By Dr Emma Wood
In the last month, Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety (ANROWS) released a research report, titled: “A Life Course Approach to Determining the Prevalence and Impact of Sexual Violence in Australia.” The report summarised findings from the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health.
The report summarised findings on three cohorts of Australian women: one of women born from 1946-1951, another of women born from 1973-1978, and a third cohort of women born from 1989-1995. In all three cohorts, data on lifetime experience of sexual violence, both in childhood and adulthood, was collected. In the younger two cohorts, data on experience of sexual violence from an intimate partner was also collected.
The older two cohorts of women had been given several rounds of interviews, in two-four year intervals from 1996 to 2019. Data on the youngest cohort began in 2013, and was collected on an almost yearly basis up to 2019.
The ANROWS report showed striking differences across generations in the reporting of sexual violence in adulthood, with younger cohorts of women reporting far more.
As of 2019, 12% of women in the oldest cohort (then aged 68-73), 18% of women in the middle cohort (aged 46-51), and 39% of women in the youngest cohort (aged 24-30) reported experiences of sexual violence during adulthood.
Assuming no major cultural changes; no changes in overall rates of sexual assaults in a population over time, and no differences in willingness to report, one would expect the older cohort to have reported more experience of sexual violence. The longer you’ve lived, the more lifetime you’ve had in which an experience of sexual violence can occur; the older you are, the more likely you are to have experienced sexual violence, all else being equal. So when, at the same point in time, Australian women in their twenties are reporting approximately three times as much sexual violence in adulthood as women in their seventies, something needs explaining.
Much has changed in the landscape of sexual relationships over the past few generations. But if there is one very obvious candidate explanation for the above statistics it would be the rise of porn. Since the advent of high-speed broadband in the early 2000s, access to porn has become easier, content has become more extreme and violent, average age of first exposure to porn has dropped, pressure on women to accept a man’s porn use as a ‘normal’ need has increased, and ‘porn culture’ has become mainstream.
Objecting to porn – to the emotion-anaesthetising, humanity-denying, connection-killing nature of it all – was not cool fifteen years ago. I remember getting into arguments online with male acquaintances about the growing literature on the harms of porn, and meeting impenetrable walls of denial or defence.
Nowadays, I am slightly more hopeful. Porn is still mainstream, but so is the pushback against it. The ‘consent crisis’ has forced us to look at the impact of porn on the sexual formation of boys and young men. Less and less often do I walk into a newsagency and see a porn rag front and centre, at a child’s eye level (thank you, Collective Shout, for your tireless campaigns!). It is encouraging to see movements like Fight the New Drug and NoFap gaining cultural ground, and to see Pornhub facing major lawsuits for trafficking and child sex abuse. “Porn addiction” and “Porn-induced ED” are no longer phrases you have to explain: Ted talks, conferences, and books on the subject abound. And women who experience abuse and relational breakdown as a result of a partner’s porn use are finally being listened to. The testimonies from Melinda Tankard Reist’s latest book He Chose Porn Over Me: Women Harmed by Men who Use Porn are heartbreaking to read. But at least these stories are getting out.
Given this growing awareness of the impact of porn on developing brains, on the porn user’s dopamine-driven slippery slope towards more extreme material, and on the suffering of women at the hands of porn-conditioned men, it was surprising to read the ANROWS report and see so little mention of the rise of porn as a possible contributing factor to the generational differences in reporting of sexual violence.
A number of more specific statistics recorded in the report are highly suggestive of the influence of porn, particularly when the Gen X cohort (born 1973-1978) are compared with the Gen Y cohort of women (born 1989-1995). In 1996, when the Gen-X cohort were aged 18-23, 2% of the women had reported ever having experienced sexual violence in adulthood. In 2013, when the Gen-Y cohort were a similar age (18-24), a whopping 18% had reported experience of sexual violence in adulthood. Intimate partner violence accounted for much of this, with 15% of Gen-Y women reporting having had an experience of sexual violence from an intimate partner. By 2019, while the cohort was aged 24-30, those figures had jumped to 32% of women having experienced violence within an intimate relationship, and 39% having experienced sexual violence in adulthood generally.
The report’s data on the Gen-X experience of violence within intimate relationships began in the year 2006. By this time, aged 28-33, 10% of the Gen-X cohort reported having experienced sexual violence in adulthood generally, with 1-2% reporting having experienced sexual violence at the hands of a partner. By 2012, 10% of Gen-X women reported having experienced sexual violence at the hands of a partner, and 14% reported an experience of sexual violence in adulthood. By 2018, these figures were 14% and 18% respectively.
And what about the Baby Boomer cohort? Data on experience of sexual violence at the hands of a partner was not available, but the information that was available was telling. In 1996, aged 45-50, just 1% of the Boomers reported ever having experienced sexual violence in adulthood. By 2001, the figure was 5%, by 2013 it was nearly 10%, and by 2019 it was 12%.
Summary of data from ANROWS report: comparisons of reported sexual violence by different generational cohorts over time.
So what could possibly explain the differences between the three generations? Here’s a hypothesis. Baby boomer women grew up in a world in which the sexual tastes of most of their male peers were not formed by hardcore porn.
Although porn was available, in the form of magazines, and, increasingly, in adult films from the 1960s to the 1990s, it still took some effort to access. You had to walk into a store, and walk out - with your item in your brown paper bag.
