[Trigger warning: graphic description of sexual abuse]
‘Amy’ was a victim of sexual abuse by her uncle as a child. He uploaded images of the abuse on to the internet, they became known as the ‘Misty Series’. These images have been globally trafficked since the late 1990s and are the most widely viewed in the child pornography world, according to the New York Times.
Amy is now 24; she gets notifications through the US Justice Department every time someone views the ‘Misty Series’ video. So far she has 1800 notifications and the video has already featured in 3200 criminal cases. Next month in a landmark case, the US Supreme Court will decide how much a child porn victim can demand from the people who viewed a video of her being abused.
This is Amy’s victim impact statement:
I am a 19-year-old girl and I am a victim of child sex abuse and child pornography. I am still discovering all the ways that the abuse and exploitation I suffer has hurt me, has set my life on the wrong course, and destroyed the normal childhood, teenage years, and early adulthood that everyone deserves.
My uncle started to abuse me when I was only 4 years old. He used what I now know are the common ways that abusers get their victims ready for abuse and keep them silent: he told me that I was special, that he loved me, and that we had our own ‘special secrets’. Since he lived close to our house, my mother and father didn’t suspect anything when I walked over there to spend time with him. At first he showed me pornographic movies and then he started doing things to me. I remember that he put his finger in my vagina and that it hurt a lot. I remember that he tried to have sex with me and that it hurt even more. I remember telling him that it hurt. I remember that much of the time I was with him I did not have clothes on and that sometimes he made me dress up in lingerie. And I remember the pictures.
After the abuse he would take me to buy my favourite snack which was beef jerky. Even now when I eat beef jerky I get feelings of panic, guilt, and humiliation. It’s like I can never get away from what happened to me. At the time I was confused and knew it was wrong and that I didn’t like it, but I also thought it was wrong for me to tell anything bad about my uncle who said he loved me and bought me things I liked. He even let me ride on his motorcycle. Now I will never ride on a motorcycle again. The memories are too upsetting.
There is a lot I don’t remember, but now I can’t forget because the disgusting images of what he did to me are still out there on the internet. For a long time I practiced putting the terrible memories away in my mind. Thinking about it is still really painful. Sometimes I just go into staring spells when I am caught thinking about what happened and not paying any attention to my surroundings. Every day of my life I live in constant fear that someone will see my pictures and recognise me and that I will be humiliated all over again. It hurts me to know someone is looking at them – at me – when I was just a little girl being abused for the camera. I did not choose to be there, but now I am there forever in pictures that people are using to do sick things. I want it all erased. I want it all stopped. But I am powerless to stop it just like I was powerless to stop my uncle.
When they first discovered what my uncle did, I went to therapy and thought I was getting over this. I was very wrong. My full understanding of what happened to me has only gotten clearer as I have gotten older. My life and my feelings are worse now because the crime has never really stopped and will never really stop. It is hard to describe what it feels like to know that at any moment, anywhere, someone is looking at pictures of me as a little girl being abused by my uncle and is getting some kind of sick enjoyment from it. It’s like I am being abused over and over and over again.
I find myself unable to do the simple things that other teenagers handle easily. I do not have a driver’s license. Every time I say I am going to do it, I don’t. I can’t plan well. My mind skips out on me when I think about moving forward with my life. I have been trying to get a job, but I just keep avoiding things. Forgetting is the thing I do best since I was forced as a little girl to live a double life and ‘forget’ what was happening to me. Before I realise it, I miss interviews or other things that will help me get a job.
Sometimes things remind me of the abuse and I don’t even realise it until it is too late. For example, I failed anatomy in high school. I simply could not think about the body because of what happened to me. The same thing happened at university. I went to a psychology class where we watched a video about child abuse.
Without even realising why, I just stopped going to class. I failed my first year of university and ended up moving back home.
It’s easy for me to block out my feelings and avoid things that make me uncomfortable. I don’t know when I will be ready to go back to university because I have huge problems with avoiding anything that makes me uncomfortable or reminds me of my abuse.
I am always scared that people can look at me and tell that I am a victim of sex abuse because my abuse is a public fact. I am worried that when my friends are on the internet they are going to come across my pictures and it fills me with shame and embarrassment.
I am humiliated and ashamed that there are pictures of me doing horrible things with my uncle. Everywhere I go I feel judged. Am I the kind of person who does this? Is there something wrong with me? Is there something sickening and disgusting about who I am?
I am embarrassed to tell anyone what happened to me because I’m afraid they will judge me and blame me for it. I live in a small town and I think that if one person knows then everyone will know. I am just living in fear of the day someone sees those awful pictures of me and then ‘the secret’ about me will be out. It’s like my life is on hold for that day and I am frozen in time waiting. I know those disgusting pictures of me are stuck in time and are there forever for everyone to see.
I had terrible nightmares for a long long time. I would wake up sweating and crying and go to my parents for comfort. Now I still get flashbacks sometimes. There are thoughts in my head that are memories of the things that my uncle did to me. My heart will start racing and I will feel sweaty and then a stronger picture will pop up in my head and I have to leave the situation I am in. I have heard the voice of my uncle in my mind still talking to me saying, “don’t tell, don’t tell, don’t tell.” Thinking and knowing that the pictures of all this are still out there just makes it worse. It’s like I can’t escape from the abuse, now or ever.
Because I’ve had so many bad dreams, I find it hard to sleep when it’s dark. I like to keep the lights on thinking that will protect me from bad dreams. I hate scary movies and sometimes have nightmares for days.
Sometimes I have unreasonable fears that prevent me from doing the normal things that other kids do. My friend once asked me to go with her and her uncle to an amusement park. I could not get it out of my head that I would be abused. In the end I just couldn’t go. I kept wondering if my friend’s uncle had seen my pictures. Did he know me? Did he know what I did? Is that why he invited me to the amusement park?
