Collective Shout gives evidence to Age Verification for Online Porn inquiry

MTR + Melinda Liszewski address Social Policy + Legal Affairs Committee

Friday, 6 December 2019 (Canberra)

Members in attendance: Ms Murphy, Mr Ramsey, Mr Simmonds, Mr Wallace, Dr Webster

LISZEWSKI, Ms Melinda, Campaigns Manager, Collective Shout

TANKARD REIST, Ms Melinda, Private capacity


CHAIR: I now welcome a representative of Collective Shout and Melinda Tankard Reist to give evidence here today. Do you have any comments to make on the capacity in which you appear?

Ms Tankard Reist: I am a writer and speaker and campaigner in this space. I'm a co-founder of Collective Shout but I'm officially representing myself right now. We like to protect the organisation!

CHAIR: Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you that this hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and therefore has the same standing as proceedings of the House. The giving of false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as a contempt of parliament. The evidence given today will be recorded by Hansard and attracts parliamentary privilege. I now invite you to make a brief opening statement before we proceed to a general discussion.

Ms Liszewski: Good afternoon. I appreciate the opportunity to address the committee today on behalf of Collective Shout. The outcome of this inquiry and the action taken will impact the most vulnerable among us— that is, of course, children. That is our concern.

Our take-up of technology has been rapid, and our safeguarding of children who are connected to the internet at the earliest of ages has been very slow. I've been researching a website called Pornhub, which I noticed was mentioned this morning by the eSafety Commissioner. The reason I have researched this is it is one of the largest sites in the world. It seems to be very mainstream; it is referenced in a lot of different places. It's one of the top five favourite sites of boys aged 11 to 16. Common themes on this website include incest; rape; abduction; refugee porn; hidden camera footage of women and girls showering, dressing and using the toilet; footage of trafficking victims; and coercing and restraining women into painful sex acts. We know that Pornhub hosts footage of crimes against women and girls. Recently a mother located her 15-year-old daughter, missing for a year, when she found 60 videos of her on Pornhub; that's how they were able to locate her and make an arrest.

I want to share some titles from Pornhub; for anyone in the room or anyone listening online, this is a content warning. I think it's important to know what our kids are accessing. 'Blackmailed schoolgirl' is a video which has a man fondling a young girl's breasts, seen from the viewpoint of a hidden camera. That video will be on the front page of Pornhub at any given time. Another video is 'Indian virgin teen'. The porn industry claims that videos like this are staged, but, based on the blood in this video, I believe this to be a rape. In the video 'Black slave girl brutalised', a young, distressed African woman is trapped in a vice and penetrated orally, anally and vaginally. Another title is 'She hates anal but she will learn to like it'. This is a common theme across pornography and on Pornhub—coercing women into sex acts that they find painful and humiliating. We know that this is impacting young people who are visiting websites like this. Finally—and I don't know why I'm surprised anymore— 'Aboriginal sluts' is the title of another video. Teen porn is a very popular search. Whenever statistics about Pornhub come up, teen porn is very popular. It shows women and girls depicted as underage—or they may in fact be underage.

Pornhub isn't the only way the sex trade has access to children. In Australia the sex trade has been allowed to advertise on school buses. This morning the eSafety Commissioner mentioned camming websites—the live streaming of pornography and prostitution. Sexpo has been advertising on council buses. I'll hold up this photo here. This is the Sexpo bus. This is the photo I took when I was picking up my children from primary school. To the left are the preppies getting on the bus and the high schoolers getting off the bus. In Australia we allow the sex trade to use outdoor advertising. The reason I bring this up is that the URL for a camming website is on that bus, as is the URL for Sexpo. For kids getting the bus, their parents have given them a phone for safety. This is the sort of content they can access. I thought it was important to raise just how mainstream and embedded in our culture pornography has become.

What we've done is perform the most unethical experiment on young people and their sexual development. Research has shown that viewing pornography can influence attitudes and behaviours relating to gender stereotypes, sex and relationships, sexual violence and sexual practices. The harmful attitudes and behaviours are widely recognised as underpinning the epidemic of violence against women in Australia. Porn exposure is also linked with problematic sexual behaviour among children and adolescents.

Age verification is a significant and necessary part of a multipronged approach to protecting children. Yes, we need those other things—parental involvement and education—but this is a vital thing we need. Parents can't do this alone. It's not a fair fight. Based on the evidence I've seen, I have no confidence in the industry's ability to exercise restraint with regard to accessing children, to self-regulate and, indeed, to not be complicit in crimes against women and girls. Any age verification solution must be effective and we can't underestimate the urgency of putting these measures in place.

