That the Standing Committee on Health be instructed to examine the public health effects of the ease of access and viewing of online violent and degrading sexually explicit material on children, women and men, recognizing and respecting the provincial and territorial jurisdictions in this regard, and that the said Committee report its findings to the House no later than July 2017.
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise today to speak on behalf of my motion, Motion No. 47, which would instruct the Standing Committee on Health to study the public health effects of the ease of access and viewing of online violent and degrading sexually explicit material on children, women, and men.
I believe that this is an important issue. It is long overdue for consideration by this House. It is my hope that Motion No. 47 will lead to better protection for youth online, foster the healthy sexual development of youth, and combat violence against women and girls.
I want to say at the beginning of this debate that as a first-term MP, the impact of violent and sexually explicit material was not an issue I expected to bring forward when arriving here a year ago, nor was it on my radar. However, a number of organizations came to me from across my riding and across Canada and asked me to bring this matter forward.
As I started to examine the research and the information about the impact of violent and degrading sexually explicit material, I was shocked by what I found.
Some members may be wondering why I do not use the term “pornography” in the motion. When most people think of the term “pornography”, they think of the nude pictures Playboy started publishing throughout the 1960s and onward. Today's pornography is much different. In fact, it is telling that only a year ago, Playboy announced that it would stop publishing nude pictures in its magazine, because it was not profitable anymore. The market has shifted to much more explicit material, and the vast majority of it features violence and degradation.
I want to share a few statistics about sexually explicit material and the industry behind it.
In Canada, the average age of first exposure to sexually explicit material for boys is 12. Sexually explicit websites get more visitors each month than Netflix, Amazon, and Twitter combined, with PornHub, the largest free site, alone receiving over 21 billion visits in 2015. Thirty-five per cent of all internet downloads are sexually explicit. Globally, this sexually explicit material is a $97-billion industry. Almost 90% of mainstream sexually explicit content features violence against women. Sexually explicit material has become the primary source of information about sex and is a significant factor in influencing the sexual behaviours of children and adolescents.
Let that sink in for a moment. A $97-billion industry that makes up 35% of all internet downloads, that is easily accessible with the click of a button, and that primarily features violence and the degradation of women, is the primary sexual educator of our youth, starting from the age of 12.
As a result, boys and girls are taught that violent and degrading sexual behaviour is acceptable and expected. This has an impact on the physical, mental, and emotional health of many young Canadians who will grow up to be fathers, mothers, doctors, teachers, and legislators.
As I researched more about this issue, it brought me back to the time, shortly after my daughter was born, when the heartbreaking story of Rehtaeh Parsons occurred, a situation I am sure all here today remember. At that time I remember asking myself, “What gave these boys the idea that it was okay to objectify and assault a heavily intoxicated young woman, and what gave them the idea that sharing the pictures of this event online was normal?” It was a story that moved me deeply at the time, seeing the impact this had on her, which ultimately led to her suicide. It was not until researching this issue that I began to make the connection between violent, sexually explicit material online and the way it is educating a generation of young people.
When I reached out to her mother, Leah Parsons, she expressed her concern about the impact of sexually explicit material, and she was one of the first to extend her support for Motion No. 47.
Easy access to messages and visuals online that condone violent pornographic templates for our youth is setting the stage for what is considered the “norm” when it comes to the treatment of females. If my daughter was treated as a human being and not as an object to conquer she would still be here today. Societal messages directly influence rape and violence towards women.
Forty years of academic research has revealed that exposure to sexually explicit material, especially material featuring violence, is harmful to the physical and mental health of individuals, especially adolescents.
For example, in 2016, a study of over 4,500 European teenagers aged 14 to 17, published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, found:
Boys' perpetration of sexual coercion and abuse was significantly associated with regular viewing of online pornography.
A 2012 meta-analysis of over 70 academic studies published in the journal of Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity highlighted that consistent findings have emerged linking adolescent use of pornography that depicts violence with increased degrees of sexually aggressive behaviour. A Columbia University neurologist, Dr. Norman Doidge, in his book The Brain that Changes Itself, describes how sexually explicit material actually causes rewiring of neural circuits. He writes:
Sexual tastes are molded by an individual's experiences and their culture. These tastes are acquired and then wired into the brain. We are unable to distinguish our “second nature” from our “original nature” because our neuroplastic brains, once rewired, develop a new nature every bit as biological as our original.
The part of the brain he is referring to is the prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that helps us make good and rational decisions, and there is a much more significant impact on youth because this part of the brain is not fully developed until the age of 25.
I could continue to cite study after study that reveals the impact of violent and degrading sexually explicit material on youth, but I would quickly run out of time. Instead, I want to highlight another important aspect of this issue, which is protecting youth online.
