Written by Anna Krohn, National Bioethics Convenor
The last few decades have witnessed a rising tide of societal outrage and grief over the neglect or evasion of cases of child sexual abuse within once trusted institutions—the scouts, schools or churches. People question why it is that time and time again those in authority prevaricated, ignored the evidence or were simply too perplexed to face their suspicions squarely. These questions are justified.
At the same time, there is evidence of a disturbing double standard within the same sections of the public who would lynch all priests and school teachers for the crimes of a few.
This is shown in the response to a recent disturbing account by a British mother of the serious behavioural changes in her 11 year old son. The woman was writing from her own experience in support of the British MP, Claire Perry’s report into the harms of internet pornography which was released in April this year: The Independent Parliamentary Inquiry into Online Child Protection (London: 2012)
The article which appeared in the Daily Mail on April 19th 2012 was simple but telling. The woman recounts that her son, who had been a normal “sunny” boy with an aptitude for his schooling and his sport, suddenly changed. This was no pre-pubescent mood swing, but one in which the same boy became reclusive, depressed and self-harming: “I once rolled back his sleeve to find 'I am disgusting' scrawled on the inside of his arm.”
The mother explains that at first she and her husband blamed themselves for his change in character. Then one night, inadvertently she discovered that her son had been regularly and compulsively accessing internet pornography on his laptop in bed at night.
As the mother discovered to her horror, the type of images and narratives her son was viewing was not simply “airbrushed” erotica or nudity but scenes beyond her comprehension: “the scenes of violence and sadism, the shocking mistreatment and degradation of women and, worst of all, the child abuse that now appeared before me”.
“In a peculiarly disturbing twist, some of the most vile, pedophiliac images were presented in cartoon form, so that children were abused in the very medium that children most like to watch.”
She further observed that all these sites had been accessed by her son without a single use of a credit card or other age check. The woman also had the astuteness to realize that her son was not a rare and perverted exception, but just one of the myriad of boys in his year who begin the porn- journey out of an initial “coming of age” curiosity but who become magnetized to the cycles of sensation and self-disgust.
This invasion of abusive on-line porn into the imaginations of teenage boys has been globalized by “the always on - always available” wireless and phone technology. Boys in Australian schools today find it both “gross” and scintillating to view images of animal-human sexual abuse, child abuse and the disfigurement of women.
More shocking than this woman’s account of her son’s experience, is the response of many of the 800 anonymous commentators on the Daily Mail response page. Many ridiculed and belittled the author of the article. Some, in the typical “blame the Mama” mode, accused the woman herself as being the true cause of the guilt in the young man. Other anonymous commentators were simply obscenely abusive, finding humour in the family’s pain and cynicism in the face of the woman’s honesty.
Other anti-porn activists and protestors, like this concerned mother, receive similar treatment. There has long been an attempt to silence abuse stories by accusations of prudery, and these days, such accusations come with threats of sexual violence. Do we ever learn?
Some of this response might be put down to mass-denial, but some of the abuse is clearly a mimicking of the degradation that fires and feeds on so much on-line porn and abuse.
As radical feminist Catherine McKinnon writes in Big Porn Inc. (2010), the adult community likes to protect its own irresponsibility and desensitization by a “protective myth” and an “ideology of compartmentalization”—after all, it argues, porn is a personal taste, a private commodity:
“… even as the industry has burgeoned, taking over more public space and penetrating more deeply into private life at home at work with each advance in technology, it is considered to be somehow not really there” or at most benign healthy raunch.
We and our children are told simply to look away from the porn or to just deal with it as part of the price of so-called adult (and mostly male) “freedom of speech”.
There are “fewer and fewer places to avert” our minds, bodies and hearts to which are untouched by the imperialism of the porn market. As McKinnon notes: “Pornography is thus at once increasingly everywhere and yet protected from direct scrutiny…”.
However the only other option is clear. Just as the incidence of child abuse in the past thrived on bullying outrage into silence and secrecy, so this electronic abuse needs to be courageously exposed for what it is.