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Podcast Episode 09: The Harmful Effects of Pornography with Melinda Tankard Reist

CJ: Hello and welcome to the Feminist Law Podcast. I’m your co-host Courtney Jones.


CT: And I’m your co-host Clara Topiol. We’re both co-founders of the Feminist Law Project and final year law students who are very passionate about feminism and the law.


CJ: Today on the podcast, we’re fortunate to have Melinda Tankard-Reist, co-founder of Collective Shout and author of seven feminist publications and advocate against the sexual exploitation of women and girls. Would you please introduce yourself?


MTR: Yes, I’d love to, thanks for having me on your programme. I’m a writer and a speaker, a media commentator and activist-campaigner for women and girls for many years and as you’ve already said, co-founder or movement director of Collective Shout for a world free of sex exploitation.


CT: Thank you for that. So, I’d like to congratulate you on the publication of your recent book called ‘He chose porn over me’. What made you decide to put this book together and why do you think it was important to have this published?


MTR: I’m a journalist by background and I’ve always felt I should use my writing to document or give voice to stories that haven’t received the attention they deserve and this book came about as a result of a Facebook post late last year where I shared the story of a young woman who was due to get married and discovered that her fiancé was a compulsive porn user and hadn’t told her. So, she called off the wedding in the same week that she discovered this confronting reality. I shared this story and a number of women commented on Facebook and said, ‘ah I wish I’d known at the time and called off my wedding’, ‘I wish someone had warned me not to date men who use porn’. I started to see all these responses and share some of these responses on platforms, more women started sharing their stories and I thought ‘I think there’s a book here’. It came together very quickly, it was started in December and published in July. I let my publishers know and they thought it was a good idea to publish it. It was really as a result of those initial stories that then grew and turned into a book of 25 women and their lived experience of being in relationships with ritual porn consuming men.


CJ: Some of the stories, as I mentioned before we started recording, I’ve been reading some of them and they’re very harrowing. When you were putting this book together, what stood out to you the most when speaking to these women whose partners were compulsive porn users?


MTR: What stood out for me was the total lack of respect for women’s boundaries, the overblown sense of entitlement, the expectation that partners would provide sex on demand, participating sex acts they found degrading and demeaning and most distressing, the level of violence that the women experienced, any woman describing being mistreated, accused, having to provide these really degrading acts. Women described being strangled, choked, some even passed out. The level of violence which was inspired porn. The fact that men could be sexually aroused by perpetrating violent, aggressive sex acts on a partner, that they were supposed to love and care for. That really stood out for me, as well as the gaslighting by friends, family, so-called therapists and counsellors, how often they would side with the male, how often women were told ‘there’s nothing wrong with porn, it’s just you, you must learn to loosen up, relax more’. That was quite shocking, how lonely and isolated women were, how gaslit they were by other people in their lives.


CT: So going on from the violent nature that you just spoke about with regards to the porn that these men were consuming, could you please talk a bit more about the harmful impact or the other harmful impacts that porn has on women and intimate relationships more generally and how that porn may contribute to violence against the women and girls and how it may affect men’s behaviour and perception of women generally?


