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Can a city be free from porn?

Like smoking, Letitia Shelton believes society can quit another harmful addiction

Letitia Shelton sees how ridiculous it sounds that she wants to create a City Free from Porn – the slogan of the campaign she leads in Toowoomba, west of Brisbane.

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“I get a lot of abuse because, naturally, it looks ridiculous – doesn’t it? – a city free from porn,” admits the CEO of City Women Toowomba, a group of 200 volunteers from different churches who aim to make their city a better place for women and girls.

“I’m thinking 50 years – very similar to the anti-smoking campaign.” – Letitia Shelton

Not that the abuse bothers her: “You know you’re working really well and doing a good job on social awareness when everyone starts abusing you – you know you’ve hit your key target,” she says.

“So you’ve just got to know what you’re going for and that it is ridiculous and that you’re coming up against an idol in people’s lives that they love but is destroying them, but they don’t know it.”

In her approach to campaigning Letitia is just as bold and indomitable as her brother, Australian Christian Lobby managing director Lyle Shelton. Like him, too, she is no quitter – she is ready to stand in the ramparts for half a century if necessary.

“For me, first of all it’s a long-term vision, so I’m thinking 50 years – very similar to the anti-smoking campaign,” she tells Eternity in her city office.

“We know that 50 years ago it was very cool to smoke, and most pubs, clubs, everywhere – on the aeroplane, restaurants, you saw people smoking. And our government has done a great job in educating our nation on the harms of smoking. And I guess as a city and as a citizen of Toowoomba, it’s my responsibility – our responsibility – to educate particularly young people on the harms of pornography.”

Just as the slogan “smoking kills” has entered the national consciousness, Letitia wants people to internalise the message that pornography also kills … relationships. City Women has just put a billboard in the centre of the city saying “porn fuels sexual harassment,” with links to its website, which has sparked a lot of conversation.

Actually, it seems that the public already have some insight into the harm pornography is doing. City Women just commissioned a Galaxy poll of Toowoomba residents’ attitudes to porn as a way of gauging the effectiveness of its campaign. The intent is that in five years’ time they can ask the same questions and see if the message is getting out there and changing people’s attitudes and behaviour.

“Galaxy rang up 300 Toowoomba residents – male, female between the ages of 18 to 75 – and we were able to formulate eight questions around their porn use, around whether they think it’s degrading to society, when they started watching it, and whether they feel like it’s affected their relationships and their marriage,” she says.

64 per cent of Australians learn about sex from porn and they are first exposed to it at an average age of 11.

“It’s interesting, for instance, one in three Toowoomba residents began watching porn before the age of 15 – it’s quite horrific. Two out of three Towoomba residents believed that porn is harmful to society … so they’re happy to watch it even though they know it’s affecting society. Two in three residents also believed it had a negative effect on women, it downgraded women as well.”

So just as knowing sugar is bad for us doesn’t necessarily change our eating habits, Letitia realises that education can be only one component in her anti-porn drive. She is working closely with the Australian Christian Lobby on getting pornography recognised as a public health crisis, like smoking and mental illness, which would give her more leverage to lobby different groups.

City Free From Porn billboard

Letitia began campaigning against pornography several years ago when she came across a study showing that that 88 per cent of porn videos contain violence against women. But she couldn’t get any community leaders to speak publicly about the link between pornography and domestic violence until she invited her friend, women’s advocate Melinda Tankard Reist, to speak at a City Women breakfast.

“Well, the breakfast was sold out – we had Police, Chamber of Commerce, the Mayor, councillors – everyone. It was an amazing morning and after that presentation the Mayor said to me ‘I want to help you with this.’”

Holding the first City Free From Porn rally in October 2016, Regional Council Mayor Paul Antonio called on the people of Toowoomba to stand for healthy families and say no to pornography. And a young Christian man spoke honestly and courageously about how his porn addiction ruined his marriage. At a second rally three months ago, Victorian MP Rachel Carling-Jenkins told a heart-wrenching story of discovering child pornography on her husband’s computer.

“I had a representative from the President of France call me to say ‘we’ve heard about what you’re doing and we’d love to learn more.’” – Letitia Shelton

The rallies have been good for attracting attention – not only by the 300 to 400 people who attended but also of the media locally, across Australia and even internationally.

“At the beginning of last year, I had a representative from the President of France call me to say ‘we’ve heard about what you’re doing and we’d love to learn more,’ so it’s amazing what you can do in a small little city that can go right around the world,” Letitia says.

“And that just gets the community talking and, from my friends who are out there in the workplace, they say there’s a lot of fascinating conversations that happen around those porn rallies because everyone hears about it and have a lot of good discussions.”

Since the City Free From Porn campaign began 18 months ago, Christians and non-Christians alike have come to Letitia with their stories of the destructive impact of porn. She is particularly concerned about its effect on children, quoting research that shows 64 per cent of Australians learn about sex from porn and they are first exposed to it at an average age of 11. This has led to a big increase in child-on-child sexual abuse, she says. She cites the experience of a good friend of hers whose twin 10-year-old daughters had been sexually abused by a 13-year-old boy who lived next door because he wanted to act out what he had seen on a porn video.

“We believe that it takes a citywide church to win a citywide battle.” – Letitia Shelton

Realising that the porn epidemic is infecting the Christian and non-Christian community equally, Letitia has been reaching out to pastors across the city – following the ecumenical spirit of her father, Ian Shelton, who, she explains, planted Toowoomba City Church 43 years ago “with the heart that there’s one church in a city – many congregations but one church.”

“We believe that it takes a citywide church to win a citywide battle, so we’ve got to work together, and blessings come.”

In this spirit of unity, between 30 and 40 pastors gather every Thursday morning to pray together and several of them are members of the City Women committee.

“We’re looking at running a bunch of different courses around town where people can go and get help.” – Letitia Shelton

Letitia says pornography is possibly an even bigger problem for the church because of the shame attached to it, which has stopped church leaders from speaking about it well. So the first task has been making pastors aware that pornography is a trap for a lot of people in their church and then equipping them with information and course material to help people free themselves from their bondage.

“The biggest thing has been just speaking about it, so we’ve held so far two combined church services on pornography – again, you know, that’s something that most cities don’t do,” Letitia says.

“So out of that this year we’re looking at running a bunch of different courses around town where people can go and get help.”

For people who prefer one-on-one to group work, City Women will list the phone numbers for doctors, psychologists, counsellors around town who deal specifically with this issue.

Asked what drives her, Letitia says she just has “a deep sense of justice and wanting to help the oppressed and this is oppressing a lot of girls.”

“I just want to get up to the top of the cliff and put a fence up there and stop girls from falling over and I know that’s going to take a long time, it’s a huge call, but we need to pick up girls at the bottom of the cliff but we need to start getting to the top. And that [means] paying a price and sticking your head up and making a nuisance, but I love in the Book of Acts Paul is called a pest in one translation, so maybe I’m a bit of a pest around town – I don’t know – but that’s OK.”

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