Thank you very much for the invitation to speak here today. It is an honour.
I'm speaking to you today about revisualizing porn, how young adults' consumption of sexually explicit Internet movies can inform approaches to Canadian sexual health promotion.
I conducted this research study with Dr. Gahagan and two other scholars as part of my master's degree in health promotion at Dalhousie University.
Our presentations are connected. I'm going to discuss the research study specifically, and then Dr. Gahagan will present a broader analysis of pornography as a public health issue.
The most effective place to start is by reviewing the broader research that orients this work and shapes my thinking on the subject.
As might be anticipated, the research literature on this topic is complex. How ideas of pornography, sexual health, and violence can even be defined to start these types of conversations is subject to debate in the body of research on this topic. This is replicated in non-academic settings. Adding to this picture, the overall body of research findings on this topic is fuzzy.
The predigital decades of research resulted in extensive but inconclusive findings on the overall health impacts of pornography. On the topic of violence and pornography specifically, the most that definitively could be said was that for some people exposure to some types of pornography under certain conditions could increase misogynistic views. However, recently, research in this area has resurged with the emergence of highly accessible and anonymous online pornography. This is partially because this is theorized as having the potential to particularly impact youth.
Broadly speaking, current research in this area is often focused on two main areas. One is behavioural changes, which is often referred to or talked about in terms of sexual risk-taking and gender-based violence. The other area of primary focus is the psychological or physiological harms. This is often more framed in addiction and those types of discussions.
While there are some trends such as earlier engagement in sexual activities, similar to the predigital era, many of the findings are inconsistent and contradictory. Adding to this is risk and addiction-focused research. While they are the primary areas of focus, they are just part of the health impacts of the porn research landscape.
There is significant research being done from other theoretical perspectives about how pornography, either as different genres or as an entire spectrum, that is, using the spectrum of pornography as a unit of analysis, can additionally impact health, including its perceived appeals and benefits.
For instance, there's a long-standing history of LGBTQ communities using pornography to explore sexual activities in a non-heteronormative manner. Some research indicates that couples use pornography to communicate about sexuality. Even further research still shows that young people use pornography to learn about the spectrum of sexual expressions. These ideas can also provide important inroads into thinking about pornography as a public health issue.
Returning to our study, while researching the impacts of porn, as we were doing, we thought it was essential to consider both the potential harms and the negative health impacts for obvious reasons. However, we also thought it was necessary to recognize the expansive diverse nature of pornography and the range of experience that individuals may have with it.
Therefore, for our study, we thought it was more effective and more reflective of people's experiences with it to conceptualize the relationship between pornography and sexual health in more comprehensive terms.
With this information in mind, we conducted a qualitative study designed to explore the relationship between sexual health and pornography in a holistic and person-centred manner. We understood pornography as depicting sexual activities used to create excitement. Our research questions were the following: Do urban heterosexual men and women youth perceive the consumption of sexually explicit Internet movies as influencing their sexual health? If so, how? How do these findings inform Canadian sexual health promotion?
To answer this question, we focused on investigating six constructs of comprehensive sexual health—sexual knowledge, sexual self-perception, sexual activities, gendered-partner relations, perceptions of sexuality, and general well-being.
We interviewed 12 youth—six men and six women—aged 19 to 28. They had education levels that varied from high school to graduate school, and they self-identified as a variety of racial or ethnic backgrounds.
Once we gathered this data, it was analyzed both within those six measures or constructs to identify categorical findings, and then also across those six constructs, to get at larger emergent themes.
In terms of the findings, we can discuss the six measures and the three emergent themes in more detail during the panel, if there's interest, but at this point I'm going to offer a synthesis of this research as it pertains to this committee. There were two particularly notable messages out of the research.
The first one was on the individual level. It was that participants perceive pornography as having both positive and negative influences on sexual health, and these influences were viewed as being interconnected and at times contradictory with each other.
These findings or results really reflected youths' descriptions of how the health impacts of pornography can't always be defined as separate targetable effects or physical manifestations. Rather, as illustrated by the youth, sexual health includes both the biological factors as well as more complex embodiments about the wider social, political, and popular discourses about sexuality.
