If you want to stop sex-trafficking or you’re horrified by child sex-trafficking or child sex abuse, the number one thing that you do is you boycott pornography. That would be the first thing. At the very least you do that. For all the people out there who are using porn, who also think they’re progressive and they’re into human rights and stuff like that, if you’re using pornography, that is the worst human rights abuse that you could participate in.Anne Blythe, Founder of Betrayal Trauma Recovery
Pornography Is Abuse, Period.
The pornography industry wants us to believe that everything they produce is consensual and safe.
Yet, time and time again, women and children come forward as victims of the most heinous and despicable violent acts committed against them by pornographers, seeking to force and coerce victims into creating content that pornography users will watch.
It’s a filmed documentation of someone being abused and exploited.Anne Blythe, Founder of Betrayal Trauma Recovery
Pornography Depicts Sexual Depravity at Its Worst
Sexual contact between adults (never including children) should be consensual, respectful, and monogamous. Pornography depicts and glorifies the opposite of these characteristics.
Melea Stevens, board member on the National Center of Exploitation, speaks out against pornography as a public health crisis on the Betrayal Trauma Recovery Podcast. As a champion for victims of sexual abuse and exploitation, she says it this way:
Pornography really sends the message that sex with anybody and whoever and however you want is a right, and they present it in such a degrading, violent, racist, incestuous, child-themed manner that it wears down any sense of right and wrong, any sense of sexual boundaries.Melea Stephens, Marriage and Family Therapist and Activist Leader against Sexual Exploitation
Hardcore Pornography Is Illegal
Because of the societal normalization of sexual exploitation, most Americans do not know that mainstream pornography, also called “hardcore pornography” is illegal.
The hardcore version of [pornography], which is what mainstream internet pornography is today [is illegal]. Up until the early ’90s our Department of Justice was enforcing federal obscenity laws, but we’ve grown very lax if not completely stopped enforcing our existing laws. So, at this point, it’s running rampant.
Pornographers know they can get away with producing whatever material they want because we’re not enforcing existing laws.Melea Stephens, Marriage and Family Therapist and Activist Leader against Sexual Exploitation
Pornography users can help advocate for victims of sex trafficking and violent sexual crimes by boycotting pornography. Victims of pornography users can seek safety by setting appropriate boundaries that protect their children and themselves from exposure to pornography: while the laws exist but are not enforced, we are not powerless in protecting ourselves from pornography.
Pornography Use Harms Everyone
Partners, children, exploited sex workers, and those who view pornography are all harmed by the pornography industry.
All pornography does is hurt people. Whether you’re participating in it, whether you’re actively using it, or whether you’re in a relationship with someone who’s actively using it, it’s going to hurt someone. All of the people involved.Anne Blythe, founder of Betrayal Trauma Recovery
Pornography harms users by negatively affecting their brain chemistry, relationships, health, and other aspects of their lives. Pornography use is abusive: when a woman has been in an abusive marriage, she suffers deeply. She may experience betrayal trauma and other trauma disorders associated with relational abuse. When a partner uses pornography without disclosing it before entering into a relationship with a woman, this is sexual coercion, and is a severe form of sexual abuse.
Tragically, children of pornography users are also severely impacted.
Exposing Children to Pornography Is Sexual Abuse
Exposing a child to pornography is tantamount to child sex abuse. They have no category in their brain to understand what these images are and how to begin to process what they’re seeing. It completely hijacks their brain, their physiology, and how they have a physiological response, and they have a compulsive need to act out as a way to cope with the trauma.Melea Stephens, Marriage and Family Therapist and Activist Leader against Sexual Exploitation
If your child has been exposed to pornography, understand that the child is a victim of abuse and is experiencing significant trauma. You may want to take the following steps to ensure your child’s physical and emotional safety:
- Find a compassionate, trauma-trained therapist to help your child process and heal from his or her experience(s)
- If your partner is actively using pornography in your home, set boundaries to help prevent accidental exposure
- Seek out support for yourself: courageous women who support children who have been exposed to pornography need and deserve support from a community of safe people who will help them through this difficult process
Betrayal Trauma Recovery Supports Victims of Sexual Exploitation
The industries are very much overlapping, the pornography industry, and the sex industry. Pornography is like the feeder drug for the demand for sex trafficking.Melea Stephens, Marriage and Family Therapist and Activist Leader against Sexual Exploitation
At BTR, we affirm that pornography is a public health crisis and a human rights issue. We stand beside all women who have been and are being harmed by the insidious affects of pornography.
