Pornography series 1 – the victims

The Guardian, November 26 1994

This is like walking down a very long corridor. At the beginning, it is brightly lit, as bold and brash as neon, but the further you penetrate, the dimmer it gets until you reach a point where it is so dark that it is only just possible to see and only just possible to believe what you are seeing.

For example, here is a woman in her early 20s who says we can call her Sally. She has blue jeans and a denim jacket and dark hair cut into the nape of her neck, a plain and simple young woman living in the home counties of England in 1994. Maybe there is a little clue simply in the way she sits, straight-backed with her hands grabbing each other in her lap, as if she might somehow fall apart if she didn’t hold on so tight, but apart from that, there is no outward sign at all of what has happened to her until you start to follow her into her story.

She says she thinks that she was first photographed when she was about four. At about the same time, she remembers being filmed as well, with an old cine camera, and being made to watch the result when it was projected onto the sitting room wall. By that time, she believes that her father had already been using her for his pleasure for a couple of years – so much so that she thought it was the normal condition of all children to receive almost daily sexual attention from an adult.

So far this is a story which is nasty but not unfamiliar. But she goes further into the dark and begins to describe a world that appears to have been born in some parallel universe: she recalls that her mother allowed her father to do this, even encouraged him; her two young brothers grew up to be treated the same way; her father was not the only one; her mother joined in the abuse; some friends of her parents took part as well; there was a kind of network of these adults who shared a secret and obsessive interest and who used each other’s children, sometimes separately, sometimes in grotesque gatherings devoted to abuse without limit, endless rape and whippings; and, always, there were cameras.

She talks about being conditioned. “I thought everyone in the country was involved in this. I thought it was normal. I was born with it – sex and porn. I thought this was what the world was made of, that you did other things like going to school and being taught and then you went home and you had a different world.” And she talks about being frightened.

“They told me I would die because I was so bad. They did a lot of threatening, and hitting – with fists and hands and objects, belts, or just making the sexual side of it even worse maybe than it would have been if you did co-operate. When I was six or seven, they told me that they had given me an operation and they had put a bomb inside my stomach and they said if I ever told somebody, it would blow up and kill me and kill all the people around me. I suppose the reason was that if I ever did tell anyone, it would be someone very close, that I loved, so I wouldn’t want them to be killed either. I believed it. I believed it for years.”

She has no idea how much money her father could have made from selling images of her abuse. A lot, she guesses: more than 15 years of it, hundreds of scenes, thousands of feet of film. He was a successful businessman, she says, always good at making money. She says she was 18 the last time it happened, in the kind of scene that is draped in darkness. “I didn’t understand this at the time, but I think they used to really plan it all in advance, map it out – X was going to do this, and Y was going to do that. On this night, there was a man with the camera, who was fully clothed. I was with a child, a little boy of five or six; and there was a boy of about 15; a little girl of two or three; there was another girl the same age as me. My father was there with a friend of his and a couple of women, not my mother this time.

“On that particular occasion, I went through quite a lot of time of having to watch the little kids being abused, sexually and physically, tying them up and blindfolding them, whipping. There were quite a lot of objects involved, objects for penetrating. The little girl of two or three was tied up and gagged and she was penetrated, anally and vaginally, while I was watching. The 15-year-old boy was made to abuse her and he was penetrated anally. The two men and the two women were involved, sometimes several of them on one child, sometimes serial.

“There was a stills photographer as well as the man with the camera and he’d taken his clothes off and got involved. When it came to my turn, I was blindfolded so I couldn’t see who was doing what. In the course of events, I was vaginally and anally raped, had different objects put in me but I don’t know what they were. At one point I had some man, I don’t know which one it was but obviously one of them was my father – one of the men was vaginally raping me and this other one was – I don’t know what to call it really – he was penetrating me orally. At that stage, I was sick because I couldn’t breathe. I got really punched for that.”

She says she is afraid that no one will believe her and she has nothing to offer in her support, nothing that she knows of, except perhaps her knuckles which are now white with strain. But back down this long corridor, back into the blazing neon light, there is something like corroboration, widely distributed, easily available, for sale to anyone who would like to look – the images of pornography in Britain in 1994. They are easy to see. They may be hard to believe, but they are there, adults and children, just exactly as Sally describes, sometimes even worse.

For most of the last two decades, the debate about pornography has been caught in a sterile controversy about its effect on its consumers. Religious conservatives like Mary Whitehouse and Lord Longford led the attack, claiming that it corrupts its consumers and encourages sexual licence; feminists followed, complaining that it degrades all women and encourages sexual assault; liberals were repelled by the Whitehouse/Longford ideology, smelled censorship among the feminists and wondered whether pornography might reduce sexual assaults by acting as a safety valve. And all the while, the pornography industry was booming, and the nature of its product was changing.

