Positively shaping sexual attitudes and behaviours is essential to building respectful relationships. But how do unhealthy behaviours begin, and what are the risks if we don’t take action?
Domestic and family violence is the primary reason women and children seek specialist homelessness services. That’s why the theme of The Lady Musgrave Trust 14th Annual Forum on Women & Homelessness was ‘The pathway to homelessness for women in Queensland – a story of coercive control, violence and systematic disadvantage’.
Domestic and family violence doesn’t occur in a vacuum. There are certain attitudes that lead to the use of violent and coercive behaviours – and these attitudes can start forming early.
In the first panel of this year’s Forum, our speakers discussed how pornography can help develop unhealthy attitudes towards sexuality at an early age – and the tragic impact that these unhealthy attitudes can have on relationships.
How does pornography influence attitudes towards sex and relationships?
Professor Melissa Bull, the Director of the QUT Centre for Justice, hosted the panel discussion. She began by citing an Our Watch report that identified nearly half (48 per cent) of young men have seen pornography by the age of 13, and nearly half (48 per cent) of young women by the age of 15.
“On average, young men are viewing pornography for the first time three years before they get into their first sexual relationship,” Professor Bull said. “So that’s where they learn about what they might think of as ‘intimacy’.”
The Our Watch report notes that pornography can influence young people’s views and attitudes at a time in their lives when they’re still developing an understanding about sex and sexual relationships. That’s of concern to those working to prevent violence against women and promote respectful relationships and gender equality, because research suggests pornography use can be associated with less progressive attitudes about gender roles, and a belief that women are sex objects.
“The young age of initial access, especially by boys, to content that’s violent and controlling; content that represents women in submissive stereotypes; and content that promotes highly risky practices, contributes to feeding unrealistic and even illegal expectations of many young people, long before they enter into relationships,” Professor Bull said.
“It shapes the way they think about intimacy. It impacts on their attitudes and expectations, particularly with regards to entitlement and the important matter of consent.”
Professor Bull said the increasing ease of access to pornography is also a factor.
“There has been a transformation,” she said. “When I started my career, I worked for the Australian Institute of Criminology. One of my tasks was to think about how to regulate pornography, which, back then, was in magazines and videos – and the Australian Classification Board used to look at everything. But enter the internet… and now it’s easy, it’s fast, it’s cheap, it’s borderless, it’s abundant, it’s unlimited and it’s unregulated. And so that presents challenges, particularly in relation to young people.”
Kerrin Bradfield, a clinical sexologist and Education and Engagement Coordinator for the Gold Coast Centre Against Sexual Violence, told the panel that pornography – in which women are often depicted as submissive and willing to comply with the demands of males – is impacting the way the young people she works with view consent.
“We work with young women from the age of 14 years and up at the Gold Coast Centre Against Sexual Violence, and we’re seeing a lot of young girls presenting with very adult experiences of sexual experiences,” she said.
“That’s been a big shift in the last five to 10 years. And what we’re seeing in that space, in our work with these young women, is that there’s real confusion around where the line is, and what actually constitutes enthusiastic consent.
“It’s a complication that pornography certainly plays a role in. Pornography does tend to have a very predictable and homogenous script, where violence is met with pleasure, or at best, a neutral response, from the recipient of that violence. So when people are soaked in that narrative and that sexual script, it becomes increasingly difficult for them to put a name to their own experience.
“They might say, ‘Oh, what happened to me wasn’t that bad’, or ‘I don’t really qualify to access a service like this’, instead of seeing that any violation of their boundaries, any crossing of their consent and limitations, should actually be viewed and should be identified as non-consensual. That it was a form of violence and harm.”
Sheryl Batchelor, the Founder of Yiliyapina Indigenous Corporation, pointed out that young minds are particularly susceptible to outside influences.
“There are certain critical times,” she said. “What really concerns me about that 10-14 age group is that’s when neuroplasticity is like a sponge – it’s the time when we can make the most difference.”
How do attitudes towards sex and relationships influence the path towards domestic and family violence?
