Never Again? Addressing Sexual Violence Must Include Pornography

[Warning: this article contains graphic descriptions.]

Melinda Tankard Reist is a writer, speaker and co-founder of Collective Shout. She co-edited Big Porn Inc: Exposing the Harms of the Global Porn Industry and Prostitution Narratives: Stories of Survival in the Sex Trade.

"Women must be safe everywhere. On the street, walking through a park, in their homes, at work. We need to ensure that we have a culture of respect of women. We must never, ever, ever tolerate violence against women. Eurydice Dixon - we grieve her loss, we mourn with her family and we say never again."
- Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull
"Women in Australia have the right to freedom of movement. It is not the fault of women if they chose to walk home from transport to their house. All of this violence is ultimately preventable and we need to tackle the enablers of violence, we need to change the attitudes of men."
- Opposition Leader Bill Shorten

She is on the run. Desperate, frantic. Wearing a head scarf, her deep dark eyes brim with worry and fear. She epitomises woman in flight, the kind of women filling our television screens, the ones with small children clinging for dear life to their mothers.

She is a woman who should evoke pity. Our hearts should lurch, we should fear for her; she is so vulnerable. Will she make it to the end of her journey unharmed?

But now, as though not terrorised enough, she is subjected to an affront so devoid of empathy it is difficult to believe. She is to be turned into porn. Refugee Porn. A displaced woman running from oppression into oppression.

"Tons of free Refugee porn videos!"; "All the hottest refugee porno movies for free!"; pick your preferences: "Syrian," "Timid Arabians," "21-year-old refugee," "Hijab pregnant porn" - and lots more. Unveiling and violating "exotic" women who are normally covered, appears to be a particular turn-on.

Refugee Porn attracts up to 800,000 search requests monthly. Sharp increases in searches for refugee porn in Germany have seen new studios springing up to service this demand, which correlates to the large number of refugees Germany has welcomed.

While some videos use porn actresses depicting refugee women, it is believed that actual refugee women are also used. Either way, the sex industry's aim is to convey and profit from a story-line - or terror plot - based on the eroticised subjugation of refugees humiliated for "dinner money."

While looking into this genre - and trying to remain sane - I noticed the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader in rare bi-partisan agreement following the death of Eurydice Dixon: saying that we must not tolerate violence against women, and that we must tackle the enablers of that violence. We are hearing pronouncements like this more and more. But while there are many enablers of violence against women, there is a particularly monstrous one that rarely rates a mention. It is the global industrialisation of the bodies of women - among them, the most powerless - as fodder for men's consumption. As Abigail Bray writes in Misogyny Re-loaded, porn and rape culture means "inhabiting a paradoxical space where the rape and murder of women is prohibited but everywhere eroticised and the object of laughter."

Enabling sexual violence

Pornhub is the world's largest provider of porn content. It attracts 80 million visits a day. The company, now owned by MindGeek, is headquartered in beautiful Montreal, where its more than 1,000 employees toil day and night to bring you the best scenes of suffering on the market.

Pornhub is both a repository and disseminator of hate propaganda. It hosts evidence of crimes against women for men to enjoy. Popular videos depict brutal sexual violence against women. Sadistic titles revel in women's inability to stop the violent assaults carried out against them. The most violent have views in the millions. Many titles are centred around the sexual abuse and rape of teen and underage girls. Men are fantasising about raping young girls with impunity while government, children charities and advocacy groups try to tackle an epidemic of child sexual abuse.

Cultural norms are taught through pornography. When boys learn early to enjoy, take pleasure in, laugh at, and get off on torture and humiliation videos, when they are fed a diet of rape porn and racist sexual abuse, does the avalanche of violence against women come as a surprise?

