Not coincidental, in the month of May as we remember victims of family, domestic and intimate partner violence, the dots are finally being joined between porn and negative relationship outcomes for youth in Australia. Survey results from over 3000 young people released this week has shown that the social mores that continue to define youth relationships, along with the significant influence of social media, pornography and porn-inspired popular culture, are poor preparation for young people learning to negotiate sexual relationships. Our Watch commissioned the research to inform the development of a government funded youth focussed campaign, The Line. The report is backed by names such as Natasha Stott Despoja and former AFL player, Luke Ablett. Ablett was reported as saying: “The problem is compounded by the number of young people accessing pornography at a young age. A lot of the porn that young people are accessing is really violent, is really degrading, it’s very much about male dominance. It promotes this idea that if you keep doing it … the girl that you’re with will actually really enjoy it. These attitudes don’t exist in just bad kids from bad families in bad neighbourhoods. These attitudes exist across all socio-economic divisions, across all races, across all religions. The survey also found one in four young men believe that controlling and violent behaviours are signs of male strength. It can seem like a bit of a stretch for some people but the two women we’re seeing murdered every week in Australia at the moment can directly be related back to these attitudes and that’s why they’re so concerning.

For me, this is bitter sweet news. Bitter because I have seen first-hand and been talking about the negative impact of porn on young people for years. The messages offered by mainstream readily-accessible porn are completely counterproductive to safe, consensual, equitable, empowering, loving, mutually enjoyable relationships. Will every young person who views porn process it as harmful and alter their behaviours in a negative way because of it? No. But every young person who IS harmed and / or subsequently acts out against another, is one too many.

Sweet because the tide is slowly turning – professionals with a vested interested in the relational, emotional and social wellbeing of the community are starting to collaborate and communicate on the issue of porn-related harms.

Last week I had the honour of presenting at the Youth, Technology and Virtual Communities Conference hosted by TASKFORCE ARGOS, the child-protection unit of the Queensland Police. I shared a snippet of my personal story: 6-years old on a school bus, viewed porn in a graphic magazine and absorbed messages that set me on a trajectory of concerning ‘orange’ and very concerning ‘red’ flag  age-inappropriate behaviours. I then shared the story mentioned in my last blog about the mum that called me at Youth Wellbeing Project in tears – “help, my 6 year old daughter saw graphic porn on the iPad and then took photo’s of herself doing sexual stuff with her 2 year old brother”.

In my presentation I asked listeners to imagine a script similar to the following:

  • You are 6-years old and you hear the word ‘porn’ in the playground.
  • You want to know what it is.
  • Where do you go when you need to learn something?
  • Google. When a child in Australia Google’s ‘porn’, there is no mandatory filter to block their search.

I then proceeded to show attendees the landing pages of two popular porn sites – YouPorn and RedTube. (RedTube is often found on kids mobile devices at school in primary years). There were no black or pixelated boxes to cover the genitals or blur the action – because after all, it’s ‘legal’ for adults to view this – or is it??  Regardless of whether it’s legal or not for over-18 viewers, the harsh reality is that if a child wants to view more than a landing page, they can click through to an endless stream of porn – often hard-core, objectifying, abusive, degrading and violent – all of which is traumatising to the 6-year old. AND traumatising for the 7 – 18 year old for that matter! In fact, I know adults who would be traumatised by seeing what is readily accessible for any child.

  • Try to think about what viewing porn would do to a 6-year old’s psyche – to their emotions – to their sexual development – to their understanding of what is expected of them in a sexual relationship – to their perception of what ‘age’ it’s okay to engage in sexual behaviours – to their perception of what constitutes as ‘normal’.
  • Then pair those confusing feelings with arousal. Yes, children can be aroused by pornography.
  • Conflicting messages of disgust, confusion, fear because of seeing abuse, fear of getting caught, any number of other negative emotions and arousal.
  • Often accompanied by silence – this child has no one to help them process what they have seen – no prior experience to filter or rationalise confusing images of graphic, extreme, explicit imagery.
  • The viewing in itself, is child sexual abuse.
  • With no intervention, a child can replay the images in their mind – this adult fantasy land can become their reality and the model by which they shape their sexual understanding.