Trust is a very hard thing for me and often people just make me uncomfortable. I had to quit a job I had as a waitress because there was a guy who I thought was always staring at me. I couldn’t stop thinking, did he recognise me? Did he see my pictures somewhere? I was simply too uncomfortable to keep working there.
I have trouble saying ‘no’ to people since I learned at a young age that I really don’t have control over what’s happening to me. I am trying to learn to get better at this because I know that not saying ‘no’ makes it easier for someone to hurt me again.
Because of the way my uncle bribed me to perform sex acts on camera, I have trouble taking gifts from anyone. I always feel that people will expect something from me if they give me a present. This makes it difficult in my relationship with friends.
I want to have children someday, but it frightens me terribly to think about how I could keep them safe. Who could I possibly trust? Their teacher? Their coach? I don’t know if I could ever trust anyone with my children. And what if my children and their friends see my pictures on the internet? How could I ever explain to them what happened to me?
I am very confused about what love is. My uncle said he loved me and I wanted that love. But I know now that what he did to me is not love. But how will I be able to tell in the future if it is real love or just another person trying to exploit and use me?
The truth is, I am being exploited and used every day and every night somewhere in the world by someone. How can I ever get over this when the crime that is happening to me will never end? How can I get over this when the shameful abuse I suffered is out there forever and being enjoyed by sick people? I am horrified by the thought that other children will probably be abused because of my pictures. Will someone show my pictures to other kids, like my uncle did to me, then tell them what to do? Will they see me and think it’s okay for them to do the same thing? Will some sick person see my picture and then get the idea to do the same thing to another little girl? These thoughts make me sad and scared. I blame myself a lot for what happened. I know I was so little, but why didn’t I know better? Why didn’t I stop my uncle? Maybe if I had stopped it there wouldn’t be so many pictures out there that I can never take back or erase. I feel like now I have to live with it forever and that it’s all my fault. I feel like I am unworthy of anything and a failure. What have I been good for except to be used by others over and over again. That’s one of the reasons I haven’t been able to get a job or stay in school. I’m tired of disappointing myself. I’ve already had enough disappointment for a lifetime and just don’t want any more failure. To me this brings back all the terrible feelings and shame of abuse and exploitation.
Sometimes I deal with my feelings by trying to forget everything by drinking too much. I know this isn’t good, but my humiliation and angry feelings are there with me all the time and sometimes I just need a way to make them go away for awhile.
I feel like I have always had to live a double life. First I had to lie about what my uncle was doing to me. Then I had to act like it didn’t happen because it was too embarrassing. Now I always know that there is another ‘little me’ being seen on the internet by other abusers. I don’t want to be there, but I am. I wish I could go back in time and stop my uncle from taking those pictures, but I can’t.
Even though I am scared that I will be abused or hurt again because I am making this victim impact statement, I want the court and judge to know about me and what I have suffered and what my life is like. What happened to me hasn’t gone away. It will never go away. I am a real victim of child pornography and it effects me every day and everywhere I go.
Please think about me and think about my life when you sentence this person to prison. Why should this person, who is continuing my abuse, be free when I am not free?
Feminist Conversations is a regular feature here at Feminists for Choice. Today we are talking to Melinda Tankard Reist, co-editor of Big Porn Inc: Exposing the harms of the global pornography industry. Melinda is also the co-founder of Collective Shout: for a world free of sexploitation.
How did you become interested in researching pornography?
There were a few things that came together around the same time. Women started telling me their stories of being hurt and harmed by a partner’s compulsive porn use. In my talks in schools, teen girls shared with me the pressure they felt to provide a porn-style performance, to act, essentially, as a sexual service station for men and boys. They were expected to provide naked images of themselves, to provide sexual services. As well, the sex industry was dominating and colonising every public space and was rarely brought to account. I began to talk to my publishers about what I was hearing. Spinifex had published an earlier book in 2004 titled Not for Sale: feminists resisting prostitution and pornography edited by Christine Stark and Rebecca Whisnant. It was a powerful book. But so much had happened since then, especially with the internet being used to globalise and spread pornography. We felt that a new book on pornography was needed. It also seemed to be a natural progression from my previous book Getting Real: challenging the sexualisation of girls, published by Spinifex in 2009.
There seems to be an overall consensus in the book that pornography is the same (or similar to) prostitution. Can you explain the similarities?