James Ogloff, an experienced clinical forensic psychologist, was recently quoted in The Australian: "In serious sexual offending, the motivation is often a deviant sexual interest. It is very much a sexual motivation." That deviant sexual interest has to come from somewhere. Pornhub features in the top five favourite sites of boys aged 11-16, according to ChildWise UK. Rape is on the menu for boys whose sexuality is still being formed. They see, and are taught to be aroused by, girls who are choking, sobbing, vomiting, their eyes popping, having their skin bruised, being called abusive names, slapped, kicked, pounded, hair ripped out.

Tell me this is not enabling.

Sarah Champion, the Labour MP for Rotherham, whose constituency was at the centre of a child sexual exploitation scandal, produced the 2016 Dare2Care Report in which she quotes one young boy who asked: "If I have a girlfriend, do I need to strangle her when I have sex with her?" Indiscriminate porn exposure acts as a kind of social grooming for this generation of boys. Girls morph into porn fantasy sex props.

Thus the number of sexual offences recorded in the Republic of Ireland has doubled since 2003: an increase of 87%, two thirds of which has occurred in the past three years. Authorities in Ireland are linking the sex crimes to pornography - especially among teenage boys. In 2016, one in five rapes in Ireland was committed by a juvenile. Eileen Finnegan is the clinical director of One in Four, a national organization that aids and counsels the victims of sex crimes and also treats offenders. All the sex offenders in treatment began offending at 10 or 11 years of age. They developed what Finnegan calls "a deviant interest" in sexual violence. And they are getting their sex education from pornography. "The escalation is astonishing," says Eileen Finnegan, regarding the rise of rape porn and its access by children.

The UK has also made the connections. In the foreword to the 2012 report Basically ... Porn is Everywhere, Deputy Children's Commissioner for England Sue Berelowitz highlighted violence done to girls by porn-influenced boys:

"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."

France is also observing the links between porn exposure and violence against women. "I am surprised that we are astonished at the violence done to women today without attacking the roots of the evil," says Professor Israel Nisand, gynaecologist and President of the French National College of Gynaecologists and Obstetricians. On 15 June, with several health professionals, Nisand launched a "solemn appeal" to the government to fight against the mass distribution of pornographic images, to which children are exposed. "We observe a policy inertia," he said. We see the same policy inertial here.

The dehumanization of girls

Personal accounts of the lived experience of women and girls dealing with porn-conditioned boys and men demonstrate pornography's dehumanizing power. I've written previously about my encounters with girls who tell me about boys demanding sexual favours, demanding sex acts they don't like, being pressured to provide naked images, being ranked on their bodies compared to the bodies of porn stars.

As British writer and activist Sarah Ditum has observed, "The pornographic vocabulary of sex as the violent debasement of the female body had seeped out from screens and into the lives of women." And it is no longer only porn "performers" who are taking the hit of porn (whose experiences are shamefully still largely ignored), it is women and girls everywhere, every day.

Growing numbers of young women are saying that their partners are initiating the signature sex acts of pornography: ejaculating on faces and bodies, deep-throating fellatio and anal sex. "Rosie Redstockings" - a young student at an English university - describes her experience of porn-conditioned men. She writes:

"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."

Then there's the 16-year-old girl who describes oral sex as "the new kissing":

"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."

A recent study found girls were being coerced into anal sex they didn't want and which they found painful. The main reason they gave for engaging in the act was that boys "wanted to copy what they saw in pornography." Younger girls who spoke to British MP Sarah Champion for her report, told her they believed it was obligatory to have anal sex or to be shared between a partner's friends if they wanted a boyfriend to remain faithful.

Alison Pearson relays a conversation with a GP who described anal tearing from porn-inspired anal sex, increasingly happening to adolescent girls:

"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 being coerced into violent sex by some kid who picked up his ideas about physical intimacy from porn."

At a time when the surreptitious filming of women and girls is increasing - known as "upskirting" and "downblousing" - hidden cameras is another rising porn genre. The appeal, as shown in the titles, is that the woman or girl doesn't know she is being filmed: "Girlfriend doesn't know she is being recorded"; "My 19 YO Roommate undressing - My first time spying on her" and so on ad nauseam.