I posed a challenge: Where does our legal responsibility end and our ethical and social responsibility begin??  If Law Enforcement agencies are seeing first hand the rise of child-on-child sexual abuse which is often triggered by copying what is seen online, when are we going to do something to prevent accessibility to Internet Porn?!?

I can’t begin to tell you of the number of school-based police and other professionals in the space of child welfare that spoke with me over the course of the conference about how much they are seeing the negative impacts of porn with the children and young people they work with. Consider also that GPs indicate young teen girls are presenting with internal injuries due to what their boyfriend ‘tried out’ on them.

Critics would argue that anecdotal reports don’t count – that people’s stories have no relevance until it’s documented in peer-reviewed research. One can only surmise the impossibilities of having an ethics committee approve the research of under 16-year olds mirroring what they see in porn, engaging in anal sex and experiencing internal vaginal injuries and anal fissures. Given everything in that statement is illegal, disturbing and gut-wrenching, it would seem that common sense needs to be the prevailing motivator for change.

If we hope to see less incidences of child-on-child sexual abuse, a reduction in domestic, family and intimate partner violence, and more equitable relationships for young people and within the community at large, then yes… it’s well overdue for the tide to turn and for people to take action.

If it’s concerning you – what can you do?

  • Let Youth Wellbeing Project know your thoughts as a parent by completing the Porn + Sexuality Education survey.
  • Take the time to get informed. Read the report put out by The Line. It also gained media covered on News.com.au and the ABC News. And here’s another media article published this week about how porn is killing teen romance.
  • Read the Children’s Commissioner Report from the UK: Basically, Porn is Everywhere: A Rapid Evidence Assessment of the effects that access and exposure to pornography have on young people.
  • If you’re in Melbourne and missed the SBS screening of Love and Sex in an Age of Pornography, go along to get informed on June 18 by booking through Collective Shout.
  • Invite me to a speaking event to create community awareness and learn more about the conversations that need to be had.
  • Ask your school what they are doing to address pornography use within their Relationships and Sexuality Education. The Line report states that: insertion in the national curriculum and delivery by specialist educators is preferable to expecting teachers to drive and deliver relationship education. If your school is not doing anything because they are not confident to do so, Youth Wellbeing Project offers comprehensive resources, cohort presentations, Professional Development and an expanding geographical coverage of qualified facilitators available to deliver classroom lessons that address the impact of porn within a sexual health and wellbeing framework.
  • Ensure you send a clear message to the young people you are in contact with: actions that make women feel frightened, intimidated or diminished are always wrong.
  • Point young people to The Line – a social marketing strategy targeting 12-20 year olds. The Line campaign encourages respectful attitudes and behaviours, challenges rigid gender roles, gender inequality, and sexism, and gives young people tools to rid their lives of violence.
  • Check out resources that help with recognising concerning behaviours, conversations to have with children and young people plus more
  • Download a free Parent e-book: Help! My Kid Has Looked at Porn
  • Sign a petition – the latest one calls on Coles and Woolworths to stop promoting rape culture by removing Zoo from their shelves
  • Send an email to Challenging Porn Culture to lend your voice of support (the website is raw – if you’re a web guru, CPC needs you)

And finally, if you like what I’m doing, please share this blog and invite me to speak at your next event to create awareness and cultural shift. If you don’t like what I’m saying, don’t read my blog. While ever there are children being harmed from stumbling across porn on the Internet, I don’t care for rebuttals. Repeatedly I hear that adults have a right to view pornography – but rarely is it acknowledged that our kids and teens have the right not to be shaped by it.

Adults – the ones who are entrusted to care for children and teens – have an ethical and social responsibility to turn the tide.

Liz Walker

About Liz Walker

Sexuality & pornography educator and advocate. Liz provides consultancy, schools education & presentations, and is sought after internationally.