CHAIR: Thank you. Ms Tankard Reist?

Ms Tankard Reist: Parents and carers share with me distressing stories of how children's ideas of sexuality are influenced by pornography. I want to share some comments that I received in 24 hours on Facebook: 'My 10- year-old granddaughter was approached by a boy while waiting for the school bus and asked, "Do you do arse?"' 'My eight-year-old found a note in her school bag which read, "Ready for sex?"' 'An eight-year-old boy told my eight-year-old girl he wanted to "F you hard".' 'A 10-year-old boy told my 10-year-old daughter that he was going to break in and rape her.' Recently a mother told me her five-year-old son was forced to view porn on a nine-year- old's phone on the school bus. He hasn't returned to school since.

Our children are frequently seeing violent depictions of sex, torture, rape and incest porn. What I've shared above is due to learned behaviour. Our children are not born like this. They're being socialised, by exposure to porn, to think this is normal. Boys and young men are being aroused by violence. They're exposed to the idea that sex and aggression are linked. Porn is destroying empathy. As Professor Michael Flood told the 2016 Senate inquiry, porn is sexist education and rape training for boys. We don't need any more evidence than that provided by Dr Di Macleod, Director of the Gold Coast Centre against Sexual Violence, who told me of a huge increase in intimate partner rape. The biggest common denominator, she said, was the consumption of porn.

I'd like to commend Collective Shout's submission to the Australian Human Rights Commission's recent inquiry into sexual harassment, in which we make the links between pornography, porn culture and sexual harassment in the workplace. We have to ask how serious we are about the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children. The third action plan, 2016-2019, in the national plan included a recognition that there is increasing evidence showing a correlation between exposure to online pornography and the sexual objectification of women and girls, the development of rape cultures and the proliferation of sexual assault.

For too long, governments have been beholden to the vested interests of the multibillion-dollar global sex industry. For too long, governments have offloaded their ethical obligations to citizens like me and my friends, and others working in this space, and to parents, for whom, as my colleague said, it's not a fair fight. The time has come to hold this industry to account and to take immediate measures to protect children.

CHAIR: Thank you very much. The questions that I'm going to ask aren't addressed to either of you specifically, so I'm happy for one of you or both of you to speak. I'd just like to have a discussion with you about the accidental exposure of young people to pornography. Ultimately what's exercising our minds at the moment is that there's no foolproof system that any government's going to come up with which is going to remove all possibility of underage people getting access to porn. We don't want to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. If we end up making recommendations along these lines, we would like to recommend something that's workable and palatable to the Australian community but not something that's designed to cure all ills. As you've indicated, it needs to be part of a suite of measures—involving education and parents, for example. With that in mind, we know that we're not going to stop someone who is hell-bent on trying to search porn out, but what we can do is make a big dent in their accidental exposure. That's a long intro into asking you all: what are your views are about how much juvenile—under 18—exposure is accidental and how much is searched out? Also, in your view, how much—if at all—are our young people preyed upon by the porn industry?

Ms Liszewski: I think the porn industry has gotten away with too much for too long. As I said, they can publicly advertise URLs which lead to hardcore porn sites. They say they don't want to target children, and perhaps they'd say they don't want age verification and that parents must educate and parents must block. Parents can't be there all the time, so to have the sex trade putting out this advertising and not taking any meaningful steps to put any measures in place themselves—obviously there is a big challenge with overseas hosted websites, but I haven't seen any evidence, in particular with the industry in Australia, of trying to stop children going to websites. If I typed in the links on that bus ad, for example, I'd go to a website which asks me if I'm 18. Then I click, 'Yes, I'm 18,' just like any child that's had iPads and iPhones from an early age. So I think that's predatory. I think we've not done enough to stop the way pornography has seeped into mainstream culture, as well.

Ms Tankard Reist: I'm not sure we have the data on how much is accidental and how much is searched out, but what we do know is that the porn industry preys on our young people. I heard a paper delivered at an international sexual exploitation summit in the US two years ago by a professor who had researched the deliberate targeting of boys by the industry—knowing when they're online and on what sites and for how long, and when was the best time to drop porn into their feeds. So while we talk about 'accidental'—and rightly so—I think we also need to acknowledge a lot of it is the child being deliberately exposed. The fact is the porn industry has created porn websites based on, for example, children's most popular cartoon characters. You have XXX porn sites named after a cartoon character that the child might be searching for. That's not accidental. There are many examples like this—of deliberately trying to appeal to a new market, a new generation, of users.

