This article discusses topics including sexual assault, which may be distressing for some readers.

Australia is amid a porndemic.

Technology has rapidly advanced over the past decade resulting in a proliferation of digital devices. While modern-day technologies harbour many advantages, the accelerated accessibility has corresponded with a drop in the average age of an Australian child’s first exposure to pornography.

The Australian Institute of Family Studies and WA Child Safety Services report that the average age of first exposure is between eight and ten years old.

Countless studies show that exposure to pornography as a child has serious ramifications for the individual and on a much larger societal level.

Australia’s National Plan to End Violence against Women and Children 2022-2023 acknowledges that “Pornography often depicts physical and verbal aggression towards women, male dominance and female submission, and non-consensual behaviours”, contributing to a view of women as “sex objects, and with acceptance of myths about rape” and “victim-blaming attitudes”.

“Viewing pornographic material that showcases violence can have negative impacts on a young person’s development with regard to their wellbeing and relationships and it can influence their attitudes and beliefs about sex, intimacy and consent,” the Plan states.

“The more often young men consume pornography, the more likely they are to enact sexual behaviour that the other person does not want.”

Today 90 per cent of the most popular pornography includes physical and verbal aggression.

The Australian Institute of Family Services (AIFS) finds this type of pornography condones sexual violence, violence against women, gender inequality and negates the concept of consent.

When accessed by youth, it strengthens attitudes supportive of sexual violence and violence against women.

As more studies are substantiating that pornography influences a child’s expectations about sex, it comes as little surprise that recent data from AIFS revealed adolescents who watch violent pornography can be up to six times more likely to be sexually aggressive compared to those who view non-violent pornography or no pornography.

Not only does early exposure to pornography have potentially harmful mental health and behavioural impacts, including body image issues, a preoccupation with sex and sexual relationships, increased aggression and the risk of sexual violence, but when a child is exposed to pornography, it is considered a form of sexual assault.

Australia’s sexual assault rate increased from 66.8 per 100,000 in 2010 to 90.2 per 100,000 in 2018, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

Of the sexual assault offenders recorded by police between 2018 and 2019, 97 per cent were males aged 15–19, the highest offender rates of any age group (102.9 per 100,000).

Over half (57 per cent) of offenders found guilty of perpetrating sexual assault were sentenced to custody in a correctional institution.

In early 2021 evidence from an inquiry conducted by the Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs raised concern about the serious impacts on the welfare of children and young people associated with pornography exposure.

In its ‘Protecting the Age of Innocence’ inquiry report, the Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs said it was “deeply concerned” about the extent to which young people were exposed to potentially harmful content and recommended that access to online pornography and wagering be restricted through mandatory proof of age protections.

“While age verification is not a silver bullet, it can create a significant barrier to prevent young people – and particularly young children – from exposure to harmful online content,” the report stated.

On June 1, 2021, the former federal government asked eSafety to develop an implementation roadmap for a mandatory age verification (AV) regime relating to online pornography.

In March 2023, eSafety presented the federal government with its report on a roadmap for age verification to protect children from online wagering and pornography.

Information on eSafety recommendations or what action the government will take has not been released.

Collective Shout, a not-for-profit company limited by guarantee and governed by a board of directors and a grassroots campaign movement against the objectification of women and the sexualisation of girls, is among Australians fearful of a youth sexual assault crisis on the rise.

Collective Shout movement director Melinda Tankard Reist said the federal government must release the report so stakeholders who care about the wellbeing of young people can assess its merits.

“The roadmap must not be watered down by the adult industry, which prefers zero regulation,” Ms Tankard Reist said.

“The vested interests of a predatory global industry must not be put before the wellbeing of children and the broader community.

“Every day without government action, more children are being harmed by porn exposure, exposed to rape and torture, sadism and extreme degradation of women,” she said.

“We are seeing a rise of child-on-child sexual abuse, sexual harassment, children making sexual groaning and moaning noises, girls threatened with rape if they don’t send nudes, and other porn-inspired behaviours in schools.

“Children are having their developing sexual templates warped by the toxic education provided by pornography exposure.”

In the United Kingdom, England’s children’s commissioner Dame Rachel de Souza has called for online protections for minors after publishing research examining links between sexual abuse cases and pornography – Evidence on pornography’s influence on harmful sexual behaviour among children.

The Children’s Commissioner’s Office (CCO) analysed 379 interview transcripts from child-on-child sexual abuse from a police force, which took place between 2012 and 2022, finding that in 50 per cent of the cases, interview transcripts included words referring to at least one specific act of sexual violence seen in pornography.

The most common category of sexual violence was physical aggression, such as strangulation, choking or slapping, with name-calling also prevalent.

The CCO reported 10 per cent of the documents from the SARC contained at least one act of sexual violence commonly portrayed in pornography.

The report revealed that in several interviews, children who had caused harm said their exposure to pornography was excessive or unhealthy, while two child victims stated they had been treated “like a porn star”.

Evidence on pornography’s influence on harmful sexual behaviour among children report comes as the Online Safety Bill, which sets out a new regulatory framework for internet services to ensure platforms have processes in place to deal with the risks caused by illegal and harmful content, has returned to the House of Lords for amendments relating to children’s exposure to pornography.

“For too long we have brushed the issue of pornography under the carpet as awkward, uncomfortable, or too difficult to solve, but we cannot shy away from discussing the nature, scale and impacts of online pornography,” Dame de Souza said.

“No child should be able to access or watch pornography. Passing the Online Safety Bill must be a priority if we are to protect children quickly and effectively – but it is also just one part of the essential and urgent work of protecting children from sexual abuse.”

Compounding sobering data, both nationally and internationally, begs the question of whether Australia should also be making online safety a priority.