MTR: The women themselves described feeling like they were blow-up dolls, that they were living sex dolls, they noticed that their partner’s porn consumption changed the way their partner acted towards them, they said things like ‘we only ever had porn-style sex, we never made love’, they described mechanical sex, they described completely unreasonable demands of their partner. One woman was providing sex four times a day when she was pregnant. They also experienced a troubling relationship with their own bodies because they felt they couldn’t compete. They internalized their partner’s mistreatment of them, they felt maybe there was something wrong with them. They couldn’t compete to what their partners were seeing in pornography. The women described feeling inadequate, the feeling that they couldn’t compete with the images he was filling his mind with. Jackie also said that she felt incredibly devalued as a wife and a sexual being. A younger woman, Amalia from the Netherlands, 31, said ‘learning about his porn usage opened me up to insecurities I’d never had before; I’d always hated my thighs, but I used to like the shape and size of my breasts. After he revealed he found so-called porn actresses attractive, I started to develop immense insecurities about my breasts’. Feeling degraded, used, like he is right to get off on whatever he wanted to, just made her feel very devalued, that he is right to ejaculate to any image he wanted to triumph over empathy, compassion, care, mutual intimacy in their relationships. Many of the women felt neglected. There was a segment of women who felt they had to provide a porn-star experience but there was another segment of women who were completely not because he was just so into porn and consuming porn day and night everywhere. That was something which really emerged from the book; men consumed porn everywhere: at home, in the garage, at work, in the car, in the work truck, on an airplane, in the toilets, on bus tours, at restaurants… multiple times a day when they were supposed to be caring for a baby in the family. They were some of the women’s experiences and in regard to violence and porn as a driver of violence, this has been increasingly demonstrated in the global literature which links porn with humiliation, degradation, making men and boys more tolerant of sexual harassment, violence, desensitizing them to sexual cruelty. I have evidence of this from a frontline domestic violence worker in the Gold Coast in Australia. Her name is Diana Cloud, and she wrote to me, and I don’t think we need any more evidence than this; she says: ‘in the past few years, we have a huge increase in intimate partner rape of women from 14-80+. The biggest common denominator is consumption of porn by the offender, believing women are up for it 24/7, ascribing to the myth that no means yes and yes means anal, oblivious to injuries caused and never ever considering consent. We have seen a huge increase in deprivation of liberty, physical injuries, torture, drugging, filming and sharing footage without consent’. So, men are being aroused by pain and by suffering of women and these women that are really bearing the brunt of this, suffering damage physically and mentally, emotionally, from porn’s conditioning and socializing of boys.

CJ: Obviously, there are a lot of really awful impacts that pornography is having on women’s lives and intimate relationships in general. One thing that stood out to me is how many women didn’t realise that their partners have problems until years into their relationships. Going on from that, what are some of the warning signs that women can look out for if they think their partner might be compulsively using pornography?


MTR: It’s wonderful that every contributor offered advice at the end of her chapter. That advice included red flags and warning signs, so I really commend that to any women going through this right now. The women said that they noticed a change in the way he treated them, they noticed a change in personality, some of them described the theft of the men they knew, that they couldn’t recognise the man they once knew, that he became cruel and dominant and selfish. Selfishness was a big theme. He was always making excuses for why he couldn’t spend time with her, or the family became neglectful, didn’t really care about her, about children, about the family’s finances. They would notice things like making excuses not to go to bed, being up all night, lying or suddenly shutting down the laptop, leave as soon as she walked into the room, suspicious behaviour around phones or discovering other hones, discovering USB disks full of porn, secretive behaviours, things like that, strange financial transactions or money unaccounted for, money going missing, those kinds of behaviours.


CT: Thank you for that. And following on from what you said, do you think that so-called ‘soft porn’ is just as harmful as hardcore violent porn?


MTR: It’s all a continuum, isn’t it? I’m not sure how you even define it now because the fact is, the most popular genres of porn are the most violent and that’s what the research shows so rape porn, sadism, torture porn, acts of extreme degradation, violence, suffering of women, gagging, multiple penetrations, that’s what we know. It’s kind of relevant to talk about so-called soft porn when the most relevant forms are the most violent. I’ve just come back from the Filia conference in Wales and I became friends with a French lawyer actually, Loraine, you may know her, and she’s a young lawyer and running some extremely amazing cases. She told me a story and again, I don’t know what more evidence we need, she’s become friends with a man who had been involved in terrorist organisations, primarily Daish, and he told her that before every terrorist action, the men would gather and pump themselves up on porn. Porn is terrorism, there’s so much violence and aggression, it’s teaching men to eroticize dominance, it’s teaching them to get off on acts of extreme sexual cruelty and humiliation and degradation. We’re educating an entire generation with this content; pornography is the biggest department of education in the world, we’re teaching men that porn is merely entertainment, that they enjoy being raped, that they desire it. That’s the reality and men are googling, searching for so-called ethical porn which is a myth. This is the kind of porn that they are seeking out, that they want. When the war in Ukraine started, the most popular search term on Pornhub was ‘Ukrainian girl’ and there were entire Reddit threads of men seeking live rape footage from the Ukraine. Again, what more evidence do we need about the educative impacts of porn and what so many men are seeking out?


CJ: Yes, that’s absolutely terrifying and with the proliferation of online internet pornography, a lot of anti-porn activists talk about how porn has become more intertwined with our day-to-day lives, for example in advertising and media and over time, it’s also become more hardcore. Why do you think this is and what can we do about it?