We offer our community, validation, and support to women all over the world in the BTR Support Group. Join today.
Welcome to Betrayal Trauma Recovery, this is Anne.
Before I get to our guest today, I want to thank all of you who have joined Betrayal Trauma Recovery Group.
When you join our Daily Support Group, which has multiple sessions a day in every time zone, you get unlimited live support from our trained and certified Betrayal Trauma Recovery coaches, and a community of women who care about you and who you can actually speak to. The awesome thing is, we developed it specifically for you because we’ve been through it and we know how it goes.
You never have to find childcare because you can access it from your home. You can do it from your closet, you can go out in your parked car in your driveway. As long as you have internet access, you can access the group on your phone, computer, iPad or anywhere through Zoom, which I’m sure all of you are really familiar with. Since the pandemic, Zoom has become very popular.
Please go to our website, btr.org, to check out the session schedule, and we’d love to see you in a group today.
Now for this week’s guest.
Anne: I have Melea Stephens on today’s episode. She is a practicing marriage and family therapist and an activist leader against sexual exploitation in her home state of Alabama. She is a board member with the National Center on Sexual Exploitation and the founder of Rescue Innocence Movement, a non-profit created to protect this generation of children from the harms of sexual exploitation through prevention, education, and legislation.
After witnessing the detrimental effects of hardcore pornography in the lives of both the children and adults she has treated, Melea felt a call to raise awareness about the unacknowledged health and societal harms of this illegal material.
Since 2012, Melea has organized several city and state-wide events and public awareness campaigns. She frequently partners with anti-trafficking leaders to promote education and meet the needs of survivors of sexual exploitation.
Through the Rescue Innocence Movement, and with the help of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation and local leaders, she has been instrumental in the launch of the Nation’s first emergency treatment program for pediatric survivors of sex trafficking at UAB Hospital.
Melea often speaks publicly on topics such as the public health crisis of pornography and enhancing sexual intimacy within the context of Christian marriage. She was also a key leader in the recent passage of the Alabama resolution to declare pornography a public health crisis. Melea longs to see a day when the evil of sexual exploitation is fully extinguished by a majority in society who have grown intolerant of its immense harms and injustices.
She believes through continued awareness, education, advocacy, and united activism that day is close within our grasp. As do I, Melea.
Melea: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be with you.
Hardcore Pornography Is Illegal
Anne: In your bio, you mentioned the societal harms of this illegal material, and we’re going to touch base on this, because I think it’s really interesting. Most people don’t realize that hardcore pornography is illegal because it’s so prevalent. We’re also going to talk to you about your article.
Most people don’t realize that this material, hardcore pornography is illegal. Can you talk about that for a little bit?
Melea: Yes, Anne, you’re absolutely right. Most people, because this has become normalized in society, they don’t realize that this easily accessible material is actually illegal. At least the hardcore version of it, which is what mainstream internet pornography is today. The only pornography that is technically legal is softcore, which is a very confined definition of pornography.
Hardcore internet pornography is illegal and up until the early ’90s our Department of Justice was enforcing federal obscenity laws, but we’ve grown very lax, if not completely stopped enforcing our existing laws.
At this point, it’s running rampant. Pornographers know they can get away with producing whatever material they want because we’re not enforcing existing laws.
