In a week absorbed by one national scandal, another was mainly overlooked. Analysis of data from 42 police forces in England and Wales revealed the passing of a ghastly milestone: in 2022 the majority of reported sexual crimes against children (52 per cent) was committed not by adults but other children.
Maybe you dismiss hormone-fuelled teenagers “exploring” their sexuality, sexting each other nudes. And indeed, 15,534 cases of indecent images created and shared by under-18s, which is illegal even if consensual, make up a sizeable chunk. And, while these young people should not be (and rarely are) criminalised, a child’s naked image going online and remaining there for ever is not a trivial misdeed.
Besides, 8,020 child-on-child sexual assaults and 6,813 rapes were also reported. Even crimes typical of adult paedophiles such as sexual grooming, indecent exposure and voyeurism are now regularly committed by minors.
Decades ago, a highly sexualised child — a 12-year-old who knew what anal sex was or a girl who made lewd, knowing remarks to adults — would provoke safeguarding concerns about abuse. Now frontline staff like teachers and therapists say this is commonplace: the youngest mentioned in the National Analysis of Police-Recorded Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation Crimes Report was a four-year-old who uploaded images of a sibling.
The cause is no longer in doubt. A spontaneous madness has not made boys sexually assault little girls any more than it has made young men suddenly expect female partners to enjoy strangulation or slapping. It is online porn, which has insinuated itself into children’s lives since the smartphone’s ubiquity began around 2010.
The results of a unique global experiment are now in. We know what happens if half of 13-year-olds view graphic images before their first kiss, when a global porn industry has impunity to platform violence, rape and adult-child grooming porn like Japanese hentai, and society shirks from creating barriers to keep porn billionaires from monetising our kids.
The Online Safety Act 2023 means porn companies will be compelled to use age verification to stop access by under-18s. Such technology, whereby a driving licence or passport is approved on a third-party site, has applied to the online gambling industry since 2005. Now Ofcom is drawing up regulations, in consultation with the porn industry, which won’t be published until next year.
Why the delay? Such rules must be watertight or porn companies, particularly MindGeek, which owns the giant free site Pornhub, will try to stall with legal wrangles. Because not a single country in the world has successfully implemented porn age verification so far. Several US states, such as Louisiana and Utah, have passed bills but rather than comply, Pornhub has removed itself from these jurisdictions. Germany has regulated domestic porn sites, and is pursuing stricter controls on those mainly domiciled in Russia or China.
The porn industry’s usual shtick is it agrees with age verification, but only if it applies to every site simultaneously, to create a “level playing field”. Yet porn is an amoral trade with a vested interest in the unregulated status quo. It knows many casual or accidental users will balk at inputting a photo ID or credit card details, and drift away. But it can change if it chooses: when Visa and Mastercard threatened to stop Pornhub using its services after The New York Times exposed its hosting of child abuse and rape footage, it removed millions of videos overnight.
In the US, porn is just another culture war issue, with only Republican states pushing for verification, while the liberal east coast and the porn-producing west coast see it as a First Amendment, free expression issue. But in Britain, as across Europe, porn has switched from a moral to a public health concern. (The Online Safety Bill was supported by Tories and Labour alike.) Once, anti-porn campaigners were compared to Mary Whitehouse; now the youngest adults question whether it has impaired their relationships and mental health. Since the singer Billie Eilish, 22, said watching porn from the age of 11 “destroyed my brain”, even the sort of liberal feminists who believe Bond films need trigger warnings but Pornhub is cool have started to shift.
Yet as the consultation continues we can expect to hear the kind of complaints that scuppered age regulation back in 2018. Then, the idea of buying a porn access token at a newsagent was dismissed as a grievous assault on privacy and canned by the incoming libertarian prime minister Boris Johnson. Now, there’s the usual mutterings that third-party verification is unsafe, though the gambling industry has no complaints. Others say kids will work out how to bypass restrictions with virtual private networks (VPNs). Well maybe a few geeks but not the vast majority, those who discover double penetration via an innocent Google search. And if Netflix can detect VPNs to stop viewers watching overseas content, surely Ofcom can?
Such quibbling comes from the men who hate to acknowledge even to themselves they have a porn habit and for whom inputting their driving licence will make it suddenly too real. Nothing can impede access to their darkest fantasies, even laws to protect their own kids. The world has put their desires first for 25 years, and now we see the consequence: child-on-child rape. The cause of age verification is as righteous as taxing fossil fuels and polluters or tackling opioid and tobacco peddlers. If Ofcom can make its age verification work, with tough punishments — fines or blocks — for those who won’t comply, Britain will lead the world in making the porn industry finally responsible for its crimes.