MTR: It’s become more hardcore because the consumer has become desensitized to what existed before and the pornographers themselves, the porn producers actually say that they have to create more dehumanizing content for men to be aroused by because they are not aroused by what they say before. It’s all a continuum and it leads to this violence and sexually aggressive acts being mass consumed. This is propaganda, indoctrination of men, this is the colonization of porn on a global scale of pretty much every male in the entire world. Any places where mobile phones have arrived, the treatment of women gets worse. Places where there was never porn before and now men consume porn and we’re seeing the results of that being played out on a global scale. We’re also seeing more adolescent boys in sexual assault statistics in Australia and globally. This is the reason for it. We’ve embedded new codes of conduct in boys and men, we’ve taught them that women enjoy aggressive treatment, being hit, choked, submitted to gagging and multiple penetrations. We’re teaching men that sexual conquest and indoctrination are all important and this does not bode well for civilisation. What kind of society do we want? To me, that’s the main question here; do we want a society that’s devoid of empathy, respect, care and mutuality, authentic human connection? That’s what we’re losing.


CJ: Yes, and you even shared recently on your personal Instagram about what’s been happening with school and the pressure to engage and this non-consensual violent behaviour so it’s absolutely infiltrating younger boys as well.


MTR: The stories are getting worse and worse by day. My colleague Danielle and I reached 21,000 students and the stories this year are the worst stories I’ve ever heard in many years of public engagement, and I can say the stories from the last three months are worse than anything I’ve ever heard. Those stories were told to me by grades 5 and 6 [Australia] so we’re looking at 10-11-12 year olds. Girls are telling me that boys have threatened to rape them or to rape their mothers and their sisters if they don’t send nudes. Boys are calling girls disgusting names every day. Boys calling female teachers the c- word; that’s an increasing issue. The phenomenon of sexual moaning which I’ve written about: boys sexually moaning, groaning and grunting at girls including in years 5 and 6 and including to female teachers; more female teachers telling me they’re leaving teaching over this. Boys watching porn at school, on the school bus, forcing younger kids to look at violent pornography. One of the worst stories I’ve heard recently was a teacher tell me that she’d overheard a 12-year-old boy asking another 12 year old boy ‘how do you know that you’re having sex?’ and the second boy answered ‘when she starts to cry’. Again, what more evidence do we need? We’re teaching even young boys that sex should hurt, that she should be in pain, you should put her in pain, she should be bruised and scared and beaten. This is what they think sex is. Again, this does not bode well for us as a civilisation.


CT: Yes, that is really terrifying, and you’ve obviously mentioned that the stories got worse in the past three months than ever before in terms of what you’ve heard. Obviously with the trend, it seems like it could get even worse. What kind of extent do you think it could get to and what actually can be done to stop this?


MTR: I don’t even want to think about it getting worse because I’m barely coping with what I’m hearing now. Hundreds of girls are disclosing these behaviours to me in schools, and I just think if it’s as bad as this now, I don’t even want to think about what they might be telling me next year! We’re talking mass sexual assault, sexual harassment, girls being groped and touched, sending nudes… I’m now being asked to speak in primary schools to really young children on these issues. I don’t even want to think about what I might hear. So what can we do about it? We’ve been pushing here, our global partners are urging globally to see proof of age protections for children so that you at least have one obstacle in the way of children clicking a button and landing on rape, sadism, incest porn. We are working hard for this. In Australia, the previous federal government had instructed our commission to come up with a plan, a roadmap to roll out a proof of age protection system for children. But we feel that we could be derailed because of the powers of vested interests here in the sex industry which doesn’t want any regulation or any restriction. They just want business as usual, of course. So, other things we’d like to see, you know this is happening, we’ve seen this with Pornhub being brought to account. That’s been a brilliant global campaign which we are proud to have been a part of, millions of videos being removed, civil actions now, criminal actions against the porn industry, Instagram banning Pornhub’s account, the Canadian ethics committee running an enquiry because Pornhub is situated in Canada. We’ll just keep fighting. We’d love to see a civil case launched globally on behalf of every woman and every girl because they are all at risk and under threat by this content. We’re all harmed, we’re all at risk and there’s so much evidence now of the harms being done by the global pornography industry, the global porn industrial context which is built on the bodies of women and girls which trades in the subjugation of women, stripping away their human rights, the status of women. It needs to be fought on every front.


