Wednesday, October 30, 2019

The SAVVY CONSUMER – A Guide for professionals working with children and young people in relation to pornography use and harmful sexual behaviour

By Cyra Fernandes, Australian Childhood Foundation & Russ Pratt, Prime Forensic Psychology

Please note: This is a slightly longer blog than usual but it was felt that the whole blog needed to be presented in its current form. Kieran

In our previous blog (August 2019), my co-author, Dr Russ Pratt, and I discussed a number of issues to do with youth viewing pornography, and specifically how pornography might influence youths’ sexual practices, behaviors, attitudes, and perceptions.
We discussed that we ha[d]
“…created a developmentally focused, “savvy consumer” model for youth which advocates ‘zero-tolerance’ for pornography viewing for very young children, combined with a ‘harm-minimization’ model for older adolescents. The model has, at its heart, the belief that the ability to both critique the falseness of pornography, and highlight positive, real-world sexual health practices will ensure that the qualities of healthy, safe, and desired sexual practices remain in-focus during treatment.
In particular:
·         Respect,
·         Mutual consent,
·         Equality and partnership,
·         The freedom to say no, and;
·         The freedom to negotiate equally regarding healthy, respectful sexual pleasure and activity. (ATSA Blog, 2019)”
In today’s blog, we do just that.
Any professional who has worked with families where harmful sexual behaviors, problem sexual behaviors and/or sexually abusive behaviors are present has most likely heard the question;

“How can I help my child understand that what they see in pornography does not represent real-life sex?” 
We have already “set the agenda” that – in our views - pornography strongly influences and thus shapes the sexual beliefs, desires, expectations and practices of young people.  Further, we have stated that it plays an influential role in the development of harmful sexual behaviour with many of the young people we work with. Particularly at-risk are those youth who utilise pornography to make-up for sexual inexperience, however poor parental role modelling and supervision, or even absent parents also raises risk. Those youth suffering developmental issues (intellectual disability, autism spectrum disorders and ADD/ADHD) which impact impulse control are also ‘at-risk’. Unfortunately, this cohort seem to experience difficulty in seeking support from adults who might have helped them make sense of what they had seen in regards to ‘pornographic scenarios’ viewed (Prescott & Schuler, 2011; Pratt and Fernandes 2015).
Gaining understanding of effective work with sexually abusive youth impacted by pornography

During 2016, we conducted a survey of practitioners who worked with sexually abusive youth aged up to 18 years. The world-wide survey attracted 183 valid responses, with the majority of participants coming from Australia, the United States, The United Kingdom and Canada.
Regarding the main findings from the survey, several key points emerged, as noted below;
·         Overwhelmingly, respondents believed that their sexually abusive clients were influenced by the pornography they were viewing,

·         They were seeing younger children presenting for treatment and they believed this was due to younger onset viewing of pornography,

·         They believed that pornography provided a “see-all” template or technical manual for youth who were sexually inexperienced,
·         Whilst they indicated they were comfortable working with sexually abusive youth, they indicated they wanted more ‘tools’ that were specifically designed to engage their young clients in regards to both viewing pornography and being influenced by it.
In response to the issues raised by the survey (and in particular the last point), my colleague and I created a series of points, which, when expanded, we believe provides a developmentally-driven (and thus developmentally appropriate) model  – a 9-step guide (initially a 12-step guide) with a focus on working with young people to understand and – where developmentally appropriate – engage in healthy, respectful and safe sexual practices. At the same time, the model aims to highlight the ‘unreal-ness’ and ‘falsity’ of what Crabbe () refers to as “porn world”. We called this model of work the “Savvy Consumer” model, as we felt that the best way to ‘bullet proof’ our young people to porn’s impact was to assist them to “…critique the product” as any savvy consumer would (and porn is a product).
The Savvy Consumer model is developmentally focused - advocating for zero tolerance of pornography viewing for very young (pre-pubescent) children however then combining this with a harm minimisation approach for post-pubescent youth. Additionally, the model advocates on commencing this training from a very young age, however commencing with “E-safety” rather than porn per se, based upon our belief that the internet is a rather dangerous place to hang out whatever your age may be. The model can be utilized in working both with general population of children and young people as well as those who have engaged in harmful sexual behaviour. We set out the model, below, in detail.
1.     Education regarding risks on the internet (not just pornography) must start in early childhood (by six-years of age). Education commences with safety-skills enhancement around safe use and does not mention sex or pornography. If you are old enough to scroll, you are old enough to get into trouble online. We need to begin the conversation early with children about the importance of being safe and very cautious when sharing private information about yourself.  It is also important that adults closely monitor both the content that children are viewing and what they might want to send out into the cyber-world. This is the age to begin education about what is suitable for their child to watch and how this will change as they progress to adolescence.