Yes, the writers in the book would mostly argue that pornography is filmed (or graphically depicted) prostitution. Melissa Farley uses the term ‘infinite prostitution’. The pornography industry has many of the features of the prostitution industry–it needs to procure women through trafficking, it relies on pimps to mediate transactions with the women who will be used, and the women it procures generally have histories of sexual abuse, poverty and homelessness. Pornography is advertising for prostitution and normalises the sexual exploitation of women. As well, men often want to act out what they see in porn on ‘live’ women. Pornography is often used as a form of initiation into prostitution. It’s also the case that women in pornography are concurrently being prostituted off-set, or go on to be used in systems of prostitution and stripping. The overlap between the prostitution and pornography businesses is so great that we might see them as operating in parallel, or perhaps as one larger sex industry. However, I think it’s also important to understand the differences between the pornography and prostitution sectors of the sex industry, and Big Porn Inc highlights these differences for pornography in particular. Firstly, the abuses that women undergo in pornography have a permanent or semi-permanent record made of them in the form of film, etc. This record causes many women great hardship and stress, because they feel they can never escape their past, and suffer anxiety at the prospect that anyone they meet throughout their lives has seen the pornography. They are also vulnerable to blackmail over it. The permanency of pornography causes particular suffering for women whose childhood sexual abuse was filmed as child pornography and shared by their abusers. Another aspect of the pornography industry that might distinguish it from the rest of the sex industry is the culture of ‘celebrity’ and ‘glamour’ that has developed around the industry in the last ten years. Jenna Jameson and Sascha Grey have been central to the promotion of the idea that pornography is a way for poor girls to escape their lives and become rich and famous, but of course the reality of the industry for the overwhelming majority of women/girls is that they are used up in around three months because of the extremity of the abuse and degradation of contemporary pornography. However, this culture of celebrity is very attractive to poor girls, and unfortunately draws them to the industry in a way that doesn’t necessarily happen for prostitution businesses. It means that the pornography industry is able to attract particularly young women, and in increasingly large numbers. The industry is normalised among younger generations to an extent that prostitution is not, because of widespread consumption of pornography among this generation, and the celebration of pornography by the popular media and culture. A third difference between the pornography and prostitution industries is the diversity of forms pornography takes–it is possible for women/girls to be sold as pornography through being used by their ‘boyfriends’ in front of home-based webcams, for example. While it is also common that ‘boyfriends’ pimp women through their homes, in the case of pornography this pimping is made difficult to recognise as illegal because of technology and the glamorising of pornography. There are businesses dedicated to the pimping of women through pay-per-view webcams, as well as pornography made of women being used through brothels. This diversity in the mode of business that pornography takes means that the industry is able to expand with very little scrutiny and opposition, let alone government oversight. The industry essentially operates in unchartered, frontier space in the absence of any controls whatsoever. Governments and societies worldwide are overwhelmed by the diversity of the sex industry, and so far haven’t managed to enact any governance frameworks at all that might curb its expansion and domination over culture and the economy.
What is your overall message about pornography that the book also highlights?
I think a major theme of the book is that the first and most egregious harm of pornography is to the women and girls who are used to make it. While the harm of pornography does extend to women much more widely, when we think about pornography we must think about the women who are harmed in its production first. This is because women/girls used in pornography are perhaps the most vulnerable and exploited population in our society. They are often racially marginalised, as well as victims of childhood sexual abuse, homelessness, and addiction. Their life chances are very poor, and even more so after they have been through the pornography industry. The writing in Big Porn Inc against the pornography industry mostly prioritises the interests of these women/girls in the way it does not make distinctions between ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ pornography, or ‘better’ and ‘worse’ forms of pornography. For the women and girls used in the industry, these distinctions are often meaningless, because the same women are used in both types of pornography production. Often they start out in ‘soft’ production, but then must be used in more violent and degrading productions to be able to make money and stay in the industry. For these women and girls, the chance to lead a life of quality and dignity depends on our efforts to dismantle the sex industry and create social services and facilities that will allow them to recover from childhood sexual abuse, to escape homelessness, and escape pimps or exploitative ‘boyfriends’. In addition to these women, of course, pornography harms many others, including the children who are sexually abused through perpetrators showing them pornography, as well as wives/girlfriends who are pressured to ‘act’ out scenes in pornography, and girls and boys who grow up seeing pornography as a ‘model’ for sexual relationships and never have a chance at understanding what true physical affection and tenderness looks like. Average age of first exposure to porn is 11. This is distorting and warping young people’s views of their bodies, relationships and sex. I believe it is an unprecedented assault on the healthy sexuality young people.
The trend in pornography seems for “sex” to be increasingly violent and aggressive. Can you explain why that is?
Yes, as Gail Dines and others show, the pornography industry over time has definitely escalated its violence against women and the level of degradation and humiliation it inflicts. Researchers have gathered empirical evidence that the more popular forms of pornography are the ones that are more violent and overtly degrading of women. Torture porn has become increasingly popular, rape sites, live S&M and bondage in which women are brutalised in whatever way the viewer requests. And it’s all becoming more and more mainstream. For example the documentary film Kink is about to screen at the Sundance Film Festival. The Kink website shows images of women in extreme positions of pain and torture. It seems it’s not even about ‘sex’ anymore – it’s about how much brutality and degradation a woman can cope with. And this is where many young men take their cues for relating sexually to women.
What is your response when people state that there are no victims in porn (just consenting adults)?
Linda Boreman’s (Lovelace) account of her time in the pornography industry where she was brutalised and forced into its production shows this claim to be untrue. Traci Lords’s use in pornography as a sixteen-year-old also shows that the industry does not always use adult women. Even women who glamorise their time in the pornography industry sometimes describe aspects of its brutality, such as Jenna Jameson’s How to Make Love Like a Porn Star: A Cautionary Tale in which she describes being incapacitated for six hours after a sex scene in which she was injured internally. The notion of ‘consent’ that proponents of the sex industry use to justify their moneymaking activities is an extremely impoverished one. The idea that young women surviving childhood sexual abuse who are homeless and being pimped by a ‘boyfriend’ are making a ‘choice’ to enter the pornography industry is laughable. The ‘consent’ invoked for women used in pornography is nothing more than a legal ploy to allow the filming of prostitution and sexual abuse (and sometimes overt physical torture) without the threat of arrest and prosecution. These activities are allowed to take place in society only because the cover of ‘sex’ makes them somehow different from what they really are, which is rape, sexual abuse, physical abuse, and exploitation.
When did you first consider yourself a feminist and what influenced that decision?
It is difficult to identify one key moment. There was a dawning recognition about the global maltreatment of women. It was, I suppose, recognising the second-class status of women pretty much everywhere. I have travelled a lot and witnessed the abuse of women in so many parts of the world. You just have to look at the raw statistic on violence, ‘honour’ killings, dowry deaths, female genital mutilation, child brides, forced abortion, forced sterilisation, female foeticide, female infanticide, the systematic elimination of women and girls in so many ways. I recall being in a shelter in Hyderabad, India. On the bottom level were the abandoned baby girls; many plucked from rubbish heaps, with bruises and broken bones. On the second level were the abandoned pregnant girls and women. On the top level were the abandoned widows. Three layers of discrimination against women, all in that one home.