CT: That makes sense, thank you very much for sharing that. Moving onto talk about more of the feminist side of pornography, if there is one, some pro-porn or pro-sex work activists have argued that it is possible to create a feminist porn industry. I was wondering if you’d mind sharing what your take is on this?


MTR: It’s a myth. Again, how many men do you reckon are sitting around doing a search for so-called ethical porn? It’s not ethical, it’s still built on the bodies of women and girls and so-called feminist pornographers make porn based on for example lesbian fantasies, mother-daughter fantasies. Is that ethical? Who’s defining ethical here? I do not trust this business to define ethics. I’ve seen enough of the content, it’s not ethical. It’s a smokescreen for the main industry which again trades on the violation of the bodies of women. That’s what it’s built on.


CJ: Yes absolutely.


MTR: It’s a distraction.


CJ: Yes, 100%. If we move on now to talk a bit more about sexual exploitation or sexploitation more broadly, you’ve been campaigning against all sorts of different forms of sex exploitation from the sexualization of women and girls in advertising in ad campaigns for clothing to trying to have the child-like sex dolls removed from Etsy. What do you think is the most important issue regarding the sexual exploitation of women and girls today?

MTR: They’re all important, it’s hard to single out one because the sexualization of girls and the objectification of women contributes to the formation of attitudes which lead to behaviours. So, the global research summarised in the meta-analysis found that objectified portrayals of women contribute to a diminished view of women’s competence, morality, and humanity. That’s what we continue to tackle sexualization and objectification in all its forms. That’s why we take on companies like Etsy. In the year 2021, we had 20 victories against companies; 7 of those were global and that’s just one of the encouraging things about our work is that thousands of people have got involved and said enough is enough. My biggest concern is for young people, for young women; they’ll say, ‘he went to my throat without asking’, the expectation that immediately a random guy will be able to choke her, gag her, ejaculate on her face… I think that really troubles me. An author’s book called ‘Sex dolls, robots and women hating’; this global trade in replica women and replica children: the anatomically correct like bodies and custom-made bodies of replica children and replica child body parts. This is a global trade. What this means for children and for women, and Caitlin’s book describes this brilliantly, so I commend her book to your listeners as well. it’s hard for me to just pick one thing because all things intersect: sexualization, objectification, porn, trafficking, sex dolls, robots, violence against women on a global scale, a global epidemic, all these things intersect and so all of them need to be addressed.


CT: Thank you for sharing that. So, going on from what you just said, how far can the reporting tool online go in taking down such campaigns for regular users and does it have an impact?


MTR: The reporting tools we have not found effective. My colleague Leanne Swanson Kennedy at Collective Shout spends days and days reporting for example child sexual exploitation material on Instagram. 3/100 pieces of child sexual exploitation material that she reported had been removed. Only 3. So, the reporting tools seem often to be a bit token, a bit like big tech wants to look like. It’s doing something but what is it actually doing? There seems to be a little bit more happening now with Twitter and removing some child exploitation material. That’s been a long running campaign by a woman called Eliza. But it’s inconsistent so we’re calling on big tech to stop putting their profits and vested interests against the wellbeing of women and girls and the broader community. We want to see consistent reporting tools and we want to see them stopping them at the source. Why is it for citizens to do all this work? The ethical obligations, the corporate social responsibility obligations of these companies should require them to address this issue rather than to leave it up to small non-profit, NGOs, citizens but these companies so often offload their ethical obligations to citizens, to the common people to do all the work. My team at Collective Shout is 4 of us and it’s a lot of work. Why can’t these companies demonstrate some ethics and stop this content, get more content moderators, have more severe penalties against big tech for hosting and disseminating what is propaganda, indoctrination, what is extreme violence and degradation. It’s been called the memefication of violence; kids think that the violence is just entertainment now, profiting from violence, depicting the rape and abuse of women, treated as entertainment. This has to be a global approach if we are going to make any inroads. We should continue to push for big tech companies, social media platforms to demonstrate some responsibility and stop disseminating harmful, damaging, demonstrably dangerous content.