2.     Net-nanny filtering, password protection, age verification and parental monitoring are all pro-active and vital strategies used to protect “the accidental user” and the “interested [in all the wrong things] user”. Many children and young people report accidentally stumbling onto pornography because of innocently clicking on pop-ups.  Other youth report keeping their usage of sites that their parents would likely not approve of secret. Adopting a strong internet filtering and monitoring processes will reduce the likelihood of these situations occurring. Of course, good relationships with your kids and talking about risk is also vital.

3.     From a developmental perspective, it is important to practice Zero Tolerance for viewing Pornography where kids are under 12 years of age (really, prior to puberty). When comparing early onset viewing versus later onset viewing of pornography, limited research suggests problematic outcomes for the early onset viewers including higher rates of casual sex, greater levels of and tolerance for aggression, violence and sex being linked (for adults see Wright, Tokunaga & Kraus, 2015). Also, increased consumption of pornography later in life, and higher rates of bestiality (Owens, et. al., 2012; Skau, 2007, Skau & Barbour, 2011).  

4.      “Pornography Sex” has a tenuous relationship to “Real Sex”.   Although at times uncomfortable, it is vital that we start conversations with young people in which we are clear (in matter-of-fact ways) that pornography has very little in common with real-life, healthy sexual behaviours and both romantic or sexual relationships.  We want them to understand very clearly in pornography we see actors following a script – and that the script is often demeaning and disrespectful to women.
5.    Approaching puberty (around 11-12 years of age) sex education should incorporate both the physical and the relational aspects of sexual activity. As well, at this age, simple information and education about internet-based pornography commences.  There should be opportunities for children and young people to gain education and information about sex from a variety of sources such as schools, parents, and specialist-educators, rather than the internet itself.  At this stage, sex-education focuses upon mutual consent, respect, boundaries, laws, and pleasure and therefore presents sex as enjoyable by both parties.  Given what we have seen over the past several years in regards to how pornography seen on the internet has shaped and influenced youth’s sexual belief systems, these ‘educational steps’ regarding children’s beliefs about the difference between real sex and porn sex will be vitally important in developing respectful relationship within our community over the next few important formative years.

6.     The Savvy Consumer model assumes that by 13 or 14 years of age (as supported by research), most youth will have viewed pornography (Lim et. al., 2017; Mitchell, et. al., 2014).  Realistic discussion of what they are seeing has to commence. As parents and practitioners; it is crucial that we maintain a curious and non-judgemental stance when talking to youth about their porn usage This is likely to assist in more open and ongoing conversation with young people and allows us to help shape their understanding that the internet-images seen are not realistic reflections of healthy sexual relationships and behaviours.

7.     By the age of 16 (and likely younger), sex education has to include “What women want and what men want” and what porn suggests women want. Sex education should address issues such as the prevalence and practice of heterosexual anal sex, multiple sex partners (mainly seen on the internet is multiple men and one women) in the real world as opposed to on pornography.

8.     Education programs should not be heteronormative or assume that females do not watch pornography.  Whilst most pornography is viewed by males (Ogas & Gaddam, 2011); research is suggesting that significant number of women are viewing pornography regularly (Fischer, et. al., 2019). Additionally, a significant number of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual, intersex and queer young people are accessing the internet for information in relations to “their” sexual behaviour (Lim et. al., 2017). Sex Education programs that are not inclusive of these populations risk derision and critical rejection by all youth.