This aligns with other research suggesting that there aren't as many straightforward evidence-based answers as some may argue, or as maybe we would all hope, and also that sometimes, when you're coming across these very straightforward answers, it's really important to consider the perspective and the scope of the perspective used to generate them. Especially relevant, I think, for this context, it also highlights the importance of using Canadian data in a Canadian context.
The second level, and perhaps the one of most salience for this committee, is that the Canadian youth in this study actively engaged with pornography as a multipurpose, comprehensive sexual resource in a context they viewed as devoid of alternatives. The youth reported that there are limited opportunities in both institutional forms of sexual knowledge exchange and in mainstream society to really learn about the positive aspects of sexuality, and so they use pornography to fill this gap.
While they, I think very importantly, noted that this wasn't their preferred choice, because they certainly recognized the troublesome elements of pornography, it was viewed as the only choice; pornography was the singular non-judgmental, non-regulated, and non-limited sexual resource available.
This finding suggests that youth pornography consumption is related, at least in part, to challenges in accessing comprehensive sexual resources in Canada.
When we consider these findings together, they highlight that for topics such as Motion M-47 it's important to foreground how pornography, including that with violent content, is consumed alongside and in relation to other sexual content, messages, and imagery, both online and off. Pornography is part of a much wider sexuality ecosystem and not something that can or should really be considered in isolation. The public health effects of pornography are linked to the tone and tenor of the way sexuality is addressed in education, health, media, and online spaces.
The overall implication of this work is that from a public health perspective pornography is not the singular central topic at issue that needs to be addressed; pornography is rather a part of a much larger discussion about improving sexual health, especially for youth, in Canada. It begs questions such as: how can sexuality education be made more consistent, coordinated, and comprehensive across the provinces; how can gender and sexuality equity be improved at the societal level; are there opportunities for new partnerships in this regard?
This is not in any way to lessen the very important conversation that's being had here, but rather to recognize the ways in which it is really reflective of a critical need for a much larger conversation about sexual health promotion in Canada.
I'm going to leave my thoughts here at this point. The implications will be expanded upon by Dr. Gahagan. Thank you very much for your time. I look forward to the panel discussion.
I'm pleased to be here today.
I'd like to start by acknowledging that the land that we gather on is a traditional unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishnaabe.
While we know that pornography in the Internet age is clearly an important health and social issue, the role of public health in addressing this issue is much less clear. We know that public health is concerned with protecting the health of the aggregate. We know also that the raison d'être for public health is essentially to utilize the organized efforts within society to keep people healthy and to prevent illness, injury, and premature death. As part of its mandate, for example, the Public Health Agency of Canada is tasked with developing, implementing, and evaluating public health policies, programs, and services aimed at promoting and protecting the health of Canadians.
While health promotion and disease prevention are key elements of how public health undertakes its mandate, it's really under the subprogram areas of conditions for healthy living, healthy child development, and perhaps healthy communities in the PHAC report on plans and priorities 2016-17 that we can see an obvious connection with public health on the issue of the potential public health effects of violent and degrading sexually explicit material on children, women, and men.
When we think of the role of public health in promoting sexual health, on the one hand, and in preventing illness on the other, the issue of pornography is not as straightforward as public health responses to, for example, the prevention of communicable diseases or infectious diseases. Through epidemiology, rates of disease and related poor health outcomes can often be attributable to specific etiology such as lack of clean drinking water, poor housing, physical inactivity, and so on. The cause and effect of pornography as a public health issue is muddied by other structural inequities associated with issues of gender-based violence and misogyny that are, to an extent, regulated and enforced by our laws, legislation, social norms, values, and mores, which we know are subject to change over time.
We know that pornography, by definition, is concerned with the development of and circulation of books, magazines, videos, art, and music aimed at creating sexual excitement. However, the exact cause and effect of pornography in relation to sexual violence and poor health outcomes is still hotly debated. That said, it's still important to note that with the growing use of Internet-based pornography and the relative ease by which it can be accessed, the question about what role public health can play is indeed timely.
From a health promotion perspective, encouraging safe behaviours and improving health through healthy public policy, community-based interventions, active public participation, advocacy, and action on the key determinants of health can prove useful in addressing concerns associated with the ready access to Internet-based forms of pornography, as well as other forms of pornography. However, a review of existing sexual health education provided in Canadian schools suggests the need for additional supports to appropriately address sexuality, sexual health, and sexual expression. In fact, many Canadian youth do not receive the level of sexual health education they need to make informed decisions about risk-taking, including the risks associated with the use of web-based technologies such as cellphones for sexting or sharing homemade porn on the Internet with their friends.
