MTR guest blogger for The Australian Childhood Foundation
This blog article was authored by Melinda Tankard Reist. Melinda is best known for her work addressing sexualisation, objectification, harms of pornography, sexual exploitation, trafficking and violence against women. Co-founder of Collective Shout: for a world free of sexploitation. Melinda is also an ambassador for World Vision Australia, Compassion Australia and the Raise Foundation. She is named in the Who’s Who of Australian Women and the World Who’s Who of Women. – See more
When 5 year olds create porn themed images – in class
The school principal was perplexed.
I had just delivered a keynote on the impact of sexualisation and pornography exposure on children and young people at a conference of school leaders in NSW.
During the break she approached me, opened her phone and revealed an image created by a group of 5 year old boys, at the Catholic primary school she headed in Sydney. It showed two women, scantily dressed, in provocative poses.
The boys, along with fellow pupils, had been asked to prepare an in-class assignment using the pic collage app to make pictures. This is what the boys stood up and presented to the class.
One was so pleased with the work he inserted his face in between the woman’s bodies at breast height. These little boys didn’t think they’d done anything wrong.
This incident is just yet another outworking of the impact of a pornified world on our children.
Children being hurt. Children hurting others.
Everywhere I go I hear stories. Of children using sexual language. Children touching other children inappropriately. Children playing ‘sex games’ in the school yard. Children requesting sexual favours. Children showing other children porn on their devices. Children distressed by explicit images they came across while googling an innocent term. Children exposed to porn ‘pop ups’ on sites featuring their favourite cartoon characters or while playing online games.
Educators, child welfare groups, childcare workers, mental health bodies medicos and parents are reeling. All are struggling to deal with the proliferation of hyper-sexualised imagery and its impacts on the most vulnerable – children whose sexuality is still under construction, children for whom pornography becomes a template for sexual activity, a ‘how to’ manual for future use.
Porn before first kiss
Pornography exposure – for young men at least – is at saturation point. Research has shown some worrying trends related to earlier onset exposure.
According to some sources, the average first age of exposure to pornography is 11 years, with 100% of 15-year-old males and 80% of 15-year-old females reporting that they have been exposed to violent, degrading online pornography.
Children are seeing violent depictions of sex, torture, rape and incest porn. Boys are having their sexual arousal conditioned by depictions of extreme cruelty, seeing women being assaulted in every orifice by groups of men. And all this before their first sexual experience – even their first kiss.
The late Emeritus Professor Freda Briggs, AO, warned that online pornography was turning children into copycat sexual predators. In her submission to the 2016 Senate inquiry into the harm being done to Australian children through access to pornography on the internet’, she drew links between pornography and child sex abuse, paedophilia and child-on-child sexual abuse.
Professor Briggs cited a distressing litany of attacks on children by classmates, including a four-year-old boy requiring a chaperone to stop him assaulting other children in ‘sex games’ at a South Australian kindergarten, a six-year-old boy who forced oral sex on kindergarten boys in the school cubbyhouse and a group of boys who followed a five-year-old girl into the toilets, held her down and urinated in a ‘golden shower’.
Teaching children that sex is about use and abuse
The Australian Medical Association has also spoken out, with vice-president Stephen Parnis saying the internet was exposing children to sexually explicit content that taught that sex was about “use and abuse.”
“There are increasing levels of aggression and the physical harm resulting from sexual acts is becoming more apparent,” he said.
The Australian Psychological Association has added its voice to rising concern, describing the “impact on young people’s expectations of sex, sexuality and relationships [and] increases in sexual violence amongst children and young people.”
Over the past decade, we have seen a growing trend of younger children engaging in problem sexual and sexually abusive behaviours generally aimed at younger children – in other words, children sexually assaulting children… Pornography is providing too many 10-year-olds with the mechanical knowledge to anally, orally and/or vaginally penetrate younger siblings, cousins and acquaintances.
In a submission to the Victorian the Royal Commission into Family Violence, Etheredge & Lemon stated that:
Intra-family (within family) sexual violence or sibling on sibling sexual violence is the most common assault pattern of children being treated for Problem Sexual Behaviours (PSB).
Online pornography is regularly accessed by children treated for PSB each year in Victoria
75% of 7 to 11-year-old boys and 67% of 7 to 11-year-old girls in treatment for PSB reported early sexualisation through online pornography.
Sex offences by school-aged children have quadrupled in Australia in only four years. Authorities cited attribute increased exposure to online pornography for the rise. The Australian Psychological Society estimates that adolescent boys are responsible for around 20% of rapes of adult women and between 30% and 50% of all reported sexual assaults of children.
A growing body of evidence
There is a growing body of evidence demonstrating that children who view pornographic material are at risk of harm to their psychological development and mental health at a critical time in their development.
In 2012 the UK Independent Parliamentary Inquiry into Online Child Protection found that exposure to pornography has a negative impact on children’s attitudes to sex, relationships and body image.