It is a criminal offence to film people when they have a reasonable expectation of privacy, but men are placing hidden cameras in toilets, changing rooms and rental properties. We only hear about the ones who are identified and charged. These men will face court while Pornhub hosts and profits from the videos they created. Meanwhile, Amazon Australia has been exposed for selling a how-to guide for taking "creepshots" of women, implicitly fuelling the practice.

Porn consumption and sexual aggression

There is a growing body of literature testifying to the way that boys who take their sexual cues from porn develop sexist attitudes and aggressive behaviours, which then have "trickle down" effects on women and girls.

Porn use is linked to higher rape acceptance attitudes. A major 2012 systematic literature review found that adolescent consumption of internet pornography was linked to attitudinal changes including acceptance of male dominance and female submission as the primary sexual paradigm, with women viewed as "sexual playthings eager to fulfill male sexual desires." Adolescents intentionally exposed to violent sexually explicit material, the review found, were six times more likely to be sexually aggressive than those who were not exposed. Similarly, in a 2015 meta-analysis examining the link between pornography consumption and sexual violence, the authors found that consumption of pornography was associated with increased likelihood of committing actual acts of sexual aggression.

The evidence of this is all around us. One in four young Australian men believe it is normal for men to pressure women into sex. In the UK, one in three girls have experienced unwanted sexual touching at school, while 71% hear the terms "slut" or "slag" used to describe female students on a weekly basis.

In Australia there has been a notable increase in reports of child-on-child sexual assault, with porn being cited as a key factor turning children into "copycat sexual predators." At the other end of the age-spectrum, a secret Australian Facebook group called "Blokes Advice" deals in porn-laced threats of violence and vilification. The 200,000 male group members entertain each other with graphic descriptions of gang rape, revenge porn, advice on how to force women into anal sex and incitement to bombard women with porn. Men defended the multiple threatening and violent plots against women as "a bit of a laugh."

Likewise, The Red Zone - a 200-page report into the culture of sexual assault and harassment at many Australian university residential colleges, released earlier this year - details decades of institutionalised hazing and misogyny, including male students masturbating into the shampoo of female residents and an initiation ritual involving "male residents breaking down the doors of women's bedrooms, resulting in one student being taken to hospital."

Not liberation

A new documentary titled Liberated: The New Sexual Revolution, is currently screening on Netflix. It exposes the brutal reality of what happens during Spring Break, when American and international students converge on places like Florida and Cancun in Mexico. The sense of male entitlement is chilling. It feels like watching a mass pack assault, with every woman viewed as meat and conquest.

Male students are on the prowl, predators looking for the next girl to grope; they pull down a girl's top (chanting "Tits out for the boys!"), ply another with alcohol, hustle for sex and, in some cases, out in the open in full daylight, participate in gang rape to a cheer squad of men capturing it all on their phones. Young men are not only becoming inured to suffering - they are turning it into home-made ritual humiliation films to share with their friends.

Sadly, the girls have come not to expect better treatment. There's a price to be paid in not complying: when a girl says "no" and walks away, she is abused and derided. (One begs "Help me" as she tries to escape an aroused cabal who are poking and prodding her and trying to relieve her of her bikini). The boys are taken aback by resistance to the imposition of their unwanted hands and grinding penises. The college boys, for their part, make no secret of their porn consumption. They revel in it. And they enact what they have learned on screen on the bodies of real women.

With sexuality increasingly equated with the consumption of cruelty and brutality, with boys learning to equate the dehumanization of girls and degradation of their bodies with pleasure, with girls treated as masturbatory props, there can be little doubt that will see more of what Di McLeod, director of the Gold Coast Centre Against Sexual Violence (GCCASV), is witnessing. She 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 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.
"There is a cost in the trickledown effect that some of us 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."