More studies are not likely going to tell us what we already know. For example, we already know that sexually explicit materials are widely available online and elsewhere. A potential action in this regard, I would argue, would be the development of a national sexual health promotion strategy that would be included in school sex health education, through online partner agencies as well as through other media venues. This proposed national sexual health promotion strategy would offer information on things such as healthy relationships, sexually transmitted and blood-borne infection, STBBI, prevention and testing, as well as information on the potential impacts that violent pornography can have on youth and young adults, including the reality of possible criminal sanctions for those producing or circulating pornography without consent.
I applaud the efforts of our MPs in championing the issue of violent pornography as an important public health issue. However, we need to pay close attention to the seemingly universal truth that misogyny, sexual violence, and rape are gendered in nature. I would argue that this is the real challenge for us to focus our collective energies on in moving forward.
In addition, we need to address the failure of our school system in adequately equipping our youth and young adults with the tools they need to distinguish between what is morally, legally, or otherwise inappropriate in relation to sexual violence. The recent media coverage of parent organizations challenging school administrators about not wanting sexual health education that includes, for example, non-heteronormative perspectives, suggests that we still have a very long way to go.
The time for a national sexual health promotion strategy, one that offers information on potential repercussions of unwanted sexual advances, sexual assault, sexting, and posting of sexual images without consent is now. Ask yourselves if you believe that our youth have a clear understanding of these issues in the new frontier of cybersex, online porn, sexting, and sharing of homemade porn. In addition to ensuring that youth are aware of the difference between consensual sex and sexual assault, they also need to be aware of the role they can play as upstanders when they witness a sexual assault.
As we know from the recent cases in the media, including the Rehtaeh Parsons case from Nova Scotia, there is an urgent need to do more to prevent sexual assault, sexual exploitation, and other forms of sexual violence. Whether the impetus for such behaviours can be squarely pinned on the ready access of violent online pornography or not, the reality is that youth have access, but may not have the knowledge to determine what is real, what is criminal, or otherwise.
I'd like to bring us back to the issue of gender-based violence, which is a long-standing concern in Canada, as well as for many other countries. Despite this fact, gender-based analyses of how well existing sexual health interventions, including those made available in the school system, are or are not addressing gender-based violence in sexual education, is sadly and largely absent.
In this regard, it is noteworthy that the Government of Canada has signed on to a variety of constitutional obligations on gender-based analysis from 1981 onwards. Yet we do not see the widespread use of the Canadian GBA+ framework in advancing our understanding of the ways in which sexual health education is meeting the information needs of both male and female youth in our school system.
In closing, I would like to urge the Standing Committee on Health to look more closely at how well we are currently equipping youth and young adults in Canada with the sexual health promotion knowledge they need to make informed choices about the place of pornography in their lives. In this regard, I firmly believe that a national sexual health promotion strategy, one which includes evaluative components such as a gender-based analytic framework, will prove instrumental in addressing this complex issue.
Thank you for your attention.
Thank you so much for inviting me to speak. I appreciate your interest in this topic.
I'm going to present my case that society has become “pornofied”. By that I mean that sex has become a product, that the body is now seen as a commodity. If it's a product, you can sell it; if you can sell it, you can steal it. The sexual exploitation industry includes pornography, strip clubs, prostitution, and sex trafficking; and the sexual violence and sexual abuse phenomenon includes sexual harassment, rape, and incest. The sexual exploitation industry and the sexual abuse phenomena are a seamless, interconnected continuum that cannot be separated.
I want to talk for a minute about learning. Psychologists have studied the phenomenon of learning, and what they find is that pictures are compact carriers of meaning, that learning is deeper if you're rewarded for the behaviour, and the orgasm is very rewarding. Learning is deeper when you have role models that are showing us the behaviour and if those role models are rewarded. Learning is deeper in the presence of arousal, and antisocial behaviours are learned and expressed more when you think you're anonymous and no one can see you.
Therefore, pictures, rewards, role models, arousal, and anonymity all produce greater learning, which are all phenomena present in Internet pornography, making pornography, especially Internet pornography, a perfect learning environment, except for the fact that everything it teaches you is a lie.
