Pornography: 2.3 Million Young French Victims
Today in France, according to ARCOM statistics (French regulatory authority for audiovisual and digital communication), 2.3 million children visit “adult” websites every month. They are all victims of sexual violence. Because of its scale, scope and serious consequences, this is a serious sexual offence currently committed against children.
Exposure of minors to pornography is sexual violence
Article 227-24 of the French Criminal Code makes it a criminal offence to leave pornography within the reach of minors, punishable by three years’ imprisonment and a fine of €75,000. It is no accident that this provision appears in a paragraph relating to “sexual offences committed against minors”, which itself belongs to a section dealing with “endangering minors” in a title concerning “offences against the human person.”
Nor was it by chance that, back in 2002, a report submitted by the Collectif Interassociatif Enfance Médias (CIEM) to Ségolène Royal, then Minister for the Family, Children and the Disabled, stated that “the disturbances induced by viewing this type of programme by young children [can] lead to psychological and behavioural disturbances similar to those of sexual abuse”. Indeed, as any sexual violence, pornography does not leave young people unscathed. Children, and even young adults, suffer serious consequences from viewing pornography because of the plasticity of the brain, which develops until the age of 24 or even 25, according to scientists. These consequences are both psychological and behavioural: development of unrealistic and distorted expectations with regard to sexuality, harmful and risky sexual behaviour for themselves and others (early sexual activity, sexting, multiple sexual partners, deviant sexual practices, use of psychoactive substances, and vulnerability to STIs), reduced levels of social integration, lower school results, damage to self-esteem, the appearance of complexes and depressive symptoms, addiction to pornography, an increase in sexual violence between minors, and so on.
On this last point, it is disturbing to note, as the Ministry of Justice did in October 2022 in a report on The care of minors who commit sexual offences in the judicial protection of youth (La prise en charge des mineurs auteurs d’infractions à caractère sexuel à la protection judiciaire de la jeunesse), that with a “significant increase between 1996 and 2018, almost one out of every two cases of rape and sexual assault on minors handled by the Prosecution Service in 2020 involved a minor perpetrator”. Is it by chance that this increase is occurring precisely at the same time as the expansion of the internet? Pornography not only has its direct victims, but also an incalculable number of collateral victims, including children, adults, couples and families, and society as a whole.
Towards finally effective protection of children’s rights from pornography
Every year, the 20th of November marks the anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of the Rights of the Child in 1959 and the International Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in 1989. Children’s exposure to pornography is a direct violation of these texts, which both stipulate that “the child, by reason of his physical and mental immaturity, needs special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection, before as well as after birth”. Their ancestor, the Declaration of Geneva (26 September 1924), also states that “men and women of all nations, [recognize] that mankind owes to the Child the best that it has to give” (Preamble) and that “The child must be given the means requisite for its normal development, both materially and spiritually” (Art. 1). In terms of media access, article 17.e of the CRC also stipulates that “States Parties shall encourage the development of appropriate guidelines for the protection of the child from information and material injurious to his or her well-being […]”. It can be agreed that pornography is far from being the best model that mankind has to give to children… It directly conflicts with these texts, with which the States Parties are obliged to comply. It is necessary to protect children from pornography.
Danger really looms because today’s children are tomorrow’s society. The French authorities seem to be gradually getting the message, given some recent efforts by the executive, legislative and judicial powers to limit minors’ access to pornography. This includes the bill to secure and regulate digital space (SREN Bill): one of its aims is to protect children from online pornography by creating the conditions to ensure compliance with article 227-24 of the Criminal Code, which requires pornographic websites to verify the age of their users. However, the European Commission appears to have recently notified France of its reservations about the SREN bill, in that some of its provisions, in particular those concerning the age control of users of pornographic sites, would be contrary to the Digital Services Act of October 2022, which will come fully into force at the beginning of 2024. In these circumstances, it is vital that the French Government put pressure on the European Commission to finally decide to include major pornographic platforms in the list of “very large online platforms” under this Regulation. The Commission alone has the power to designate them. Yet they have reinforced obligations in terms of mitigating risks to fundamental rights relating to the rights of the child. If the Commission calls France to order in this area, France is just as legitimate in pointing out ways in which it can use its powers wisely.
Given the urgency of the situation, words and plans are no longer enough: action and, above all, results are needed.