Early sexualisation and pornography exposure: the detrimental impacts on children, by Melinda Tankard Reist


The school principal was perplexed.

I had just delivered a keynote on the impact of sexualisation and pornography exposure on children and young people at a conference of school leaders in NSW.

During the break she approached me, opened her phone and revealed an image created by a group of 5 year old boys, at the Catholic primary school she headed in Sydney. It showed two women, scantily dressed, in provocative poses.

The boys, along with fellow pupils, had been asked to prepare an in-class assignment using the pic collage app to make pictures. This is what the boys stood up and presented to the class.

One was so pleased with the work he inserted his face in between the woman’s bodies at breast height. These little boys didn’t think they’d done anything wrong.

This incident is just yet another outworking of the impact of a pornified world on our children.  Children being hurt. Children hurting others.

Everywhere I go I hear stories. Of children using sexual language. Children touching other children inappropriately. Children playing ‘sex games’ in the school yard. Children requesting sexual favours. Children showing other children porn on their devices. Children distressed by explicit images they came across while googling an innocent term. Children exposed to porn ‘pop ups’ on sites featuring their favourite cartoon characters or while playing online games.

Educators, child welfare groups, childcare workers, mental health bodies medicos and parents are reeling. All are struggling to deal with the proliferation of hyper-sexualised imagery and its impacts on the most vulnerable – children whose sexuality is still under construction, children for whom pornography becomes a template for sexual activity, a ‘how to’ manual for future use.

Porn before first kiss

Pornography exposure – for young men at least – is at saturation point. Research has shown some worrying trends related to earlier onset exposure.

According to some sources, the average first age of exposure to pornography is 11 years, with 100% of 15-year-old males and 80% of 15-year-old females reporting that they have been exposed to violent, degrading online pornography.

MTR BI2Children are seeing violent depictions of sex, torture, rape and incest porn. Boys are having their sexual arousal conditioned by depictions of extreme cruelty, seeing women being assaulted in every orifice by groups of men.  And all this before their first sexual experience – even their first kiss.

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“Children who engage in deviant acts must receive professional intervention, not just a ‘stern talk…’ By Ginger Kadlec

Sad teenager is scared and abused.

Sad teenager is scared and abused.

My stomach continues to churn as I read report after report about reality star Josh Duggar’s alleged admission of child molestation. Even more disappointing are the details being reported about the adults in his life who, if these reports are indeed accurate, failed to respond as they should.

Allow me to first acknowledge that any parent whose child admits to committing a crime of any type experiences a range of emotions from anger to disappointment to wanting to correct the child while at the same time protect him/her from repercussions of the act(s). While I have no first-hand vision into the Duggar’s lives, I would bet this is just what Josh’s parents Jim Bobb and Michelle were thinking… however, they failed to notify authorities for a year after learning about Josh’s acts. During that time, he allegedly molested again.

So, what can we learn from the Duggars? Here are 4 lessons for every family in this all-too-real-life story.

Lesson #1: The Law Says…

See The Washington Post for a timeline of events in the Duggar story.

In many states (including my home state of Indiana), any adult who suspects or is aware that a child is being abused is REQUIRED to report that suspicion to authorities. Federal statute addressing child sexual abuse predominantly hands authority back to individual states and provinces.

I checked Arkansas’ (the Duggar’s home state) mandated reporting statute... apparently, it does NOT require anyone having knowledge about or suspicion of child abuse to report it. There is a list, though, of mandated reporters including teachers and clergy. My question in the Duggar case is, if these children were home schooled, didn’t the parents qualify as “teachers” and weren’t they then bound by mandated reporting requirements? The Duggars are also the parents of multiple alleged victims in this case. Was it ‘enough’ to get just counseling for them on the side?

Lesson #2: What is normal sex play?

It’s natural for children to become curious about their own sexuality and the sexuality of the opposite, or even same gender. “Ask Dr. Sears” offers a terrific explanation of genital play and what is normal vs. deviant behavior. This website states that many children are “…more interested in satisfying curiosity than in sexual arousal. You can tell innocent sexual curiosity from deviant sexual behavior by these characteristics. Innocent acts are occurring when…”

  • Children are young (under age seven), close in age, and know each other.
  • There is mutual agreement; one child is not forcing the other.
  • There is usually a game-like atmosphere: playing “doctor” or “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.”
  • Secrecy is part of the game. As if sensing their parents would disapprove, children retreat into a bedroom, garage, or a private place. (This is true for deviant acts as well.) ~Source: Ask Dr. Sears

What isn’t acceptable is when a child, tween or teen coerces or forces another child into a sexual act, one example being fondling a victim who is sleeping, as alleged in the Duggar case.

What isn’t acceptable is when a child, tween or teen coerces or forces another child into a sexual act, one example being fondling a victim who is sleeping, as alleged in the Duggar case.

As a side note, children who are sexually abused sometimes act like they are asleep when they are in fact awake during an assault. It’s a response similar to that of a small animal who is attacked and “plays dead”, hoping its hunter will leave it alone and go away. The child victims in the Duggar case could have very well been aware of what was happening to them at the time of the alleged molestations.

Children who engage in deviant acts must receive professional intervention, not just a “stern talking to” or ‘punishment’ of physical labor to ‘work it out of their system’. This is a primary reason people need to report abuse.1 Depending on the circumstances, authorities aren’t out to put a kid in jail — instead, they want to intervene to help and be sure the child’s issues are addressed so they don’t perpetrate again.

Lesson #3: Protecting Child Victims

Nearly 20% of all child abusers are children themselves.

No family is perfect. But families where any form of abuse exists require intervention… especially, for children in the home. According to data shared by the National Children’s Alliance in 2014, nearly 1 in 5 (18.9%) perpetrators of child abuse were under the age of 18. Many of those were family members, siblings or friends who had ready access to their child victims. When sexual abuse allegations are substantiated among siblings, safety plans should be put in place and monitored by an outside organization or agency that specializes in the safety and protection of children. Again, I don’t have first-hand insight into the Duggar case, but from what I’ve read, it doesn’t appear that necessary safety measures were implemented.

A child who commits a crime isn’t a bad person that society should just write-off, send to juvy and hope for the best. Rather, it’s a child who needs intervention, guidance and help. In my experience as a child forensic interviewer, child perpetrators often abuse because they themselves were victimized in some way. That victimization can come in many forms including being a victim of sexual molestation themselves or even witnessing adult sexual behavior/acts which can include viewing videos or photographs that are not age appropriate.

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