue that pornography is filmed prostitution.
Pornography is a huge issue for me. With the work I’ve had with young people, sex education and pornography are one and the same thing. Essentially pornography has become more and more violent to keep up with popularity.
We also see in pornography the gender stereotypes of the dominant male and the submissive female, the subject acting upon the object, over and over again.
People say to me that it is harmless, it’s harmless fantasy. I argue that if it is harmless fantasy and it’s healthy… It can’t both be healthy and also a defence for murder – because 68 men in 2020 gave the reason why they murdered women to be the rough sex defence. It cannot both be a good defence for murder and healthy and natural.
Pornography is essentially the abuse of women and girls put into an entertainment category and labelled as free speech.
That is what pornography is.
It is also a groomer of children. If you put yourself in the position of a teenage boy just coming to terms with his sexuality and finding online porn for the first time – the average age of exposure to pornography in the UK is 11 years old – he is told by PornHub and porn sites that this is what you should find sexy. And this is how sex is supposed to be – increasingly violent.
These days mainstream pornography includes strangulation – or as they call it “breath play” – it includes verbal assault and physical assault, being urinated on, being spat on, hair being pulled.
What more positive reinforcement could you have for behaviour than an orgasm? This teaches boys and girls alike that this is what is expected in sex and this is healthy.
It’s grooming children into accepting abuse in relationships.
When you identify what is the most popular or highest consumed categories, they are Teen and Barely legal. They are revenge porn and they are incest. So essentially the most popular pornography is the one without consent.
It isn’t just two people that really like each other who happen to be having sex on film. That’s not what this is. That’s not what pornography is.
When we think about pornography and its influence and how it has more consumers or viewers than Sky, Netflix, Apple TV, Prime, all combined – and yet without regulation. We also see implications in wider society and attitudes.
We see it in our justice system. 40 years ago, where there would be a trial for rape, if a woman said that she was strangled, and she was beaten up and urinated on and her hair pulled, and she was called a whore, the jury would have been shocked and horrified. But now, given that it’s part of mainstream pornography, the perpetrator can argue, well I thought that was what sex was.
Where consent is has now shifted by the implications of pornography. The police officer’s attitude when she tells her story will be different if he’s consuming such material. The judge’s attitude, the jury’s attitude will also be different.
Under English law, in a rape trial, it has to be proved that she didn’t consent and that he knew she didn’t consent. If that boy has grown up consuming pornography that included abuse and violence, then he can say that he didn’t know that she didn’t consent to that.
Pornography shouldn’t have any place in our justice system.
Pornography is inherently sexist and it is, of course, racist. But we deceive ourselves here in Britain – we point over at countries that have child brides and say how disgusting and disgraceful that is – and yet Britain is the third highest consumer of child abuse images and pornography in the world.
Our hands are not clean.
Pornography also reinforces the infantilization of women – we try and make them as thin and hairless as little girls. That also has implications. We sexualize teens and children to lower and lower ages.
Essentially pornography and the sexual objectification of women and girls says that it is OK to treat women and girls as objects. And as our bodies are piling up throughout the years, over and over again, and it’s accepted that all we are is objects. That all we are is collateral damage because we are disposable and replaceable.
We need to understand that it is not empowering. That it is grooming. And until we address sexual objectification of women and girls, we will not be addressing VAWG.
Until we address it, we will not become people, we will not become human and therefore we will not be respected and treated as a human being.
For me, boys and girls, men and women, we all deserve better than this. We deserve better than product and consumer. We deserve better than subject and object. And we deserve better than our abuse being called empowering.
Siobhan: Thank you so much Gemma for speaking to us today and for your contribution. It’s so significant that pornography tells boys the message “you should want this…” We talked earlier in the webinar that as an organisation, and as speakers here today, we don’t believe that male violence is inherent or is inevitable, so it’s troubling to tell young boys that this type of violence and this type of coercion, is what they want – because inherently, they don’t. Most of us don’t and we understand that it’s not OK when we see it. Thank you so much again, Gemma.