British pornography now is bizarre and violent and very easy to obtain. Looking at this material, it becomes clear that the debate has been spinning around the wrong axis. The real issue with pornography – the real reason why it might be outlawed – is not the harm which it may or may not do to its consumers but the damage which it obviously inflicts on those who are involved in its production.

For its consumers, pornography is fantasy. For those who are being filmed, the reverse is true. The images of hard-core pornography now are, in truth, records of crime – rape, bodily harm, child abuse. The sale of those images is a reward for rape. If it were not for the prospect of that sale, most of those crimes would not have been committed. This is a market in pure exploitation. You have to see it to believe it.

Here are the women, trussed and bound, while men fill them with dildos, telephone receivers, hair dryers, knives, guns. Here is the young woman with the short blonde hair, with both hands strapped over her head to the branch of a tree, while two men in masks thump belts against her back and breasts. Here is sex with pigs, sex with eels, sex with midgets, sex with amputees with semen all over their stumps. Here is the woman with her face set in gaping rictus by the fat brown gag in her mouth, while a hand with dark hair on its ridge slowly pushes a needle into her breast until blood bubbles down its slope. Then another woman and another hand, this time with a burning cigarette making charcoal of her nipple.

Here is the ten-year-old boy with his wrists tied together at his throat. He is slim with light brown hair, naked, crying. It is hard to tell how many men are involved. Parts of their bodies move in and out of the camera’s view – hands rolling him over on his belly, a muscular arm sweeping across the screen to beat his buttocks with a paddle, hands flipping him over on his back again and tying his feet to a hook above his head, and then all of them with their fingers and fists and cocks, humping and thrusting at his mouth and his backside. £50 for this, on colour VHS, made in Britain. And it is made in Britain – you can see the emblem of Liverpool Football Club on one of the men’s wrists.

Some of it is tacky, hand-held stuff. Some is high-quality. All of it has the feeling of an old-fashioned freak show, the extremes of human suffering being sold for the amusement of its observers. One video, complete with musical sound track, shows an adolescent girl in lingering close-up, grunting with pain, while someone threads a needle in and out of her vagina. There is masses of this material. There must be thousands of women and hundreds of children who are involved in its production.

Most of the children, like Sally, are coerced into films and photographs by people who are already involved in routinely using them for sex. Some are so young that there is no possibility of their giving consent. There is one notorious film in circulation which shows a five-year-old girl lying naked and spread-legged on a bed while a boy lowers his mouth into her groin. He is even smaller than her and obviously younger: he is wearing a nappy.

Some of the children are conned, simply seduced by adults with gifts and offers of affection and endless warnings not to tell anyone for fear that they, the children, might get into trouble. There is a lengthy video of a 12-year-old boy who is being used by an adult man and, quite apart from the sheer physical exploitation of the boy’s body, what is most striking is the way that he keeps looking up past the camera and frowning quizzically, looking for instructions as to what on Earth he is supposed to do next.

There is evidence, too, of adults being coerced. The Campaign Against Pornography dealt last year with a young couple who had been pressurised by a loan shark, who had demanded the repayment of money which they did not have and who had then offered to wipe out the bill if they would make a video for him. They had agreed, but after the video was finished, the loan shark had kept pushing. He was now insisting that the woman go with him to Amsterdam for the weekend to make a special film. He and his friends had firearms and the couple did not know what to do. They disappeared. The Campaign have never found out what happened to them.

Some of them are unwilling participants as a result of being conned, rather than coerced. There have been numerous complaints from women whose former partners have submitted photographs of them to men’s magazines which run Reader’s Wives columns. A Brighton woman found that Escort magazine had published four photographs of her in the nude, complete with a vivid account by her former boyfriend of her strong desire to be gang-raped all night. The magazine used her real name. When she complained, Escort refused to apologise but admitted they had paid her former boyfriend £80 for his help.

Similarly, three years ago, there was a woman who was a senior primary school teacher in south London who was involved in an intensely sexual relationship with a man. She allowed him to film them having sex and, she acted out more and more bizarre fantasies until, at the height of their relationship, she allowed him to film her having sex with their dog, a Great Dane. When the relationship later broke up, he started to circulate the videos. One reached the police, who prosecuted her for bestiality. She was jailed for three months and lost her job. The video survived.

On the other hand, there are adults who say that they are happy to make pornography. One woman who has made a series of hard-core films in London recalled her experiences with a kind of blithe indifference. She has done all kinds: stills and videos; with a man, with a woman, on her own; at the legal end of the market, for Fiesta magazine; at the illegal end, for several different shysters with temporary studios in the front rooms of their flats. She would like to do some of the rougher stuff – not animals (she has to draw the line somewhere) – but she’d do the sadistic stuff, if the money was right. “I don’t care if the men get off on it. I’m happy if they’re happy.”

