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.
“[I want] better education regarding sex for both boys and girls [and] information about pornography, and the way it influences harmful sexual practices.”
These are the words of Lucy, aged 15, one of 600 young Australian women and girls who took part in a just-released survey commissioned by Plan Australia and Our Watch. The survey, conducted by Ipsos, gathered responses from the girls and young women aged 15-19 in all states and territories.
In the survey report, entitled Don’t send me that pic, participants reported that online sexual abuse and harassment were endemic. More than 80% said it was unacceptable for boyfriends to request naked images.
Sexual bullying and harassment are part of daily life for many girls. Young people are speaking out more and more about how these practices have links with pornography – and so they should, because they have most to lose.
Pornography is moulding and conditioning the sexual behaviours and attitudes of boys, and girls are being left without the resources to deal with these porn-saturated boys.
My own engagement with young women over the last few years in schools around Australia, confirms that we are conducting a pornographic experiment on young people – an assault on their healthy sexual development.
If there are still any questions about whether porn has an impact on young people’s sexual attitudes and behaviours, perhaps it’s time to listen to young people themselves. Girls and young women describe boys pressuring them to provide acts inspired by the porn they consume routinely. Girls tell of being expected to put up with things they don’t enjoy.
Some see sex only in terms of performance, where what counts most is the boy enjoying it. I asked a 15-year-old about her first sexual experience. She replied: “I think my body looked OK. He seemed to enjoy it”. Many girls seem cut off from their own sense of pleasure or intimacy. That he enjoyed it is the main thing. Girls and young women are under a lot of pressure to give boys and men what they want, to adopt pornified roles and behaviours, with their bodies being merely sex aids. Growing up in a pornified landscape, girls learn that they are service stations for male gratification and pleasure.
Asked “How do you know a guy likes you?,” a Year 8 replied: “He still wants to talk to you after you suck him off.” A male high school student said to a girl: “If you suck my dick I’ll give you a kiss.” Girls are expected to provide sex acts for tokens of affection. A 15-year-old told me she didn’t enjoy sex at all, but that getting it out of the way quickly was the only way her boyfriend would settle down and watch a movie with her.
I’m increasingly seeing Year 7 girls who seek help on what to do about requests for naked images. Being asked “send me a picture of your tits” is an almost daily occurrence for many. “How do I say ‘no’ without hurting his feelings”? girls ask.
As the Plan Australia/Our Watch report found, girls are tired of being pressured for images they don’t want to send, but they seem resigned to how normal the practice has become. Boys use the images as a form of currency, to swap and share and to use to humiliate girls publicly.
Year 7 girls ask me questions about bondage and S&M. Many of them had seen 50 Shades of Grey (which was released on Valentine’s Day). They ask, if he wants to hit me, tie me up and stalk me, does that mean he loves me? Girls are putting up with demeaning and disrespectful behaviours, and thereby internalizing pornography’s messages about their submissive role.
I meet girls who describe being groped in the school yard, girls routinely sexually harassed at school or on the school bus on the way home. They tell me boys act like they are entitled to girls’ bodies. Defenders of porn often say that it provides sex education. And it does: it teaches even very young boys that women and girls are always up for it. “No” in fact means yes, or persuade me.
Girls describe being ranked at school on their bodies, and are sometimes compared to the bodies of porn stars. They know they can’t compete, but that doesn’t stop them thinking they have to. Requests for labiaplasty have tripled in a little over a decade among young women aged 15-24. Girls who don’t undergo porn-inspired “Brazilian” waxing are often considered ugly or ungroomed (by boys as well as by other girls).
Some girls suffer physical injury from porn-inspired sexual acts, including anal sex. The director of a domestic violence centre on the Gold Coast wrote to me a couple of years ago about the increase in porn-related injuries to girls aged 14 and up, from acts including torture:
“In the past few years we have had a huge increase in intimate partner rape of women from 14 to 80+. The biggest common denominator is consumption of porn by the offender. With offenders not able to differentiate between fantasy and reality, believing women are ‘up for it’ 24/7, ascribing to the myth that ‘no means yes and yes means anal’, oblivious to injuries caused and never ever considering consent. We have seen a huge increase in deprivation of liberty, physical injuries, torture, drugging, filming and sharing footage without consent.”
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. Just last week , Emeritus Professor Freda Briggs argued that online pornography is turning children into copycat sexual predators – acting out on other children what they are seeing in porn.
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.”
I have asked girls what messages they might like me to pass on to boys. So far, these messages include: “Stop telling us we are wet,” “Stop commenting on our bodies,” “Stop demanding pictures,” “Rape jokes are never funny” and “Sex before the age of consent is illegal.”
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. As a recent study found:
“online mainstream pornography overwhelmingly centered on acts of violence and degradation toward women, the sexual behaviors exemplified in pornography skew away from intimacy and tenderness and typify patriarchal constructions of masculinity and femininity.”
It is intimacy and tenderness that so many girls and young women say they are looking for. A young woman told me that on dating sites she lists under “fetish” wanting to stare longingly into someone’s eyes and to take sex slow. She said if she didn’t put these desires in the “fetish” category, they wouldn’t warrant a second glance.
But how will young women find these sensual, slow-burn experiences in men indoctrinated by pornography? Psychologist Philip Zimbardo says of young men: “They don’t know the language of face to face contact … Constant arousal, change, novelty excitement makes them out of sync with slow developing relationships – relationships which build slowly.”
