Online porn is affecting us, and it’s affecting our kids.
A lot has happened in the last year. A government motion has been passed, experts have been consulted, recommendations have been made, and just last week, Canadian Health Minister Ginette Petitpas-Taylor announced what the government will do about online pornography.
You can read the full report here, but here are the main points:
- The government will update the 2008 Guidelines for Sexual Health Education, which will be published and distributed in 2018. This will include information about sexual health in the digital age, gender-based violence, consent, and resources for young people to learn about the spectrum of sexual expressions and identities. It will also focus on media literacy and the prevention of and testing for sexually transmitted and blood-borne infections.
- The government will produce a range of public awareness resources to help Canadians and their families to stay safe while using the internet.
- The government will continue to support Cybertip.ca, a tip line for reporting the online sexual exploitation of children.
- The government will continue to support Kids in the Know, an interactive education program for increasing the personal safety of children by reducing their risk of sexual victimization both online and offline.
- The government will continue to carry out its 2017 budget, which includes a strategy to prevent gender-based violence and to promote healthy relationships.
- The government will continue to ensure that government policy, laws, and regulations are sensitive to the different impacts that decisions have on men and women.
- The government is engaged with providers (tech companies, electronic manufacturers, and software and browser developers) to assist parents with protecting their children online.
- The government will continue to support efforts to block Canadians from foreign-hosted internet addresses associated with images or videos or child sexual abuse. They will also continue to support Project Arachnid, which removes child sexual material from the web.
If you think the government’s response seems a bit toothless, you’re not alone. Here are five things you should know about the report.
1. An Updated Sex-Ed Curriculum Can’t Compete with the Novelty of Porn
Updating the sexual education guidelines is the only act of real substance in the report. The government is essentially putting most of its eggs into the education basket. There’s no doubt that sex-ed should be updated for the digital age, but here’s the challenge: textbooks, classroom videos, and awareness campaigns aren’t sexy. They certainly aren’t as exciting as watching porn.
For the sake of comparison, let’s talk about another issue effecting public health. On January 11, 1964, U.S. Surgeon General Luther Terry released a groundbreaking report showing the link between smoking and lung cancer. Until then, smoking was ubiquitous, acceptable, and sexy. It even appeared in kid’s cartoons. The year Terry’s report came out, a whopping 50% of Canadians smoked (61% of men were smokers.)
Since then, the Canadian government has not only educated the public about the harms of smoking, but also legislated it.
- 1976 – Ottawa passes the first municipal smoking bylaw in Canada restricting smoking in indoor public spaces
- 1989 – smoking is no longer permitted on any domestic airline flights, and cigarette packets are mandated to have a health warning covering 20% of the package
- 1993 – six provinces and one territory set a minimum age of 19 for smoking
- 1994 – Ontario bans tobacco sales in pharmacies
- 1996 – Vancouver becomes first city to force restaurants to be smoke-free
- 2001– Saskatchewan bans tobacco displays in stores
- 2009 – Ontario bans smoking in all vehicles if anyone under the age of 16 is present
- 2012 – Ottawa prohibits prohibit smoking on all municipal properties, including parks, playgrounds, beaches, sports fields, fruit and vegetable markets, as well as bar patios
These efforts, in addition to education and awareness about the public health effects of smoking, have reduced the percentage of smokers in Canada from 50% in 1964 to just 16% today.
Here’s the thing. Education on its own wouldn’t have been enough. The government had to step in and mandate change – to limit exposure, access, and ease of use – and most of us agree that this has been of great benefit to Canadians, especially to the still-developing lungs of kids.
But what about the still-developing brains of kids?
Every time a child or teen uses porn, the “reward centre” of the brain gets a dopamine hit. The problem is that their prefrontal cortex – the part of he brain that thinks about consequences and acts as a break for compulsive behaviour – doesn’t develop fully until their early twenties. This is why kids are very vulnerable to developing a pornography addiction. In the U.K., one study showed that 10% of 12 to 13 year-olds fear they’re addicted to porn.
Research has found that porn use is linked with reduced grey matter in the brain, which affects school performance. One study revealed that according to 70% of teens, watching porn at school is seen as typical. Researchers have also found that pornography uses builds new brain maps for what’s sexy, to the point where some young men are so dependent on pixels on a screen that they can’t get aroused by a real partner. It’s called Porn Induced Erectile Dysfunction.
Figures from as far back as 2008 say that 93% of boys and 62% of girls have seen online porn before age 18, and those numbers are only ramping up with the rise of cell phone use (on average, kids in the U.S. get their first phone at age 10.)
While I applaud the government for recognizing that the sex-ed curriculum needs to be updated for the digital age, it would be foolish to assume that education and awareness alone will keep kids from seeking out the novelties of online porn.
Smoking, a public health issue that affects the lungs, is legislated. Porn, a public health issue that affects the brain, should also be legislated. Just as adult stores require proof of age before someone can walk out with a porn magazine, adult websites should be mandated to verify age when someone lands on their site.
Meaningful age verification would mean that any adult website that wants access to the Canadian market would need to comply with the same regulations and verification settings we already use on gambling sites, which require government-verified identification confirmation in order for people to gain access. The government could also work with tech companies to create a privacy-protected version.
Many of the briefs and testimonies presented to the Health Committee recommended MAV, but it is not even mentioned in the government’s response.
Some young people will find porn no matter what, just like some will acquire smokes no matter what. But it’s pretty impressive that education plus legislation has dropped the number of smokers in Canada from 50% to 16%. If we want less children to be exposed and become addicted to online porn, the government needs to mandate change, not just educate.
