Melinda Tankard Reist is an Australian author, speaker, media commentator, blogger and advocate for women and girls. She is best known for her work addressing sexualisation, objectification, harms of pornography, sexual exploitation, trafficking and violence against women. MercatorNet interviewed her about the sexual abuse of young women.
MercatorNet: You have a lot of experience in educating high school students about relationships. But you seem shocked by the thousands of stories of abuse collected by Chanel Contos about girls in posh Sydney schools. Hasn’t it always been like this?
Melinda Tankard Reist: I’m not sure how you arrived at the idea that I was shocked. As I said in my comment piece for ABC Religion & Ethics and in the radio interviews I did after this article was published, we shouldn’t be surprised. I certainly wasn’t – I’ve been collating and documenting these stories for a decade (for example here). What did surprise me was the level of amazement, as though there were no clues as to how it had come to this.
Having said that, I was distressed to read the individual accounts. We should all be distressed. Yes, girls have long suffered abuse; however the abuse appears to be more widespread and the age of those affected becoming younger.
You point to online pornography – “the world’s biggest department of education” — as the ultimate cause of this crisis in sexual violence amongst students. How prevalent is it?
I don’t think I said it was the ultimate cause. There are many intersecting and pre-existing factors. But this mega-industry takes these factors and puts them on steroids.
Given it is the biggest sex educator in the world, given its predatory nature and ease of access to children and young people and given the global research, there is no doubt it is fuelling abuse by eroticising that abuse. It normalises sexual violence.
When boys are repeatedly fed images of de-humanising of women, of extreme torture and degradation (bearing in mind that the most violent genres are the most popular), and are trained to become aroused by such images, they incorporate these behaviours into their sexual repertoires.
As a result, they are not interested in “consent”. In porn there is no “consent” because women want everything done to them – even when they say “no”. (There is an entire genre based on the word “no” and “forced” and “violated” are also popular).
Everything we were predicting 10 years ago when we first started with Collective Shout has come true. It gives me no pleasure to say, “we told you so”. Of my six books, three documented the harmful impacts of a sexualised, pornified world, which indoctrinated boys into a sense of entitlement, narcissism and patterns of sexual cruelty, teaching them that women and girls exist for their sexual gratification and pleasure.
They become more tolerant to sexual harassment and violence, develop hostile attitudes and are desensitized to sexual cruelty. Porn is embedding new codes of conduct in boys and men, inhibiting them from integrating empathy into their sexuality.
Girls become porn fantasy props, trained to adopt pornified roles and behaviours and to see themselves as ATMs for sex. They are tricked into thinking this was what “liberation” and “empowerment” looked like.
What we are seeing is the mass global commodification of sexuality, primarily for profit. The predatory grooming behaviour of the world’s largest department of education – the porn industry — has led to the sexual stunting of an entire generation. Now we are seeing the working-out of this mass saturation: sexual assault, unwanted sex, coercion and coercive control, emotional manipulation, aggression.
I am now being invited to speak on these issues in primary schools. The stories are getting worse, and they are getting worse younger.
You’ve described these stories as “grave and systematic human rights violations”. Isn’t that a bit exaggerated? Aren’t we talking about parties and sexting, not horrendous crimes?
In my ABC comment piece I said women had to first be seen as human and worthy of dignity and respect. I said “We are, ultimately, talking about a grave and systematic human rights violation. The context was [if you clicked on the link] “Addressing rape as a human rights violations – Globally one in three women are subjected to violence in her lifetime, and one in 10 girls have experienced “forced sexual acts” according to the Equality Now report I was quoting.
I was referring to rape as a grave and systematic human right violation, not “parties and sexting”. This was a preface to my then re-telling of some of the accounts of sexual abuse and violence.
In one of the stories from Chanel’s website, a girl reports that she was raped by a boy who had attended consent classes with her a few weeks before. If that kind of thing is true, how effective is consent education?
As I argued in my ABC piece, consent education needs to be delivered in a holistic framework, which examines harmful cultural socializing forces including especially pornography, a mammoth dispenser of misogyny and violence. Otherwise it will be of limited effect. Porn teaches that the conquest is in the taking … grooming boys who think it is erotic to deny consent.
The NSW Police Commissioner recently floated the idea of a mobile app for sexual consent. Is that a goer, do you think?
No. If a young woman has been plied with alcohol or date-rape drugs, the predator/would-be offender can use facial recognition or use one of her fingers to unlock the phone and access the app. And what if she changes mind part way, say if he becomes too aggressive, is she expected to keep a running update through the app?
More useful would be an app which could be used as an instant alarm, to alert police or an ambulance or other emergency service and which would provide a list of sexual assault crises lines or centres, legal aid to help her.
Boys are being “radicalised” by the porn industry. What do you mean by that?