We’re now going to move to our next speaker for the day, our third speaker is Michael Conroy. Michael is the founder of Men At Work, and he’s the creator of the Men At Work ‘Ten Dialogues’ resources for working with boys and young men. Michael has worked in secondary education for sixteen years. He trains educators and youth workers on how to run constructive dialogues with themes touching on sexism, misogyny, objectification, risk-taking behaviours, peer pressure and mental health. He’s also a youth mental health instructor and has trained in suicide prevention. Hello, Michael, and welcome.
Michael Conroy: Hi, thank you very much for having me. I’m just really echoing and amplifying everything that Gemma has just said there. I think the challenge that I would like to speak about is how to get the truths that Gemma condensed so well into the context of school, and how to have those constructive conversations – because generally they don’t happen.
The phenomena of prostitution and all it entails is something that is not discussed at all in state education, as far as I’m aware. It is attached briefly to a discussion on trafficking, which is valid, but that might amount to possibly 20 minutes in a young person’s entire school career. When we look at the complex harms and impacts of prostitution, and the sex trade in all its forms, it isn’t good enough. 20 minutes for something that’s so important, and has such a cultural reach, in terms of how it represents the power imbalance between men and women, between white people (men particularly) and women of colour around the world.
This is a huge part of porn, it’s a racial categorisation on things like PornHub. People are basically segregated and fetishized and exoticized in ways that would make a Victorian blush. If they were told a hundred years ago that in 2020 men would be buying sexual access to women and girls around the world, based on really crude racial stereotyping, they would have considered their work done.
This is an enormous phenomenon which reaches into lots of areas of people’s lives. We need to develop the skills for adolescents to have meaningful conversations about this. The context for that could be human rights. It’s a blank canvas, because so little is done in schools that the question is “How do we do it? Who do we need? What kind of grass roots campaign? Networking collaborations?”. No one organisation is capable in terms of scale.
I think we should always try to contribute to being the thing you seek. I think it was Gandhi who said “be the change you want to see”. It’s used in corny ways, but it has a very strong, simple truth about it. If something isn’t there, how do we make it there? How do we build it? How do we create it?
I think the work that I have moved into over the last 5 or 6 years has been about that, and has been about making sure there are dialogues and that there is a framework for dialogues which are collaborative, and are mutually respectful and non-accusatory but are not naive, and are aware of the fact that young men and boys are watching or being exposed to porn one way or another – whether that’s voluntary or whether that’s being sent stuff by their mates, or even sadly by their family members including parents or carers.
We need to deal with that because their sexual development is happening at the time where they are being bombarded with the propaganda of the porn industries which are based on non-egalitarian foundations.
We’ve got the makings of a terrible generational problem here at a historical moment that has no precedent in terms of the access to porn of anybody with smartphones or tablets. If you’ve got WIFI, you’ve got porn, basically.
I think we need to cut to the chase and acknowledge that the filters don’t work very well. A lot of parents and carers are not very tech savvy or don’t care, or actually think “he’s got to learn somehow or other” and they’d rather let this phenomenon of filmed sexual abuse being deployed as kind of a teacher in some way.
Schools are hugely overworked, they are underfunded. I’ve worked in high schools every day for sixteen years, all of my family are teachers or educators and that’s ten adults with God knows how many decades of work between them: headteachers, deputies, classroom teachers. So, it’s not the case of saying “teachers, you need to do this…” because that’s not fair, and who is going to resource it?
But I would just like to sketch out a vision that I’ve got where school leaders, the Department of Education, the Department of Health, child development specialists, youth psychologists, and educational psychologists collaborate with a really urgent, COVID-style, national focus on preparing young people to be able to withstand the propaganda that pornography is.
Propaganda that consolidates male supremacy over women. Propaganda that is deeply racist and deeply class based as well, because the poorer you are, the more your options in life are diminished, as Bryn’s talk mentioned briefly in the Dominican Republic. That’s as true in Europe and in Britain and every other country. Your socio-economic framework will have a huge relevance on whether you end up in what is euphemistically and erroneously described as sex work, or commercialised access to women and girls’ bodies.
