Children who sexually abuse other children are in some cases attributing their behaviour to pornography, according to new research in which the young people themselves open up about their actions.
Gemma McKibbin, a PhD candidate in the University of Melbourne’s Department of Social Work, said her interviews with young people who had sexually abused had revealed disturbing links between sexual abuse and pornography. She said the feedback made it clear more needed to be done to stop pornography being so widely available.
A recent North American study has confirmed that viewing pornography is correlated with sexual aggression among both males and females. Separate Australian research suggests that over 90 per cent of boys and over 60 per cent of girls aged under 16 have been exposed to pornography. Further Australian research has found that mainstream pornography has become more violent and often depicts violence against women. Research from the United Kingdom indicates that the majority of sexually abusive behaviour is carried out by boys.
Ms McKibbin said her research highlighted an urgent need to improve sex education to teach children about respectful sexual relationships as a way to counter the distorted messages they received from pornography.
She said consistent, protective sex education needed to be introduced as soon as children started school, if not before. Previous studies have shown that about half the victims of child-on-child sexual abuse are under the age of six, while the children who abuse are themselves likely to be aged just 12.
“Many young people are now consuming pornography, so we can’t on the one hand say we don’t want to talk with young children about sexuality, while on the other hand do nothing about the multi-billion-dollar pornography industry and the telecommunications industry that is enabling access,” Ms McKibbin said. She added:
The access that young people are having to pornography, as well as our collective ‘turning a blind eye,’ is akin to a kind of cultural grooming of children.
University of Melbourne professor of social work Cathy Humphreys, who supervised Ms McKibbin’s work, said it was “a ground-breaking study”.
“It contributes significantly to our understanding of the perspectives of young people who have sexually abused, and to how those perspectives could be used to enhance the prevention agenda,” Professor Humphreys said.
Child-on-child sexual abuse is rarely talked about, but according to some research it could account for half of all child sexual abuse. Police statistics suggest that up to 16 per cent of sexual abuse against children is committed by other children and young people, but much abuse goes unreported.
As part of her qualitative study, Ms McKibbin interviewed young people who had completed a sexually abusive behaviour treatment program and were now aged over 16. While some young people invited to participate did not want to reflect on their past, 14 were willing to talk about prevention, two of whom were girls. Six workers were also interviewed as part of the study.
Of the young people who participated, 12 said they had been exposed to pornography, while three of the boys directly attributed their sexually abusive behaviour to their pornography consumption.
Ms McKibbin said the interviews revealed a set of young people who were as much victims of abuse as they were abusers.
“The majority of the young people had experienced significant childhood adversity of some kind,” she said. “A lot of them had grown up in environments that weren’t safe. Some were victims of abuse, sometimes sexual. Some were living with family violence or bullying or family breakdowns.’’
One boy had sexually abused his sister, including violently restraining her. He explicitly attributed his behaviour to the pornography he had been watching. “He made a conscious decision to act out on his sister what he was seeing in the pornography, and what he was seeing was quite violent,” Ms McKibbin said.
“He isn’t a bad person, but he did go down a pathway that was incredibly damaging.’’
Onus on government
Another boy had been referred to the program after having masturbated in front of his classmates at school. “He attributed his behaviour to watching pornography and wanting attention,” Ms McKibbin said. “He talked about going through puberty early and how his mind hadn’t caught up with his body.”
The third boy who directly attributed his sexually abusive behaviour to his pornography consumption, had become overwhelmed with guilt, and had subsequently sworn off pornography. He told Ms McKibbin that he now felt traumatised if he saw pornographic images.
McKibbin said a key message from some young people was that they had trouble managing their exposure to pornography. She said it was time to put the onus on government to somehow limit the reach of pornography. It wasn’t enough simply to rely on parents to shield their children from pornography, as children were proving to be technologically adept at bypassing device controls and were often being exposed outside the home through peers.
Teaching the rules
“It may be that government needs to intervene at this point. Pornography can’t be seen as the sole responsibility of parents or schools because it has gone way beyond that. We probably need to engage directly with the pornography industry and the telecommunications industry,” she said.
Participants also indicated that they had never been taught how to behave with regards to sex. “Many of the young people said that the sex education they had received had been woefully inadequate in preventing their sexually abusive behaviour,” Ms McKibbin said.
She said young people reported that the sex education they had received had been disjointed, inconsistent, and too focused on sexually transmitted diseases and the physical details of sex, rather than on what constituted legal and respectful sexual behaviour. This is despite the availability of good teaching resources such as Catching on early and Catching on later.
“What some young people thought could have made a difference was information about consent. They wanted less information about the mechanics of sex and more information about what they were allowed to do sexually,” she said.
“We have a great opportunity with the introduction of Respectful Relationships Education in Victorian schools to address sexually abusive behaviour. We could include in the curriculum messages specifically designed to prevent such behaviour. It is really important that we are delivering consistent, evidence-based messages about preventing sexually abusive behaviour to children and young people.”
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