études féministes/ estudos feministas
Sexualisation, objectification, pornification: the detrimental impacts of porn culture on women and girls.
Melinda Tankard Reist
The proliferation of and easy online access to hypersexualised imagery is having significant negative impacts on children, with increases in child-on-child sexual assault and problem sexual behaviours. This is a public health crisis that flows into the lives of girls and women as they are subject to the porn-inspired expectations and demands of boys and men. The wallpaper of pornographic themes makes healthy sexual exploration almost impossible. Instead of respect, intimacy and authentic human connection, children are learning about cruelty, humiliation, conquest, domination. Girls’ and women’s bodies are bearing the physical scars of this social experiment.
Key-words: sexualisation, pornification, women´s bodies
Porn themed collage by five-year-old boys...
At a Catholic primary school in Sydney, Australia, two scantily clad women in provocative poses were pasted into a collage, with one little boy’s face pasted between the busty blondes at breast height. The class of six-year-olds had been asked to prepare an in-class assignment using the pic collage photo editing app. This is what one group of little boys presented to their classmates. They did not think they had done anything wrong.
The assistant school principal showed me this image on her phone. I had just given the keynote address on the impact of sexualisation and pornography exposure on children and young people at a conference of school leaders in New South Wales. I could understand why she felt perplexed. Everywhere I go, in every school I address, I heard stories of children acting out what they have seen in the hypersexualized environment in which we struggle to raise them. Should we be surprised, though, when Porn Hub now features in the top five favourite sites of boys aged 11-16, according to ChildWise UK (2015).
Parents, educators, child welfare groups, and healthcare professionals are all struggling to deal with the proliferation of hypersexualised imagery and its impacts on our most vulnerable; children. While they are still developing emotionally, physically and sexually, pornography is becoming a template for sexual activity, for body image, for romantic relationships. I’m told about children playing ‘sex games’, touching inappropriately, requesting sexual favours, showing others porn on their devices, exposed to porn pop-ups on children’s websites, or distressed by explicit images they come across while googling an innocent term.
We have a public health emergency on our hands, a new assault on women and girls disguised as entertainment, freedom of expression, and sexual liberation. I want to explore here how pornography is seeping into the lives of children and adolescents, and how the lives of young women are subsequently impacted.
The deluge of online pornography represents an unprecedented assault on the healthy sexual development of children. The wallpaper of pornographic themes makes healthy sexual exploration almost impossible. Instead of respect, intimacy and authentic human connection, children are learning about cruelty, humiliation, conquest, domination. Girls’ and women’s bodies are bearing the physical scars of this social experiment.
There are chilling indicators that the problem will worsen if we don’t take collective action to address it.
“She’s the ugliest thing I have ever seen…”
In 2016 the Parliament of Australia held an Inquiry into the harm being done to Australian children through access to pornography on the Internet. The submission of the late Emeritus Professor Freda Briggs is deeply disturbing. We read case after case of children acting out porn inspired acts upon other children. Briggs warned that online pornography was harming children, with proven links to child sex abuse, paedophilia and child-on-child sexual abuse. She cited a distressing litany of attacks on children by classmates. A six-year-old boy who forced oral sex on kindergarten boys in the school cubby house. A four-year-old boy who needed a chaperone to stop him assaulting others in ‘sex games’ at a South Australian kindergarten. A group of boys who followed a five-year-old girl into the toilets, held her down and urinated on her in a ‘golden shower’ (Briggs 2016:11)."
Professor Briggs warned that Australia is seeing an increase in child on child sexual assault, with porn cited as turning children into ‘copycat predators’. And Sydney academic Dr Helen Pringle wrote in 2016 about the way boys are not only inured to the suffering of girls and women, but can themselves be the perpetrators, as in this disturbing account:
A notorious incident in Werribee in 2006 involv[ing] a gang of twelve young boys calling themselves the ‘Teenage Kings of Werribee’, who made a dvd in which they urinated on a girl with intellectual disabilities and set her hair on fire in the course of sexually assaulting her. In the dvd, one of the boys laughs to the camera: ‘What the [text redacted by parliamentary committee], she’s the ugliest thing I have ever seen.’ The boys then posted segments of the dvd on youtube…
In April 2007, eight of the young men involved in the incident appeared in the Melbourne Children’s Court charged with assault, manufacturing child pornography and procuring sexual penetration by intimidation. The boys’ main reaction was and continues to be laughter: in 2009 one of the boys who had not been charged posted a rap song on youtube which named the victim and laughingly reiterated elements of the crime while criticizing the [redacted] ‘who judge us’ and saying that they could all ‘get [redacted]’.
