Porn and the changing face of clinical risk assessment – Part 2

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.

In our last post we discussed how increased exposure to pornography has challenged our perceptions regarding our work with young people who sexually harm. We looked at how our assessment of young people may need to evolve due to some alarming patterns of accelerated progression in sexual harm which may be linked to pornography consumption.

Finally, we reported relevant research from Burton et al (2010), Owens et. al. (2012) and Prescott & Shuler (2011) which indicated potential links between exposure to porn and engagement in coercive sexual behaviour, sexually aggressive language and sex with animals, as well as potentially distorted views about what is ‘acceptable’ behaviour in relationships.

In this post, we also look at a case study from the Child Trauma Service Victoria, to highlight presentation and treatment issues.

Case Example

The research quoted in this blog helps us to understand the real life examples and presentations of the youth with sexually harmful behaviour and their families who have sought treatment at our Child Trauma Service in Victoria. Jack, aged 13 years, was referred to the service after engaging in sexually abusive behaviour, involving vaginal penetration of his 7 year old female cousin. From all reports, this was the first known incident of sexually abusive behaviour and therefore lacked the typical type of progression we might usually expect. Jack comes from a caring family with no history of abuse or neglect. Jack had been diagnosed as being on the Autism Spectrum Disorder and had experienced difficulties with peer relationships, and self-regulation. Jack had indicated that, prior to engaging in the abusive behaviour, he had been spending a great deal of time watching pornography on his laptop. Jack’s family was highly religious and did not approve of any pre-marital sexual activity including masturbation.

Jack reported having no peer-aged friends of either sex to provide counter experiences to the pornographic script, nor information on sexuality and sexual matters. Pornography was his prime source of sexual, romantic and relational information. It was apparent that Jack struggled to contextualize the fantasy aspect of pornography and this was magnified by his difficulties in seeking support. The sensory stimulation he received further reinforced this behaviour. Upon assessing the situation, it seemed clear that Jack had re-enacted partial scripts from pornography when he abused his cousin.

Treatment

As part of safety and containment, Jack’s access to electronic devices was closely managed thus stopping him viewing pornography. Additionally his contact with younger children was supervised. Jack was also supported to develop and integrate general regulation and relational skills. As he gained greater mastery of self-regulation skills, he was provided with concrete positive feedback which assisted him in developing a positive sense of self and efficacy. Their improved sense of self, coupled with self-regulation skills was vital in helping him tolerate discussions about the sexually abusive behaviour without leading to a shame response and overwhelming his capacity to engage in the therapeutic process. Treatment for Jack also focused on helping him develop a more healthy and realistic understanding of romantic relationships and sexual behaviour. Specific, targeted information and education about sexual health, sexual practice, relationships, and importantly, discussions about how the sex and relationships portrayed in porn were not real, and why this was so, was provided to Jack in sessions with his therapist. Alongside this, significant work was undertaken with Jack’s parents and carers to support them to respond in empathic and attuned ways as well as assisting them in finding opportunities for positive experiences of connection with Jack.

Conclusion

For young people like Jack, it appears that viewing pornography has significantly impacted upon his understanding of appropriate sexual behaviour. Jack’s inability to ‘decode’ porn as fantasy may have resulted in him engaging in serious sexual abusive behaviours at his first episode of abuse. It may additionally have provided stimulation, technical ability (a “How to” manual) and distorted beliefs that impacted negatively on his internal boundaries against committing sexual assaults. Fortunately, the outcomes for young people who enter treatment are positive with work carried out to enhance their understanding and provide them with more intimate knowledge of their ‘inner worlds’ and thus their motivations to sexually abuse. Of course therapists engage with their young clients to implement practical, understandable safety techniques for them with which they can better manage any abusive urges they experience.

Whilst these young people have committed serious sexually abusive acts, research and practice outcome data over several decades suggests that their risk of recidivism in sexual assault and abuse is low. Furthermore, for some, a short term treatment regime is recommended – individual assessment and understanding of the impact of pornography will assist to determine the duration and targets for treatment for each young person individually. What seems to be emerging in our client group is a significant cohort of youth who do not understand that pornography is fantasy and this provides them with a template for engaging in real-life sexual activity.

The onslaught of online pornography will not and cannot be stopped, given the pornography industry’s explosion over the past decade. Given this, rather than attempting to ‘stop the unstoppable’, alternate ways of ‘porn-proofing’ our children need to be found. Young people have to understand that porn is to sex what a Bruce Willis (Die Hard) action movie is to violence – complete and utter fantasy.

It is up to all of us; parents, teaching staff, therapists and mentors, to provide youth with sound sexual knowledge, thorough sex education that goes far beyond the mechanics of sexual intimacy and talks about real world relationships, and a respectful value system. Porn is not real sex, even though it resembles some aspects of some sexual acts. Quality sex education must be provided that incorporates not only the mechanics, but also the relational ethics of loving, respectful sex and relationships.

  • Do you work with young people who sexually harm? If so have you thought about whether pornography exposure may have impacted their behaviour?
  • How do you help young people understand the fantasy nature of porn?
  • Can you think of other ways our sex education could be improved in how it combats the messages provided to youth by pornography?

References

A Bridges, R Wosnitzer, E Scharrer, C Sun & R Liberman, ‘Aggression and sexual behaviour in best-selling pornography videos: a content analysis update’, Violence against Women, vol. 16, no. 10, 2010, pp. 1065–85

Burton, D. L., Leibowitz, G. S., Booxbaum, A. & Howard, A. (2010). Comparison by crime type of juvenile delinquents on pornography exposure: The absence of relationships between exposure to pornography and sexual offense characteristics, Journal of Forensic Nursing, 6, 121-129.

Crabbe, M (2014). In the Picture: Supporting young people in an era of explicit sexual imagery. A secondary school resource. itstimewetalked Brophy Family Services.

Glass, J. (2014). 8 ways porn influenced technology. Retrieved from http://www.supercompressor.com/vice/how-porn-influenced-technology-8-ways-porn-influenced-tech-supercompressor-com, 8th January, 2015

Haggstom-NordinE., HansonU, TydenT. 2005. Association between pornography consumption and sexual practices among adolescents in Sweden International Journal of STD and Aids 16 102-107

Horvath, M.A.H., Alys, L., Massey, K., Pina, A., Scally, M., & Adler, J.R. (2013). “Basically…Porn is everywhere”, A rapid assessment on the effect that access and exposure to pornography has on children and young people. Report commissioned by the Children’s commissioned by the UK Children’s Commissioner, 2013

Owens, E.W., Behun, R.J., Manning, J.C., & Reid, R.C. (2012). The impact of internet pornography on adolescents: A review of the research. Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity, 19, 99-12.

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

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