Ms Liszewski: Can I just add one thing. Considering pornography is part of the broader sex trade, there was a strip club in Brisbane advertising on a billboard directly outside a boys grammar school, and it could be seen from the classroom window. One of the teachers there couldn't get anywhere with it; we had to create a petition to stop them being able to advertise on this billboard. Eventually, they volunteered to not use one particular billboard. Again, we shouldn't need a grassroots community campaign to stop the sex trade, in whatever form, accessing kids. To me that should be a given—that children don't have access to it. That's one thing where we can all have common ground.

CHAIR: In your submissions you talk about there being a strong correlation between porn and sexual harassment.

Ms Liszewski: Yes.

CHAIR: I think you can take as a given that we've heard that and read about that many times in the submissions. I'm keen to know if you have any stats or are aware of any studies which examine the issue of the link—if there is one—between pornography and lower academic outcomes for young people, and if there have been any studies in relation to the correlation between pornography and severe eating disorders. There are a number of submissions that have been made to us that talk about one of the societal impacts, particularly for young girls, being body image. I'm keen to know whether we can go the next step and ask whether pornography is leading to severe eating disorders, because we know that that issue is on rise, particularly in Western countries like Australia.

Ms Liszewski: There has been a rise in eating disorders for boys. Girls are affected and always have been affected in this way—influenced—by sexualised imagery in culture and in pornography as well, but boys in recent years have been more committed to bulking up, and steroids and supplements, which are often found to contain an illegal ingredient, are being used by boys, so it's actually harming their health. Whether it's affecting boys academically, I don't know. I feel it's a reasonable hypothesis, since if it's something that boys are preoccupied with and it's something that they are spending their time on compulsively then they won't have the mental space to engage with their studies. My understanding is that, academically, boys are struggling compared to girls, so I do wonder, like you, whether there is a connection there.

Ms Tankard Reist: We know that porn is making girls more conscious of their bodies. They can't compete with porn stars. At the schools I go into, the girls told me they're ranked every day based on their bodies compared to the bodies of the porn stars the boys were viewing the night before. While there isn't an exact study about porn and eating disorders, as far as I know, we do know that porn is having a detrimental impact on the wellbeing, resilience and mental health of our young people, especially girls, who are already suffering significant amounts of body image dissatisfaction and self-hatred. We've been involved in documenting that for 10 years. In regard to boys and academic performance—

CHAIR: Not necessarily just boys.

Ms Tankard Reist: No, sure. Boys are increasingly harmed by these messages as well, as my colleague has said. They think they're inadequate and not able to compete with what they see on the screen. In regard to academic performance, there is a study—I'll get you the source for it—about the impact of pornography on the brain, and particularly on motivation and decision-making. So this will have a negative outcome in terms of academic performance. I can tell you anecdotally that increasing numbers of young men, and by young I mean they're getting younger, are telling me that they are compulsively consuming porn through the night – some for hours and hours a night. Obviously, they are not going to be able to perform at their highest level at school the next day or going forward. I can report to you that, anecdotally, I'm hearing more accounts like that.

Ms MURPHY: Is there any research into whether children—I suspect it would be teenagers rather than the eight- and 10-year-olds—are more likely to be accessing porn on paid sites or on free sites?

Ms Liszewski: I would say it's free sites. I don't know how children would access the paid sites. It's my understanding that for paid sites you'd need a credit card. To use an example I raised earlier about the camming sites, which is a site that can take a payment. Men will sign up and give instructions and the woman follows instructions, and you can see all that play out. So men or even women—anyone—could put their credit card details in but anyone can just observe and lurk on the site and watch everything take place completely free. So the fact that it's free, is unrestricted and is available—even the availability sends the message that it's normal and okay. Having restrictions on things does change social norms and can be helpful.

Ms MURPHY: Pornhub, which we've heard a little bit about today, is a pay-to-access site?

Ms Liszewski: They do offer a monthly payment. I think they remove advertising if you pay a monthly fee, but it is a free site.

Ms MURPHY: You can watch for free.

Ms Liszewski: Yes. What is taking place on Pornhub in plain sight is really quite shocking to me, which is
why I raised it. It was interesting to hear the commissioner raise it as well.