Deputy Children’s Commissioner for England Sue Berelowitz highlighted violence done to girls by porn-influenced boys. In the foreword to the 2012 report Basically … Porn is Everywhere (Horvath, Alys & Massey et al.) she writes:
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.
“Porn before their first kiss…”
Boys are having their sexual arousal conditioned by depictions of extreme cruelty, seeing women being assaulted in every orifice by groups of men. Children can access violent depictions of sex, torture, rape and incest porn. And all this before their own first sexual experience – even their first kiss. The average age of first exposure is 11 years, with 100% of boys by the age of 15 and 80% of girls by age 15 reporting that they have been exposed to violent, degrading pornography online (Horvath, Alys & Massey et al. 2012).
Sarah Vine, a columnist for The Daily Mail, decided to find out for herself what children could freely access online in 2015. Horrified, she relates the following:
I witnessed just under an hour of total subjugation of a woman who, at the end of it, was barely conscious and had to have her head held up by the hair by one of the men for the parting shot. This video had clocked up half a million views, 86 per cent of whom had clicked the ‘like’ button.
Sex offences by school-aged children have quadrupled in Australia in only four years. The Australian Psychological Society (APS) estimates that teenage boys are responsible for around 20% of rapes of adult women and between 30% and 50% of all reported sexual assaults of children (2016). The APS is convinced that online pornography is involved in fueling such attacks.
Researchers Etheredge and Lemon (2015) provided these troubling statistics in their submission to the Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence:
- Intra-family sexual violence or sibling on sibling violence is the most common assault pattern of children being treated for Problem Sexual Behaviours (PSB).
- Online pornography is regularly accessed by children who are being 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.
Indiscriminate porn exposure has come to be a form of social grooming for this generation of boys. There is a growing body of literature revealing how boys who take their sexual cues from porn can grow up to develop sexist attitudes and aggressive behaviours. **
Women as playthings, ready and willing…
The landmark 2012 systematic literature review by Owens and colleagues gathered research from around the world on adolescents and porn. Their conclusions were disturbing. While causative links are difficult to establish, the most consistent finding was that the use of violent pornography among teenage boys is associated with increased risk of sexually aggressive behaviour. We know that women and girls are almost always the victims. Adolescent consumption of internet pornography was linked to attitudinal changes, including acceptance of the primary sexual paradigm of large, muscular males domination small, thin females. As they consumed more pornography, boys more and more came to view sex as instrumental – that is, primarily physical and casual rather than affectional and relational – and the more they objectified women as sexual playthings ready and willing to fulfil male sexual desires. Teenage boys who watched porn were more likely to engage in sexual harassment. And not just misogynist sexual attitudes, but aggressive sexual behaviour was found to be associated with pornography for tens of thousands of teenagers around the world.
This evidence was confirmed by a later meta-analysis examining the link between pornography consumption and sexual violence. Wright, Tokunaga and Kraus (2015) found that consumption of pornography was associated with an increased likelihood of committing actual acts of sexual aggression.
Peter and Valkenburg published a review in 2016 with similar conclusions, emphasising that because of methodological problems, research has not yet concluded a causal link between pornography and sexual attitudes and behaviours. But they showed that the relationship between pornography and sexual aggression was stronger for boys, while for girls (who are much less likely to consume pornography) it was associated with experiencing sexual victimisation.
Boys who use porn are more likely to be sexually aggressive, while girls who use porn are more likely to be sexually victimised.
We are setting more girls up for sexual victimization by allowing the mass porn saturation of boys.