In the foreword to the 2012 report Basically … Porn is Everywhere, Deputy Children’s Commissioner for England Sue Berelowitz highlighted violence done to girls by porn-influenced boys:
The first year of our Inquiry … revealed shocking rates of sexual violation of children and young people… The Inquiry team heard children recount appalling stories about being raped by both older males and peers, often in extremely violent and sadistic circumstances, and in abusive situations that frequently continued for years… The use of and children’s access to pornography emerged as a key theme… It was mentioned by boys in witness statements after being apprehended for the rape of a child, one of whom said it was ‘like being in a porn movie’; we had frequent accounts of both girls’ and boys’ expectations of sex being drawn from pornography they had seen; and professionals told us troubling stories of the extent to which teenagers and younger children routinely access pornography, including extreme and violent images. We also found compelling evidence that too many boys believe that they have an absolute entitlement to sex at any time, in any place, in any way and with whomever they wish. Equally worryingly, we heard that too often girls feel they have no alternative but to submit to boys’ demands, regardless of their own wishes.
A 2012 review of research on ‘The Impact of Internet Pornography on Adolescents’ found that adolescent consumption of Internet pornography was linked to attitudinal changes, including acceptance of male dominance and female submission as the primary sexual paradigm, with women viewed as “sexual playthings eager to fulfil male sexual desires.” The authors found that “adolescents who are intentionally exposed to violent sexually explicit material were six times more likely to be sexually aggressive than those who were not exposed.”
On the issue of sexualisation generally, the biggest study ever, of all the research published in peer-reviewed, English-language journals between 1995 and 2015 found:
consistent evidence that both laboratory exposure and regular, everyday exposure to this content are directly associated with a range of consequences, including higher levels of body dissatisfaction, greater self-objectification, greater support of sexist beliefs and of adversarial sexual beliefs, and greater tolerance of sexual violence toward women. Moreover, experimental exposure to this content leads both women and men to have a diminished view of women’s competence, morality, and humanity.
Sexual harassment and bullying, a daily experience for girls
This exposure shapes and conditions the sexual attitudes and behaviours of boys which plays out in the lives of girls. Young women I encounter tell of sexual harassment, bullying, pressures to send sexual images and porn-inspired sex acts. I documented their experiences in the article Growing up in Pornland: Girls Have Had It with Porn Conditioned Boys (which seemed to strike a chord, becoming the most read article ever published by ABC Religion and Ethics).
We are engaging on an unprecedented assault on the healthy sexual development of children. The proliferation and globalisation of hypersexualised imagery and pornographic themes makes healthy sexual exploration almost impossible. Sexual conquest and domination are untempered by the bounds of respect, intimacy, and authentic human connection. Young people are not learning about intimacy, friendship and love, but about cruelty and humiliation.
If we are serious about addressing epidemic levels of violence against women, we have to address the drivers of that violence. Pornography can no longer be ignored as one of those drivers, by eroticising and normalising violence as ‘sexy’.
Education can help
We can do better than this. As professionals in the field who work with children, you have the passion and influence to offer a counter-attack of education and mentoring. Programs should strive at least for the following. We need to help young people critically analyse porn’s messages and help them understand what they are seeing does not reflect reality. We also need to help empower them to navigate their highly sexualised world, resist unwanted sexual activity and seek relationships based on respect, and authentic human connection.
The pornographic experiment on the healthy sexual development of our children must end now.
An interview with Porn Factor director Maree Crabbe
Maree, there’s lots of things you could make films about. What led you to choose to make films about pornography?
Through my work coordinating sexual violence prevention, sexual diversity and STI prevention programs with young people, I learnt that pornography was becoming a significant source of sexuality education. That inspired me to develop the Reality & Risk project, with my colleague, David Corlett. The project seeks to support young people and the broader community to critique the messages conveyed through pornography, and aspire to relationships and sexuality that are safe, respectful mutually pleasurable and fully consenting. We knew we were going to have to be creative to engage people on such a sensitive and controversial topic. Film is a very powerful medium, and we thought it would be a useful vehicle to support a public conversation about porn and its impact on young people.
Your documentary ‘Love and Sex in an Age of Pornography’ first screened on SBS three years ago. Now you’ve created ‘The Porn Factor’. Why did you think another film was needed?
Love and Sex aimed to open up a conversation in a polarised debate, where we knew many viewers wouldn’t want to hear a critique of porn’s influence. We particularly wanted to engage an audience who didn’t already agree with us. So we used a character-based approach – following the stories of young people and people from the international pornography industry – with the hope that people would be so engaged by the characters that they wouldn’t turn off the TV or switch channels when the story became more critical – and confronting.
Following the release of Love and Sex, we also identified a need for a film that provides a more overt analysis of porn’s impact on young people, for use in adult education – with parents, teachers, youth workers and others involved in young people’s education and care.