Psychologists now call Internet pornography the new crack cocaine. What is it teaching us?
The first thing it's teaching us is permission-giving beliefs. Permission-giving beliefs are beliefs that tell us what I'm doing is normal, it doesn't hurt anybody, and that everybody is doing it. Therefore, I don't need to change my behaviour. Those who have a problem with my behaviour are wrong, crazy, and prudish.
For example, some permission-giving beliefs believe all men go to prostitutes, all people want sex with all people all the time. Women enjoy being raped. Women enjoy degrading sex. Children like to have sex with adults.
It also produces miseducation about sexuality. Pornography tells us that sex is not about intimacy, caring, love, or respect. It's not about marriage or having children. Sex is recreational. You don't need to know your partner. Sex with strangers is the most intense and the best kind of sex. Sex is adversarial. Pornography is a one-way street that focuses only on your own pleasure, and there's no need to consider the needs or feelings of others. Also, sex is a male entitlement. Men need sex, and women's bodies are just sexual entertainment for men.
Pornography includes performers who never say no, and never reject sexual advances. This increases unrealistic expectations about others, entitlement for sex, frustration with others who say no, and the reduced awareness and skill of noticing the unwillingness of partners.
From this point on, I'm going to talk about research findings. I can't talk about the more than 200 studies that have been done on this, or the tens of thousands of subjects, but let me give you some of the findings.
In the research we found that men who use pornography think that women enjoy rape, that she got what she wanted when she was raped. They're more accepting of the rape myth, which is a set of beliefs that are untrue about rape, and they also believe that rapists deserve less time in prison. They have an adversarial view of sex. They have more callous sexual beliefs. They're more accepting of violence against women. They use more sexual terms to describe women. They see women as sex objects. They have reduced support for the women's liberation movement. They rate their partners as less attractive, are less satisfied with their partner's sexual performance, have a greater desire to have sex without emotional involvement. They have a greater desire and acceptance of sex outside of marriage for married people, are less child-centred, and are less desiring of female children.
They are willing to have sex with individuals who are 13 to 14 years old, are sexually attracted to children, and less likely to think that pornography needs to be restricted from children.
The increasing use of pornography is related to higher psychopath scores. Those are the thinking effects. The behavioural effects are these: sexual dysfunction of men who use pornography; erectile dysfunction; premature ejaculation; retarded ejaculation, especially in younger men. In one study, 58% of the male participants, with an average age of 25, had erectile dysfunction with women, but not with pornography.
The recent brain image studies show us that pornography users have what's called “teen brain”, impulse centres more active than the rational centres; “cocaine brain”, that is, pornography produced as a similar brain pathway as cocaine. They have less grey matter, less brain sensitivity to sexual stimuli, and less brain connectivity.
They have more sex partners, are less attracted to their sex partners, are less interested in actual sex with their partners, and ask their partners to act out scenes in pornographic films. They have more affairs if they're married, and are more likely to prostitute women.
In fact, in one study, 25% of the 19- to 21-year-old males said that they had either already prostituted a woman or planned to in the future. The more pornography these males used, the more likely they were to prostitute a woman or to say they would in the future, and those who prostituted women were more likely to engage in non-consenting sex. Men who go to strip clubs are most likely to engage in non-consenting sex.
Man who use pornography engage in more behavioural aggression, are more likely to sexually abuse partners whom they have battered, use violent sexual fantasies to get themselves aroused, and are more likely to actually harass women. They are more likely to engage in date rape, stranger rape, and marital rape. They are more likely to verbally coerce sex, physically coerce sex, and use drugs and alcohol to coerce sex.
The earlier male children are exposed to pornography, the more likely they are to engage in non-consenting sex. There's a greater use of pornography among juvenile sex offenders, adult sex offenders, child molesters, and incest offenders. Men who are convicted of using child pornography later admit that they had sexually abused children as well.
The diagnosis of pedophilia is found more in child pornography users than even in child rapists.
The three factors that have been identified as connected with sexual violence are hostility toward women; a belief that sex is casual, non-intimate, recreational, and adversarial; and the use of pornography.
