This past April the UK Daily Telegraph ran a story on the way that porn exposure is impacting adolescents (‘Pornography has changed the landscape of adolescence beyond all recognition’, 22 April, 2015). The article quoted a GP as saying that she was now seeing young girls presenting with serious internal damage and sometimes incontinence. The reason? Rough treatment from their sexual partners, especially anal sex, which is now ‘standard among teenagers’. Boys are mimicking the porn they watch, and the girls feel pressured to go along. In the words of the GP, ‘these girls are very young and slight and their bodies are simply not designed for that’.
These girls did not come from socially disadvantaged backgrounds. They were not abducted by strangers, or date raped. They were average, middle-class girls living the normal lives of teenagers today. Welcome to the new reality: it’s a porn world, and we all live in it.
If you need further convincing, consider these statistics: according to one study, porn accounts for 37% of internet traffic, and in any given month porn sites get more users than Netflix, Amazon and Twitter combined; 7 out of 10 adolescents say that they have accidentally been exposed to porn online; in a survey of 11-16 year old boys, the porn site Pornhub was named one of the ‘top 5’ most popular online destinations; an analysis of the most popular porn scenes revealed that 88% of them contained physical aggression, and 94% of it was directed toward women.
In addition, we now know that exposure to pornography rewires the brain to alter sexual responses, and that teenagers’ brains are especially malleable. In a world where the average teenage boy will have seen thousands of sex acts before his first kiss, it is porn which is increasingly shaping sexual expectations and desires. Sex researcher Gail Dines describes the ubiquity of porn today as ‘the largest unregulated social experiment ever’. The Chief Superintendent of London’s Metropolitan Police, John Sutherland, highlighting the links between teen exposure to porn and sexual crimes, has described the sexualisation of young people as ‘catastrophic’. In his words, those who attempt to ‘brush off the risks of allowing boys unrestricted access to hardcore footage are either wilfully ignorant or wilfully stupid’.
So where is the outrage? Perhaps the only thing more shocking than the crisis of child exposure to pornography is that we are not more shocked by it. Sure, an occasional article will draw attention to the epidemic, but the conversation typically ends with anaemic calls for more resources for parents and better education for kids. Appallingly, our society has accepted the present situation as more or less unavoidable: if the right of adults to view what they please online means that the innocence of children must be sacrificed—well, so be it.
But why have Christians been so silent on this issue? Surely we, of all people, know the power of thoughts to shape behaviour (Mark 7:23)? Surely we, of all people, feel the call to protect the most vulnerable in our society (Matt. 18:6)? Perhaps our fear of wowserism is now so deeply engrained in our DNA that we have abdicated any voice on sex related matters, however egregious the harm. Or perhaps we have been swayed by spurious libertarian arguments into believing that any attempt to regulate adult content on the internet—as we do for every other form of media—amounts to an attack on free speech. Or perhaps the truth is more insidious: since surveys show that over half of Christian men look at porn monthly, could it be that the topic simply hits too close to home?
If there were no obvious solution to this crisis, still we would have a moral obligation to do everything in our power to find one. But that is not the case: the UK has introduced a regime of by-default filtering of adult content which is effective, affordable, and imposes minimal inconvenience on those adults who want to access porn—they can simply opt out if they choose. The UK system (voluntary at this date, but with legislation planned) involves each internet service provider (ISP) instituting porn blocks, which both obviates concerns about government involvement, and provides a much more robust protection than device-level software. While no system is perfect, the ISP-level filters have shown claims of technical impossibility to be bogus, and have revealed a pent-up demand for such a solution: one ISP reported that over 70 percent of its users were choosing to leave the filter on.
There is nothing keeping Australia from instituting a system similar to the one in the UK except apathy. On February 9, a major national conference will take place in Sydney, shining the spotlight on harms to children from internet porn. And in early December, thanks to the leadership of Senators Joe Bullock (ALP) and Chris Back (Lib), a senate inquiry into child sexualisation was launched. These are hopeful signs, but an enormous amount remains to be done for a cultural shift to take place.
Where will Christians be in this battle? In 1785, a young Cambridge student named Thomas Clarkson had an epiphany: slavery, he realised, was not a nuisance to be tolerated but a great moral evil which stained the nation of Britain and shamed Christians. Little by little, other Christians were recruited to the cause—most famously William Wilberforce—and what had been a quixotic crusade by a few Quakers gradually became a topic of national debate: the status quo was challenged, and eventually, in 1807, the slave trade was abolished. Christians had their conscience awakened, and they awakened the conscience of a nation.
When it comes to children and porn, will 2016 be our 1785 in Australia?
David Sandifer’s PhD in history, at the University of Cambridge (2014), looked at concerns for the protection of innocence in nineteenth-century Britain. He serves as the NSW/ACT Director for FamilyVoice Australia. For more information about the February 9 conference on porn and harms to children, go to pornharmskids.org.au.
Image: r. nial bradshaw on Flickr, CC License.