I want to just play a part in a national conversation of normalising having challenging and age-appropriate conversations for boys and young men on understanding and resisting the phenomena of pornography and prostitution, because they are very much linked, and to understand the difference between subject and object. Asking “what does being a subject mean?” Agency and decision-making capacity, and deciding when things happen and what happens. Asking “how can we socialise boys and young men to understand what being a man is in our culture?”.
I think that conversation about power imbalance and about misogyny would naturally feed into conversations about prostitution, porn, street harassment and sexual harassment at work and online, because the fundamentals are in that sense of entitlement and a hierarchical value between men and women. Getting to the fundamentals of that can be done with teenage boys. It’s about respect; it’s about autonomy; it’s about understanding the difference between people and things, and living sentient beings with complex personalities, needs and desires.
We need to get into that. I know that those conversations don’t really take place but they have to, and they have to start as soon as possible, with as many people as possible, in a really far reaching and optimistic and evidence-based network. It’s in everybody’s interest to normalise a deep critical conversation about the social construction of masculinity. For me, it comes back to that all the time. Men are trained to see ourselves as having the upper hand, deserving the upper hand, being of a different kind of humanity, and that allows some of the worst crimes known in our society to be perpetrated by drawing on that cultural conditioning.
We need to challenge it in simple, clear, direct terms. Collaborative, rational evidence based with teenage boys specifically, but clearly a lot of work needs to be done with teenage girls because they are absorbing this same propaganda and being on the receiving end of it.
Let’s work together; whatever you do, social work, youth work, violence reduction, anti-bullying, whatever… communally and collaboratively, if we focus on getting to the root of a notion that men are entitled to women, then that is important work, and if we don’t do it then we’re going to be having the same conversations in thirty or forty years. That’s something that we don’t want to do.
Siobhan: Thank you for that Michael. We will have the opportunity in the discussion to follow up on some of those points, which were so interesting. You’re very consistent with Gemma in that you both tell that pornography gives that message to boys of what they should want, and what you’re saying is that you don’t think that’s what they want. This is something they’re being conditioned into from a very early age, when they’re very young and susceptible.
I really hope we can go into more about having those dialogues with boys and young men in a way that is realistic, and is not pushing it under the rug, but is non-accusatory and age appropriate and optimistic. The adults need to be the guiding factor in that, whatever role you play in the child’s life because some of the porn consumption of young boys and men… there really is no other outcome if they’re being given this material without adult guidance and without somebody they can turn to who says “how do you feel about that, let’s talk about that”. It sounds like you and your organisation give boys and young men the space to do that, so it will be really interesting to hear more about that. Thank you.
Now, we’re going to move on to a discussion based on questions that have been sent in by audience members. Bryn isn’t able to join us today, but along with Gemma and Michael we’re delighted to have Esther with us. Esther has a long-standing interest, contribution and research on public policy approaches to sexualised violence and domestic abuse. She uses her own experiences of being in porn and prostitution to reflect on these issues.
So, we’ve had a question from a twenty-one-year-old woman who said she remembers being in school in recent years with sex education focusing on the importance of consent, but now she’s at university, she’s told by many of her psychology lecturers that sex work should be legalised and is empowering. For her, this position of consent as a commodity that can be bought and sold is in stark contrast to what was taught in sex education, and she wants to know do the panel think this undermines the importance of consent we try to convey to young people.
Gemma: It absolutely does. I did notice that someone else asked about making better sex education and I did campaign for that and helped to write it. The new, consent based, sex education was supposed to be out in 2020 but because of the pandemic it didn’t really get rolled out much.
There does seem to be different agendas in universities, and from university professors especially. I would suggest looking at the class imbalance there, there aren’t going to be very many people directly affected by the sex industry who are advocating for that. When I was at university there weren’t very many council estate girls going, and there certainly weren’t any council estate professors. I would say that perhaps class has something to do with it.
Michael: Oh yeah, class is always part of something, like race. It does often get forgotten though. I think we need to bring class back into a lot of conversations. This young woman, it sounds like her gut feeling is that what the lecturers are saying is bullshit, and I agree with her. It sounds like she’s switched on and is finding their commentary problematic and inconsistent, because it is.