Children's and adolescents' exposure to violent sexually explicit material is a form of child abuse. As I mentioned earlier, the average age of first exposure is 12, meaning that half of youth are exposed before age 12. Yet we take a hands-off approach instead of recognizing the exposure as child abuse. The renowned Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre put it this way:
The impact of exposure to pornography, sexual exploitation and the overall sexualization of children results in traumatic and detrimental outcomes for a child. It is our view that it is society's collective responsibility to protect children outweighing concerns about censorship.... Any exposure to adult or child pornographic images is abuse and children are detrimentally harmed and further victimized by these actions.
The Canadian Centre for Child Protection lists a number of ways that exposure to sexually explicit material can harm children, including increasing a child's risk of victimization, increasing a child's health risks, interfering with a child's healthy sexual development, and increasing a child's risk of problematic sexual behaviour against other children in an effort to experiment. I want to note that this last point is also confirmed by the Public Health Agency of Canada, which lists exposure to sexually explicit material as a contributing factor in sibling-on-sibling abuse.
I have spoken much about the impact of viewing violent and degrading sexually explicit material. Now I want to take a moment to highlight how easily accessible it is.
A new Canadian documentary on sexually explicit material that I co-hosted a screening of a few weeks ago showed how simple it was for a nine-year-old to access violent online sexual material by using rather innocent search terms. In fact, pornography companies specifically label this material to make it easier to find or be exposed to.
Another important factor in accessibility is its cost. The majority of sexually explicit material is free. No credit card is needed. No verification is required. No child safety measures are in place. In fact, part of the reason this material is so accessible and unregulated is that Parliament has not looked at the impact of sexually explicit material since 1985, before the invention of the Internet. The 1985 Fraser Committee report found that pre-Internet 1985 sexually explicit material had already perpetrated “lies about aspects of women's humanity and denies the validity of their aspirations to be treated as full and equal citizens”.
Some might be wondering why, if violent sexual content is so harmful, we are not seeing it in society. We are seeing it. Consider that as many as one in six girls and one in 12 boys are currently experiencing sexual abuse. Dr. Peter Silverstone, co-author of the new study from of the University of Alberta, said,
When all types of sexual abuse are combined, including exposure to pornography or other sexual material, the number of children sexually abused is as high as 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 6 boys.
That is staggering, and it is shameful that we have done nothing about this for over 30 years.
I believe that this issue cuts across political lines. The Prime Minister has stated, “There's issues around pornography and its prevalence now and its accessibility, which is something that I'm really wrapping my head around as a father of kids who are approaching their teen years”.
Ms. Sophie Grégoire Trudeau has also raised this concern by saying, “The objectification of the female body, the normalization of pornography, and rape language and culture is destroying the self-esteem of our girls and is an insult to the spirit of our boys”. I particularly appreciate her concern about how this issue affects both boys and girls.
I would also note that former NDP MP Judy Wasylycia-Leis and Conservative MP Joy Smith have similarly highlighted this as one of the top concerns for families across our nation. I am also grateful that Motion No. 47 has been jointly seconded by MPs from all five political parties in this Parliament. That is not a common experience and I want to extend my sincere thanks to each of these MPs who have officially extended their support.
I would also like to thank the member for Mount Royal for his discussions and insights. He is concerned about the infringement of civil liberties. To him, I would draw the analogy between the Internet and our road system. In Canada, we have freedom of movement. We have an extensive road system available to all Canadians. We may walk or ride bikes on roads anywhere in Canada, really without restriction. However, if we wish to use roads for particular things, such as transporting large items, licences or permits are required. Other things are also prohibited when it comes to road use. Speeding and racing are a couple of examples.
The Internet is public domain and we all need to be responsible with its use. If we could solve the issues of online sexual violence without passing a single new law, I would be overjoyed. My motion does not put forward any policy directives. We need to work together to end sexual violence everywhere. A good place to start is understanding what drives societal mindsets.
Civil liberties are immensely important to me. I know that the member for Mount Royal and I have in common a desire to defend civil liberties. I would also note that during his time as mayor of Côte-Saint-Luc, he and his council were viewed as one of the most innovative councils in Quebec. Therefore, I reach out to the member for Mount Royal and his entire caucus to work with us to ensure that civil liberties are maintained and that safety on the Internet is a reality.
Last and certainly not least, this motion has garnered strong support from coast to coast to coast, across a diverse array of over 40 organizations. From the Victoria Family Court and Youth Justice Committee in B.C. to the Newfoundland and Labrador Feminist and Allies, to the Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada, this is an issue that many care about deeply.
I am grateful for the support of Crossroads Resource Centre and Women's Shelter, and the Caribou Child & Youth Centre, which serve women and youth in my riding in northern Alberta.
As parents and policy-makers, we have a shared responsibility to see that young boys and girls grow up to develop positive attitudes on sexuality that foster dignity instead of objectification, and affection instead of coercion. That is a Canada that we all seek, and I hope that I have everyone's support for Motion No. 47.