What does feminism mean to you?
It means working to change the second-class status of women. To addressing the real, felt needs of women (I was privileged to help set up a supported accommodation and outreach service for women and girls pregnant and without support in Australia.) To advocating for women and girls everywhere and all the time. It means trying to make the world better for my three daughters and the daughters of other women as well. It means engaging in grass roots activism and empowering other women to speak out, through movements like Collective Shout: for a world free of sexploitation (www.collectiveshout.org) It also means working in solidarity with the best people I have ever met.
‘The pornification of culture and the normalization of (increasingly violent) porn is contributing to a society where pornography, even the most brutal forms, are in many ways sanctioned, defended as well as protected’
By Hennie Weiss
Edited by Melinda Tankard Reist and Abigail Bray, Big Porn Inc: Exposing the Harms of the Global Pornography Industry is a compilation of essays by researchers, experts and activists concerning the harms of pornography. All and all there are 40 written pieces divided into five categories; pornography cultures, pornography industries, harming children, pornography and the state and resisting big porn inc.
Overall, the notion is that pornography has found its way into everyday cultures all over the world. The pornification of culture and the normalization of (increasingly violent) porn is contributing to a society where pornography, even the most brutal forms, are in many ways sanctioned, defended as well as protected through legislation. For example, in the United States the notion of freedom of speech (also called freedom of expression) helps protect the production, distribution and purchasing of porn. The stronghold that porn has tends to be contributed to the enormous profitability and influence of the porn industry. As noted in the book, it is difficult to resist and battle the porn industry as a whole, even though small grassroot movements opposing pornography have made significant gains over the last few years. Yet, more knowledge about the industry, the way it harms women and children (as well as men), and the lasting effects of the pornification of sexuality and culture are important (many articles discusses how porn is the same as prostitution).
Even though the many different contributions tend to deal with various aspects of pornography (within the five categories), there are some statements that are generally agreed upon and reiterated throughout the book. In one way or another all contributions contest the notion (most often used by those in the porn industry and those who are pro-porn) that porn does not cause harm and is a form of fantasy. When discussing prostitution, strip clubs, PTSD, sexual and physical assaults, rape, intrafamilial rape, the sexual objectification of women and the spread of child pornography, it should prove to be difficult for anyone to look at porn like mere fantasy, especially since real women and men are involved in the making of pornography. What the different categories of Big Porn Inc brings to light is the fact that the porn industry is not glamorous, as high-paying as many believe, and that women are sexually objectified, dominated, demeaned and degraded. Pornography has also become increasingly violent, and most scenes or movies include physical violence, rape, or the threat of violence. The notion that women are sex objects who like to be degraded and thrive on physical violence is based on a patriarchal backlash to women’s overall gains towards equality.
Besides stating that pornography is mere fantasy, proponents of pornography also often refer to a lack of evidence, or link between pornography use and overall behavior. But the book has that too. Pornography does not only lead to an increase in acceptance of rape culture, but people who watch pornography are less likely to view sex as an intimate act and more likely to engage in gendered violence. Diana E.H Russel writes in the article “Russel’s Theory: Exposure to Child Pornography as a Cause of Child Sexual Victimization”, that watching child pornography can help cultivate sexual interests in children in several ways. It predisposes men to objectify children, it intensifies already existing desires, undermines social inhibitions and internal inhibitions as well as undermines children’s abilities to avoid, resist, or escape sexual victimization.
It is important to note that many of the contributions include explicit language, profanities and words that describe various ways in which women are demeaned, humiliated and abused when discussing different aspects of pornography. Many contributions also discuss notions of rape, group rape, incest or intrafamilial rape, sexual assault, violence and even the killing of animals. Therefore, readers should note that the material might be triggering to some. Even though the language is often explicit in nature, it is easy to understand the links between harm, prostitution, the degradation of women, patriarchy, power and sexual assault made by the contributors. The personal accounts of Stella and Amy (Stella was a stripper and Amy the victim of intrafamilial rape) contribute to a greater understanding and awareness of the harm of pornography and how women are mentally, physically and emotionally impacted by porn culture.
The intended audience could be anyone, both women and men, who are interested in the consequences and harms of the global pornography industry. With its sharp analysis and research, the book can also contribute to changing, or challenging legislature in terms of discussing the harms of pornography, especially when using the findings that makes connections between watching pornography and overall behavior. The book can also be used in the classroom (even though it might be more suitable for students that are a little older) in gender studies, men and masculinity studies, women’s studies and sociology.
What the book does so well is to capture, discuss, analyze and provide evidence for the many ways that pornography is harmful to women and children. We know that pornography is based on profit, capitalism and a patriarchal worldview and is therefore complicated to combat, but when reading the book it becomes difficult to understand why pornography is legal in the first place.
Since the publication of Rachael Hills’s article “Who’s Afraid of Melinda Tankard Reist” (and see her reflections two weeks later) at least ten on-line and print media articles have joined in a public dissection and commentary along the lines of, “she’s a conservative religious fundamentalist” and “she’s pro-life and can’t be a feminist.”
The subliminal context of the attempts to bring Melinda Tankard Reist to her knees and destroy her work is of course the elephant in the room: if her considerable impact on educating the public about the harms of the sex industry could be reduced, the pornography and prostitution promoters and profiteers would rejoice.