So much of academia is completely captured by the nonsense of queer theory, which basically says “everything is subjective, everything is relative, nothing is concrete” which absolutely suits the patriarchy beyond its wildest dreams because it can never be called out on anything. It merely describes itself in a different way, so we’re in this moment where many professors, academics, researchers are displaying their own credentials within that school of thought publicly, and they have captive audiences with the people who depend on them for their grades and their careers. There’s always been a power imbalance in that sense, it goes back to class but now also in terms of reputation.
I think this young woman sounds like she knows what’s what and that she’s been let down by academics who don’t.
Gemma: I would advise her to compile an informed argument. Next time it comes up, do some research on sexual objectification, there are thousands of research studies done in every field you can think of so find a couple of those and build your argument based on those as professors are supposed to teach you to do. I would play it that way.
Esther: There was recently a judicial review about very old convictions for soliciting, for example. The Centre for Women’s Justice brought it; a group of women were challenging the fact that these were on their records, and although they have been taken off, the Police and the Home Office considered that it might be necessary to keep if they were ever going to apply for positions of integrity or trust, like police officers or things like that. One of the issues was that you would be liable to be blackmailed while you were in that position, and that would be no less the case if you were on any adult website or anything like that nowadays.
One thing that I think about adult websites is that they eliminated part of the distinction between street and off-street prostitution, in that an adult website is the street, and you will be recognised and that will never go away.
I’m quite sure that colleges that pride themselves on being able to get their alumni into the highest possible offices of state would not be in favour of that, however they might couch it.
I don’t know if they would feel the same way about the objectification and stereotyping that goes into the sex trade as they would if something overtly stereotyped them on the basis of their ethnicity or something like that.
One thing that I think is interesting about othering is that it’s connected with one of the commandments in the Torah, “thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image”. It’s the worship of images, and that othering is recognised by United States civil rights leaders. It’s also filtered into the research from Fiona Vera-Gray, Clare McGlynn, Ibad Kureshi and Kate Butterby about sexual violence as a sexual script in mainstream online pornography.
The “sex work should be legalised and is empowering” dogma is essentially promoting that kind of thing. It also filters into the way that men describe themselves on hook-up sites and have this sense of entitlement and outrage when they find that the people who respond to them want money from them. The idea that the entitlement of heterosexual men is something you should simply accept.
It’s very disappointing because it wouldn’t make any difference if you’re being objectified as a member of an ethnic community, or a faith community, or as a female. It is all equally reprehensible. I don’t think they’re addressing what the long-term consequences are for people getting involved in either of those. You’re not going to end up being somebody who is a big property developer, that’ll be the person who owns the magazines or owns the places you’re working in.
Siobhan: I think it’s worth making clear for all our discussions that sometimes there is a knee jerk reaction when somebody says ‘not all men’. As soon as you start talking about this topic or about men’s violence there’s that balance between knowing that it is inherently overwhelmingly heterosexual men who are sex buyers and who are consumers, and it’s women and girls who are degraded and used. Thank you all so much for replying to that young woman’s question.
Someone has asked “I’m curious to know the background of the male speakers, how do you think you’ve ended up with such a different opinion and approach to this subject than so many other men?”.
Michael: I’ve been really lucky to share the company and read the work of lots of women – really tough, forward thinking, incisive, analytical women, and maybe one of them was my mum. I don’t want to be too simplistic, but she’s a good mum. It would be foolish of me to cut that out of the equation because she brought me up on her own, but it’s hard to understand one’s own development.
I would say in very practical terms of accelerating things, starting to read stuff by Andrea Dworkin and others, and no longer thinking it was all a personal attack on me. I think that’s really the problem with lots of men and boys. You know the whole ‘not all men’ palaver… it’s a sign of immaturity and of just not really listening. It’s like you’re listening for offense so you don’t need to listen anymore. I think maybe I just stopped listening in that way, but I’m still full of it. I’m still 53 years old living as a man in Britain, so I’m going to be well conditioned by that there’s no doubt.
