It’s been hard to evade the shockwaves generated by HBO’s two-part four-hour documentary Leaving Neverland: Michael Jackson and Me, in which filmmaker Dan Reed exposes the heart-wrenching testimonies of Wade Robson, 36, and James Safechuck, 41, who allege Michael Jackson sexually abused them for years when they were children.
As the controversy surrounding the film continues to inundate every possible media outlet, Jackson fans from across the world cry out in support of the late star—defending his innocence and depicting the accusers as opportunists who are out to make a buck and tarnish Jackson’s reputation. Even those who do not blatantly smear Robson and Safechuck have a hard time reconciling their accusations with the image of their beloved idol.
It seems that in the vortex of sensationalism and celebrity, key issues and lessons from the documentary are being left unaddressed. Leaving Neverland extends far beyond Michael Jackson, and whether people choose to remove his tracks from their playlist or continue to be inspired by his talent is irrelevant. The film should encourage us to look past the circumstances of Jackson’s career and engage in some hard conversations about sexual abuse and the reasons behind our society’s attitude towards this toxic phenomenon.
The sad truth is that when it comes to sexual abuse, including that of children, we remain willfully ignorant—both in terms of our understanding of the scope of the problem, and in our methods of tackling it and supporting survivors. The National Center for Victims of Crime estimates that 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys in the U.S. are victims of child sexual abuse. The centre also argues that the actual number of cases is significantly higher and that the majority of cases never get reported—often due to shame or fear experienced by the victim. It is further reported that many victims fail to recognise that they were victims of sexual abuse until much later in life, which explains why so many of them come out about their experience decades after the fact (or never at all). In the film, both Robson and Safechuck confess that while the abuse took place they had no concept that Jackson’s actions were wrong, and that only later in life certain events and ongoing depression had led them to face the uncomfortable truth.
It is time that individuals, communities, and governments around the world take serious steps to educate the public about the facts surrounding sexual abuse practices and prevention methods. We must become more aware of early signs such as grooming, institute more comprehensive sexual consent modules in schools, expand our support facilities for victims, and learn how to better embrace and empower them to work through their trauma and heal.
In order for this to occur, however, we must delve deeper and further deconstruct our collective psyche. What prompts our proclivity to believe some survivors and not others? What propels many of us to engage in victim shaming and dismiss their compelling testimonies? I would argue that the answers to such questions lie in much more profound societal dysfunctions—of which our attitude towards sexual abuse is merely a symptom.
One is our misguided perception that a person can only be either good or bad; a belief that has been adopted and bolstered by our court systems. According to this tragically popular view, one cannot be a mega-talented artist who donated millions of dollars to save children’s lives around the world and simultaneously be a child molester; a person can’t lie on the witness stand once and then be considered even remotely credible, regardless of what may have propelled them to lie in the first place (many dismiss Robson’s current claim due to his defence of Jackson in previous trials). Why do we refuse to recognise humans for the complex, nuanced beings that we are? Because our binary labelling of ourselves makes us feel safe and provides a clear definition of right and wrong, while preventing us from having to face the contradiction that we ourselves embody.
Yet, when it comes to categorising people as good or bad, powerful figures are often held to a different standard, as Leaving Neverland reveals. This isn’t merely a function of their ability to purchase their innocence, but also a result of the widespread support they receive from a public that has constructed an entire identity around them and the values and institutions they came to represent.
In that sense, the reaction of Jackson’s fans to Robson and Safechuck is no different from Republicans’ steadfast defense of Trump in the face of the countless accusations he faces, or people’s decision to take Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s word over that of Christine Blasey Ford. If one’s idol or priest or president is found to be profoundly imperfect (not to mention—a criminal), what does it mean about the world they’ve been part of creating? Has it all been a lie? And what consequences will such a realisation bear on their self-image?
The downfall of a figure or a group that plays a significant role in our collective story is tough to grapple with, and the exposure of their flaws resembles nothing short of the apocalypse for those who were so deeply invested in their world. Whether it’s child abuse, government corruption, consumer culture or climate change, we witness people across the globe desperately clinging to old paradigms and ideals, dreading the first step into the abyss. But it is this very place from which genuine change can sprout.
Watching porn online will never be the same, at least in the U.K. Now known as ‘the porn block’, the age-verification law for commercial porn sites was passed as part of the 2017 Digital Economy Act and was initially expected to be in place by April 2018. But because of its controversial nature, many delays stopped it from being put into action. Although a precise date hasn’t been set out just yet, the Minister for the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Margot James, told MPs, “We expect it to be in force by Easter of next year”.
While we wait for a commencement date, there is a necessity to question what this ‘block’ law will actually change and weigh the pros and cons. The problem not only lies in the fact that it might change porn and the way it is perceived—because let’s be honest, a lot has to change in the porn industry—but also in what it means about our freedom and our right to privacy. Imagine how many teenagers would give up on expanding their sexual journey through PornHub’s best picks if they had to give out their phone number and email address first, let alone their parents’ credit card details.
This new age-check requirement will apply to any website or online platform that provides pornography. Businesses that refuse to comply will be fined up to £250,000 and regulators will be able to block porn websites if they fail to show that they are denying access to under 18s. While the main idea behind this law makes perfect sense—to protect minors from being exposed to porn at a too young age—many other aspects and repercussions can be criticised.
The practical aspects of the changes that it would bring are the first and most obvious inconveniences. Here are a few ways users will be able to prove their age. The first option, called AgeID, will direct users to a non-pornographic page, where they will be asked to provide personal data—credit card details, phone numbers, and emails—to prove their age.
The second option will expect that users buy age-verification cards that are only valid for 24 hours. These cards will contain a code that will be entered on the page to prove they are over 18. They could cost up to £8 and a trip to your local off license.
Although the two options sound tedious, it should be said that any young child having access to pornographic content is concerning. A study commissioned by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), shows that 53 percent of 11-16-year-olds surveyed have seen sexually explicit content online. With that in mind, it is understandable that people fear children are becoming more and more desensitised to certain things. What happened to parental controls and privacy settings?
Now when looked at from another angle, this law reveals more problems. No matter how much its critics chose to deny it, pornography has a big influence on us as a society. Yes, it reflects misogynistic views, an unrealistic depiction of bodies, stereotypic ideas and so much more. But it also can influence our vision of gender, intimacy and beauty in good ways.
With more and more independent pornographic film producers coming onto the scene, the porn industry is slowly starting to show a more artistic and realistic side. More focus is now put on the diversity of sex and queer, trans, non-Western people. As flawed as pornography can be, it can be used to communicate comprehensive and open-minded sex education, while today’s modern sex education has been restricted in many ways and in many countries.
And then there is the issue of privacy that this law poses. No one wants to give out that kind of private information when landing on a porn website. The company MindGeek—which owns PornHub, YouPorn and others—is already renowned for its multiple data breaches (seven since 2012). This just shows how risky it could be to put your information out there when trying to watch explicit content—especially when MindGeek will be the company operating AgeID.
This law will help the corporate interests of the biggest adult entertainment companies while putting users’ personal information at risk. U.K.’s ‘porn block’ could mean data collection, leaks, and blackmail. Are you willing to take this risk just for a bit of ‘adult content’? As for protecting underaged viewers, if they don’t know how to change their IP address already, they’ll always be able to look at explicit content on social media. In other words, the ‘porn block’ is solving a problem by creating many more—because top-down restrictions aren’t always the right solution.