As her publishers at Spinifex Press, Australia’s only feminist publishing house (and secular), we take issue with these portrayals of Melinda Tankard Reist. It is easy to try to dismiss someone by smacking on a “fundamentalist” (whether Christian or Muslim, Hindu or Jewish) label and thereby dismiss the arguments that a person makes. What is less easy, but more ethical and intellectually rigorous, is to examine Tankard Reist’s views – which are shared by many feminists and other advocates for social justice and human rights – and to see what the factual arguments for those views are. Read more>
‘Anyone interested in how ideas of free speech operate to defend an industry that causes serious harm to women and children will find compelling arguments and disturbing information in this book’ – Bookseller and Publisher
The contentious topic of pornography has received increased public attention recently, due to the appearance of anti-porn activist Gail Dines at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. Big Porn Inc features contributions by Dines, along with Maggie Hamilton, Helen Pringle, and many more. The essays cover a wide array of issues connected to the porn industry, including stripping and prostitution, abuse of animals and children (including a tragic victim impact statement), issues associated with judging women by pornographic standards, and misogyny in videogames. Big Porn Inc occasionally strays into didacticism; the collection includes an essay that lampoons a more pornpositive study, The Porn Report, along with criticisms of other academic and public figures, including Peter Singer, who, it is argued, do not come down firmly enough against the porn industry. Most pieces present a ghastly portrait of the pornification of mainstream culture and the commodification of sex and women’s bodies. Anyone interested in how ideas of free speech operate to defend an industry that causes serious harm to women and children will find compelling arguments and disturbing information in this book, and quite possibly be swayed towards the idea of ‘fair speech’ that the editors passionately advocate as an alternative. Big Porn Inc. will be of particular interest to those engaged in gender or cultural studies, as the authors provide many references for further reading on each topic.
Portia Lindsay works at UNSW Bookshop. This review first appeared in the August issue of Bookseller+Publisher magazine. Online here.
Our new book, Big Porn Inc: Exposing the Harms of the Global Porn Industry, documents the proliferation and normalisation of pornography, the way it has become a global industry and a global ideology, and how it is shaping our world and the harm this causes.
The global pornography industry is expected to reach US$100 billion in the near future. In 2009, the UN estimated that the global child pornography industry made a profit of up to $20 billion. Pornography money is buying governments, academic research, national and international corporations and law enforcement agencies.
This largely unregulated pornography industry has colonised private and public spaces at a rate that presents significant challenges to women’s and children’s rights. The mainstreaming of pornography is transforming the sexual politics of intimate and public life, popularising new forms of anti-women attitudes and behaviours and contributing to the sexualisation of children.
The pornification of culture is leading to a form of hypersexism that entails an increase in physical, sexual, mental, economic and emotional cruelty towards women and children. This radical cultural shift is shaping the way we understand ourselves and others, both personally and politically.
Our goal is to present a powerful challenge to libertarian conceits that pornography is simply about pleasure, self-empowerment and freedom of choice.
Since the 1980s, there has been a steady growth in the number of academics who study pornography and believe they are being unconventional or somehow radical in their defence, even celebration, of it. To treat pornography as an avant garde political gesture, however, requires its defenders to turn a blind eye to the harms it does.
A great deal of pro-pornography academic research in the social sciences is taken up with this task of masking the harms of pornography, in order to defend the lucrative global industry and guarantee a continued supply of cool pleasures to the hip consumer.
One such piece of research, The Porn Report by Alan McKee, Katherine Albury and Catharine Lumby (2008), was heralded as “the first piece of serious research” on the state of pornography in Australia. The book is widely cited in political and academic debates for its analysis of the production, distribution and consumption of pornography.
THIS much Nina Funnell knows about the man who held a box-cutter blade to her throat on an autumn’s evening in May 2007.
She knows he had an olive complexion. She knows he had bushy eyebrows and a five o’clock shadow. She knows – although she cringes at the stereotype it encourages – that he spoke with a thick, Middle Eastern accent. He attacked from behind, she remembers that, and dragged her into a park opposite a girls’ high school in an affluent Sydney suburb. She knows there was not just the threat of violence; this man was quite prepared to deliver it. He threw her to the ground, straddled her and punched her repeatedly in the face as he indecently assaulted her.
She knows the police have his DNA, captured in the shreds of skin she clawed from him as she fought him off in what she describes as “an adrenalin-fuelled fit”. And she knows they have not caught him yet. Maybe they never will. This frustrates and saddens her, but she holds on to those tiny nuggets of certainty about that otherwise nightmare-ish blur of events.
As for what has happened since, this much Nina Funnell doesn’t know. Why, after she wrote about the assault, would anonymous contributors to different websites attack her and threaten her? And why would that story, first told in a Sydney newspaper, prompt one website to run a public discussion, inviting guests to assess how “rape-able” she is? And why did one man read of her trauma and feel compelled to announce to the world: “what a conceited bitch for thinking she is even worthy of being raped. The guy just probably wanted to give her a good bashing in which case job well done.”
She does not know why there are some who, years later, still monitor her words and turn up in online forums to spread rumours that she lied about her experience, and to demand she provide intimate details or release police photos of the injuries she suffered.
She does not know when they might strike again, for they seem to work around the clock, and she cannot know whether they target her – “She’s so fugly, I wouldn’t even bother raping her from behind with a box cutter” – from the next continent or the next cubicle. She does not know what they look like and she does not know why they do it, whether it is for fun or boredom, or to humiliate her and encourage others to do the same – or worse. She doesn’t know how many people are doing this to her; trawling the web, looking for opportunities to strike. And she does not know when they will stop.
Which is precisely why Nina Funnell, who now works as an anti-violence campaigner and writes regularly about social issues and the media, believes passionately that there are some things we all need to know about communication in the modern age.
“The internet has absolutely changed the nature of public debate,” Funnell, 27, says. “The anonymity and the immediacy it gives people who want to indulge in abuse and hate… I don’t know if it actually makes it more or less dangerous [to have a public profile] but when you’re seeing a whole heap of hate speech written about you in separate forums, targeting you via email or in comments, I do know that it has a profound impact on your sense of safety…
“I had tried to come to terms with the fact that there was a psycho out there who had tried to rape and kill me. But then I realised that it wasn’t just one individual, that there was a whole subculture that found this amusing. It was sport for them.”