CJ: Yes, you’re absolutely right that the bodies that are hosting this damaging illegal content should be held responsible for it but like you said, unfortunately right now, a lot of the responsibility to fight this lies with the individual. Going on from that, what can we as individuals do today to fight against the sexual exploitation of women and girls both online and off?


MTR: We urge people, individuals who care about these issues to act personally and to act politically: boycott the companies. This time of year, we release our annual corporate: cross them off your Christmas list. That is annual blacklist of repeat company offenders, corporate offenders who objectify women and sexualize girls in their products and services. We have that blacklist on our website now and so that our supporters can see who not to buy from. We also have a list of corporate pledge partners; these are companies that have pledged not to objectify women, not to profit from bodies of women and girls and we encourage our supporters to buy from them instead. Of course, as well as boycotting, join Collective Shout, get involved, put out petition, having conversations with young people to equip them to resist porn, porn culture, harmful cultural messages, toxic messages that are not going to set them up to flourish, to have healthy respectful relationships. We also urge our people to lobby their governments. It’s too much for individuals alone, for parents, we need our governments to step up to the plate, to move laws, reigning in big tech, the porn industry, protecting children from porn. Acting personally, acting collectively and personally, modelling something better for children and young people. Bringing anything you can on these issues, supporting Collective Shout, similar organisations and movements around the world, that’s how change happens. Agitating for cultural change, social transformation, not just turning a blind eye. It’s a global village. We are all harmed, all affected in negative ways by porn, by the sex industry, by the global domination and polarization of the porn industry. Why should they be allowed to reign supreme, do whatever they want at the complete harm and risk to everybody else? We’re on all the social media pages and for anyone that would like to follow me personally.


CT: Thank you for that. Just as we wrap up, I was wondering if there was anything else you’d like to share with our listeners?


MTR: No, just to say we’d love to have your support, we are wanting to expand Collective Shout globally, there was significant interest in us doing that as a result of the Filia conference so we are now reaching out to anyone that would like to expand the work of Collective Shout globally, to expand our global partners. We want to see global laws against child sex abuse dolls and replica children being used for sexual abuse. We want to see civil rights actions against the porn industry, we want to see children protected from porn on a global scale. This is going to take a global effort. Feel free to get in touch with us through our Collective Shout website; we’re hoping to be back overseas again next year to continue this conversation, to equip others, to carry this work out.


CT: Brilliant, thank you for sharing that. You obviously mentioned that our listeners could get involved with Collective Shout so that’s really helpful. If they would also like to read your books, where could they do so please?


MTR: You can get the books through Spinefex Press website, the books are available now in the UK and in Europe. We would love your readers to get a hold of our books and the new book ‘He chose porn over me’ is about men who use porn. We’d love your readers to get a hold of our books.


CJ: Thank you so much for joining us today, it’s been a pleasure to discuss these issues with you.


MTR: Thank you for caring about these issues and for giving me the opportunity to engage with your audience. Thank you so much.


CJ: Thank you.


CT: In today’s feminist news roundup, a survey by England’s Health and Care Regulator, the Care Quality Commission, has found that women’s experiences of care during childbirth have been witnesses to a concerning decline in the last 5 years.


CJ: Also in today’s news roundup, a Paris court has dismissed a feminist group’s complaints that the Miss France beauty pageant selection process was discriminatory. The plaintiffs argued discrimination on the grounds that the contestants had to be taller than 1.7m or 5’6in, single and representative of beauty.


CT: Protestors at McGill University in Quebec shut down a talk on sex vs gender that was being hosted by the University’s Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism. The discussion was supposed to be on the sex vs gender identity debate in the UK and the supposed divorce of LGB from T but the talk ultimately did not happen after being shut down.


CJ: Finally, the debate about sex work regulations in European countries has just reached the European Parliament where the committee on women’s rights and gender equality is preparing a report on regulations for the sex industry. The report is likely to recommend some provisions despite countries differing in their approach towards the industry. If you have any suggestions for this podcast, let us know directly via email at contact@feministlaw.org.


CT: Please also visit our website at feministlaw.org and find us on Instagram and LinkedIn to keep up to do date with our latest articles, podcasts, newsletters and exciting news.


CJ: The music for this podcast was sourced from Pixabay.com.


CT: Thanks for listening!

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Transcribed by: Clara Topiol

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