A parliamentary health committee's study on the public health effects of violent and degrading sexual images online has concluded, and on June 12 it issued a deeply disappointing report. We asked Julia Beazley, the EFC's director of public policy, to join our Three Questions Series to help us understand better.
Q1. What did the committee hear?
Some of the foremost experts on the public health effects of pornography appeared before the Health Committee. Witnesses like Dr. Gail Dines, Dr. Mary Anne Layden, Cordelia Anderson and Dr. Sharon Cooper are recognized around the world as experts on the public health effects of pornography. They have served as expert witnesses in court hearings and criminal investigations. They have written the curriculum for law enforcement, medical professionals and educators on the harms of pornography. They have seen firsthand the devastating effects on children, on individuals and on society.
The committee heard from these experts that:
- viewing violent and degrading internet pornography is contributing to the rise in sexual harassment, assault and rape culture on school and college campuses across the country.
- violent pornography online is harmful to the social and sexual development of children. It contributes to sexual offences against children, by adults and by other children.
- the overwhelming majority of online pornography includes verbal, physical and behavioural aggression – most of it male aggression directed at females (footnotes 1, 2)
- pornography affects the brain, especially the developing brain, and this contributes to addiction, problematic sexual behaviour and sexual aggression.
- there is evidence that pornography is not just correlated with sexual aggression, but has been shown to have a causal relationship with it.
Several witnesses clearly stated that education alone is not enough to protect children from the harms of violent pornography online. The responsibility for protecting children from its harms should not rest on parents alone. This is a public health issue that requires government action.
A majority of witnesses and written submissions, including the EFC’s brief, urged the government to require online pornography sites to have meaningful age verification. For most, there is either no age verification, or it is a simple click here to say yes you’re over 18. The UK has just passed strong age verification legislation, and Canada was encouraged to follow suit.
Q2. What did the committee say in its report?
Although the committee was directed to study the “public health effects” of violent and degrading sexual images online, the report is largely silent on the public health effects. It pays little attention to the testimony most relevant to the subject of the motion.
In fact, after hearing from all of the witnesses, the committee passed a motion to limit the evidence in the final report to evidence and testimony “received from witnesses who have published peer-reviewed scientific research on this topic.”
This meant that the testimony of those who have spent decades studying the effects of pornography on children, adults and culture, was not considered if they had not published peer-reviewed scientific research on the topic.
The committee made this decision even after hearing that scientific research on pornography’s effects – especially violent and degrading pornography – would be unethical, particularly with respect to children, because it involves exposure to such violent and disturbing material.
The report’s few recommendations focus primarily on education. It recommends a national sexual health promotion strategy that would, among other things, address sexual health in the digital age and the “possible risks of exposure to online violent and degrading sexual imagery.” The report falls far short of stating the harms to the health of children, women and men clearly outlined by many of the witnesses and written submissions, and of calling for a comprehensive response from government to address these harms.
While the Health Committee report acknowledged that violent sexual images online may have public health effects, it did not seriously interact with the testimony of many of the witnesses. The report noted that there was debate about the public health effects, with some disagreement, and it did not delve into meaningful engagement with the topic.
The Conservative members of the committee wrote a dissenting opinion that makes a much stronger statement about the public health impacts of pornography. It begins by noting, “This study had the potential to lead to a defining report on a growing public health concern.” The dissenting report outlines some of the public health impacts of pornography – on women, on children, on men – as well as many of the recommendations made by witnesses. This is important because it ensures that some of the testimony of the expert witnesses is included in the record. The dissent also recommends that the Public Health Agency of Canada fund research on the public health impacts of violent and degrading sexual content.
Q3. How can we respond?
The Government will make a response to the Committee’s report.
You can write to the Health Minister to ask that they:
- consider the full testimony of witnesses when developing her response to the report
- put in place meaningful age verification, such as what was recently passed in the UK.
- require internet service providers to block pornographic content at the server level, by default
- ask the Public Health Agency of Canada to initiate a thorough study of the public health effects of online violent sexual images for children, youth, women and men, and to develop a public health response to the harms of pornography.
You can make these same requests of your Member of Parliament. See the EFC’s sample letter to the Health Minister
for suggestions on how to communicate your concerns.
Footnote 1. Dr. Mary Anne Layden- (March 23, 2017 HESA Meeting No.47)
Footnote 2. Lim, M. S. C., Carrote, E. R., & Hellard, M. E. (2016). "The impact of pornography on gender-based violence, sexual health and well-being: What do we know?" Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 70 (1), 3-5.