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Reality check: Is it fair to link sexual misconduct and assault to porn?

Is easy access to porn partly to blame for sexual harassment and assault?.
Is easy access to porn partly to blame for sexual harassment and assault?. Damian Dovarganes / Associated Press/File

Conservative MP Arnold Viersen has a theory about sexual misconduct.

Following a press conference on Monday, Viersen — who represents the Alberta riding of Peace River-Westlock — suggested that the sexual abuse and harassment exposed publicly through the #MeToo movement and other campaigns stems, in large part, from easy access to pornography.

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Viersen, who has been pushing for tighter legislative controls on “online violent and degrading sexually explicit material” since 2016, explained to online news outlet iPolitics that he believes porn is influencing what children perceive to be “normal” or acceptable sexual behaviour.

“We’re seeing how they’re being groomed, essentially, to be more accepting of sexual abuse,” he said.

As adults, pornography reinforces these perceptions, suggested Viersen, “then we wonder why we see people acting these scripts out.” He said the allegations against former Ontario Progressive Conservative leader Patrick Brown and former CBC Radio host Jian Ghomeshi follow a “porn script.”

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The comments drew almost immediate condemnation from Liberal MP Pam Damoff, who said Viersen “just doesn’t get it.” She cited the “old boys” culture that existed long before pornography became readily available online.

But is Viersen on to something?

Researchers have been studying the potential links between porn and sexual harassment, sexism and sexual assault for years, but there is still very little consensus and the results are often conflicting.

Large-scale literature reviews, for instance, have suggested that if men are predisposed toward violence, they are more likely to show negative effects from viewing pornography. Other researchers have concluded that porn can undermine social inhibitions against acting out violent sexual desires.

But a 2007 study out of Australia also found that the amount of pornography consumed by 1,023 male respondents did not predict whether they would hold sexist attitudes toward women.

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Paulette Senior, president and CEO at the Canadian Women’s Foundation, agreed with Damoff’s assessment that abusers preyed on women long before pornography was easily accessible, and that today, their actions remain rooted in “power and control.”

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“Abusers have gotten away with it for decades because we live in a world where women and girls are not perceived as equal in most spheres of society,” Senior wrote in an emailed response.

“However, without a conclusive link between pornography and sexual violence, the issue remains that we live in a society that has systematically devalued women and historically looked the other way, until now.”

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During an appearance before the House of Commons Status of Women committee in 2016, the director of the Women’s Media Center Speech Project testified that she had immersed herself “for good or bad” in studying the effects of pornography for over a year, particularly its effect on children and teenagers.

After reading over 300 studies, Soraya Chemaly told the committee that “there is nothing conclusive about that.”

From a criminal justice perspective, as pornography has become more ubiquitous and widely available online in countries like Canada, the U.S., Japan, China and Denmark, researchers have actually noted a reduction in sex assault.

These are only associations, however. There’s no proof that more access to porn is directly responsible for a drop in sex assaults, for example, and there have been significant changes made to the laws surrounding these crimes over the same period.

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Chemaly was also careful to note in her testimony that, among teenagers, pornography can indeed contribute to skewed views of sex and the “normalization” of language that shames girls.

“So the most gendered slurs you can think about, which teenagers use in their daily life, aren’t even considered harassing in most cases,” she said.

The answer isn’t necessarily new laws that restrict access to online porn, she added, but better education and more openness.

“Sometimes, it does require that adults openly discuss very difficult subjects, and I find that’s the greatest impediment. Time and time again, what I find is not resistance among children, but resistance among adults.”

Senior, at the Canadian Women’s Foundation, agreed.

“Regardless of what media young people consume, we need more real-world discussions and ways to reach them that help them unpack what they see around them,” she explained. “The Canadian Women’s Foundation funds programs like this that educate youth about what healthy relationships look like. We also raise awareness on related topics, like how to give and get consent.”