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Durham University

Research Excellence Framework 2021

Influencing the Law on Pornography

Research at Durham University into the criminal law on the possession of extreme pornography played an important part in convincing politicians that the law should be changed.

Campaigners lobbying for pornographic images of rape to be outlawed cited the work of the Gender and Law at Durham (GLAD) research group.

As a result the Scottish Parliament made it a criminal offence to possess such images. Similar legislation is now passing through the English Parliament and the conclusions of the GLAD research have been quoted in debates in the House of Lords.

The impact of the research by Professors Clare McGlynn and Erika Rackley of Durham Law School, has been awarded the highest grade of 4-star, signifying 'outstanding', in the Research Excellence Framework.

The research project began in 2006 after the UK Government and Scottish Executive launched a consultation exercise on a proposed new law to criminalise the possession of extreme pornography.

Professors McGlynn and Rackley published research during 2007-09 arguing that the definition of extreme pornography should include images of rape.

The justification for new criminal laws tends to focus on the protection of individuals from physical harm - but the Durham research suggested that easily available rape pornography generates a form of 'cultural harm' against many women.

The two researchers disseminated their findings to Members of the Scottish Parliament, government ministers and departments in order to influence the Scottish consultation and legislative processes. They also established contact with groups campaigning for rape images to be outlawed.

In 2010, the Scottish Parliament adopted a new criminal law that was broader than the equivalent English legislation in that it specifically covered rape pornography.

When asked about the decision to frame the law in this way, the Justice Directorate referred directly to the letter received by the Minister of Justice from Professors McGlynn and Rackley.

The campaign Group, Rape Crisis Scotland, said that the Durham research was 'particularly useful' in directing their campaign, which stressed the idea that images of rape caused cultural harm.

In May 2013, the UK Government said it did not 'feel it appropriate or necessary' to extend the law to cover pornographic images of rape.

Professors McGlynn and Rackley worked with campaign groups including the End Violence Against Women (EVAW) coalition and briefed members of Parliament and the House of Lords on their research findings in order to shape reform of English law.

In July 2013, Prime Minister David Cameron announced that the Government would 'close the loophole' in the legislation 'making it a criminal offence to possess internet pornography that depicts rape.'

EVAW said that Durham’s research was 'absolutely fundamental to securing the high profile commitment by the Prime Minister.'

This commitment is being put into practice with Parliament currently debating a reform to English law which will extend the extreme pornography provisions to include rape pornography.

Professor McGlynn commented: "Legislative action against extreme pornography, including 'rape pornography', is justified because of the 'cultural harm' of such material. The existence and use of extreme pornography, including pornographic images of rape, sustains the cultural context in which society fails to take sexual violence seriously."

"I welcome the Government’s recognition that rape pornography is 'extreme' enough to be included in extreme pornography law. I hope that these changes in the law are just the beginning of a new approach to the regulation of obscenity and pornography, focussing on its cultural harm.

Professor Clare McGlynn

Clare McGlynn is a Professor of Law with particular expertise in the legal regulation of pornography, rape law and gender equality in the legal profession. Having practiced as a solicitor and lectured at Newcastle University, she moved to Durham University in 1999 and was appointed to a Chair in Law in 2004. She co-founded the research group Gender & Law at Durham (GLAD) in 2007 which acts as a catalyst for gender-related research and teaching. She is currently Deputy Head of the Faculty of Social Sciences and Health (Research).