9.     Sex-education skills should include skills-building regarding the ability to critique pornography. We cannot stop young people using the internet and accessing pornography – even if we wanted to. As authors we have debated how likely it is that we can even successfully achieve ‘zero-tolerance’ for the pre-pubescent (see point 3), however we concluded it was too important a point not to try and achieve.   Rather than an abstinence model into later adolescence, which would likely be unsuccessful, our resources should be directed towards educating and supporting youth to develop skills to consider and critique both the pornography they might see, as well as the roles that pornography assigns to the participants within the movies. Who has power, how do the participants treat each other and what might that be like to be treated in that way? What role does pain, humiliation and degradation play in pornography and why would people enjoy this? In other words, how does pornography “fit in” with their beliefs, desires and (if applicable) sexual practices.  It might be the case that youth who are are particularly susceptible to the influence of pornography might require broader, ongoing support by key adults to assist them to display the confidence to “speak up” about what they have seen.

To conclude
We have set out a case – based on research (ours and others) that pornography significantly influences young people’s sexual beliefs, expectations and practices. Also, children and young people who are broadly “at risk” are more likely to be vulnerable to porn’s influence due to trauma’s impact on their ability to understand the nuances associated with determining ‘real-life’ and ‘porn-world’ sex.
We believe that the Savvy Consumer model provides a simple, effective framework for professionals and parents to assist children and young people – from an early age – to critique both pornography and its influence. Additionally, the Savvy Consumer model will assist in developing their understanding of healthy sexual practices. 
We use the analogy of the Die-Hard action films to make our final point. Most youth have seen the Bruce Willis/Die Hard series. They understand that the violence and damage inflicted is pure fantasy, most likely due to having experienced being hit/hurt/injured at some point in childhood. Sex is a different matter – they have nothing to critique pornography against. As we cannot stop adolescents viewing pornography, we can teach our children and young people to critique it – and be savvy consumers. We want them to treat pornography with contempt, or perhaps like the Die-Hard action films –outrageous fantasy, pure and simple!

Fisher, C. M., Waling, A., Kerr, L., Bellamy, R., Ezer, P., Mikolajczak, G., Brown, G., Carman, M. & Lucke, J. (2019). 6th National Survey of Australian Secondary Students and Sexual Health 2018, (ARCSHS Monograph Series No. 113), Bundoora: Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health & Society, La Trobe University.

Lim, M.S.C., Agius, P.A., Carrotte, E.R., Vella, A.M., & Hellard, M.E. (2017). Young Australian’s use of pornography and associations with sexual risk behaviours, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, 2017 online, doi: 10.1111/1753-6405.12678.

Mitchell, A., Patrick. K., Heywood, W., Blackman, P., & Pitts, M. (2014). 5th National survey of Australian secondary students and sexual health 2013. ARCSHS Monograph Series No. 97, Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia.

Ogas, O, & Gaddam, S, (2011): A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What the World's Largest Experiment Reveals about Human Desire, Dutton, UK,

Owens, E.W., Behun, E.W., Manning, R.J., & Reid, R.C. (2012). The impact of internet pornography on adolescents: A review of the research. Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, 19, 99-122.

Pratt, R., & Fernandes, C. (2015). How Pornography May Distort Risk Assessment of Children and Adolescents Who Sexually Harm. Children Australia, 40, pp 232-241 doi:10.1017/cha.2015.2.

Pratt, R., & Fernandes, C. (2015). Understanding and Responding to Pornography Use with Adolescents Who Have Engaged in Harmful Sexual Behavior: Developmental Considerations. ATSA BLOG

Prescott, D.S., & Schuler, S.A. (2011). Pornography and its Place in the Assessment and Treatment of Adolescents who have sexually abused. Neari Press. Holyoke, MA.

Skau, B. (2007). Who has seen what when? Pornography’s contribution to the social construction of sexuality during childhood and adolescence. Unpublished Doctoral Thesis, Wilfrid Laurier University, 2007.

Skau, B. & Barbour, H. (2011). The pursuit of “Good Sex” in a pornified world: Assisting adolescents in constructing positive sexual scripts. Paper presented at the 30th Annual ATSA Conference, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Wright, P.J, Tokunaga, R.S., & Kraus, A., (2015), ‘A meta-analysis of pornography consumption and actual acts of sexual aggression in general population studies’, Journal of Communication, 66(1), 183-205.





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