Indian activists from the Social Unity Center of India shout slogans against the state government in protest against the gang-rape and murder of two girls in the district of Badaun. Photograph: Getty Images.
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We need to do go much further to end sexual violence in conflict

This week's summit must not be the culmination of the government's efforts.

This week, London will host the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict. It is to be co-chaired by the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, and by Angelina Jolie in her capacity as Special Envoy for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Angelina Jolie has an impressive record when it comes to her humanitarian work and raising the profile of difficult issues that could not be further removed from the glitz and glamour of Hollywood. William Hague has also played a key role in bringing this conference to London. He hasn't always received the credit he deserves from some in his own party on this issue, but he will receive Labour's support for his efforts to put sexual violence on the international agenda.

Representatives from across the globe will come to London to agree action to tackle the use of rape as a weapon of war, to end impunity for those who resort to sexual violence with no thought for the victims and no fear of reprisals, and to help the survivors of such an abhorrent, cowardly act.

I hope it proves a landmark success - we only need to look at the brutal reports of the conflict in the Central African Republic, where conflict-related sexual violence is described as epidemic, to know that the stakes could not be higher. There are countless other countries struggling with the legacy of sexual violence in conflict, or failing to end its systematic use today.

In Colombia, six women every hour were the victims of sexual violence and an estimated 12,809 women were the victims of conflict-associated rape between 2000 and 2009; few will have received support, let alone seen justice. In Burma, there are terrifying reports of the military's use of sexual violence, particularly against ethnic minority women and girls; the victims are often killed, while the perpetrators can carry on with impunity. In Somalia, sexual violence is pervasive, particularly in the camps for those who have lost their homes, but they do not have the medical services or justice systems to support survivors or secure justice and protection. According to UNICEF, one third of the victims of sexual violence in Somalia are children.

War Child reports that one in three men fleeing the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo have suffered sexual violence, while sexual violence has also been used against men, women and children in the Syrian conflict. Tragically, the list goes on of conflicts in which bodies have been taken as a prize and people have been violated as a means of warfare. So we cannot underestimate the importance of this summit for those still living in terror, or living with the scars of vicious attacks.

I hope, too, that this international focus on sexual violence in conflict can provide a springboard for a more concerted focus on sexual violence in other contexts and on other abhorrent acts of cruelty being committed against women across the globe.

Over the last month alone we have been appalled by the case of Meriam Ibrahim who was sentenced to 100 lashes for adultery and sentenced to death by hanging for apostasy because she had married a Christian man and refused to recant her Christian faith. She gave birth in prison, where she is being held with her 20 month son. Meriam, her husband and now the whole world are waiting for the outcome of her appeal; waiting for a court to agree she can fall in love with whoever she wants and is free to choose her own religion.

We have been horrified, too, by the public stoning of a pregnant woman in Pakistan. Farzana Parveen was killed by her family outside Lahore High Court because she had married against their wishes. The viciousness of the attack, and in such a public place, has rightly attracted the world's attention, but Farzana's murder should highlight wider problems in Pakistan, where there are hundreds of "honour" killings every year.

And then we have the two teenagers in India, whose bodies were found hanging from a tree after they had been gang-raped. Sexual violence is an increasing concern in India, but Indian citizens protesting about the shocking prevalence of such a heinous crime were confronted by a water cannon.

These are just three high profile examples from the last few weeks. There have been many, many more whose plight we will never hear about, just as there are so many thousands who are silently recovering from sexual attacks inflicted during conflicts that have devastated their countries.

In too many countries women are living in fear of horrific acts of gender-related violence, and facing cruel and inhumane punishments for "transgressions" that we would consider basic rights. So I hope that this week's summit is not the culmination of the UK government's efforts, and they will have Labour's support in their work going forward. We must make it clear that such abuses cannot be tolerated, just as the survivors need to know that they are not alone.

Kerry McCarthy is the Labour MP for Bristol East and the shadow foreign minister.

ILONA WELLMANN/MILLENNIUM IMAGES, UK
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How the internet has democratised pornography

With people now free to circumvent the big studios, different bodies, tastes and even pubic hair styles are being represented online.

Our opinions and tastes are influenced by the media we consume: that much is obvious. But although it’s easy to have that conversation if the medium we are discussing is “safe for work”, pornography carries so much stigma that we only engage with it on simple terms. Porn is either “good” or “bad”: a magical tool for ­empowerment or a destructive influence on society. Many “pro-porn” campaigners shy away from nuanced critique, fearing it could lead to censorship. “Anti-porn” campaigners, convinced that porn is harmful by definition, need look no further than the mainstream tube sites – essentially, aggregators of clips from elsewhere – to gather examples that will back them up.