We had already conducted interviews with range of experts, including with some of the world’s leading scholars. We drew on these, and our interviews with young people and people from the pornography industry, to produce The Porn Factor.
The Porn Factor wasn’t produced for broadcast, but we’re delighted that SBS has picked it up.
How was the first film received? What are your hopes for the new one?
The first film’s broadcast had great ratings, and some fantastic media coverage. It has now also been broadcast in six other countries. We think it played a significant role in building community awareness and opening up a more complicated conversation. We hope the next film will take that conversation to another level and contribute to the growing momentum to tackle this issue at a range of levels – in homes, schools, communities, and at a political level.
You have also developed an educational resource ‘In the Picture’: Supporting young people in an era of explicit sexual imagery.’ Why did you develop this and what does it include?
Schools are a key site for violence prevention work. They’re also major contributors to young people’s sexuality education. But if they’re not talking about porn, then they’re not equipping students for healthy – by which I mean safe, respectful, mutual and consenting – relationships and sexuality in the 21st Century. More and more schools are identifying the need to address porn’s influence, but they often feel ill-equipped to do so. They’re looking for support.
In The Picture supports schools to develop a whole-school-approach to the issues that is tailored to their unique community and context. Based on the World Health Organisation’s ‘Health Promoting Schools’ framework, it includes a smorgasbord of resources, including resources for policy development, equipping staff, parent and community partnerships, student education and evaluation.
Some of our materials addressing pornography’s influence have also been incorporated into Victorian Government respectful relationships and sexuality education resources, so there is growing awareness at a political level of the need to support young people to navigate this new reality.
What has been the response from schools?
The response from schools has been very positive. More and more schools now feel confident to address porn’s influence as part of their broader relationships and sexuality education. They appreciate that In The Picture supports a tailored approach, so they can develop an approach that is going to work for them.
There are two factors that I think are critical for success – leadership support and equipping staff. Often it is an individual teacher or wellbeing staff member who will identify the need to address porn’s influence, and they can play a really important role. But support from school principals and other senior leaders enables the issues to be addressed at a broader level within the school, and allows staff to feel confident in their leaders’ support. Good professional learning for staff – particularly staff who will be teaching about the issues and counseling and other wellbeing staff – is absolutely critical. These are very sensitive topics, and it’s not reasonable to expect teachers to have the relevant knowledge – never mind the comfort and confidence – to discuss it in class without appropriate professional development. But with good PD and school leaders’ support, teachers describe feeling much better equipped – and often, enthusiastic – about teaching on this topic.
In the eight years you’ve been working to address the impact of pornography on young people, what shifts have you noticed?
The most significant thing I’ve noticed is a growing openness to having the conversation, a greater awareness of porn’s pervasive nature and impact and the need to address it with young people. There are more stories about young people’s sexually abusive behaviours and more conversations about young men with compulsive use of porn. There is now more international research on the subject, for example the UK Children’s Commissioners Report. But there is still a need for more research.
What would you say to parents whose children have been exposed to porn online?
Don’t overreact, keep calm, don’t make assumptions – they may have seen it accidentally. Children are sexually curious, don’t make them feel ashamed. Use exposure as a teaching opportunity, talk about how unrealistic what they have seen is, share your values, what you think is important in relation to sexuality, encourage them to aspire to relationships and sexuality that feel great. (See parent tip sheet in the resource section here.)
What do you say to those who argue concern about porn and children/young people is exaggerated and a ‘moral panic’?
I think moral panic is a term used to dismiss valid concerns. The rates of exposure, the nature of the material they are seeing and its impact on young people are issues we can’t afford to ignore. We don’t want to catastrophise but there are serious challenges we need to address with the level of care and seriousness they deserve. It is naïve to suggest that young people can navigate this space just fine and are media savvy – evidence shows that they aren’t able to navigate it. We need to acknowledge the powerful way porn can shape us, even if we do understand it is unrealistic. Young people need to be taught how to navigate this new territory – this is a challenge adults need to step up to – calmly, clearly, and with an evidence-based approach. Listen to the stories of young women being pressured to engage in porn-inspired acts and young men’s aspirations to engage with what they have seen in porn – the experiences of young people need to be taken seriously.
In your opinion what is the best way we can address this issue as a community?
There is no single solution. The issue needs a multi-faceted, multi-layered approach. We need to have the conversations with young people and develop the capacity of parents, teachers, youth workers and others to have those conversations – people who live and work with young people. We need to help political and community leaders to understand the issue, having leadership that is courageous to take on the not insignificant challenge that this is. It means we need to find strategies at technological level and potentially at a legislative level. Mainly we need to support people to critique pornography for themselves and reinforce that relationships should be respectful and that porn is unrealistic and often harmful.
Watch the trailer for the Porn Factor:
Collective Shout will host the first Victorian screening of ‘The Porn Factor’ June 22 at the Cinema Nova, Carlton, Melbourne. A Q&A with Maree will follow.
Antoinette Jones – Principal – Mitcham Girls High School
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