We applaud the work of sexual consent activist Chanel Contos in exposing the epidemic of rape, abuse and sexual assault against young women at the hands of their male classmates. She has done us all a service in getting the issue on the table in this way and we are indebted to her valiant efforts.
So it is with hesitation that we find ourselves differing when it comes to pornography – a significant and increasing driver in the violence Ms Contos rightly speaks out against.
In a recent interview, Ms Contos argued that pornography isn’t a problem in and of itself. For her, the issue is that kids are being exposed to it from a young age:
The problem isn’t with pornography itself. The problem is the fact that pornography is the main form of sex education for young Australians, and the average age that young Australians access pornography these days is 11 years old, which is just really creepy, to be honest. And beyond that, we don’t have anything on screens of what healthy intimacy actually looks like.
We of course agree that early exposure to porn is having a devastating impact on children. Along with global research, through our work in schools, delivering workshops and working closely with young people, we have seen first-hand just how destructive porn can be. Girls are reporting daily sexual harassment, abuse, requests for nudes, rape threats and assaults by their male classmates at unprecedented rates.
Porn at odds with women's dignity, humanity and equality
While it is true that pornography is the primary form of sexual education for young people, and that porn shapes consumers’ attitudes and real-world behaviours, the harms of porn are not limited to its influence on young people.
The claim that porn isn’t the problem demonstrates a lack of understanding of what pornography is and its role in maintaining gender inequality. Mainstream porn is the graphic, sexualised depiction of male dominance and female subordination. It eroticises male aggression towards women. It is hate speech, anti-woman propaganda and sexual terrorism against women. It dehumanises women as sexual objects existing wholly for men’s sexual use and abuse. Porn is completely at odds with women’s dignity, humanity and equality.
Nobody engaging with the decades of global research on the impacts of pornography could conclude that porn isn’t a problem, in and of itself. A 2010 content analysis of popular porn videos found that 88.2% of scenes contained physical aggression, and that perpetrators were usually male and the targets of their aggression overwhelmingly female. Research has also found pornography consumption is statistically significantly correlated with physical abuse (both victimisation and perpetration), sexual abuse (both victimisation and perpetration), acceptance of rape myths and negative gender equitable attitudes. Dr Michael Flood describes porn as “rape training”.
Porn is also a significant contributor to intimate partner sexual violence and abuse. New research has found that pornography features prominently in accounts of women who have experienced Intimate Partner Sexual Violence. MTR’s latest book, He Chose Porn Over Me, features the accounts of 25 women harmed by porn-consuming male partners. These women described their experiences being subjected to degrading porn-inspired sex acts, being used “like a blow up doll”, sexual assault, and partners preying on their children.
Not just a 'fantasy' for the women filmed for porn
While some dismiss porn as “just a fantasy”, in reality, it is the filmed abuse, violation and degradation of actual human women. For the women being brutalised on camera, it is real.
A pornographic scene featuring a man choking a woman cannot be produced without an actual woman being choked, for the enjoyment of (mostly male) viewers. When acts of sexual violence, humiliation and cruelty are carried out by men on the bodies of women, this is not fantasy – it’s reality. These women matter.
The argument that porn – the filmed abuse of women – is only a problem if misused serves as an endorsement of men’s sexualised violence against women. With this logic, violence against women is tolerable as long as it is for an adult audience, as long as it takes place on a porn set, as long as it is in service of men’s orgasms. It’s just not appropriate for children, and degrading women should be limited to adults.
We can’t achieve gender equality without challenging pornography and its messages. It’s not enough to call out the entitlement or the lack of empathy – we have to address the industry that promotes and encourages this callous behaviour in men and boys, that drives the entitlement and knocks the empathy out of them.
The notion that porn isn't the problem - only kids' early exposure to it - may be a popular sentiment. It means no one has to change their behaviour or consider how they might be contributing to - or creating a demand for - content that harms and exploits women. The porn industry is not held accountable for its human rights violations against women.
So, we must disagree – yes, the problem is with pornography itself. It is not merely that boys are seeing it too young, or that it needs to be balanced with less violent and misogynistic representations of sexuality. We can’t say that men and boys’ sexualised abuse of women and girls in the ‘real world’ is unacceptable, but tolerable if it takes place in front of a camera.
As investigative journalist Jess Hill wrote in her award-winning book See What You Made Me Do: Power, Control, and Domestic Abuse (2019):
There is something to be said about what happens to men and boys who frequently masturbate to the sight of women being aggressively f***ed sometimes to the point of tears and vomiting – when all the while those women are portrayed as liking it. If the National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children sees increasing respect for women as a key strategy to end domestic abuse, the endless wave of misogynistic porn is a heavy tide to swim against.
At Collective Shout, we will continue to challenge this multi-billion predatory industry which causes massive harm – to all of us.
Why “consent” doesn’t stand a chance against porn culture - ABC Religion and Ethics
Violent porn denies women’s human rights - The Ethics Centre