U.S. statistics are horrific. One in eight women is raped. Twenty-five per cent of college females experience a rape or an attempted rape. Fifty per cent of women are sexually harassed in their lifetime, and 38% of females have been sexually molested by 18.
The effects on women are these.
Women exposed to pornography are more likely to accept the rape myth, have more sexual fantasies that involve rape, and think that rapists deserve less time in jail.
They also have reduced support for the women's liberation movement. They're more negative about their bodies, think their male partners are more critical of their bodies, and have less sex. The more pornography a young adult female uses, the more likely she is to be a victim of non-consenting sex.
Let's look at the research on kids.
Kids who are exposed to sexualized media are more likely to have engaged in oral sex, anal sex, and sexual intercourse. They are more likely to have more negative attitudes towards condoms, have not used contraception in the last intercourse, have not used contraception in the last six months, have an earlier initiation to sex, have more sex partners, have had more than one sex partner in the last three months, and have sex more frequently. They are more likely to have a strong desire to conceive, and in fact are more likely to get pregnant.
They are more likely to engage in more sexual harassment, and in more non-consensual sex. They are more likely to test positive for chlamydia, have used alcohol and other substances in their last sexual intercourse, have higher sexual permissiveness scores, and have less progressive gender role attitudes.
The philosopher Roger Scruton has said that from his point of view, the damage that pornography causes is that it threatens the loss of love in a world where only love brings happiness.
The answer is sort of complex. Some of the research does sort out imagery that they consider violent and non-violent. In fact, though, some studies find that even the non-violent pornography increases the acceptance of behaviours like rape. We thought that only the violent pornography would produce that, but some of the research says that non-violent pornography produces this as well.
Next, with the images that are violent and degrading, if you ask subjects to look at whether they are you looking at things that are violent and degrading, the more they look at it, the less they rate it as violent and degrading. By asking for subject perceptions, which some studies do, you find that they become inured to things.
If you ask subjects—I don't want to be too graphic here—but if you ask subjects.... There's something like A to M, which means—I'll have to be graphic—ass to mouth, that is, a male inserting his penis into a woman's anus and then taking it right out and putting it in her mouth with her feces in her own mouth. You ask subjects whether that is degrading. After they look at that for a while, they decide it's not degrading pornography anymore, while the females continue to rate it as degrading. So it's hard to say whether we are looking at degrading pornography: ask the person who is looking at it.
Ejaculating into a woman's face first looks degrading, but then later the males say it's not degrading. The woman still says it is degrading. It's hard sometimes to categorize, depending upon on who is looking at it and who is evaluating it. That's the complication in the research as to who says it's degrading.
With this phenomenon that says even the non-degrading and the non-violent have some negative aspects and produce negative outcome, all of it includes what we call “boundary crossing”. That is, an individual who is not intimate with the people acting—that is, the viewer, who is not intimate—is engaging in an intimate activity with these individuals, which is boundary crossing. Why am I being intimate with somebody with whom I'm not intimate? I'm watching somebody; I'm visually invading someone. What we found is that the visual invading of people with whom you are not intimate leads to the physical invading of people. There's a connection just in the fact that you can boundary cross.
We thought originally, when we started the research, that only aggressive and degrading were going to cause the impact. More and more, we're finding that it's all of it.
The final piece is that it's very hard in this day and age to find visual depictions that aren't degrading and violent. The research says that 88% of the images have physical aggression in them. More than 50% have degrading images in them. There are less and less non-degrading, non-violent depictions out there to actually look at. We've developed a tolerance for it. People who look at it look at harder and harder kinds, so that the non-degrading, non-violent has become a small subset of what's on the Internet.
A to M is in fact the fastest-growing image on the subset in Internet pornography, and invariably people are asking for images in which men ejaculate into women's faces and into their eyes. Some of the research says that will produce pink eye and infections of the eye, and other kinds of things. That is an image that many men now think of as a common thing to do and are asking their partners to do, because it's so common in the pornography that's on the Internet.
We're also very concerned about the forming of attitudes in children, because their brains are still very malleable, their attitudes are very malleable, and the potency of an image is quite impactful on children. It is also impactful on adults. I don't mean to say that because we're concerned about children, we're not concerned about adults, because we do find the impact on adults as well. Even though we have a dramatic increase in child-on-child sexual assault and it's a great concern that children are looking at these kinds of images and then assaulting other children, our concern is also about adults assaulting children and adults assaulting other adults.
