In 2021 I have looked on in horror as thousands of young women came forward with stories of sexual assault from their male counterparts. As a mother of two boys and long-time educator my first thought was: How is this happening? How do we still have a culture that relegates women as less than? How are we raising boys that think its OK to sexually assault, and degrade girls before posting the video evidence online for their friends?
As the Queensland State Manager for the Top Blokes Foundation, I have a unique perspective on why and how this culture persists. Top Blokes works with 1000s of young men annually to improve their wellbeing and mental health through our long-term mentoring programs. An integral part of what we do is openly and honestly talk with young men about intimate relationships, sexual health, consent, and pornography. For many of our participants this is the first time they have had these topics raised, and for me that is telling.
Today’s sex education in schools is inadequate and hasn’t kept up with the rapid changes in technology and sex culture. Coupled with the growing influence of violent pornography which is easily accessible by young people. Boys tell us that pornography is their first step in learning more about sex.
Young men like 14-year-old Cooper*, who told us he first discovered online pornography at the age of nine when his older brother showed him sexual videos on his phone. From there, Cooper developed a curiosity and quickly began seeking online pornography on a regular basis.
“By the time I was 12, I was watching porn every night when everyone went to sleep. I started lying to my parents and I would often stay awake until 1.30am scrolling through videos. I thought I liked watching it but afterwards, I always felt bad about myself, but I just couldn’t give it up…… I was so tired the next day at school and I couldn’t concentrate.”
Cooper is not alone in his experience. Research shows us that in 2008, 14.4 per cent of boys had first viewed porn by the age of 12 or younger. In 2019 that number had jumped to 65.5 per cent. What this tells us is that currently the majority of boys are receiving an education on love, sex and intimacy through high levels of violent porn with damaging outcomes. A recent report from the Australian Institute of Family Studies highlights the detrimental effect watching pornography has on a young male’s mental and physical health. This includes clinical symptoms of depression, lower self-esteem and societal withdrawal. These boys experience more social conflict with friends and partners and have increased their use of alcohol. They can also have reduced academic performance and increased antisocial behaviours. Alarmingly, this report shows that porn consumption increases the likelihood of sexual violence and violence against women in adulthood.
Disturbingly, the pornography industry has been caught targeting young males under 18 in the hope of making them life-long consumers. This is no mistake. From graphic pop up ‘porn’ ads appearing on young video player screens, to porn links sent via emails and social media, these are deliberate tactics to grow an industry that normalises violence and distorts what a healthy intimate relationship should look and feel like.  R of pornography is extremely violent towards females and rarely depicts what we call at Top Blokes the ‘Three C’s’: consent, condoms and communication. Instead, they show extreme and unrealistic acts that include inflicting pain on females .
When it comes to consent, most boys are aware of the ‘no means no’ anti-rape slogan that has been around since the 90s but rarely have knowledge of what actually constitutes legal consent. Consent can be given or not both implicitly and explicitly. Consent given under duress, coercion, or under the influence isn’t legal consent. If you do get consent the questions you should be able to answer are: for how long is consent good? Is the time frame of the consent spelled out? Do we agree that consent is standing until rescinded? What happens when consent changes? How is that communicated? Whose obligation is it to check on consent, the giver, or the receiver of the consent?
As you can see these topics are complex.
Education on sexual health and all the things that need to sit under this umbrella should be addressed from a young age and then consistently throughout school if we want to see change. At Top Blokes Foundation, we work with thousands of young males on a weekly basis, discussing topics like healthy intimate relationships, sexual consent, pornography, online behaviours and masculinity.
After more than a decade of experience doing this here’s what we know: when given effective and relevant social and sex education, ongoing mentorship and a positive peer environment to challenge their attitudes and behaviours, young men will build the skills to make mature and sound decisions in their sexual relationships.
We know our boys can and will do better but we need to support them to do so. Whether you are an educator, parent, family member, carer or friend to a young man you need to be having the tricky conversations. Those conversations that are awkward, embarrassing or difficult to approach. Because if we want to change this culture then it needs to start with us.
 The Australian Institute of Family Studies, ‘The effects of pornography on children and young people’(2017) https://aifs.gov.au/sites/default/files/publication-documents/rr_the_effects_of_pornography_on_children_and_young_people_1.pdf
 Bridges AJ, Wosnitzer R, Scharrer E, Sun C, Liberman R. Aggression and Sexual Behavior in Best-Selling Pornography Videos: A Content Analysis Update. Violence Against Women. 2010;16(10):1065-1085. doi:10.1177/1077801210382866
Consent Law in Queensland – https://www.consentlawqld.com/about
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