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Hold pornography to account – not education programs – for children’s harmful sexual behaviour

Young people who had sexually abused others said if they had received more help managing pornography, then they would have been less likely to develop the abusive behaviour. shutterstock

Hold pornography to account – not education programs – for children’s harmful sexual behaviour

Pornography has many negative impacts on children and young people. And increased sexual violence among children is only the tip of the iceberg.

Evidence suggests the majority of young people have been exposed to pornography before the age of 18. The average age of first exposure is 12. What’s concerning, though, is that studies have shown an association between viewing pornography and developing sexually abusive behaviour.

Pornography is a factor in abusive behaviour

Sexually abusive behaviour by other children and young people accounts for about half of all child sexual abuse, and peaks around the age of 12. This issue was the subject of a recent public hearing of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

The age of these young people who sexually abuse is no protection for their victims. The nature of the abuse can be serious and involve threats of violence. High levels of coercion may be required to ensure victim compliance and secrecy.

Our recent study of young people who had worked through a sexually abusive behaviour treatment program confirmed pornography was a factor in their abusive behaviour. Young people who had sexually abused others said if they had received more help managing pornography, then they would have been less likely to develop the abusive behaviour.

They also reported their past education about sexuality was woefully inadequate. This education did not frankly tackle issues of age and consent.

Our study also showed sexuality education was delivered much too late in the trajectory of the sexually abusive behaviour. The community needs to support education programs that can assist children of primary school age, before they engage in sexually abusive behaviour, or are victimised.

The need for education

The Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) recently called on the Victorian education minister, James Merlino, to remove particular audiovisual resources attached to the state’s new Respectful Relationships Education curriculum.

These resources are designed to prevent family violence by helping young people deconstruct the aggressive, male-dominating nature of mainstream porn available on the internet. This often depicts violence against women and girls.

It is entirely appropriate that children and young people are provided with resources to counteract the negative impacts that pornography may be having in their lives, including the increased likelihood of developing sexually abusive behaviour.

With these kinds of resources to hand, many young people can develop the critical thinking skills to differentiate between what they see in pornography and what’s expected in real-life consensual sexual relationships.

However, many children and young people exposed to pornography do not have those skills. This applies in particular to children living with intellectual disabilities, or children who are disadvantaged by living in residential care or living with family violence.

These young people are particularly vulnerable to the distorted messages about sex embedded in pornography. They are vulnerable if aspects of aggression in pornography are reinforced by their life experiences, or link to their own emotions of frustration or anger.

Target industry, not education

The ACL urged Merlino to modify teaching resources to avoid references to sexual activity. But the lobby should instead target its attention at the global, multi-billion-dollar pornography industry.

And it should encourage governments to engage with the telecommunications industry, which is responsible for enabling millions of young people to access pornography. Further work needs to be done in collaboration between governments and telecommunications companies to reduce children and young people’s access to pornography.

The ACL’s criticism of the resources associated with Respectful Relationships Education is destructive and counterproductive. The resources have been developed in response to epidemic levels of family violence, including adolescent violence in the home and harmful sexual behaviour by young people.

The problem of pornography has gone beyond what individual parents, families and schools can handle. This is why it is important to include porn literacy in whole-of-school education delivered consistently across Victoria and supported by a newly trained workforce.

Governments and community members need to hold the pornography and telecommunications industries to account while enabling educators to deal with the mess already created.

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