I don’t know, but I do wish that I’d had conversations when I was 13 or 14, when I was just fumbling my way through trying to work out what the hell was going on. I went to a school that was run by priests so that was never going to happen, but there was no space and I think that’s really what we need to do. We need to build the world we weren’t part of.
I know that by doing this and listening to people like you, and Gemma, and Esther, and everybody… and Gail Dines, who I’m working on a project with about porn versus sex education.
I think fundamentally getting over the feeling that you’re being personally criticized when people are talking about structural historical conditions that do tend to give you advantage and unearned privilege and entitlement. It’s getting over that which is what I want to do with boys, because then you can listen properly and understand the situation in which we find ourselves with different levels of power, opportunity, entitlement and safety.
I think maybe I was fortunate. I’ve also had some mental health challenges of my own. I think possibly that was a moment when I reconfigured some thoughts and it coincided with meeting the women who deliver the Freedom Programme. It doesn’t pull any punches and I took it for what it was, which is an honest critique of the dysfunctional patriarchal culture. I just try to keep going and keep listening.
Siobhan: That was really comprehensive, Michael. Thank you. Following on from what you and Gemma were saying earlier is that there have to be those dialogues, because this is a very real problem and we hope that this webinar will be part of that. Making it clear to boys and young men that we’re not saying that they are specifically to blame for this.
This is a cultural issue and it’s understandably going to affect them and upset them and unfortunately inevitably they’re going to be exposed to it at probably a very young age, and it’s how we as adults take the responsibility to handle that and be there for them to have those conversations like the work that that you’re doing.
The next question is “How can we encourage men to stop using pornography when it’s already become so ingrained in our culture? We’re talking about social change that might take years and even generations, and in the meantime, pornography is so available. What can we do? What can individuals do?”.
Gemma: I think the first thing to recognize about boys and pornography is that the first acts of violence a man will commit will be to himself. It will be cutting off his emotional self. We teach boys that emotions are female, and therefore lesser than. Therefore, they don’t develop emotional regulation skills, which is why when they’re told, “no” they react violently.
It’s why they are more likely to be at risk of suicide, because they don’t go to the doctor to ask for help because that’s ‘weak’, and why they’re more likely to die from cancer for the same reason; they don’t go to the doctor because you know ‘man up’ and all that stuff.
Gender is a very damaging, limiting and harmful thing for our society and the only person that benefits from gender is the person selling something in pink and blue. No one else benefits from it. In pornography, we see the men dominant, in control, doing what they want, and the women being pretty and submissive. It reinforces feeling more manly when they watch pornography. I think a good way to prevent addiction to pornography and exposure to it would be talking to your children.
I know that a lot of parents don’t like doing that, and I know that they want to keep their children ‘innocent’ but the reality of the situation isn’t that you are keeping them innocent, you are keeping them vulnerable and that’s not the same thing.
The reality is that one in three school girls experience unwanted sexual touching. The reality is that pornography exposure is 11 years old and our society, our media, our TV, movies, games, music industry, fashion industry, diet industry, everything, is saturated with the influence with pornography.
It’s also a fact that child sexual abuse is often committed by family members or family friends. If you talk to your child about pornography, about what’s acceptable behaviour and what isn’t, what consideration is, what respect is, what consent is, and that can be in any sort of relationship. If you talk to your child about those boundaries and about the uncomfortable sex conversation, then they know that if something does happen, they can come to you and talk to you about it and that stops the perpetrator from having that tool of making them keep it a secret because you know you’re not supposed to talk about these things. It’s really important that you talk to your child about relationships and about pornography.
I spoke to my son about pornography. He has a mental disability and I spoke to him about consent and pornography. I asked him “would you eat a spider”, and when he said “no” I said “well, what if mummy was really ill and she would die without this medicine, but if you eat this spider someone would give you money for that medicine to save mummy – would that mean you wanted to eat the spider?”. He said, “no, I wouldn’t want to eat the spider, but I’d do it because I’d want to save you”. You can really make things age-appropriate. Talk to your children, is what I’d advise.
