Porn and the changing face of clinical risk assessment – Part 1

This article was co-authored by Russell Pratt, Statewide Principal Practitioner, Office of Professional Practice, Department of Health and Human Services, Victoria, and Cyra Fernandes, Team Leader, Child and Family Counselling Program, Child Trauma Service Victoria, at the Australian Childhood Foundation.

Sexually abusive youth cause considerable concern for the community. Research indicates that a significant proportion of sexual abuse is committed by adolescents, with the majority of the abuse being against siblings, cousins and close peer aged or younger family friends (Hatch 2002, 2005). Recent evidence presented by Department of Health and Human Services to the Royal Commission into Institutional Sexual Abuse highlights the Department’s experience of the significant rise in this kind of abuse over the last decade and the importance of multi-agency approaches – in this case the Department and The Foundation – to understand the changing presentations and what this might mean for risk assessment.

In the past few years, our Child Trauma service in Victoria has seen a number of adolescent boys referred who have engaged in serious sexually abusive behaviour, often as a one off incident or over a short period of time. These presentations mark a significant change from the ‘typical’ presentations seen at the service -where generally, there is a ‘track-able’ progression of severity of the sexually abusive behaviours, with each incident increasing in severity and sexual sophistication. Many of the young people currently seen do not have an apparent history of engaging in sexually abusive behaviour or an obvious trauma history. The common link in their presentations seems to be the viewing of on-line pornography.

These experiences lead to two main questions;

  1. How does the viewing of pornography impact on how we understand, assess and treat youth who sexually harm?
  2. Do our beliefs regarding sexually abusive behaviour still hold true, such that when a young person has engaged in a more serious sexually abusive act, there is a greater likelihood of entrenchment of the behaviour, or has viewing pornography and it’s re-enactment altered this apparent relationship?

Porn is everywhere

In considering these questions, our research uncovered an ‘explosion’ of porn websites, particularly over the past decade. From 70,000 worldwide on the web in 2001 to 4.2 million porn sites in the USA alone last year (Glass, 2014).

Annual profits from pornography are now $10 billion and worldwide porn industry sales are more than Apple, Google, Amazon and Microsoft combined.

Moreover, more than 30 million people worldwide are accessing pornography at any given time. That represents more than the entire population of Australia… looking at porn, at once.

Pornography and Young People

It would appear that young people are the main consumers of pornography with research indicating that young males 12-17 were the most frequent consumers of on line pornography (Haggstrom-Nordin, Hanson and Tyden 2005). Further there is evidence to suggest that boys and young men are more likely to view pornography frequently, to see it in a more positive light, to use it for sexual excitement and to consider it as an important source of information on sex (Hovarth et al., 2013).

This trend is concerning as internet-based pornography is aggressive, with a set script which portrays women as sexual toys to be ‘played with’, usually by multiple men. A recent study of best selling pornography found 88% of scenes included physical aggression such as gagging, choking and slapping. The majority of this aggression was directed to female performers and was met with a neutral or positive response. (Bridges et al 2010). The clear message being that violence against women is not only ok but that it is sexy. (Crabb 2014)

Whilst this world view is clearly problematic, there are a number of other signs which might be observed in young people’s behaviours indicating their exposure to porn is concerning for them.

5 Indicators that exposure to pornography is problematic for young people

  1. Accessing pornography is interfering with day-to-day activities, with signs that the young person shows less interest in human face-to-face interaction and more interest in time spent at the computer
  2. A tendency to utilize the internet in private and to block or hide content from others when they engage with the young person at or near the computer. Parents and caregivers may become aware of the young person becoming somewhat obsessive regarding deletion of their browsing history.
  3. Young person’s language may change and take on a style that mimics pornographic movie scripts. Suggestions or comments that are indicative of knowledge of sexual content above age-appropriate levels.
  4. Obsessive or harmful (injurious) sexual activity (including obsessive masturbation) or fetish-like interests of a sexual nature, which developmentally would not be expected in adolescence.
  5. An obsessive or high degree of anxiety, frustration or anger when the young person is denied access to the internet

Pornography and its links to Sexually Abusive Behaviour

Burton et al (2010) found that viewing pornography did not lead to engagement in sexually harmful behaviours but did note that adolescents who sexually abused reported more exposure to porn than those who engaged in non-sexual crimes. In line with these findings, for youth who were deemed “at-risk”, the viewing of pornography increased the likelihood of engaging in coercive sexual behaviour, sexually aggressive language and sex with animals (Owens et. al.: 2012). Moreover, repeated exposure to pornography was found to desensitize youth to the material viewed and to lead to distorted views of what were ‘acceptable’ behaviours in relationships (Prescott & Shuler, 2011).

In our next post, we will use a case example from our work in the Child Trauma Service Victoria, in which we firstly discuss the presentation of the young person and our treatment process. We then present our conclusions regarding therapeutic interventions for sexually abusive young people who have been exposed to pornography.