“Oral is the new kissing…”
The bodies of adolescent girls bear the burden of porn-fueled boyfriends:
“When you have sex with a guy they want it to be like a porno. They want anal and oral right away. Oral is, like, the new kissing… the cum shot in the face is a big thing” (South East Centre Against Sexual Assault in Victoria, 2016)
Why would girls engage in anal sex that they do not want and find painful? A recent study tries to explain: “There appeared to be a competition between boys to have had anal sex with girls, while the main reason that young people also cited for engaging in the act is that boys wanted to copy what they saw in pornography and that ‘it’s tighter’” (Marston & Lewis, 2014).
Girls experience not just pain and humiliation, but also anal tearing and potentially incontinence. Alison Pearson wrote of a conversation with a doctor who sees more and more adolescent girls with anal tearing from porn-inspired anal sex (Pearson 2015):
A GP, let’s call her Sue, said: “I’m afraid things are much worse than people suspect.” In recent years, Sue had treated growing numbers of teenage girls with internal injuries caused by frequent anal sex; not, as Sue found out, because they wanted to, or because they enjoyed it, but because a boy expected them to. “I’ll spare you the gruesome details,” said Sue, “but these girls are very young and slight and their bodies are simply not designed for that.” Her patients were deeply ashamed at presenting with such injuries. They had lied to their mums about it and felt they couldn’t confide in anyone else, which only added to their distress. When Sue questioned them further, they said they were humiliated by the experience but they had simply not felt they could say no. Anal sex was standard among teenagers now, even though the girls knew it hurt.
The girls presenting with incontinence were often under the age of consent and from loving, stable homes. Just the sort of kids who, two generations ago, would have been enjoying riding and ballet lessons, and still looking forward to their first kiss, not coerced into violent sex by some kid who picked up his ideas about physical intimacy from a dogging video on his mobile.
This echoes what girls are telling me. Accounts of sexual bullying and harassment, of boys demanding sexual favours, demanding sex acts that girls don’t like, pressuring girls to provide naked images of themselves, ranking girls on their bodies compared to the bodies of porn stars. I documented their experiences in my article Growing up in Pornland: Girls have had it with porn conditioned boys (Tankard Reist, 2016). This struck a nerve around Australia: it is the most read article ever published by ABC’s Religion and Ethics.
But why should we be surprised? Videos of rape, child abuse material, bestiality, fisting, multiple simultaneous penetration, gagging; boys can access this material even as their sexuality is still being formed. Girls choking, sobbing, vomiting, eyes popping, skin bruised, being called abusive names, hit, slapped, kicked, pounded, hair ripped; the best-selling porn genres are those that eroticise violence.
Consider the gravity of what adolescent girls and boys themselves say about pornography (Martellozzo, Monaghan, Adler et al. 2016). Of 15-16 year old boys , 42.3% said that pornography has given them ideas of sexual practices that they would like to emulate. Just over half of boys (53%) believed that the pornography they had seen was realistic, compared to 39% of girls. Many girls said they were worried about how porn would make boys see girls and the possible impact on attitudes to sex and relationships. Girls report feeling worried that boys who have seen porn will see girls and how they would expect girls to behave sexually: “It can make a boy not look for love just look for sex and it can pressure us girls to act and look and behave in a certain way before we might be ready for it” (Female, 13).
“Being told my gag reflex was too strong…”
Beyond the teenage years, more and more women say their partners are initiating sex acts from pornography; ejaculating onto faces and bodies, deep-throating fellatio, anal sex. Adult women report more pressure to engage in acts seen in pornography (Guy, Patton & Kaldor, 2012).
Rosie Redstockings (cited in Tankard Reist 2015) describes her and other young women’s experiences of porn-conditioned men. Her account is the most potent I’ve ever read.
I’m 23. Mine is the first generation to be exposed to online porn from a young age. We learnt what sex is from watching strangers on the internet, we don’t know anything else. Here are some of the things that I have experienced:
Being told that my gag reflex was too strong… Bullied into submitting to facials. I didn’t want to. He said [jokingly] that he’d ejaculate on my face while I was asleep. He wasn’t joking – I woke up with him wanking over me… Bullied into trying anal. It hurt so much I begged him to stop. He stopped, then complained that I was being too sensitive… He continued to ask for it… Constant requests for threesomes… Constant requests to let him film it… Every single straight girl I know has had similar experiences. Every. Single. One. Some have experienced far worse. Some have given in, some have resisted, all have felt guilty and awkward for not… giving him what he wants.