It is wrong to leave sexual formation in the hands of the global sex industry. We need to do more to help young people stand up against warped notions of sexuality conveyed in pornography.
Fortunately, the ill-effects of the pornographic experiment on relationships and sexuality are being named out loud. A groundbreaking Australia-first symposium on the issue was held at UNSW last month, to a standing room crowd, and a current Senate inquiry is gathering evidence of the distorting harmful impacts of porn on our young people.
Most importantly, it’s young people themselves demanding change. Josie, 18, is quoted in the Plan Australia/Our Watch report:
“We need some sort of crack down on the violent pornography that is currently accessible to boys and men. This violent pornography should be illegal to make or view in Australia as we clearly have a problem with violence and boys are watching a lot of pornography which can be very violent … This is influencing men’s attitude towards women and what they think is acceptable. Violent pornography is infiltrating Australian relationships.”
The ground-breaking symposium ‘Pornography and harms to children and young people’ held at the University of New South Wales in Sydney last Tuesday has been declared a major success.
Hosted by Collective Shout, the Australia-first event brought together leading academics, researchers, educators, psychologists and youth and child advocates to examine the harmful impacts of early pornography exposure. Emceed by Andrew Lines of the Rite Journey, speakers including Dr Michael Flood, Maree Crabbe, Dr Joe Tucci and Susan McLean, unpacked the global research as well as examining local experience, to a standing-room only audience.
I also addressed the symposium on ‘How girls are harmed by porn-conditioned boys’ (pic above). I unpacked how girls and young women were affected by porn-using boys in their everyday lives. From my introduction:
The proliferation and globalisation of hypersexualised imagery and pornographic themes has led to destructive ideas about sex and makes healthy sexual exploration almost impossible.
Sexual conquest and domination becomes all important, untempered by the bounds of respect, intimacy and authentic human connection
Young people are learning about f—ing but not about making love.
Young men are being conditioned and shaped by the messages they imbibe from pornography, given a sense of entitlement to the bodies of women and girls. Viewing porn often reinforces the idea that girls are always available for sex.
Girls are under extreme pressure to give men what they want, to adopt pornified roles and behaviours, their bodies merely sex aids. Girls learn that they are service stations for male gratification and pleasure.
I drew from stories girls themselves relayed to me in schools around the country, including demands for naked selfies, boys sending them ‘dick pics’ and porn videos uninvited (including to girls as young as 12), inappropriate touching, sexual harassment, comments about their bodies, being ranked in comparison to porn stars, demands for porn-inspired sexual acts, boys not respecting denial of consent, being mocked or having rumors started about them for resisting unwanted sexual activity.
After canvassing the research on how boys and young women socialized by porn act out on women and girls, I looked at ways forward so that girls can stand up against warped notions of sexuality conveyed in pornography and seek relationships based on mutual respect and care.
I quoted Tiffany, 15, who wrote to me through Facebook:
Hi Melinda. I was really touched by what you had to say and you opened my eyes to what sort of world we live in and as a 16 I’m disgusted and amazed and what girls my age have to go through. You said something about being asked for nudes and that and personally I didn’t know what you meant by that as I haven’t been asked to do that… Until today. To tell you the truth I wouldn’t of known what to do about it if you didn’t speak about it and I’m very grateful to you. The boy asked me for a photo or video and I said no that’s when he called me lame but I immediately told him I am more than just my body and you shouldn’t treat me like a piece of meat and instantly blocked him. Thank you for telling me that and I hope I have done the right thing and myself and other girls are taking part in taking action on this case and we want to make a difference. I want to help girls feel like they are worth something…
MTR on ABC QLD
There was a great deal of media interest in the symposium, with many speakers giving media interviews throughout the day. Here’s an interview I did with Steve Austin of ABC QLD.
Symposium to hear evidence of online porn harms to children
Sydney – Leading academics, educators and child advocates are set to gather on Safer Internet Day February 9, at the University of New South Wales to discuss the harmful impacts of early pornography exposure on children, including medical problems, emotional harm, abusive mind-sets and risky sexual behaviours.
The ground-breaking symposium will hear a growing body of evidence that children are increasingly being harmed by premature exposure to graphic sexual content online.
The Australian-first symposium will discuss the latest findings from a diverse range of multidisciplinary stakeholders including researchers, child protection experts, psychologists and sexologists. Speakers include:
Associate Professor Dr. Michael Flood (University of Wollongong) on pornography and masculinity
Maree Crabbe (Project Coordinator Reality and Risk) on violence and pornography
“Cyber Cop” Susan McLean (Cyber Safety Solution), on the problem of pornography in schools
Psychologist Dr Joe Tucci (Australian Childhood Foundation), on the links between exposure to pornography and problem sexual behavior including children acting out on other children…
Symposium spokesperson Coralie Alison of Collective Shout, said the community rightly expected children, who were being exposed at an unprecedented rate, to be protected from unsuitable content.
“However, despite the best efforts of parents and teachers, the reality is that children today are just one click away from a deluge of violent, degrading, aggressive content – much of it showcasing the abuse of women.”
According to the research to be presented at the conference:
“There is growing evidence that this is a public health crisis, with a generation of children on the frontline.”
Other speakers include Liz Walker (Youth Wellbeing Project), Dr Caroline Norma (RMIT University), Dr. Helen Pringle (UNSW), Dr Lesley-Anne Ey (University of South Australia), Holly-Ann Martin (Safe4Kids), Hugh Martin (Man Enough), Collett Smart (Psychologist) and Melinda Tankard Reist (Author, Collective Shout).
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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