Trying to tell boys it is time for a sexual re-assessment, or lecturing them on "consent" and "respect" simply cannot compete with the indoctrinating effect that porn has on boys. They've learned from porn to gain pleasure in violation. As Glosswitch has observed:

"They can sit in a classroom and be informed about the rights and wrongs of [consent]. They can be encouraged to think, in abstract terms, about the Woman as Person. But that is not how they encounter her in the media, nor in the minds of fellow men. Deep down, they know that their 'right' to access hardcore pornography and purchase female flesh is inviolable. The Woman as Person narrative is subordinate to the one telling them that the ultimate human right is a 'real' man's right to f**k."

We need to talk to boys about how pornography depicts sexual violence against women, and explain to them that consuming porn is not only an affront to women and girls generally, it risks hijacking their sexuality and shaping it into something that will affect their ability to experience intimacy and pleasure without violence.

A culture built upon violation

There is thus a disturbing disconnect between condemnations of violence against women that invariably follows horrifying events like the rape and murder of Eurydice Dixon and the utter silence about the role played by pornography in enabling that violence. Failing to address pornography as a driver of male violence gives future porn-inspired perpetrators a leave pass to commit it.

ABC journalist Jill Meagher was murdered in 2012 by serial predator and rapist (and consumer of rape porn) Adrian Bayley. In a Facebook comment posted on 23 June (quoted with permission), Jill's bereaved husband Tom Meagher observed the inexplicable reluctance to locate porn in the "Rape Culture Pyramid":

"It's so frustrating to see this issue ignored in mainstream conversations about male violence against women ... Generally I quite like these type of images [like the "Rape Culture Pyramid"] as a visual tool, but I have to ask, is it through moral cowardice or deference to the profiteers and guardians of sexual capitalism that you never see any mention of any facet of the sex trade in these pyramids? How on earth can anyone with a straight face claim that the ubiquity of violent porn doesn't have as much of an influence on the normalisation of female objectification and of sexual violence as locker room talk or catcalling and how can they fail to see the relationships and interplay between all of these problems (with porn acting as a deeply regressive sexual re-enforcement of the cultural misogyny that all of those other problems exemplify)? And if they do see it, then say it! It's like we can challenge any institution of patriarchy and male violence against women as long as it doesn't impact men's right to sexually access women and dictate the terms of pornographic content through endless male demand for boundary violations and increasingly younger (or younger presenting) women. If we can criticise ordinary men for failing to address violence against women (as we should), then surely we should be criticising the billionaire profiteers of this massive woman-hating industry as well as the millions of men who contribute to its ever increasing violence on a daily basis. This is a sign of a culture refusing to face [its] problems. The huge [pre-ponderance] of violence against women and dehumanising language in mainstream pornography doesn't come from nowhere, so who is it helping to pretend it's not a reinforcing influence on men who use it, the women in their lives and the wider culture that frames it and is framed by it? I'm so tired of hearing 'it's not porn itself, it's our culture' - well of course. Our culture is built upon and sustains itself on violation, porn is informed by that, but also informs and reinforces this ideology. That's how this s**t works. Violations that are mass produced, mass consumed, normalised and specifically tailored to male demand at the expense of women need to be confronted, not hidden from scrutiny for fear of alienating the 'good' men who get off on those violations, citing 'harmless fantasy' as an obfuscating sanitisation of filmed abuse. I'm baffled by intelligent people who defend this behemoth of sexual capitalism with a limp defence of 'some people choose to do it' - I mean, that is not a structural or cultural analysis, it's anecdotal whatabboutery that neither addresses the problem nor even recognise there is one. Why can't people be braver about discussing this honestly?"

If we truly care about confronting the enablers of violence against women and girls, we must tackle porn's role as, in Meagher's words, "a deeply regressive sexual re-enforcement of the cultural misogyny." If we don't, I fear that all the talk about addressing enablers and creating a safe culture for women is mere rhetoric and cant, devoid of meaning.

Melinda Tankard Reist is a writer, speaker and co-founder of Collective Shout. She co-edited Big Porn Inc: Exposing the Harms of the Global Porn Industry and Prostitution Narratives: Stories of Survival in the Sex Trade.

'Reprinted with permission of the author' See article here.

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