While sexual violence continues to rise, porn as a drive of this violence continues to be ignored or downplayed. Statistics. From the Our Watch campaign in 2016 come these unsettling facts: One in five Australian women has experienced sexual violence. Each year more than 300,000 women experience violence, often sexual violence, from someone other than a partner. Eight out of ten women aged 18-24 were harassed on the street in the past year.
“No means yes and yes means anal…”
Di McLeod, Director of the Gold Coast Centre Against Sexual Violence (GCCASV), a woman with a quarter century of experience at the coalface, wrote to me:
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 being 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.
I shared her letter on air during a bruising encounter as a panelist on ABC’s ‘Australians on Porn’ program. I was laughed at and mocked for trying to raise issues of misogyny, racism, rape and violence in popular porn genres. Another panelist, sexologist Jacqueline Hellyer, said, “I’d rather we didn’t [hear this]. It’s just irrelevant.” One proud porn user shouted “Stop talking about the facts!”
Later, Di McLeod responded:
There is a cost in the trickledown effect that some of bear witness to every day … GCCASV has experienced a 56% increase in referrals from emergency departments of local public hospitals in the past year. Women have been hurt, sustained vaginal, anogenital and other physical injuries in the perpetration of forced sexual contact… It is rare for us to have a recent rape presentation that involves only vaginal penetration. Porn inspired sex signature acts of anal, deep throating, the money shot accompanied by choking and strangulation are the new ‘norm’. Despite the sexologist saying rape and sexual assault are not relevant it is central to the women and young women whose lives have been negatively impacted.
The ABC’s panel show pretended that pornography is just about “sex”. Actually it is a multi-billion dollar global industry. While the host of this show was posing for photographs with porn stars’ hands on his crotch, the porn industry was thriving on a dominant cultural narrative that porn is good for us.. Meanwhile, when boys learn to laugh at and get off on torture and humiliation videos, when they can access rape porn and death porn, is the avalanche of violence against women any real surprise?
Feminists can and must persevere with our focus on the association between sexual aggression and pornography, particularly in the face of renewed efforts by Big Porn and its apologists to promote pornography as fun, modern, and even ‘feminist’.
But adolescent girls are not so easily fooled. Research finds that girls are negative about and even repelled by pornography, labelling it “dumb and gross” (Peter & Valkenburg, 2016). There is no evidence that adolescent girls view pornography as ‘liberating’ or ‘empowering’ or even useful. One encouraging sign is the rising number of girls and young women recognizing that porn is hurting them. Josie, 18, is quoted in a recent report with these wise words:
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 (cited in Plan International Australia 2016).
We need to listen to and support young women like Josie to help us reverse the harmful impacts of pornography before it is too late. Girls need to be supported in this view, rather than being viewed merely as masturbatory aids of male gratification. It is time for a new wave of resistance .
Australian Psychological Society. 2016. Submission to Inquiry into the harm being done to Australian children through access to pornography on the Internet, Parliament of Australia. Accessed online at <http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Environment_and_Communications/Online_access_to_porn/Submissions>
Briggs F. 2016. Submission to Inquiry into the harm being done to Australian children through access to pornography on the Internet, Parliament of Australia. Accessed online at <http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Environment_and_Communications/Online_access_to_porn/Submissions>
Childwise UK. 2015. Monitor Report: Children’s Media Use and Purchasing, Norwich, UK.
Etheredge L and Lemon J. 2015. Pornography, problem sexual behaviour and sibling on sibling sexual violence. Submission to the Royal Commission into Family Violence. Victoria. SUBM.0220.001.0001
Guy RJ, Patton GC, and Kaldor JM. 2012. Internet pornography and adolescent health. Medical Journal of Australia. May 21; 196(9):546-7.