Siobhan: We have a mother in the comments talking about having two young teenage boys and that she speaks with them often about those damaging gender stereotypes and about objectification, and she’s worried that her voice alone isn’t enough. It is good to have other adults and other resources but your example and your voice, your knowledge is really key as well.
Gemma: I’d tell her to get books for her boys by Jackson Katz. I’d tell her to look at Michael’s website as well for resources to use for teenage boys and there are people like Terry Crews in America… There’s Robert Webb, who was on Peep Show, he talks about gender stereotypes. There are male figures out there, because we know from research that boys are more likely to listen to men. They’re a voice that they can relate to and that’s fine. I would suggest linking them to stuff like that.
Esther: I think sometimes a lot of people, especially if they’re younger, may not realize that porn is a bit like the difference between stage fighting and a brawl in the street. The force is used because of its visual impact. As a result, people may end up being aroused by that type of thing, but if you did that kind of thing in real life, serious injuries would result.
For example, spitting on someone is an assault in England and Wales. They would have to prove that there was no consent on your part. Some of the injuries that can be done by some of the things that you see on porn, if you saw them on someone’s face, you’d know it was actual bodily harm or grievous bodily harm, but you don’t see it. For obvious reasons when they’re talking about these things in the press, or in court reports, they don’t go into too much detail about them; that the very serious injuries are a lot of the time caused by the fantasy.
After the death of Sarah Everard, I actually had several teenage boys in my wider social network randomly come to speak to me about how they had become aware of people in their circle and also in their school. I was very concerned about the NEU votes about exclusions. It seemed to me that there are definitely issues around exclusions. But there were people who they knew in their schools who had done things, and it was the courage of the teenage girls to speak up in their groups on Snapchat about what had happened to them. That was very inspiring to me.
The reaction that it had on some of these young boys when I said to them “what do you think would have caused somebody to have done this more than once before they even got into year 12?” and their immediate response was online porn – so they’re actually aware.
I don’t think Michael is alone and I think there are teenage boys who are very well aware of these types of things. The other thing is the idea that women who are in porn or prostitution are there because they have high libidos; this is an absolute fantasy which is projected on all sorts of people.
I went to a grime gig and there was somebody standing very close to me who was playing a villain in a very popular series. He was completely mobbed by people saying “please can you speak in the voice that you do when you’re playing the villain?” and he got very anxious in the end and moved away. Playing this villain has resulted in his anxiety about going out of his house. People shout at him because they can’t differentiate the actor from what that person is like in real life, and that really happens a lot if you’re involved in in the sex trade.
I think that there was also a sort of projection from porn and prostitution about a bucket list of activities, that it’s like going through different grades until you get this A* in something rather than having anything to do with anyone else. It’s completely out of the context in which you would be if it were in real life.
Siobhan: It’s that idea of the pet rodent at the food bar where there’s a constant need for gratification and taking it up to the next level… like, you’re not satisfied by this anymore so you take it up to the next level. Is that what you mean?
Esther: It’s partly that, but it’s also this idea that you’re not an experienced person unless you have done x, y & z activity. That completely removes the act from anything to do with the person you’re with, or what they might like, or any kind of mutual thing between you. It’s like “I’ve got to do this and then I can tell my male friends that I have done this”.
I think that that can put a lot of pressure on people. Some of the consent education, with the best possible motives, has actually made some of the young men better at how to make it look as if somebody had consented. It’s a bit like when there was some group therapy for sex offenders in prisons. It didn’t work and the Home Office covered up the fact.
Siobhan: It gave them that language, didn’t it?
Esther: Yes, and it staggered me that people who were that young had already picked that up. So, with that type of education, you have to look at how it might be interpreted counter intuitively as well. Not everybody reading it would be coming from the same place. Somebody might learn “this is how someone shows consent”, and then they will just say “well, have I got this person to do this” and then they will go and do precisely what they like.