Pornography Is A Public Health Crisis
Anne: Which is unfortunate because all pornography does is hurt people. Whether you’re participating in it, whether you’re actively using it, or whether you’re in a relationship with someone who’s actively using it, it’s going to hurt someone. All of the people involved.
Back in February of 2020, you wrote an article, entitled Alabama’s Resolution to Declare Pornography a Public Health Crisis is Urgently Needed. Now, did that pass since you wrote this article?
Melea: Yes, it did. It did pass a few months later.
Anne: Awesome. In that article, you mention the heartbreaking experiences that you’ve had, as a therapist, working with children as young as 6-11 years old, who are addicted to pornography. Would you mind telling our listeners a bit about your experiences?
Pornography Harms Children
Melea: Certainly. I’ve been in private practice for 20 years. Over the course of those 20 years, I’ve seen the devastating effects of hardcore internet pornography on adults, individual lives, marriages and, as we may touch on later, trafficking victims and things of that nature.
What really alarmed me was back in 2010-2012 some families brought in children ages 6-11. I had various families referred to me, and I don’t specialize in kids, it just happened to be that these families were referred to me.
I worked with these families with, for example, a little girl who was six years old when she was first exposed to pornography at the neighbor’s house. After a single exposure, she was drawn back to the material over and over and she and the little girl down the street started acting out sexually.
The families caught them, and they decided, “Okay, if we just don’t talk about it, maybe they’ll forget about it and it will go away,” but it didn’t go away. She kept returning to more aggressive sexual acting out with the neighbor. Then it escalated to the point where she was performing different things that she’d seen in pornography, very violent things on her baby sibling, who was barely two years old. The parents were alarmed.
They continued to think, “Maybe if we just remove her from these situations and try to watch her, it will stop,” but she got in trouble at school because she was stealing iPhones from teachers’ purses so that she could access pornography.
This little girl was sitting in my office. Her feet don’t hit the floor, and her affect is very flat, almost eerily flat. Her parents told me, “She doesn’t bond the same, she’s not the same child, she seems cold, withdrawn, isolated, and we don’t know what to do.”
In my private discussion with the little girl, I gingerly asked her questions, because I was uncertain about how she would respond, but she flat out told me, “I don’t see why my parents are bringing me here. I don’t see what’s wrong with pornography. You should be able to have sex with whoever you want, whenever you want.” That was very alarming.
I had another case that I can share. There were a few other cases but there is one other that I can talk about. It was a young boy who was 11. His parents don’t know when he was first exposed to pornography but he knew that the neighbor got Playboy magazines in his mailbox so at night he would sneak out of the house to go look in the neighbor’s mailbox.
On more than one occasion, he broke into the neighbor’s home, which there were no children in the neighbor’s home, but he would break into their house and get on their computer because he couldn’t get access to pornography at home. The neighbors would call the parents and be like, “Your son is on our computer again, can you please come and get him?”
These things really opened my eyes to the fact that this material truly hijacks the brain of any user, but especially a child, and it provides sex miseducation and sets them on a trajectory of life that is extremely problematic.
It was very heartbreaking.
When Children Are Exposed to Pornography, It’s Sexual Abuse
Anne: I’ve often said that pornography is an abuse issue. It’s always going to be an abuse issue, and when it comes to children, they’re not necessarily abusers from using porn because they’re children but they are being abused by the porn. The porn has abused them.
Melea: Absolutely. Exposing a child to pornography is tantamount to child sex abuse.
They have no category in their brain to understand what these images are and how to begin to process what they’re seeing. It completely hijacks their brain, their physiology, and how they have a physiological response. They have a compulsive need to act out, as a way to cope with the trauma.
When you have child-on-child harmful sexual behavior, you’re absolutely correct that we don’t see the child as a true perpetrator. They’re simply in an obsessive-compulsive trauma response to what they’ve been exposed to.