Snail-mail to cyber-bile
Nutters and obsessives; lonely hearts and angry pensioners. For as long as there have been commentators in public forums, there have been belligerent hecklers and aggrieved critics shouting from the fringes. Back when the mail would be distributed twice a day around our newsroom by a junior pushing a creaking trolley, the opinion writers of our newspaper ran a weekly competition to determine who had received the craziest correspondence.
Envelopes flecked with grease spots or some other unidentifiable liquid – could it be spittle? – often disgorged one’s own article, indignantly clipped with ragged scissors or torn wholesale in one enraged swipe, bearing contemptuous comments scrawled in capitals.
Of course, there were more sinister threats, particularly during the fevered days of gun control and Hansonism. The police were called when I received a particularly nasty letter detailing very specific plans for harm and some knowledge of where my family lived. Security guards were assigned to accompany me to my car each night for a few weeks, and I was told to take care when I arrived home. “Still, we have evidence,” a young constable said as he tweezered the letter into a ziplock bag, “and in the majority of cases once they’ve sent a letter that’s the last they ever think about it.”
It was precious little comfort at the time. But after studying some of the cyber-bile sent to Nina Funnell, and after spending hours tracking the crazed logic and outright intimidation of her opponents down the shadowy rabbit holes of various internet forums, abuse that takes a day or two arrive, and then with a postcode neatly stamped upon it, seems almost quaint. Strange days, these, when it can appear almost polite to limit your slander to an audience of one – unless it is taken to the boss or the police – and your death threats to a flimsy page that can be sealed away in a plastic bag.
Cyber-bile takes many forms: from people posting pornography or sexually explicit comments on Facebook memorials to murdered children, to the person who set up a Facebook site which promised the return of abducted Queensland schoolboy Daniel Morcombe if the page attracted one million members. To most right-thinking people this sort of stuff is unbelievably cruel, surely the outpourings of a small number of sick minds. Hoaxers regularly hack into Facebook pages, defacing pictures or spreading rumours that can cause untold pain, panic and embarrassment. And then there’s the constant background chatter that eats away at people – mostly women – in the public domain. It seems everyone has an opinion now, and they want to be heard. But when did they become so mean and, in some cases, downright terrifying?
Sydney newsreader Jacinta Tynan calls them the faceless brave. “When people want to give me a compliment, they tend to email me directly,” says the journalist and author. “Those who want to say really horrible things will go online and do it anonymously. They’re suddenly very brave when they don’t have to attach their names or their faces to their comments.”
“Brave” is a generous description of some of those who regularly post vitriolic opinions on the Sky News website, assessing Tynan’s appearance and performance as a presenter:
News reader Jacinta tynon’s [sic] latest botox shots have reduced her face to a skull and make here [sic] sound like daffy duck lmao how stupid is the woman to think botox makes her look professional. Anything but sweetie, you look and sound terrible.
What on earth has Jacinta Tynan done to her lips? She looks like she’s been bitten by a swarm of wasps. The botox job is ok, but those lips!!!
“Public figures are easy targets,” Tynan says, adding she has never had Botox or collagen injections, but suffered a surge in abuse from viewers as her body changed with her pregnancies. “I think they forget you’re human… I do try to respond to all of them, and when I was pregnant I felt particularly protective, like I needed to point out that hey, there’s a baby in here! But most of the time my efforts are wasted because they’ve used a fake email address…
“What you have to keep remembering, as my mother always says, is ‘what they say says more about them than you’. If someone wants to take the time to get on a website and bitch about how you look, that’s their problem.”
All television presenters have to learn to live with brutal feedback about their looks, Tynan, 41, says. But the internet has made it much ¬easier for critics – and, occasionally, unhinged admirers – to torment celebrities and other public figures who catch their attention. In Tynan’s case, this includes a woman who assumed her Facebook identity, creating a page in her name complete with an array of work and family “snapshots” copied from existing publicity pictures already posted on the Web. Fake Jacinta managed to “friend” many of Tynan’s real friends, who were unaware of the ruse, and apparently even began a relationship online, before dying suddenly. The “tragedy” was announced on Facebook by her “sister”, who thoughtfully posted a picture of her coffin. As unnerving as it sounds, Tynan says she was unruffled by the incident, “although it does show just how easy it is to create a false identity on Facebook.”
Much closer to home – and therefore much more personally devastating – was the avalanche of hostility unleashed after she wrote a newspaper column revelling in the joys of caring for her first son, Jasper, in the months after he was born. “I honestly thought I was writing a positive story about motherhood that would uplift people on a Sunday,” she says of the column, which attracted a record amount of feedback when blogger Mia Freedman reposted it on her popular website Mamamia and prompted vehement talkback sessions on radio around the country. “It was the first time I had been exposed to the level of anger and vitriol that is allowed to breed online through blogs and websites. All the really nasty stuff was personal and so vitriolic. There were people wishing illness on my child and infertility on me.”
The internet’s ability to amplify rumours and thus cement them into facts is what most shocked and, for a while, threatened to overwhelm Tynan. “I tried to keep my head above it, but when it was still going after a few months, it got a bit tough,” she recalls. “It became a bit like a witch hunt. There were people getting whipped up into a frenzy and I realise many of them hadn’t even read what I’d written. But they’d dedicate their own blog to [discussing] it and then people would read that…”
What continues to disturb her is how those malicious “facts” linger long after the debate has died. Google “Jacinta Tynan” and “nanny”, for example, and the search engine takes 0.20 seconds to deliver links to several sites where readers are informed authoritatively that Tynan is unqualified to talk about motherhood because she has a full-time nanny. Tynan, now the mother of two, has never employed a nanny, but that may not be enough to sate anonymous critics.