But there are two things you need to know about this woman. One is that she is a drug addict. She is tall and painfully thin with huge dark eyes set in deeply-wrinkled pits. Her hair is dyed orange. She smokes a lot of crack and she also drinks destructively. So, she needs a lot of money. The other thing about her is that, as a result of all this, she has been a prostitute for the last six years and she is utterly hardened. Her position is simple: she can hang around Kings Cross and get paid £20 for opening her mouth for some stranger’s pleasure; or she can go to a tatty studio and do the same thing for £250. She consents to what happens to her in the same way that a homeless woman might consent to sleeping on a pavement: she cannot afford not to.

Prostitution is an important part of the picture. The same lethal combination of poverty and illegal drugs which has pushed so many young women into prostitution is now also pushing them into the production of pornography. There is a lot of talk among white prostitutes in London about a couple of men and a woman who come down from Liverpool and hire them to go back to a place in Runcorn where they are put through their paces in front of a video camera. Police in the Midlands have recently arrested a crack dealer, who turned out to have a stash of home-made videos of local prostitutes, which he had been selling at £20 a time.

Some of the prostitutes have stories about filming which has got out of hand. In particular, they talk about a girl called Gloria who was being filmed by two Greek brothers in north London. She was a heroin addict and, during the filming, they were topping her up with injections to keep her placid while they brutalised her. Her friends say that they accidentally went over the top and killed her with an overdose. The death was written off by the coroner as misadventure.

In some cases, poverty has pushed young women directly into pornography without any involvement in the world of drugs and prostitution. In Huddersfield, a man named Terrence Valvona, who was running a hostel for homeless adolescents, persuaded a 13-year-old girl to make pornographic videos for him simply by offering her an escape from her thoroughly deprived background. He bought her clothes and make-up which her own family could not afford and took her on holiday to the Canaries.

He succeeded so well that she not only made the videos, with him and with a 15-year-old boy, but stood by him when he was arrested, regarding him as a friend. One of the Huddersfield officers who dealt with her, Detective Constable Julie Holloway, found it a depressing experience. “Really it was very sad. She may not have been happy with what was being done to her, but she was quite prepared to put up with it because all these nice things kept happening. She was getting things which were just not available within her own family. It was hard for her.” Valvona was sent to prison for five years.

Poverty and drug addiction are not the only sources of this kind of unreal consent. Many of these models turn out to have a history of being sexually abused. Sarah, who is 20, skirted the edge of the pornography industry two years ago, stripping in pubs. Looking back now, she can see a tangle of motives.

“I had been sexually abused in my childhood, by my grandfather. And I had had some other problems. My father left home, and my mother had a boyfriend who used to look at me sexually and he’d do things like, when we were playing judo, he’d lie on top of me and not let me up and he’d try and tell my brother to leave the two of us alone. I left home and came to London and, basically, I met a guy who was playing music at Camden tube station and he told me he had some friends I ought to meet and I went back to his house and he raped me.”

It was soon after this that she began to think of becoming a stripper. It was the logic of self-hate. “I was feeling that I was worthless. Rape was all I was worth. All I was was a sexual object for everybody. My only value was in sex, being sexually abused. That’s what people did to me. That’s what I was worth, what I was for.”

As a child, she says, she had started to harm herself by banging her head against the wall or cutting her arms or beating her thighs with her fists until they were blue with bruises. To stand naked in front of a cheering crowd of men was more or less the same, rather like the poor beggars who display their broken limbs to provoke pity. But, in Sarah’s case, all that anyone saw was her blonde hair and her body, and they enjoyed that without remorse. She was fired before she drifted any further into the industry. The pub’s owner complained that she did not smile enough.

Damage holds the pornography industry together, like the staples in a centre fold. The pornographers, of course, are content to believe that their subjects are happy with their work. Underneath a neon sign in the West End of London, an amiable entrepreneur explained that most of these girls are well into it. As he spoke, he was flashing fast-forward through videos on a screen in the corner of his shop, marketing his product. He froze on a frame showing a girl with her wrists and ankles chained to an iron bar in the ceiling and a grotesque dildo hanging out of her. “Look, see, she’s smiling. Eh? Well into it.” He was right. She was smiling. It was a tired kind of smile, but nevertheless there it was, pointed at the camera. And all the way down the left side of her face, you could see the mark in her make-up where a tear had rolled down to her jaw.

The Campaign Against Pornography has opened a confidential phone line for the victims of pornography on 071 281 6376.

UPDATE: Almost every aspect of the pornography industry which is described here was significantly accelerated over the next decade as the Internet arrived as a new and far more efficient mechanism for the distribution of images.