Anne: Right. Speaking of these children, you pointed out that parents had noticed changes in their children.
What red flags should parents look for?
Melea: Things that they might start to notice with children who have been exposed to pornography are they may become more isolating, withdrawn, depressed. They may become sullen and they may have a bad attitude towards other friends, playmates, especially people of the opposite sex. They may become more aggressive.
You may see sexual acting out that is age-inappropriate. Peeping. If you look at their browser history, they’re on the internet and they’ve been erasing browser history or if you see them withdrawing to the bathroom for a long time, locking doors for an extended amount of time, taking devices with them. Those are just things that might raise a flag.
Anne: I think that affect you talked about with that poor young victim, where she wasn’t very emotional, that’s what you’re talking about when you say “a flat affect,” is also a really interesting telling red flag.
With her, not that it’s any of my business, but was there any known actual—well, not actual because the porn is abuse, like we talked about, but was she also being abused by somebody?
Melea: From my understanding of her story, when she was exposed to pornography at the neighbor’s house, the little girl down the street, her father was a porn consumer, so there were no filters on any devices and it was just readily available at the home, and the father confessed to that.
There was that, but the little girl, the friend, had already become sexually expressive or sexually acting out, as a result of pornography. From my understanding, that was her first experience with sexual contact from another person, with the neighbor.
Anne: Because that statement, “I should be able to have sex with whoever I want, whenever I want,” is a pattern that we see in people who use sex irresponsibly, in dangerous ways, so that’s really scary.
Little things like that, that was a huge thing that she said, but it could be little things like that.
Like my kids, for example, when they see just regular kissing on Star Wars or something, just a little kissing scene that’s not really a big deal, they’re all like, “Ew, gross.” I think that is age-appropriate for them to be like, “Oh yuck, I don’t want to watch kissing.” Something that’s not typical might be a red flag as well.
Pornography Erodes Sexual Ethics
Melea: Absolutely. Pornography really sends the message that sex with whoever and however you want is a right. They present it in such a degrading violent, racist, incestuous, child-themed manner that it wears down any sense of right and wrong, any sense of sexual boundaries.
Anne: Yeah, and you can add sexist to that list of course.
Melea: You bet 100%.
Anne: Speaking of pornography, as this sort of documentation of exploitation, because that’s what it is. It’s a filmed documentation of someone being abused and exploited.
Tell me about your experience with victims of trafficking. What has that taught you about the dangers of pornography?
The Pornography Industry Uses Sex-Trafficking, Including Child Victims
Melea: Well interestingly, around the same time that I was seeing these children I started seeing the first set of trafficking survivors that were referred to me.
Two of those trafficking survivors had been forced to create pornography against their will. One was actually a young male, but they were forced to create material and made to look like they enjoyed what was happening to them. That quickly opened my eyes to that side of the demand and the production of pornography.
Likewise, there is so much coming out that is finally being exposed about PornHub, which I’m sure you’re familiar with, as the largest platform of pornography globally, and how many cases of known child sex-trafficking they profit from on these websites. Extremely disturbing violent material that they know these are children being raped, and they profit from it.
A few years ago, the National Center of Sexual Exploitation had a Summit—we have one every year—but a few years ago, we had a producer from Playboy who’d had a life change and was weeping and had great regret. He talked about the fact that, as a producer of Playboy, he trafficked, coerced, manipulated over 500 young girls into Playboy.
He explained how he and his colleagues would trick these girls into getting into the industry, thinking they were getting into modeling and then systematically wear them down into doing things they never thought they would do, then forcing them to look like they liked it.
He talked about how many lives he ruined and how none of them came back to tell him, “Thank you for getting me into this career,” and that many of them died early.
There is just story after story after story. The industries are very much overlapping, the pornography industry, and the sex industry. Pornography is like the feeder drug for the demand for sex trafficking.