The question remains: what drives this level of anger? Dr Stephen Harrington, who lectures in media and communication at QUT’s Creative Industries Faculty, says much of the aggression comes from people’s disappointment that the online world still appears to favour professionals and experts, rather than levelling the playing field of public opinion as anticipated.
“That gap between the promise [of the internet] and the reality has generated anger and resentment among some people, and they really let that anger fly when they are given even the most tiny chance to have their voice heard,” Harrington says. “The comments section of a news article is a good example. I think some people use those forums to attack everyone who disagrees with them because they have been told that their opinion is equally valid to everyone else’s, and they feel they have the right to say whatever they want to, no matter how tangential it is to the actual item under discussion.”
But if the internet has been likened to the Wild West, a new frontier where law and order is regularly tested in the rush to stake a claim in the new world, then Harrington urges users to embrace the opportunities rather than freeze for fear of outlaws. “Whenever there is a debate about new communication technology, we tend to blame any downsides or negative uses on the technology itself, rather than the people using it,” he observes. “When someone dies in a car accident, we generally don’t blame the vehicle itself, or car companies. Fatal accidents only serve as a reminder that people should be careful on the roads. I think we should approach new media technologies in the same rational way.”
Driven to despair
But what if a responsible commuter on the information superhighway is forced off the road by other reckless or aggressive drivers whose licence plates are obscured? Paul Tilley, 40, may have been one such fatality. On a bitterly cold night in February 2008, the father-of-two stepped out onto the roof of a swank hotel in downtown Chicago and jumped to his death. That a successful advertising executive for DDB Chicago would take his own life at the apparent peak of his career might pass as strange to industry outsiders. But within days of the news breaking – even before Chicago police had ruled the death a suicide – an online flame war had erupted about whether vicious industry gossip spread by anonymous bloggers had driven Tilley to this final act of despair. Regardless of the reasons it is testament to the power of the internet that much of the mud-slinging can still be tracked online by a stranger in Australia, three years later.
“Anyone who thinks this sort of stuff doesn’t need to be taken seriously, that it doesn’t have a serious impact, doesn’t understand the nature of depression,” says Sean Cummins, 49, a successful Australian ad exec, whose experiences at the hands of vindictive industry bloggers mirror Tilley’s in chilling ways.
Now the head of Cummins Ross in Melbourne, his former agency Cummins Nitro was responsible for the internationally recognised “Best Job In The World” campaign for Tourism Queensland. “That was when the vitriol started pouring in, all anonymous, on industry blogs,” Cummins says. “Everything from ‘he’s a bastard to work for’ to suggestions that I hadn’t done the work I’d claimed credit for, to jibes about my personal life and even my profile photo…
“It’s a form of social terrorism. My kids were being taught at school not to cyber-bully and yet here were these professionals out trying to really hurt people by doing exactly that.
“It was such a personal and outrageous character assassination and the collateral damage was enormous. There was a knock-on effect: when you’re not confident, your creative work suffers because you second-guess yourself. Then I dulled the pain by drinking. I was erratic and my mood swings were inexplicable to my wife and family. Then my wife went on the website and she was shattered.
“Unfortunately, I got to the point where I contemplated topping myself and the ways I might do it. What stopped me was knowing I would leave a lot of people I loved very lost.”
Instead, Cummins has decided to fight back. This week, he will take aim at the “cowards” in his industry – many of whom he claims work for major agencies – in a presentation titled Cummins vs. Anonymous at the Mumbrella360 marketing and media conference in Sydney.
“There is this civil libertarians’ view of the internet that says it promotes a wonderful, open exchange of ideas,” he says. “But it’s not open and it’s not an exchange when someone is deriding someone else’s work or reputation and you can’t respond because you don’t know where it’s come from or who you’re responding to.”
Cummins will argue that all comments on industry blogs should be attributed by name – and that websites should be held accountable if they allow anonymous posters to defame or attack other people. He says ultimately, he is prepared to sue if he has to – and, given he reckons he could mount a case for lost business, when prospective clients are scared off by what they read on the internet, the damages could be enormous. “This is about shutting people down and I’m not going to be shut down,” he declares. “And if I have to stand up before my peers and become the poster boy for good manners, then so be it.”
Ping! One morning, as I am researching this story, an email lobs into my inbox shortly after I’ve logged on to my work computer. I open it to read: Shut the f*ck up you f*cking ugly OLD wowser c*nt. You need a good stiff c*ck shoved down your throat if you ask me. What’s the matter? Were you the ugly fat flat chested girl at school? Why don’t you shut you f*cking c*nt mouth? Live your own f*cking life, raise your own f*cking kids, nobody elected you the arbiter of morality… you’re a do-gooder, a meddling c*nt, who needs to shut the f*ck up. I’m going to a brothel tonight, and I’ll be selecting the whore who most looks your age. Remember c*nt, you’re a wowser c*nt, who needs to shut the f*ck up.
The email has been forwarded to me from Julie Gale, founder of children’s advocacy group Kids Free 2B Kids, who received it after she appeared on The 7pm Project to speak about the sexualisation of children, and particularly reports that increasing numbers of young teenagers were seeking Brazilian waxes.
Ping! Another email arrives. This one is from Melinda Tankard Reist, a Canberra-based author who campaigns on social issues and policy affecting women, most recently the expanding porn industry and “pornification” of pop culture. Bolz says: Melinda quite clearly doesn’t have hot bangable ass…, like Pippa. Jealous much?
Tankard Reist, 48, recently wrote an article, posted on the News Limited website The Punch, decrying the appearance of the Pippa Middleton Arse Appreciation Society page on Facebook as little more than online sexual harassment of the sister of Prince William’s bride, Catherine Middleton. In her article, she quoted comments from the freely accessible Facebook page – “She would need a wheel chair and straw when I’d be finished with it xxbig Matty chambers xxx” – as evidence of the sort of violent and misogynist commentary that flourishes as “fun” on the internet, only to attract the same sort of abuse herself.