The judicial college guidance that the judges give to juries has got lots of things in it about fear, and that your submission is not consent, but I think that some of what people have read about consent has actually helped them be better at getting around it.
Siobhan: I’m wondering if Michael or Gemma can speak to some of the things you had touched on previously, which was that idea of one-upmanship, that peer pressure, and also that idea of making sure that organizations like Men at Work are implemented successfully and don’t cause an outcome that we that we don’t want.
Michael: Well, there’s two things. One is about being aware that the work you do can be weaponized. Picking up on the point Esther was making, I suppose it’s like going to prison… sometimes people pick up all kinds of skills that they didn’t have before. That is why I put the dialogues out for free. Go and have a read and tell us what you think.
They’re not the ten commandments – they’re ten conversations. It’s basically trying to get to the roots of what words mean and why we are developing the way we develop. I think critical self-reflection is not something that’s easily weaponized. Having to face difficult truths about oneself is something that feeds into humility – stepping back and being less sure of oneself. That’s not a bad thing.
Picking up on Esther’s idea of the bucket list. It’s like taking the Pornhub categories and asking “How many can I do? How many have I done?”. That is a thing with some young men certainly. I can’t make a blanket statement, but it’s a thing, and that is an outcome of this dehumanizing categorization of a product differentiation.
I was talking to a group of Year 9 lads in England, so they’re 13 or 14, and they just reeled off 20 or 30 categories and I said “What, you’ve seen these things?” and they said “Well, no, but I’ve seen the categories”.
The truth of whether they had seen them or not, I don’t know, that’s a difficult thing to establish… but the fact that they’re carrying around this mental menu of how to look at women and young girls as a list of activities, or character types, or ethnic types. Boys at 13 or 14 are familiar with that language. I think Gail Dines talks a lot about the visual grammar of pornography and they’re aware of that.
The challenge for me is to acknowledge that they are aware of these things, and then say “Where do we go from here?”, because we can’t press a button and they don’t know it anymore. It’s about how we contextualize that understanding of the world that they’ve been presented with. They didn’t write it, they’re not funding it, the 13-year-olds didn’t do it, but the challenge is how do we detach ourselves from that and become critics of it, and have healthy happy lives with whoever we end up with.
That’s the challenge, it’s not to be naïve. I think people who say we shouldn’t talk about porn or prostitution are coming from a place of naivety and it’s really risky. I would never endorse that. We’re in this place. It’s messed up; let’s address that and move forward and see how we can change the world.
Siobhan: It’s understanding that the young boys and girls are at ‘that’ age, and their burgeoning sexuality and curiosity isn’t the problem, and it’s not their fault. It’s what they’re exposed to at that time.
Gemma: I might come across as the stereotypical mean feminist here but essentially we need to teach boys accountability and responsibility. The Yes Matters program I do is based on national occupational standards of youth work and it teaches them critical analysis.
It teaches them to ask “Okay I’m being told that this is the way to be. Why am I being told that? Does that benefit me? Is that healthy for me? Does it benefit the person telling me to be like that, and how so?”
Developing critical analysis skills is really important, but I also think that a lot of it is with this condoning and enabling of the ‘boys will be boys’ culture. We need to recognize that the other side of the ‘boys will be boys’ coin is that sexual abuse is part of growing up for girls and women.
We need to take responsibility for that. Some people claim that boys and men do it out of naivety, but frankly, boys and men know why they don’t want to end up in a prison shower; they know why that is.
When they have a teenage daughter, men stop saying “not all men” and they suddenly start admitting “yes all men, so you can’t go there, you can’t wear that, you can’t do this”.
This isn’t out of naivety. It has to be either: men and boys have self-control, in which case they have to take responsibility for their actions, and we need to stop condoning and enabling bad behaviour because ‘boys will be boys’… or they don’t have self-control, so they shouldn’t be running our justice system, our governments, our religions and our corporations. You can’t have it both ways; it all has to be one or the other.
I believe that boys and men do have self-control, and I believe that whenever someone says “boys will be boys” you need to say “no, you need to challenge that behaviour just like you would with a girl, they need to accept responsibility for their actions, and they have to regulate their emotions and behaviour ready for the adult world, because that’s not acceptable”.
