By Julia Beazley
Last night, it was my privilege to participate on a panel discussing the protection of young people from the harms of pornography. Hosted by MP Joy Smith (Kildonan-St. Paul), the evening on Parliament Hill featured Dr. Gail Dines, an internationally-acclaimed speaker and author (Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked our Sexuality, 2011). The other panellists were Mark Hecht (Beyond Borders) and Cassandra Diamond (Women’s Support Network of York Region).
Over the last several years, the EFC has made fighting prostitution and trafficking of women and children for sexual exploitation a high priority, and much of my time has been dedicated to researching and speaking about these issues.
As I’ve studied and learned from women who’ve been exploited and prostituted – most from the time they were children – it has become clear to me that trafficking, prostitution, strip clubs and pornography are all interconnected. Unless we are willing to talk about and address each of these, and in particular, the demand that drives them, we won’t solve the problem of sexual exploitation.
This is not about being prudish, or anti-sex. Frankly, prudishness is a luxury we can no longer afford when it comes to contemporary pornography and how it is impacting our children and our society. In fact, if anyone is guilty of being anti-sex, it is the pornography industry that is hijacking the sexuality of a generation with its’ violent, formulaic depictions of human sexuality that are devoid of any sense of intimacy.
We have moved well past the point where we can consider pornography simply a matter of personal choice or preference, because our children are being exposed to violent and degrading material when they lack the capacity to make such a choice.
The material that our children are being exposed to is an entirely different creature than what they might have stumbled across a generation ago. Today’s porn is based in the domination of men and the humiliation and degradation of women.
As Dr. Dines says, “mainstream pornography found on free internet sites is not yesterday’s Playboy – rather it is a multi-billion dollar industry of cruel, body-punishing acts of making hate to women. This is the world your average boy is catapulted into when he types ‘porn’ into Google. “
To be clear, the pornography industry has never respected women or treated them justly – but at least the product men were consuming even a decade ago, in the mainstream anyway, didn’t seem to be dripping with contempt, even hatred for women.
The average age of exposure to pornography today is between 11 and 13 years of age, a time when the sexual template of most children is a blank slate. For many, their formative sexual experience will now be with the material they encounter online – material which teaches them that the primary, if not sole, value of a girl or woman is as an object for sexual pleasure.
Now more than ever, pornography dehumanizes women. In interviews men and boys who regularly use pornography will make distinctions between their use of porn and sex with “real women” or “real girls,” who want things from them and who are too much work. There is an “othering” of women in pornography; that teaches boys and men that those women are somehow qualitatively different in their value from the women in their lives. And, if they are other, less than, less real, then their use and abuse seems justifiable. But that dehumanization cannot help but spill over into real life, teaching boys that the primary function of a woman is to serve as an object for their sexual pleasure. I think it’s probably safe to say that girls are internalizing that same message.
Pornography teaches entitlement – the idea that sex is a need, and that men (boys) have a right to it on their terms at any time; which legitimizes the buying of sex and leads society to accept that there should be a class of women made available for purchase.
Porn feeds the demand for paid sex – which funnels women into prostitution; because the women and girls in guys’ lives won’t allow or participate in the brutal sex acts portrayed in porn, and prostituted women are the one group of women who can’t say no. Men consume porn and seek out the sex they believe other men are having and feel they too are entitled to have. As violence and degradation in porn have become commonplace, this is mirrored in the lived experiences of women in prostitution.
And all of this fuels sex trafficking. Increased demand for paid sex always leads to an increase in trafficking. Trafficking victims are exploited in pornography, and filmed sex acts are sometimes used as a means of coercion and control. Porn is also used to groom and train trafficking victims. It’s time we start, as MP Joy Smith says, connecting the dots.
As a mother of a nine year old boy, I sometimes feel panicked. I think the fact that I am immersed in issues of exploitation only intensifies that panic. I wonder, even with my eyes wide open, will I be able to protect him? I want him to grow up with a healthy understanding of his own sexuality, rooted in deep respect for himself, and in deep respect for women. And so even at this age, I try to talk with him as openly as I can. But I am painfully aware that I can’t be everywhere, at all times.
Boys who are being raised on porn are being robbed of genuine masculinity, robbed of the ability to connect and relate and be intimate in real life, with real girls, then women; they are growing up with distorted and unrealistic expectations of themselves and of their sexual partners. And, as a society, we are only beginning to see the implications of this, with more and younger men addicted to pornography, acting out sexually, and experiencing sexual dysfunction in early adulthood.
We have to get past the awkwardness and discomfort and fear of treading on our kids’ privacy and autonomy and make sure we are aware, engaged and talking to them about it. Because if we don’t, as my friend Trisha Baptie has said, everyone and everything else will.
The internet is feeding pornography into our homes, and to our mobile devices, 24/7, in ever more violent and degrading forms, and into a medium that, frankly, most children know better how to use than adults do.
It is time for Canada to give serious consideration to requiring Internet service providers to automatically block pornographic content, as has been proposed in the UK, and in Iceland, which already has strict laws preventing the printing and distribution of pornography. Currently in Canada, parents can ‘opt out’ of pornographic material by purchasing and installing a filter. The system in the UK, and being proposed here by MP Joy Smith turns that scenario on its head – adults wishing to access pornographic material from their home computers and mobile devices have to ‘opt in.’ And the only one opting in is the credit card and account holder. This is not about censorship. Adults would still be able to watch porn. But the default position would be one that would protect children who lack the developmental maturity to handle the material from accessing it, whether by accident or by intent.
Some argue that filters will never catch everything, or that they’ll catch too much, and there is no doubt any such filter would have to be quite sophisticated. But we have got to err on the side of protecting our children.
Filters won’t be the only answer- they can’t and must not spare us as parents, professionals and educators from having to engage – but they will be a critical tool in the toolbox. We need both a legislative and public health approach in order to effectively address the deleterious effects of pornography on our young people.
If we as parents, professionals and lawmakers fail to address this, we risk a society where boys learn from pornography at ever younger ages that women are to be objectified, humiliated, dominated, degraded, and worse; we risk crippling generations of boys relationally and sexually, and placing generations of girls in increased danger of violence and exploitation.