Ping! Another one from Tankard Reist, this time a tweet she copied in March targeting News Limited columnist Miranda Devine. @Mighty-Chewbacca: Today screwed Miranda Devine, then penned blog on her soiled panties on bus home.
Ping! And then one from Nina Funnell, recalling the time she wrote about cervical cancer vaccine Gardasil, only to have the online discussion quickly devolve into a slanging match in which she was told she was probably “riddled with STDs” and “just needed a good d*ck up you”.
Ping! Ping! Ping! The messages arrive by email, by text message and via Facebook, after hours and at home, a veritable 24/7 outpouring of sub-intellectual sludge that begins to feel overwhelming in its toxicity, even though I have specifically asked for it. How must it feel when you can’t turn off the tap?
“As a comedy writer and performer, my default mechanism is to see the humour,” says Gale, 48, who somehow juggles a career as a Melbourne-based comedian with her deadly serious Kids Free 2B Kids campaigns to tighten advertising codes for children and restrict their exposure to pornography. “The vitriol is always unexpected, and for a few beats I do have to process the information. But then I take a deep breath and send it straight to my “comedy” file. I know there’s some fabulous material sitting there, and trust me, I intend to use it!”
But she also concedes: “Every now and then, I wonder whether I should be watching my back, but I just shake those thoughts off and get on with it. I’ve never discussed this issue publicly before, because I’m out there encouraging people to speak out – which is paramount to creating change. So I don’t want to put anyone off.”
And therein lies the Catch-22 for women in the cyber-firing line. On the one hand, they believe it is essential to expose the level of abuse and misogyny that has flourished on the largely unregulated new media. On the other, they fear the only effect that would have is to discourage women from participating in public debates.
Says Tankard Reist, who occasionally re-Tweets or posts particularly vile comments: “I want to expose these people so my followers [on Twitter or her website] can see the battle we have, the ingrained hatred and contempt these people have for women… But I already know of young women who say they won’t write their own pieces or contribute to comments pages anymore because of the feedback they get.”
Although she condemns the sort of abuse thrown at men like Cummins and controversial male commentators like News Limited journalist Andrew Bolt, Tankard Reist says it is hard to imagine any man being subjected to the levels of personal intimidation – particularly, threats of sexual violence – that are part of life in the new media age for outspoken women.
Of course, there are still a few things the old and new media have in common, including the truisms that sex sells and so does controversy. So if you build a site where there is heated, colourful debate, the hits will come. And in an era where the media and newsmakers are still grappling with how to build stable, profitable audiences online, few moderators or hosts are willing to shut that down.
“Sure, it drives more traffic to a site,” Tankard Reist says of the sort of no-holds-barred slanging matches that often replace serious debate online. “But editors and moderators need to be more vigilant about not allowing their forums to become platforms for haters and trolls.”
Funnell agrees: “There’s a ‘lighten up squad’ out there where everyone says ‘if it’s too hot, get out of the kitchen’. But perhaps the kitchen shouldn’t be so hot in the first place. This is not just about women. It’s about any sort of hate speech that is systematically directed against any particular group, designed to intimidate them or shut them down. It’s about freedom of speech versus speech that defames, threatens or intimidates.”
Tankard Reist, who has an ear for popular culture, chimes in: “When you ask for moderation or regulation, the people who oppose it claim it’s because they believe in free speech. But they want to shut my speech down. It reminds me of the chorus of that song Ode to Women [by Your Best Friend’s Ex]. They all demand their right to freedom of speech, and yet guys like that are using it to sing: ‘Bitch, shut your mouth’.”
In this time I’ve written about issues affecting women and girls, from body image, to eating disorders, to harmful cultural and media messages, to the objectification of women and sexualisation of girls in the media and popular culture. I’ve written about the global subordination of women, the worldwide trade in their bodies, about the sister industries of prostitution and pornography.
I’ve wanted to show just how bad things are for most of the world’s women and girls.
But I’ve also tried to point to rays of hope and ways forward.
I hope this blog has helped galvanise advocates for women and girls and strengthen their resolve to act to make a difference.
It has taken me amazing places and led me to remarkable people.
I’ve published the work of other women whose contributions have given substance and strength to this blog. I am so thankful to all of them for always saying yes to my requests. I have especially enjoyed publishing some younger women for the first time.
I’ve also so appreciated all who have posted comments. There have been some outstanding contributions here. Your decision to engage in this space has given life to this blog. Thank you again and I hope you will continue to post comments in the New Year.
I’ve learnt a lot. I was always a fairly traditional media kind of girl, having written for mainstream media, along with three books (a fourth on the way). But I’ve seen the power of blogging and of engaging in other forms of new media. I’m a convert (some would say addict!).
I’m taking some time off. But the blog should be up and running again probably late January. Look forward to seeing you here again then.
Do have a lovely Christmas, some down time, and be strengthened for all that lies ahead in the New Year.
Antoinette Jones – Principal – Mitcham Girls High School
“Intelligent, passionate, brilliant, fearless… I could not recommend her more highly”
Dr Michael Carr-Gregg
“You continue to reset my shock meter…”
“As a teacher and parent I recommend all parents, in fact all people, to attend a talk by Melinda- it will open your eyes and awaken your subconscious.”
Heather Douglas – Parent – Pembroke School
“Melinda’s presentations to our parents, staff and full day workshops to students was inspirational, transforming the attitudes and thinking of all involved”
Paul Teys – Principal – Hunter Valley Grammar
“Melinda Tankard Reist’s presentation to Middle and Upper School students at Pymble Ladies’ College was absolutely brilliant!”
Justine Hodgson – English Faculty, Pymble Ladies’ College
“Melinda Tankard Reist has had a transformational affect on our school.”
Ms Stephanie McConnell, Principal – Turramurra High School
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