Boys respond well to that, and it is important when you’re talking to boys about sexism and violence against women to talk about the male gender stereotypes. Talk about how that’s bad for them, because then they can relate to that, when you come to talking about women and girls they then understand how it’s not okay to be put in this ‘man’ box, so not to put women in ‘women’ boxes.
Accountability has to be a big thing. We need to stop condoning and enabling this behaviour and I guess to all the men that have been shouting “not all men” in the wake of the Sarah Everard case, the first thing is that men’s feelings don’t matter more than women’s lives, and the second thing is if not all men… prove it. Prove it with your actions. All these so-called ‘good guys’ need to be proving that ‘not all men’.
Child pornography numbers shouldn’t be higher than child maintenance payments. If you’re such ‘good guys’, get out there and prove it; do something about it.
Siobhan: For parents, carers, older siblings, teachers and anybody who’s concerned – where is it on the internet that boys are stumbling on this information, even when they’re not looking for it? The obvious ones for me are YouTube and fan-fiction. I’ve noticed over the years that fan-fiction has become increasingly dark and increasingly sexualized. I wonder if any of you have any feedback on that and anywhere else that you think it might be coming up?
Gemma: All media has become more violent and sexualized as time has gone on in order to be more popular, more talked, about more viewed, more shocking. Pornography is no different, especially since it’s become free, and with camera-phones everyone could be a potential pornographer.
I think the reality is that that we need the government to act on regulation around pornography and access to children. If an individual man showed a child two images of pornography, they could be done for child grooming, and yet a corporation doesn’t seem to have any accountability. I think that’s important. We do have regulation that you’re not allowed to show female ejaculation in pornography, take from that what you will.
I think the other thing to recognize is, again, talking to your child, because you can talk to your child about it but that doesn’t mean that their mates won’t show them something on their phones on the bus. The reality is that you’re not keeping them innocent, you’re keeping them unprepared, you’re not giving them the tools to deal with this stuff, so talk to them.
Siobhan: In the comments, somebody’s got a suggestion that they’ve kind of framed as a question about the portrayal of ‘lovable men’ who objectify women. In their example, Barney in How I Met Your Mother.
Gemma: Yeah, and James Bond. The persistent romantic. We shame women for having consensual sex and we shame men for raping, don’t we? That’s a problem.
Michael: What you’ve said is absolutely true. The mainstream is just a slightly more subtle version of what happens on the periphery. James Bond, for example, but many others.
I think for a lot of kids, the algorithm allows porn to find young people even if they’re looking for something totally innocent on YouTube because of keywords and previous searches.
The best filter for children is a good ongoing conversation as Gemma said. Have ongoing, open-door conversations about things that they will find troubling.
It’s almost impossible to imagine that you could get to 14 or 15 now without having encountered porn and the prostitution with which it is of course symbiotic. You will come across it, there is no doubt about it, so we just need to accept that as a fact and get the tools and the skills widely shared by adults who’ve got to take the lead.
It’s just normal parenting, isn’t it? A collective communal parenting as well as a society. Build the skills, build the resilience. Like Gemma said, building those occupational skills. Asking “what do they get from you furthering their business plan?”. It comes down to money. Be aware of the agendas of others and how that’s not going to be in your best interest long term.
Esther: I agree with that entirely. I also think there’s a big crossover between real acts of non-sexual violence which are online. For example, the people being decapitated and Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo which has also filtered over in the online world. They’re competing for clicks, so the general violence that you might be exposed to, including sexual violence, is quite serious and being able to have a conversation is really important.
Siobhan: Thank you so much everybody. If you live in the UK, please write to your MP and ask them to support the Nordic Model. We’ve got a two-minute tool that sends a template letter and also tips for writing your own message if you want to be more comprehensive.
If you feel that you need help talking to kids or with kids about this topic, take a look at Culture Reframed. They’ve developed expert help for parents including script conversations for you to have with your kids as a guide, and also have a look at Gemma’s and Michael’s work.