As for the content, it was mild by today’s standards. The extreme forms of rape porn and child porn that young boys can access with the click of a button today, in the privacy of their bedrooms, was not even available to Australian men in the mid 1990s – such material was routinely burned at the borders by customs. Given the limitations on access and novelty, the stigma, and the risk of relational fallout, the kind of heavy porn consumption common in today’s world was simply not “worth it” for most men. Porn did not, and could not, compete with real women, and women were not, by and large, expected to tolerate it.
By 1996, Boomer women and the younger Gen-X women are reporting relatively low experience of sexual violence: 1-2%. In the following decade and a half, as we witness an explosion in the use of internet porn, these figures rise markedly, for both groups of women, but more sharply for the younger women, which is exactly what one would expect. While Boomer women are not completely immune from the advances of porn-conditioned men, one can make the reasonable assumption that, population-wide, porn did not made inroads into the brains of their male peers and partners to the same extent as it had for younger men whose sexual tastes were still forming. Between 1996 and 2006, the experience of sexual violence amongst Gen-X women jumps dramatically. One might put this down to the cohort simply getting older (more life experience, more time for sexual violence to occur)… but Boomer women, it seems, did not have the same experience at the same ages.
Initially, it appears that Gen X-women are experiencing sexual violence or harassment mostly from non-partners. But as time goes on; as Gen-X women unknowingly settle into long-term relationships with men who are secretly porn conditioned –we see intimate partner violence and unwanted sexual experiences in intimate relationships on the rise as well. The violence in intimate relationships doesn’t necessarily show up right away. But the desires and expectations of the porn-conditioned man eventually push themselves into the bedroom after years of secretive (or not-so-secretive) consumption. Many such stories are told in Reist’s latest book.
Now cut to Gen-Y. The vast majority of Gen-Y males first encountered porn since at least puberty. Many first got hooked in primary school. There was no time ‘before’ internet porn as there was for Gen X men. And for Gen Y women, there was no time ‘before’ widespread sexual violence, both inside and outside of relationships.
I hasten to add that not all Gen-Y men are slaves to porn, as I do not wish to add to the narrative that porn addiction is inevitable, or that porn is here to stay. There are many good men I know who do not use it. But as a group, Gen-Y men are the most impacted by porn, and Gen-Y women are the most impacted by sexual violence.
As I read through the ANROWS report, which purportedly sought to understand the prevalence of sexual violence and its impact on women’s lives, I found it baffling that the advent of internet pornography got so little mention. The differences in reports of sexual violence over generations, the timing of the marked increase in reported violence across the board, and the significant figures on intimate partner violence are practically screaming at us to ask questions about the impact of male porn use.
To be fair, all reports have their limitations, and a full investigation of the possible impact of porn was beyond the scope and aims of the report. But the lack of mention of porn as a possible driver was nevertheless odd, given the plethora of other factors that received commentary, the fact that questions about generational differences in reporting were explicitly speculated on, and the fact that recommendations for further avenues of research and policy development were suggested, though gaps in evidence about the causes remained.
For instance, associations between women’s drug use and experience of sexual violence were explored in the report, as were associations between obesity and experience of sexual violence. Many things we already know were given detailed commentary in the report: sexual violence has many adverse impacts on mental health, and women who have a lifetime experience of sexual violence make up a high proportion of women who identify as LGBT. While many interesting questions were raised about what kinds of women report experience of sexual violence (more educated? Less educated? High SES? Low SES? Smokers? Non-smokers? BMI above 30? BMI below 30?), the importance of the following question was given a bizarre lack of acknowledgement: what might have changed for the last three generations of the male peers and partners of Australian women which accounts for the differences in what women are reporting?
As for the possible explanation for generational differences in reporting of violence, the authors’ suggestion was that willingness to report, or differences in understandings of and attitudes toward sexual violence might have contributed. But as the primary explanation for the variation across generations, this seems unlikely given that, according to the report’s own statistics, the levels of reported sexual advances or violence during childhood remained relatively constant across the generations: 14% for the Boomer cohort, 15% for the Gen-X cohort, and 12% for the Gen-Y cohort. If there were any ‘hangups’ on the part of older women related to the disclosure of potentially embarrassing or painful information, one might expect this to show up in lower reports of sexual harassment or violence in childhood.
Clearly, something else is going on. While unwanted advances in girlhood from older men or boys seem to have been a roughly consistent experience for all generations of Australian women, something else is accounting for the different degree of violence perpetrated toward adult women, where imbalances of power are less obvious – as they are, very often, in intimate relationships.
While the report mentioned “being forced to watch pornography” as part of its definition of sexual violence, the lack of mention of private male porn use as a possible driver was perplexing. What was more perplexing was the report’s lack of mention of the need to investigate porn use in further research, or address porn use as a policy initiative. Is there still reluctance to take the impact of porn seriously?
The safety of women depends on our being honest about this, and on our experts speaking up. I am reminded of this every time I get off the phone after a conversation with my GP friend, who spends many waking hours counselling women with horrific physical injuries from porn-conditioned boyfriends or husbands. Australian women cannot wait any longer for the issue of porn to be addressed.
Dr Emma Wood is a Research Fellow with Women's Forum Australia.
Natalie Townsend, Deborah Loxton, Nicholas Egan, Isabelle Barnes, Emma Byrnes, Petan Forder – “A life course approach to determining the prevalence and impact of sexual violence in Australia: Findings from the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health.” Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety, Research Report, Issue 14 (August 2022).
 Townsend, N., et. al, “A life course approach,” 31-34.
 Ibid: 8.
 Ibid: 33.
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