Horvath MAH, Alys L, Massey K, Pina A, Scally M & Adler JR (2012) Basically … Porn is Everywhere: A Rapid Evidence Assessment on the Effects that Access and Exposure to Pornography has on Children and Young People, Office of the Children’s Commissioner (UK), 21-12. Accessed online at <https://www.childrenscommissioner.gov.uk/sites/default/files/publications/Basically_porn_is_everywhere.pdf>
Marston C and Lewis R. 2014. Anal heterosex among young people and implications for health promotion: a qualitative study in the UK. BMJ Open 4(8). Accessed online at < http://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/4/8/e004996>
Our Watch. 2016. Facts and Figures. Accessed online at <https://www.ourwatch.org.au/Understanding-Violence/Facts-and-figures>
Owens EW, Behun RJ, Manning JC and Reid RC. 2012. The impact of pornography on adolescents: a review of the research. Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity 19:99-122.
Pearson A. How online porn is warping the behaviour of boys with girls. The Canberra Times April 25, 2015.
Peter J and Valkenburg PM. 2016. Adolescents and pornography: A review of 20 years of research. The Journal of Sex Research 53(4-5):509-531.
Plan International Australia. 2016. “Don’t send me that pic.” March 2nd. Accessed online at
Pringle H. 2016. Submission to Inquiry into the harm being done to Australian children through access to pornography on the Internet, Parliament of Australia. Accessed online at <http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Environment_and_Communications/Online_access_to_porn/Submissions>
South East Centre Against Sexual Assault in Victoria (SECASA). 2016. Submission to Inquiry into the harm being done to Australian children through access to pornography on the Internet, Parliament of Australia. Accessed online at
Tankard Reist M. 2015. Sexual pressure and degradation: This is what porn has done to every single woman I know. MTR blog, April 5. Accessed online at < http://melindatankardreist.com/2015/04/sexual-pressure-coercion-degradation-this-is-what-porn-has-done-to-every-woman-i-know/>
Tankard Reist M. 2016. Growing up in Pornland: Girls have had it with porn conditioned boys. ABC Religion and Ethics, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 7th March. Accessed online at <http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2016/03/07/4420147.htm>
Tyler M. 2016. Submission to Inquiry into the harm being done to Australian children through access to pornography on the Internet, Parliament of Australia. Accessed online at <http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Environment_and_Communications/Online_access_to_porn/Submissions>
Vine S. 2015. I’ve watched the porn our children are looking at on the internet… and we should all be terrified. Daily Mail Australia 14th February. Accessed online at <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2953200/SARAH-VINE-ve-watched-porn-children-looking-internet-terrified.html#ixzz4EGXHi9w8>
Wright PJ, Tokunaga RS and Kraus A. 2015. A Meta-Analysis of Pornography Consumption and Actual Acts of Sexual Aggression in General Population Studies, Journal of Communication 66(1):183-205.
Melinda Tankard Reist is an author, speaker, media commentator, blogger and advocate for women and girls. She is best known for her work addressing sexualisation, objectification, harms of pornography, sexual exploitation, trafficking and violence against women. Melinda is author/editor of five books including Getting Real: Challenging the Sexualisation of Girls (Spinifex Press, 2009), now in its 9th printing, Big Porn Inc: Exposing the harms of the global pornography industry (Spinifex Press, 2011, co-edited with Dr Abigail Bray) and her new release Prostitution Narratives: Stories of survival in the sex trade (Spinifex Press, 2016, co-edited with Dr Caroline Norma).
 Dr Meagan Tyler writes in her submission to the Parliamentary Inquiry into the harm being done to Australian children through access to pornography on the internet (2016): “My own research (Tyler 2010, 2011) regarding pornography production has shown violence to be considered common and acceptable by many in the mainstream commercial pornography industry in the United States (US). Indeed, the leading US pornography industry magazine Adult Video News has openly acknowledged that extreme and violent pornography has become the norm since the mid-2000s (Tyler, 2011, p. 55-58). Bridges and colleagues (2010) have also found very high rates of violence and aggression in US pornography. In their analysis of 304 scenes in mainstream, commercial pornography: “88.2 per cent contained physical aggression, principally spanking, gagging, and slapping, while 48.7 per cent of scenes contained verbal aggression…Perpetrators of aggression were usually male, whereas targets of aggression were overwhelmingly female.” (p. 1065).”
 Our Watch is an Australian Government initiative to drive nationwide change in the culture, behaviours, and power imbalances that lead to violence against women and their children. https://www.ourwatch.org.au/
études féministes/ estudos feministas