LAST summer, in language which left little room for doubt, Prime Minister David Cameron gave his backing to a movement to criminalise the possession of rape pornography. Such images, he said: “can only be described as extreme.

I am talking about pornography that is violent and that depicts simulated rape. These images normalise sexual violence against women and they are quite simply poisonous to the young people who see them.”

Chilling as they were, these words were a source of triumph to those behind a campaign to amend the existing law on extreme pornography.

As it stands, it is illegal to download images depicting life-threatening or serious injury, bestiality or necrophilia, yet pornography showing non-consensual sex is deemed, by law, to be acceptable.

This was a situation that Durham University professors Clare McGlynn and Erika Rackley felt was seriously wrong. Together with Rape Crisis South London and the End Violence Against Women Coalition, they pushed for change and it was this pressure which directly led to David Cameron’s decisive statement.

There is now a proposal in the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill 2014 to extend the law on extreme pornography to encompass rape, and provided this is passed, the new amendment could be in place by the summer.

Prof McGlynn said there was a groundswell of support for the campaign. “We did an online petition that got 72,000 signatures in about a month, so it was a huge response. We very much welcome that the Government is changing the law. Rape pornography is extreme pornography and should be treated alongside other models of this.”

As rape itself is a crime, it seems surprising that, until now, the law on extreme pornography has not reflected this, and that its portrayal as entertainment has been allowed. According to Prof McGlynn, the reason is the direction the debate took prior to the original law being passed, in 2008.

“At the time, in Parliament, they were trying to limit the legislation,” she says. “They were worried about it encompassing too broad a category.

The focus was on the traditional free speech versus morality debate and the potential harm of pornography on women dropped out of the picture.”

When the Scottish Parliament was debating passing a similar law, the focus was different, and the end result, in 2010, was legislation which did criminalise possessing rape pornography.

“The Scottish debate focused more on sexual violence and the portrayal of sexual violence and pornography,” says Prof McGlynn. “Its perspective was one of concern about what this model tells us about the attitudes of society. It was much more influenced by the cultural harm of pornography.”

Any doubt that extreme material depicting rape and other illegal activities is easily accessible on the internet is dispelled by a simple Google search. What is most chilling is that, while some websites caution that viewers should be over 18, there is nothing to stop children accessing the material. “It really is that easy to get hold of,” says Prof McGlynn.

“Twelve-year-olds do search for pornography on the internet and to get from mainstream to rape pornography is just a couple of clicks away.”

In terms of what the law can do to prevent this, there are obvious limitations. Between July 2008, when the extreme pornography law was passed, and November 2011, a total of 2,236 cases of possession were heard – likely to be the tip of the iceberg in terms of the overall scale of the problem. Prof McGlynn feels, however, that the law does have an important role to play, alongside search engine providers.

“Companies such as Google are trying to take more action in censoring child abuse pornography under Government pressure, but in relation to adult pornography, they are far less likely to do that,” she says.

“While obviously you could say that Google has a role to play I actually think that this law and the debate around it is about trying to influence people’s attitudes about using this material.

“We have to ask ourselves why large numbers of people are accessing rape pornography, because it would not be there if people weren’t accessing it. I think the law is one measure among many.”

ONE argument avoided by those in favour of the new legislation is that there is a direct, causal link between viewing rape pornography and actually committing sexual violence. They believe that the harm caused is more subtle.

“There are two key pieces of research,” says Prof McGlynn. “One is a report that the Government commissioned just before the (existing) law was adopted in England. It found that in some men who were pre-disposed to aggression, pornography might have an impact on them. The other research was published only last year and came from the Children’s Commissioner for England and Wales. The conclusion was that young people’s use of pornography can have an impact on their understanding of what consent means. It also found that it can lead to less progressive views on gender roles, that it can result in young boys, particularly, exhibiting very negative attitudes towards sexual violence; and that it can lead to risky behaviour such as anal sex.”

The ultimate aim of Prof McGlynn and others opposed to extreme pornography is to achieve a cultural change in which it is no longer deemed acceptable to view images depicting violence and degradation.

“I don’t want a world in which we ban all pornography because that’s unrealistic.

There’s nothing wrong with the explicit portrayal of sexual activity per se. In relation to the rest of pornography, I think we need to have a conversation about it, especially with young people,” she says.

It is on education – and specifically, on educating the current internet generation of children and teenagers – that Prof McGlynn feels we need to focus. Where once young people only had access to the likes of Playboy magazine, now there are violent and graphic images at their fingertips. The only real weapons against this, Prof McGlynn believes, are greater awareness and understanding.

“Young people are turning to pornography to learn about sex,” she says. “We need them to be thinking about lots of wider issues about sex and relationships.

“I think what’s going to be important is education campaigns around the law. I think people need to understand what material is out there and how easily and freely available it is.

That needs to lead to discussions about what consent really means and trying to reduce the prevalence of rape and sexual violence.”

  • For more information, visit resources/law/research/RapePrnFeb14.pdf or