2. Kids and Teens Will Get Mixed Messages
The government’s new sex-ed guidelines will include information about sexual health in the digital age, gender-based violence, and consent. But as long as kids can watch all the porn they want, unrestricted, they will be getting mixed messages.
Protection: Teens can be told to wear condoms, but that’s not what they see in porn. Therefore, condoms aren’t sexy. A porn director we interviewed for our documentary told us: “you can give [people] free porn with a condom, or you can charge them forty bucks for this condomless one, and they will pay that $40 every time.”
In reality, kids don’t even have to pay to watch condomless sex, because ‘no condoms’ is the norm in the porn industry. It’s no surprise that research has shown frequent porn use to cause irregular condom use. People mimic what they see. As long as kids have easy access to pornography, safe sex messages can’t compete.
Consent: A sex-ed curriculum can and should cover the topic of consent, but once again, porn sends a very different message. Out of 304 porn scenes analyzed in 2010, 88% contained physical aggression (ie. slapping, gagging, spitting) and 49% contained verbal aggression (ie. name calling.) Most targets of aggression were female. Since 2010, porn has become even more violent and degrading, especially to women.
One study showed that 44% of boys said porn has given them ideas of what to try out. Girls are feeling more and more pressure to accept violence. One female teenager in the study, aged 12-13, said: “[I] feel pornography does not show any consent in the act only shows sex and nothing else to do with mutual relationships.”
Another study shows that when people – men and women – are higher than average porn users, they are less likely to intervene to prevent sexual violence. Here’s what Dr. John Foubert, the researcher behind the study, says in response to his findings:
“Because there is so much violence in mainstream porn, users get to the point where they see violence as a natural part of sexual relations, thus, why would they bother to intervene?”
How can we talk about consent when the exact opposite of that is seen as sexy?
3. Talking About What is Already Being Done Isn’t Constructive
Something that was apparent pretty quickly when reading the report was that a lot of it was filler. Entire paragraphs were devoted to what the government is already doing for gender equality and the prevention of violence, and how they plan to carry out their 2017 budget. Outside of updates to the sex-ed curriculum, there’s nothing new on the table.
4. There’s No Need for Redundancy
The government says it will “produce a range of public awareness resources to help Canadians and their families to stay safe while using the internet.” These resources already exist online. Check out Fight the New Drug, Kids in the Know, Educate Empower Kids, Enough is Enough, and KidsWifi, just to name a few. Creating a new list is somewhat redundant, though if it’s something blow-us-outta-the-water innovative, there’s always room for that.
Organizations are pretty good at informing, but organizations can’t legislate. Only the government can do that.
5. The Report Lacks Focus and Misses the Topic at Hand
The report pledges continued government support for Cybertip, Kids in the Know, and Project Arachnid, all of which specifically deal with child sexual abuse images on the internet (or as it is referred to in the mainstream, “child porn.”) These programs are excellent, and I urge everyone to check them out.
However, the topic at hand is not child abuse. It’s access to online pornography. The name of the report itself is “Report on the Public Health Effects of the Ease of Access and Viewing of Online Violent and Degrading Sexually Explicit Material on Children, Men, and Women.”
Sexually explicit child abuse images are illegal and awful, and I am grateful that the government is supporting organizations on the front lines. But by focusing so much on illegal material, the report misses the effects of being exposed to the mainstream, legal content that has significant public health ramifications. This is what families all across the country are dealing with.
After reading the report, a colleague said, “if you didn’t read the introduction or the conclusion, you wouldn’t even know this report was supposed to be about the effects of ease of access to online porn.”
If I had handed in a paper like this in university, I would’ve received a failing grade for not staying on topic.
There’s no question that I am disappointed in the government’s report. But now is not the time to be bitter. For the first time in our country’s history, the topic of online pornography is on the table being discussed and debated. We must simply keep moving the ball down the field, even if it’s slower than we’d like.
Here are some silver linings and opportunities.
ONE. The UK has passed Meaningful Age Verification, which will go into effect in 2018. This means we will soon be able to learn from them, and see what works and what doesn’t. This might lend to a more robust MAV effort in Canada a few years down the road. So keep those MAV petitions rolling in! MP Viersen has promised to keep accepting and presenting them.
TWO. While we don’t yet know how the updated sex-ed guidelines will address the issue of pornography, the hope is that the information will be relevant, effective, and presented to students in an innovative way that makes them think. If it’s a boring page in a textbook or a cheesy video, we’re in trouble. If you’re a teacher or principal, come up with some ideas and contact the powers that be.
THREE. In the past year, this issue has been covered more in Canadian media than in previous years, and that’s because Canadians started signing petitions, contacting their MPs, writing articles, and hosting awareness events. This is excellent. Let’s keep it up! If you’d like to host a screening of our documentary on pornography in your community, you can order your screening package here.
FOUR. Another thing you can do is to write an op-ed piece for your local newspaper. Let them know what you think about the government’s response. Word of advice – be articulate, respectful, and concise. Find a way to express what you feel without coming across as a jerk. A well-worded sentence can be more effective than a rambling rant. We must build as many bridges as we can, not tear them down.
There is still so much room for cooperation on this. For those of you who have signed petitions and written your representative and hosted an awareness event, thank you! For those of you who have had the difficult conversations with your kids, awesome. Now let’s keep pushing forward, with creativity and resolve.
***Want the stats in one place? Check out our new Unsexy Effect of Pornography infographic!