When we talk about the influence of porn, the emphasis is usually on a particular type of video – hardcore sex scenes featuring mostly slim, pubic-hairless women and faceless men: porn made for men about women. This kind of porn is credited with everything from the pornification of pop music to changing what we actually do in bed. Last year the UK government released a policy note that suggested porn was responsible for a rise in the number of young people trying anal sex. Although the original researcher, Cicely Marston, pointed out that there was no clear link between the two, the note prompted a broad debate about the impact of porn. But in doing so, we have already lost – by accepting a definition of “porn” shaped less by our desires than by the dominant players in the industry.

On the day you read this, one single site, PornHub, will get somewhere between four and five million visits from within the UK. Millions more will visit YouPorn, Tube8, Redtube or similar sites. It’s clear that they’re influential. Perhaps less clear is that they are not unbiased aggregators: they don’t just reflect our tastes, they shape what we think and how we live. We can see this even in simple editorial decisions such as categorisation: PornHub offers 14 categories by default, including anal, threesome and milf (“mum I’d like to f***”), and then “For Women” as a separate category. So standard is it for mainstream sites to assume their audience is straight and male that “point of view” porn has become synonymous with “top-down view of a man getting a blow job”. Tropes that have entered everyday life – such as shaved pubic hair – abound here.

Alongside categories and tags, tube sites also decide what you see at the top of their results and on the home page. Hence the videos you see at the top tend towards escalation to get clicks: biggest gang bang ever. Dirtiest slut. Horniest milf. To find porn that doesn’t fit this mould you must go out of your way to search for it. Few people do, of course, so the clickbait gets promoted more frequently, and this in turn shapes what we click on next time. Is it any wonder we’ve ended up with such a narrow definition of porn? In reality, the front page of PornHub reflects our desires about as accurately as the Daily Mail “sidebar of shame” reflects Kim Kardashian.

Perhaps what we need is more competition? All the sites I have mentioned are owned by the same company – MindGeek. Besides porn tube sites, MindGeek has a stake in other adult websites and production companies: Brazzers, Digital Playground, Twistys, PornMD and many more. Even tube sites not owned by MindGeek, such as Xhamster, usually follow the same model: lots of free content, plus algorithms that chase page views aggressively, so tending towards hardcore clickbait.

Because porn is increasingly defined by these sites, steps taken to tackle its spread often end up doing the opposite of what was intended. For instance, the British government’s Digital Economy Bill aims to reduce the influence of porn on young people by forcing porn sites to age-verify users, but will in fact hand more power to large companies. The big players have the resources to implement age verification easily, and even to use legislation as a way to expand further into the market. MindGeek is already developing age-verification software that can be licensed to other websites; so it’s likely that, when the bill’s rules come in, small porn producers will either go out of business or be compelled to license software from the big players.

There are glimmers of hope for the ethical porn consumer. Tube sites may dominate search results, but the internet has also helped revolutionise porn production. Aspiring producers and performers no longer need a contract with a studio – all that’s required is a camera and a platform to distribute their work. That platform might be their own website, a dedicated cam site, or even something as simple as Snapchat.

This democratisation of porn has had positive effects. There’s more diversity of body shape, sexual taste and even pubic hair style on a cam site than on the home page of PornHub. Pleasure takes a more central role, too: one of the most popular “games” on the webcam site Chaturbate is for performers to hook up sex toys to the website, with users paying to try to give them an orgasm. Crucially, without a studio, performers can set their own boundaries.

Kelly Pierce, a performer who now works mostly on cam, told me that one of the main benefits of working independently is a sense of security. “As long as you put time in you know you are going to make money doing it,” she said. “You don’t spend your time searching for shoots, but actually working towards monetary gain.” She also has more freedom in her work: “You have nobody to answer to but yourself, and obviously your fans. Sometimes politics comes into play when you work for others than yourself.”

Cam sites are also big business, and the next logical step in the trickle-down of power is for performers to have their own distribution platforms. Unfortunately, no matter how well-meaning your indie porn project, the “Adult” label makes it most likely you’ll fail. Mainstream payment providers won’t work with adult businesses, and specialist providers take a huge cut of revenue. Major ad networks avoid porn, so the only advertising option is to sign up to an “adult” network, which is probably owned by a large porn company and will fill your site with bouncing-boob gifs and hot milfs “in your area”: exactly the kind of thing you’re trying to fight against. Those who are trying to take on the might of Big Porn need not just to change what we watch, but challenge what we think porn is, too.

The internet has given the porn industry a huge boost – cheaper production and distribution, the potential for more variety, and an influence that it would be ridiculous to ignore. But in our failure properly to analyse the industry, we are accepting a definition of porn that has been handed to us by the dominant players in the market.

Girl on the Net writes one of the UK’s most popular sex blogs: girlonthenet.com

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times