Anne: Yeah, so if you want to stop sex-trafficking or you’re horrified by child sex-trafficking or child sex abuse, the number one thing that you do is you boycott pornography. That would be the first thing. At the very least you do that.
For all the people out there who are using porn, who also think they’re progressive and that they’re into human rights, and stuff like that, if you’re using porn, that is the worst human rights abuse that you could participate in.
Melea: Yes, you’re promoting sexual slavery. They’ll say, “Well, there are people who are in this voluntarily” and “That’s their right” and “You really don’t know.” Even people who produce “amateur porn.”
Anne: Or “ethical porn.”
Melea: Yeah, “feminist porn,” all these labels or buzz words you want to put on it, oftentimes, you find out later that that was not the case at all. It was just a mask to promote their abuse.
Pornography is Sexual Abuse on Film
Anne: I say pornography is the documentation of their sexual abuse.
People film it, and then not only is it the documentation of their sexual abuse but then people masturbate to it for entertainment, which is very, very wrong.
Melea: Yeah, it’s filmed rape. When the actress from the movie Deep Throat, which is a horrible film, testified before Congress about the sexual exploitation in the pornography industry that she experienced. She said, “When you watch this movie, you are watching me be gang-raped, literally and figuratively, having a gun held to my head.”
Anne: People would assume, and they assume incorrectly, that it’s just entertainment or they consented or that they’re not really getting hurt or something like that, and that’s not true at all. It’s scary and it’s really dangerous.
Going to pedophiles. Let’s talk about child sex abuse for a little bit.
Melea, in your experience as a therapist you have worked with one court-ordered pedophile for treatment for his pathology, but you’ve also worked with sex addicts of varying degrees throughout your career. Let’s talk about pedophiles.
From your experience, what created that de-evolvement? I don’t want to say the evolution because that kind of seems like they’re getting better when these people are getting worse. They’re escalating their abuse. Can you talk about how pornography was the catalyst of their abuse escalating into abusing children?
Pornography Is a Catalyst For Pedophiles
Melea: Absolutely. Well, studies of the last 25 years of convicted child sex offenders, 100% of them were addicted to pornography.
In our criminal justice system, people who are behind bars for sexual assault, 100% of them are heavy pornography consumers, if not addicts. There is not an exception to that rule. Even if it didn’t begin with pornography, let’s say it started with their sexual abuse or it started with a mental illness, it was fed by pornography, if not started by pornography. It’s definitely a part of their journey, it’s part of their story.
In the case that I worked with, it started at five. This man was introduced to pornography at five and was encouraged by very misogynistic male role models to consume women like a feather in his hat, like a notch in his belt from the time that he was very young.
In his case, it’s interesting, there was no remorse, even after being in prison for an extended period of time. Reportedly, from folks in contact, there was no remorse.
That’s disturbing. Because we think about how pornography affects the brain and studies demonstrate that continual pornography use affects the pleasure pathway or the reward pathway of the brain, like an illicit drug, like heroin or cocaine, and it actually causes the grey matter to atrophy and shrinks.
The experts say that the frontal lobe of the brain where you have the compassion and the altruism, the desire to care for other people, to help other people, when the brain begins to shrink through repeated use, that part of the brain actually shrinks back so that there is no compassion left. There is no empathy.
You begin to see others as objects to be used. It literally alters the way the brain functions and hardwires this expectation and appetite for violence and people.
Anne: Consuming people. I often say, “If you’re an alcoholic you abuse alcohol, if you’re a drug addict you abuse drugs, if you’re a porn addict or a sex addict you abuse people.” It’s an abuse issue. It’s going to be an abuse issue. It’s not a moral issue, although it is. It’s definitely a moral issue, but the issue at hand is abuse.
Melea: It is. It’s abuse, it’s justice, it’s a health issue.
Anne: I’d like to thank Melea for coming on today’s episode. We’re going to continue this conversation next week, so please stay tuned for the continuation.
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