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17/01/2018 12:13 SAST | Updated 17/01/2018 15:51 SAST

Here's What The Latest Data Reveal About Our Passion For Pornography And Its Legality

The first clear message is that pornography is popular. Very popular.

Adult Movie time on Tapes with red clock
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Adult Movie time on Tapes with red clock

Pornhub's now traditional "Year in Review" detailed trends in the popular pornography site's traffic in 2017, providing a breakdown of what users have been viewing over the past 12 months. As usual, it made for some interesting reading.

The first clear message is that pornography is popular – very popular. An astonishing 28.5-billion users visited the site in 2017, the equivalent of 81-million people per day.

What were they watching? Well, aside from the fairly pedestrian search terms that you'd expect, such as "lesbian" and "massage", the review once again raises the question of how close users are skating to the limits of legality.

"Teen" remains the seventh-most searched for term by Pornhub users globally. In the U.K., however, the term has now vanished from the top-10 most-viewed categories, while the categories of "mature" and "Milf" have risen in popularity. In the U.S., "teen" dropped from first place in 2016 to ninth in 2017, while in Canada it went from the fourth-most searched for category in 2016 to the tenth last year.

A growing market

Overall, however, demand for online pornography has increased in many countries, including the U.K., which is now second (after the U.S. and before India in third) on the top-20 list of countries using Pornhub.

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There is a good reason for this. In the U.K., for example, pornography produced and distributed for the video-on-demand (VoD) market is now regulated by the British Board of Film Classification. Content that would not receive an R18 certificate if released on DVD is now also prohibited for sale as VoD – and this includes acts such as spanking, fisting and female ejaculation.

This has limited the availability of some pornography, and means that people are now even more likely to turn to free internet hosting sites such as Pornhub to view footage of more unconventional sexual acts.

It seems porn users are also increasingly taking their viewing habits public. The well-publicised report of a man watching porn on his mobile phone while travelling on a bus prompted people to come forward with their own experiences of being exposed to pornography in public. The data support this trend. The Pornhub figures reveal that more of us are now using portable devices to view pornography, with 64 percent of the site's U.K. traffic coming from smartphones.

U.K. users need to be aware that while viewing pornography involving bondage is legal, the law is strict once this crosses the line and involves bodily injury.

It seems users have got more creative with their top search terms, too. "Stepsister" and "stepmom" were among the U.K.'s top five searches in 2017, while "teacher" and "babysitter" were also popular searches in 2016. It's no great surprise that the suggestion of illicit sex attracts significant amounts of traffic, something perhaps best illustrated this year by a huge surge of interest in "British amateur dogging".

Pornhub's 2017 review also points to a rise in the popularity of "squirt" (female ejaculation) porn -- a new entry as the tenth-most popular U.K. search term. This may be linked to the new restrictions imposed on VoD services, or it may be prurient interest in a practice that has received increased mainstream attention.

Unsurprisingly, given the cultural shift the world has undergone towards the normalisation of S&M since the "50 Shades Of Grey" books and films, searches for bondage porn have increased in the U.K. by 28 percent. But U.K. users need to be aware that while viewing pornography involving bondage is legal, the law is strict once this crosses the line and involves bodily injury.

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Porn shop in Times Square, New York City, NY, USA.

What is extreme?

In the U.K., extreme pornography is defined as pornographic images which are "grossly offensive, disgusting, or otherwise of an obscene character", and portray in an "explicit and realistic" way an act which threatens a person's life, or results in or is likely to result in serious injury. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland this must be injury to a person's anus, breast or genitals. In Scotland, there is no such restriction.

Extreme images also include those which portray sexual interference with a human corpse or an act of intercourse or oral sex with an animal. The possession of "rape porn" – which is widely defined as the non-consensual penetration of a person's vagina, anus or mouth by another with a penis or anything else – is also illegal.

You can't assume the porn you view online is legal, even when it's featured on fairly reputable websites.

The law also varies from country to country – and in the U.S., from state to state.

Pornhub prohibits the posting of content featuring incest, torture and rape pornography (among other acts). But like many video-sharing sites, it is only a hosting site and does not commit to actively policing all content uploaded.

This poses something of a danger for users who may encounter illegal content -- particularly by way of the "pop-ups" that redirect visitors to more extreme forms of pornography.

While access to Pornhub and most other pornographic sites is currently uncontrolled, it will become more difficult to view the content when age-verification comes into force in the U.K. -- more countries may follow -- later this year.

Even when this takes effect, however, you can't assume the porn you view online is legal, even when it's featured on fairly reputable websites. If you are using these sites, it's best to familiarise yourself with the limits of the law. It's one area where it's just a little too easy to become an accidental criminal.

This piece originally featured in The Conversation and can be viewed here.