It's naive to think that what you see doesn't affect what you want. (TORU YAMANAKA/AFP via Getty Images)


November 29, 2023   5 mins

“Mainstream, freely available porn gives men permission to go that step further,” says Michael Sheath. “It’s what normalises the sexual abuse of children.”

Sheath, an expert in child protection, can rattle off the titles of mainstream pornography as well as any habitual user: “Daddy I don’t want to go to School!”; “Teen whore used and abused part 2”. These are real videos found on mainstream sites, and all are legal.

“But this legal stuff, accessed mainly by men who are surfing Pornhub or whatever site, can be a gateway to the illegal content in which real children are horrifically abused by adults,” says Sheath. “You can’t have child abuse images without child abuse having taken place.”

The scale of the problem is shocking. According to a major study released a couple of months ago, one in 10 men have carried out sex offences against children, either online or offline. And it is a problem that Sheath is determined to shine a light on, having dedicated the best part of his career to raising awareness about the link between freely available, mainstream pornography and illegal child abuse imagery.

Many feminists, including myself, have long made this connection ourselves. More than two decades before the arrival of the internet, Andrea Dworkin pointed out that it is ridiculously naĂŻve to suggest that pornography doesn’t shape attitudes and sexual responses. And yet the phrase “porn is the theory, rape is the practice”, coined in the Seventies by radical feminist Robin Morgan, has been dismissed and derided by libertarians, who accuse Morgan of adopting a simplistic notion of “man watches porn, man goes on to rape”.

Likewise, the views to which Sheath subscribes are deeply unpopular today among those who consider pornography to be harmless fun — and, of course, those who profit from it. As porn producer Gerry Barnett laments, when he became politically aware back in the Eighties: “Much of the feminist movement appeared to have gone through a drastic transformation: from joyous to humourless, from sexual to sexless, from a celebration of everything female to an embrace of androgyny.” Today, he complains that “these new anti-sex feminists share platforms with religious moralists”.

But Sheath’s views come from profound experience. He qualified as a probation officer in 1988 and has spent his career trying to understand male sex offenders. In the early days, he counselled them, ran groups for them, worked with them in prison. “Eventually, these men would reveal how they operated,” says Sheath. “Many of the men talked about mainstream, free and legal porn having been a gateway to the illegal stuff, and some went on to create porn themselves, which, of course, requires children to be abused.”

Pre-internet, child abuse imagery was extraordinarily difficult, risky and expensive to get hold of. “Back in the day, one of the men on my course had come back from Amsterdam on the ferry with a bag full of hard-core VHS videos,” says Sheath. “But online, a man can have his beer or a line of coke and in the comfort of his own home can disconnect from the reality of what he is doing.”

Multiple attempts have been made to address porn’s role in perpetuating child abuse. Anti-porn campaigners have had some success of late in bringing legal challenges against sites such as Pornhub — as have victims. In 2021, Pornhub and several affiliated companies settled a class action lawsuit brought by 50 women who alleged it profited from pornographic videos published without their full consent.

But it’s not easy for individual victims to get justice. When Rose Kalemba was 14, she was brutally raped by two men while a third man filmed the assault. The film ended up on Pornhub, entitled “Passed Out Teen and Teen Getting Destroyed”. Kalemba, now 28, only discovered this when she saw school friends sharing the link on social media. She contacted Pornhub numerous times, begging them to take down the footage, explaining it was a recording of a sexual assault. But she was ignored by the website until she threatened them with legal action, after which the footage was suddenly removed.

The trouble is, the legal system can only deal with men who have already been accused of abusing children; it is less effective when it comes to preventing crimes. “It’s been very difficult to deal with non-convicted people,” says Sheath. “We have always had a preponderance of men who have already been arrested.” Conscious of this, in 2002 the Lucy Faithful Foundation — where Sheath worked from 1997 until 2022 — set up the Stop It Now helpline. This was, Sheath says, “the dawn of the age of the downloader”. But although the helpline’s primary aim was to stop men before they acted on a desire to access child abuse imagery, it transpired that more often than not, men wouldn’t get in contact until they were in trouble with the law. “Most men are worried not about the consequences of their actions, but of the consequences to them. They say, ‘I am not a paedophile, I am an ordinary man that went down a dark path’,” says Sheath.

Because of this, Stop It Now has now chosen to dance with the devil: last year it announced that it had made an arrangement with PornHub, meaning that consumers entering certain search terms are directed to sign up to Stop It Now. “There are more than 45,000 triggering words that activate the bot to send them to the course,” says Sheath, “such as the combination of ‘rape’, ‘child’ and ‘torture’ for example. Pornhub are telling us: ‘We don’t want those customers.’”

And yet Sheath acknowledges that Pornhub is a huge part of the problem. Plenty of legal porn makes adult women look like children: there are so many videos of very slightly built women with small breasts, their hair in ponytails, looking eager to please. When this is no longer “exciting” enough, men often become increasingly curious about the illegal content it simulates. To demand that Pornhub deter men from entering search terms such as “child” and “rape” is to miss the point: that its legal content, including the Barely Legal genre (with tropes such as “schoolgirl/babysitter”), is partly responsible for men wanting to search for such things in the first place.

Over the decades, I have interviewed male porn consumers who have freely admitted that their perception of women changed because they got sexually excited by watching them be abused, degraded and hurt. Few men start off logging on to porn because they hate women and want to debase them. But porn gives them the message that this is how sex is, that women really love having their heads shoved down a toilet, or strangled until her lips are blue.

With the porn industry acting as the main source of sex education for boys, and encouraging men to develop fantasies relating to sex with children, what chance is there to curb the tidal wave of child sexual abuse? Especially given that, when Sheath talks about stopping the abuse before it happens — rather than mopping up the mess and dealing with the fallout afterwards — he often encounters resistance. “Some think that the best thing to do is target individual abusers, call them ‘paedos’, lock them up and say ‘he’s never coming out’,” says Sheath. “But bearing in mind it is incredibly rare for children to report abuse, let alone the pathetic number of convictions along the line when they do, very few of these men do get locked up.”

It’s very difficult to tackle porn’s role in paedophiles’ crimes without being accused of shutting down free speech, and spreading an anti-sex message. In my view, long-term education — or rather, re-education — is the only thing that will bring about change. Men who have chosen to stop using porn need to have serious conversations with boys about its harms. “Hard questions have to be asked about why so many men find the idea of abusing underage kids sexually exciting,” says Sheath. “Until we find a way to talk to boys about what they are viewing, and how it’s affecting them, we don’t have a chance in hell to change things.”


Julie Bindel is an investigative journalist, author, and feminist campaigner. Her latest book is Feminism for Women: The Real Route to Liberation. She also writes on Substack.

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