We think this is one of the most potent attitude producers that we can name. Given all those factors that produce learning, I can't think of anything else that could impact your sexual attitudes more than pornography, because of its pervasiveness, because it's massively toxic, and because of certain phenomena about how the brain works.
For example, there is research that says when women look at men in sexualized imagery, women use the part of their brain that is specialized for looking at humans and human faces—the facial recognition centre part of the brain—but when men look at women in sexualized imagery, they do not use that part of their brain. They do not use the part of the brain that is specialized for humans and human faces. They use the part of the brain that is specialized for the use of tools and objects, and then they use the rules that are applied to tools: if it breaks, throw it away—it's only as good as its usefulness.
Even brain phenomena are telling us that these are dramatically potent images and can produce attitudes, behaviours, triggers for attitudes, and beliefs that say, “I have permission to do this”, especially the belief that everybody is doing it. People will do what they think everybody is doing. The drive towards sexuality is very strong, and if you think everybody is doing it and nobody is getting hurt by it, then you are very likely to do it.
It's the same phenomenon you see when you legalize prostitution in a country. You have a massive increase in the number of males that will prostitute women: since it's legal, it must be fine, and we're all doing it, so we might as well do it. Followed by that, of course, you then have a dramatic increase in child sex trafficking because we don't enough prostituted women to meet that new demand. As soon as you have a belief that says it's okay, it doesn't hurt anybody, and everybody is doing it, people will do it. Pornography is the very best at producing that permission-giving belief.
I'm not sure where to start.
Really, the question of who sets the standard is a difficult one to answer, because those standards change over time. Social mores, norms, and so on change over time, and my only suggestion and recommendation would be to look nationally at countries that actually have done this process well, which is to say that they have convened groups of individuals who have cutting-edge knowledge about how to calibrate teams of people to make that determination. So if you're saying the standard is now this, then figuring out how to make that standard resonate within a Canadian context is the challenge. I should tell you that when my sister Michelle was at Queen's law school, one of the favourite topics that would come up in class was who determines what is considered moral, and who has the right to make that determination, and that continues to be a very hotbed issue. She has long since left Queen's University, but that issue still comes up, and here we are today, in 2017, having the conversation about who decides what's moral, what's illicit, and what's inappropriate. I think your job, as I understand it, is to help stickhandle that decision-making process by bringing the best evidence forward to make that determination. So in 2017, what are considered normative expectations around sexuality and sexual imagery, etc.? I do hope that through this process—and I'm sure this will be the case—you will bring together a team of people who will be able to make that determination. The issue of everything from A to Z, so what's happening in the middle and whether we can actually calibrate what the level of tolerance is in Canadian society for particular types of imagery, is to me a very big, very important question.
That's also going to help you answer the question regarding the kinds of images and messages we need to give our kids in school in such a way that we're actually equipping them with the appropriate information to make lifelong informed decisions about sexual health, whether that has to do with the consumption of pornography, however that is defined, or whether that's in their relations with their spouses or their children or what have you. We need to think about that in the context of where we in Canada are with that notion, because I can tell you quite certainly that we're not able to do that in the school system. We put hundreds of millions of tax dollars into a school system that purports to provide cutting-edge sexual health education to our youth, and yet we see this continuing conversation about poor sexual health outcomes and bad relationships, to quote our colleague from the U.S. who has just left us.
If we're really trying to equip Canadian youth with the information to make informed decisions, we need to do a better job of getting that information into the hands of children, parents, and teachers. Everybody has to be part of this conversation, which is exactly why I'm suggesting having something like a national sexual health promotion strategy that says in Canada as of 2017 or 2018, whenever this comes to fruition, this is the standard of acceptable information for the purposes of teaching kids what is pornographic, what is considered criminal, and what is a criminal offence when you're sexting your friends or taking little porn videos out in the schoolyard and exchanging them with people without consent.
I don't believe that today, in 2017, our kids have a sense of that particular issue, and it's not going to get better by saying, as our colleague from the U.S. has, that all pornography is toxic to the brain. I don't necessarily believe that position. I think there is something in the middle ground that gives us a good starting position to give appropriate information to youth and young adults in Canada so that they can actually make informed decisions about what, if any, role pornography plays in their lives.