Ms MURPHY: Take it as given that no-one wants children watching the sorts of things that you've talked about. The sort of pornography that you've described—most of it actually occurring, as opposed to being 'acted out'—is illegal behaviour: rape and coercion and all of that. Where do you see age verification, to stop young people from accessing that, sitting within the spectrum of actions that need to be taken to change a culture where those sorts of violent and illegal behaviour—put aside depictions of consensual sex for the time being—are being produced and being accessed?

Ms Tankard Reist: This is a big fight, isn't it? It's a big battle. We have found so much technically illegal content on these sites. My colleague's been researching it full-time for weeks, really—

Ms Liszewski: Yes.

Ms Tankard Reist: and we haven't even read you out the worst content that we've found.

Ms Liszewski: Yes. I trimmed it down.

Ms Tankard Reist: We decided to trim it down, because it's very distressing content. And we expose ourselves to this all of the time. The problem is that we're in a society now where our governments, and rightly so, are spending significant amounts of funds to address violence against women in all its forms and to address the drivers of that violence—to call it out; to encourage boys to call it out and not to be bystanders. So we are addressing that. But that message around respectful relationships and consent is completely undermined by this monolithic, multibillion-dollar, global sex industry which teaches our young people a very different thing. So this message isn't really getting through because, in porn, even if a woman says no she really means yes—the rape myth. It perpetuates these ideas that no actually means yes. I can give you an example from Di MacLeod, who I mentioned earlier, and this is in my submission. She says:
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 ... 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.
So how do those positive messages that we're trying to get into schools compete with what so many—primarily, young men—are consuming for hours at a time? We can't beat that without some help, and that's been the problem for too long—that the vested interests of this industry have been able to continue, and governments have been reluctant to try to rein them in. We would like to think we could find some common ground around protection of children, whose sexual templates are still being formed.

Ms MURPHY: And when you say 'young men', we're also talking about people 18 and above accessing that sort of material.

Ms Tankard Reist: Of course. And the most popular genres are the most violent.

Ms Liszewski: There was research on produced mainstream porn titles which found: 88 per cent of scenes included the choking, the hair pulling, the verbal abuse—acts of aggression—and the woman, as Melinda said, not wanting something but then being coerced into it. It's important to mention as well that, in addition to having the content which, to me, looks illegal, they produce content that re-enacts these things. Do you remember in the media some time ago there was the gymnasts' doctor in the US who abused 80 patients?


Ms Liszewski: On Pornhub there is a produced video which has the narrative of like a news reporter talking about this doctor, and then it goes to the hidden camera footage, which is of a man abusing gymnasts—and it's re- enacted. There's even the name they've given the male in the film: it was Dr Larry Nassar; I think they called him 'Dr Lasseer' or something like that. So the traumatic abuse of women and girls is both used as pornography and then recreated as pornography. There's a saying: 'Neurons that fire together wire together.' So in terms of education: when boys are engaging with this, if it's triggering the arousal pathways then that is going to have a much bigger impact on their attitudes and on what they believe about themselves and women than anything that a school could do.

Ms Tankard Reist: There's even a more recent example with the Indian woman who was raped and violated. There's a whole genre now devoted to her using her actual name.

Ms Liszewski: Her name was trending on, I think, xHamster.

Ms Tankard Reist: Her name was trending.

CHAIR: This is very unsavoury to be talking about, but we're here.

Ms Tankard Reist: Welcome to our life!

CHAIR: No, thank you.

Ms Liszewski: We have to face up to it.

CHAIR: With a lot of these films that are being done, I assume some are by actors and others aren't. Others are real. Can we assume that the ones that are real include women, and, of course, girls—and boys, for that matter, I suppose—being held as sex slaves?

Ms Liszewski: In some cases, that's been the case. Pornhub has had footage of trafficked women. Pornhub is a video-sharing site like YouTube—you can have channels on the site. The professional producers will have a channel and they'll upload content. Anybody can sign up and upload their own content.

Ms MURPHY: Where is it hosted?

Ms Liszewski: I think it's hosted in Canada. It's owned by MindGeek. Ms MURPHY: We heard that earlier, thank you. Sorry to interrupt you.

Ms Liszewski: That's okay. There was a 15-year-old girl who was found by her mother on Pornhub, which must have been horrifying. There were even a recent case where young women—18- or 19-year-old women— were preyed upon by men who offered them modelling. Then, as the connection went on, they convinced them to do pornography. The girls said, 'I don't want to be on the internet.' The men said: 'Don't worry. This will only be on a tape that will be available in some shop in Australia'—because this was in the US—so these girls went through with these scenes. They look produced, and the girls look willing, but, ultimately, these people have been charged with sex trafficking now. Pornhub still hosts all these videos even though the women have sued them for coercion and fraud and even though there have been federal charges for sex trafficking. Again, this is where it desensitises all of us to violence against women—when we're watching it and seeing it play out for others' pleasure.