The term was profoundly employed in an essay by my UK colleague James Evans, who wrote in a way I’ve never seen before, of the radicalizing impact of porn.
James describes how, through years of porn consumption, he “stopped seeing women as human beings.” Immersion in dehumanising online subcultures resulted in “a radicalisation behind laptop screens and smartphones that preaches the objectification, dehumanisation, and hatred of women and normalises sexual harassment, rape, and child abuse.”
“This was my radicalisation: I stopped seeing women as human beings, I objectified every single woman I laid eyes on, I turned them into a porn movie in my head the minute I saw them, I imagined sexual encounters with every one of them and I thought I was entitled to their bodies, whether they liked it or not…
Porn is every toxic male power fantasy, polished, scripted and in high definition”.
James said he needed to rebuild his sense of morality in order to “return to thinking that abuse is wrong and should be condemned and stopped, not something you masturbate to. I had to re-learn empathy. I had to start seeing women as human beings again and not just living sex dolls.”
So it hurts them, too?
Of course. One of the saddest accounts I read was by a young man who said he was no longer aroused by real women – by skin on skin contact. He saw an inanimate computer in a room and became excited. I talk to many young men who describe the downward spiral of compulsive porn use. This is a predatory industry. It needs to groom the next generation of consumers. Boys tell me of dropping out of sport, making excuses not to spend time with their families, staying up all night seeking the next hit, a decline in academic performance, sucking the life out of them, cutting themselves off from life-giving activities.
Their attitudes towards women and girls changed. They only saw them in terms of what they could get out of them, not as whole human beings deserving of dignity and respect. They struggled just to be “friends” with girls and see them as whole people.
How about the sleaze inside Parliament House by young staffers? Is there any link to high school abuse?
No idea. No data. (If you mean the staffers were abusive at high school? Who knows. These things often occur on a continuum but I don’t have data).
It’s not just “sleaze” – this term trivializes the issue of sexual assault, sexual harassment, inappropriate touching, filming and circulation of masturbation and ejaculation on a female MPs desk. (How do you know they are all young? They haven’t all been identified. (And the group of male MPs which allegedly called itself the “Big Swinging Dicks” weren’t young).
What we are seeing is a pattern, a continuum of behaviours, starting younger (there are increasing numbers of adolescent boys now showing up in national and international sexual assault stats). A sexist culture grooms sexual boys, diminishing their humanity. We are witnessing the fruit of this on an endemic scale.
What’s the way ahead for healthy relationships? Kids are growing up in a hypersexualised society. Is there any hope of them having happy marriages?
No hope of having healthy friendships, let alone long term sustainable partnerships/marriages. I also collect the accounts of adult women. They tell me of partners who choose porn over them. They feel cheated on. They feel they can’t compete. They go to counsellors who tell them it’s normal and they needed to loosen up a bit and accept this is just what men do. Porn teaches how to give a woman a pounding. It doesn’t teach about authentic intimacy and connection, love and the empathy needed to sustain a long term relationship. It is anti-relationship, corrosive to connection and incompatible with human flourishing in relationship with others. The way ahead is for young people to reject porn’s scripts for their lives before it’s too late.
What can we do about it?
Let’s face it. Our governments and regulatory bodies have failed us. While parents, of course, need to do all in their power to protect kids from porn, they bear a heavy burden. It’s not a fair fight. As one mum told me, “Porn slipped insidiously into our lives and raised our child”.
We cannot allow the sex industry to raise our children. The current crisis gives us an opportunity to make change happen.
One year ago, the House of Representatives committee inquiry into age verification to protect kids from porn and gambling sites, issued its “Protecting Innocence” report, recommending implementation of proof-of-age protections. While it won’t “fix” the whole problem, it will at least put one barrier in the way of children seeing rape, sadism and torture porn on the click of a button.
But for some reason, the Government has not responded to the report. We are calling on the Government to act urgently. For readers interested to know more they can go to See also our brief to the Canadian Parliamentary ethics committee inquiry into MindGeek, the parent company of Porn Hub which we have been investigating since 2016, now globally exposed for hosting rape videos, child sexual abuse material, non-consensually shared images (Image-based abuse) and trafficking, along with racist and misogynist content.
My colleague Daniel Principe and I speak in schools around the country and have new offerings on navigating a sexed-up world, porn harms and porn culture, respectful relationships, enforcing personal boundaries, acting according to convictions and values, and aspire to relationships based on mutual respect and empathy.
The response so far is very encouraging! Young people know this culture is toxic to them, their friends, their relationships and ability to flourish in life. They desire authentic love and connection. They want more than a lecture on how to swipe left or right on a consent app. They are interested in the meaning purpose and ethics of intimate relationships We are helping empower them to engage in social change and cultural transformation.