The Our Watch report notes that there are four expressions of gender inequality that consistently predict higher rates of violence against women – also known as ‘drivers’ of violence against women:
- Rigid gender roles and stereotyped constructions of masculinity and femininity
- Men’s control of decision-making and limits to women’s independence in public and private life
- Condoning of violence against women
- Male peer relations that emphasise aggression and disrespect towards women
The report notes that pornography use has been shown to have an impact on subsequent attitudes regarding gender roles and relationships, and men’s use of sexually aggressive behaviours.
“This, then, leads into the development of acceptance of coercive behaviours,” Professor Bull told the panel.
“We still live in a society where women and men are not equal. As long as this is the case, women will disproportionately find themselves in controlling relationships – and if they leave, the price is homelessness.”
Kerrin Bradfield added that it’s important for people to understand the link between sexual violence and homelessness.
“Homelessness is both a cause and a consequence of sexual violence,” she said. “For young women who have experiences of intimate partner sexual violence; who have had childhood sexual abuse perpetrated in their home; or sexual violence perpetrated by someone they live with, this often leads them to sleep rough, to put them at risk of homelessness, or to force them to move into unsafe transitional sharehousing.
“These forms of accommodation that lack safety are then, in and of themselves, often a cause of further experiences of victimisation and sexual violence.
“We know that vulnerability is intersectional. It’s a complex melting pot that pornography is a part of, but we need to look at the broader picture as well.”
How can we encourage healthy attitudes towards sex and relationships?
The Our Watch report notes that the influence of pornography on young people isn’t uniform – it’s moderated by individual characteristics and circumstances, and affected by a broader cultural context, which means it’s just one risk factor among many others for the development of unhealthy attitudes and behaviours.
“There are a lot of people who watch pornography who don’t equate intimacy with violence,” Bradfield said. “We’re looking at a subset of people who already have attitudes that are disrespectful; that represent inequality; that are supportive of violence against women; and align closely with those drivers of gender-based violence. Those people are then watching pornography and being emboldened in these pre-existing attitudes and beliefs.
“So when we look at younger people who may still be forming those attitudes, a lot of contextual factors come into play. It could be the absence of solid role models throughout a search for identity in developmental years.
“It could be the complete lack of sexual education – a lack of discussion around sexuality and education about sex as pleasure-based, as equal, as mutual. Those things are missing, which allows pornography to become the loudest voice in the room. The absence of any other information gives pornography a platform to speak to young people in their formative years.
“There’s a multi-directional relationship between holding violence-supportive attitudes; watching pornography; and the pornography itself becoming more disrespectful and more violent, reinforcing those attitudes. It’s a back-and-forth relationship… but when we look at where these attitudes come from, they start early.
“There is an increasing difficulty with young people whose entire developmental experience has been influenced by pornography, as well as social media and a society in general that has become much more sexualised. We’re increasingly seeing the commodification of female pleasure for male pleasure… and that’s being reinforced by TikTok, by Instagram, by all these forms of media that have something to say to young people that they should be hearing from trusted adults.
“It’s not young people’s fault that pornography and the online world have become their only source of sexual education – they just don’t have better options.”
Australian Federal Police Commander Hilda Sirec, who works with the Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation, said the “hyper-sexuality” of media is encouraging children to “self-generate” exploitation material .
“There’s a desentistation about what’s appropriate to send online,” she said, “and that’s driving children and young people to generate and send their own exploitative material.”
Commander Sirec encouraged parents to be aware of what their children are doing online, and the kind of material they’re being exposed to.
“Life is synonymous with being online,” she said. “We’re not going to get away from that. But research shows that only 52 per cent of parents and carers actually know about online safety, and know what their children are doing online. So I would just ask that instead of asking how your child’s day went, ask them how their day went online. You need to know what’s happening there.”
Ultimately, of course, the blame for sexual violence must fall on the perpetrators – regardless of what influenced their attitudes.
“We need to hold perpetrators to account,” Bradfield told the panel. “I think we know that most of them are serial offenders, and they have multiple victims. The sooner we can interrupt that pattern and hold them to account, the better the outcome will be.”