Ms MURPHY: It's a much broader issue than simply age verification.

Ms Liszewski: Yes.

Ms MURPHY: It's a cultural issue.

Ms Tankard Reist: You'd say, 'Let's start somewhere, because we haven't tried anything yet.' I totally agree with you.

Mr RAMSEY: I want to come back to the age verification thing for a moment. You may not be the right people to ask—I suspect not. I should have asked it earlier, but it hadn't occurred to me. One of the dot points says: '46% of children who had seen pornography online reported that their first exposure was accidental; "it just popped up."' Is anything around age verification for downloading pornography going to do anything about that? Are we saying that those sites are still going to pop up, it's just that now it's going to be harder to get into them when they pop up? Or is what we're talking about going to effectively remove those sites from popping up?

Ms MURPHY: They're not popping up the way they were 10 years ago, are they?

Ms Tankard Reist: Correct. The filtering is better now to stop the pop ups. We still have parents tell us that their nine-year-old son was watching skateboarding videos on YouTube at the kitchen table and porn came up. This is why we say it needs to be multipronged. There will still be exposure, for sure.

Mr RAMSEY: It won't make any difference to that. It will just limit their ability to go further.

CHAIR: The sites that are posting this stuff will have obligations that they can't post it or that it can't be seen unless there's age verification. So it should have a significant impact.

Mr RAMSEY: That's what I wanted to know.

Ms Tankard Reist: It would have to be beyond Australian hosted content, though. That's the problem.

CHAIR: That's right. Will it have an impact on someone that posts something on Facebook or other social media as a 'backyard type' arrangement?

That's a lot harder to deal with, but that's where the social media companies that weren't captured in the UK net could potentially be captured in an Australian net.

Ms Liszewski: That's been the issue with filtering. If you buy a home filter as a parent, it doesn't seem to do anything with Facebook or the content that comes up on Twitter or even, at different times, Instagram. And that's where industry needs to be held accountable. I don't understand how Instagram, for example, or Twitter can say that their platform is suitable for 13 years and over and then allow hard-core porn to be in Twitter feeds and allow pornographers to promote their stuff. How do they get away with that?

Ms Tankard Reist: This would be worth referring to Home Affairs in regard to the recently announced Five Eyes security agreement between Australia and four other countries as part of our intelligence capacities. They've agreed to pressure Facebook and the other major global platforms to do more to crack down on child sexual exploitation material. Perhaps this is something that could be looked at in a multilateral way, because certainly Australia can't deal with this on its own, because that's the nature of this beast, isn't it? It's global. Perhaps there can be more done in intercountry cooperation on these kinds of things because, as you point out, in regard to these platforms, we've got a campaign going on right now as we speak. It's a global campaign directed to Instagram to do something about all of the child predators that we have found on Instagram commenting on the pages of girls who are under age—

Ms Liszewski: Five years old.

Ms Tankard Reist: The youngest we found was five years of age. We've found hundreds of comments and hundreds of predators, and Instagram hasn't properly moderated them. There are pornographic comments, sexually harassing comments, demands for more images and attempts to contact the girls directly. These platforms have to start showing some corporate social responsibility. They have to start acting on community concerns and stop putting profits before the wellbeing of children and the broader community. As you've pointed out, this is one subsection of the problem that we'll try and deal with through age verification, but it certainly needs a much broader and more serious approach.

CHAIR: I think that's all we have time for now. Thank you very much for your evidence. I have been reading all of this material over the last couple of weeks, and it certainly has an impact on you. If you ladies have been doing this for a long period of time, I hope that you have appropriate scaffolding around you both to support you, because it's not particularly pleasant.

Ms Liszewski: Thank you for that. We do.

Ms Tankard Reist: Thanks for saying that. We appreciate it and we do appreciate this opportunity. We wish the committee all the best in its deliberations and we look forward to the final report.

CHAIR: If you have been asked to provide any additional material—and you have, specifically around educational issues—could you please forward it to the secretariat. You will be sent a copy of the transcript of your evidence and will have an opportunity to request corrections to transcription errors. Thank you for your time.

Full transcript available here.

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