Convivium: The theme of this issue of Convivium has to do with human value and how that factors in with the handling of social issues. A lot of people no longer see porn as a social issue or a matter of justice but as a victimless crime: "It's not hurting anybody, this is just me and my computer or my TV screen." Why are you working to change that?

Cordelia Anderson: I promote sexual health and I know a lot of people who work in that fi eld are also defenders of pornography as harmless, "just sex." [They] really frame any concern about pornography as solely morally or religiously based, anti-sex or anti-male, and completely miss the point of what a great deal of research now shows: that this is not harmless to the user. It's not harmless to the user's family. It's not harmless to children and youth who are exposed at rates that were unimaginable 20 years ago, to an ease of access and rapidly changing content that are indeed shown to have a negative impact.

We've got research that shows this is much more about violence than sex. We can show that the harm is to the user as well as that there's a second-hand effect much in the way of smoking, which was once considered an individual choice and an individual right. There used to be doctors that touted the benefi ts of smoking. They thought it was good for anxiety, that it was harmless. The industry worked very hard to sell their products knowing full well the effect.

It took a great deal of evidence to show that indeed there was a health effect to the user and a second-hand effect. All of those have parallels to pornography. Colleagues of mine for whom I have great respect still believe that there's no evidence to show harm, and that this is just sex and that it's an overreaction to be concerned or to be pulling this up as a public-health issue. Which is how I talk about it — social justice and a publichealth issue.

C: Convivium publishes from the perspective of faith in common life, and I think a lot of people in faith communities react to pornography mostly out of guilt or shame, and go, "Oh yeah, that's bad." But then, as a result, they tend to avoid talking about it at all. What is a better way to actually address these issues?

CA: I see the role of faith communities as a very powerful one here. What we do not need is to go about this from a shame-and-guilt point of view because that it brings it back to "What's wrong with you as an individual that you are using this?" Whereas the larger question is "What makes it very difficult for an individual to not use this?"

What is the industry doing to market this that makes it seem as if there's something wrong with you if you don't use it? In our culture, for quite some time, there has been a normalization of sexual harm. What is depicted in our mainstream media are hyper-sexualized images. At the same time, healthy images and accurate information are often blocked. We know that these hypersexualized images do not promote sexual and relational health.

Different surveys have shown particularly high rates of use among the faithful and different religions. There's sort of a double silencing. It's the silencing that's there for people in general, but then, as a person of faith, there's the "I have to deal with doing something that I recognize as against my values, yet I'm aroused by it." That's a toxic mix. What pornography does, by its very nature, is it draws people in, not so much to the nudity as to the novelty. The brain works on that novelty and the industry knows it works on the novelty. We get desensitized very quickly. In fact, in brain science and in animal research, that's called supra-normal stimuli.

C: How does that connect to our understanding of what someone's value is as a person?

CA: We have to look at the link between sex trafficking, sexual abuse, sexual violence and pornography. First of all, there's gender equity in terms of value. When one gender is for the entertainment or purchase of another, that's not equity.

When we treat women and children as sexual objects and commodities to use, abuse and then toss away — not even recycle, just use up and toss away — and get to the next because they're all interchangeable and it doesn't matter, that creates a problem not only for the people that are directly depicted but for everyone else.

If I'm looking at these women or children in these images, in this way, then do I turn around and treat my co-worker with the respect that would be expected? How do you switch that? And we know that taints our thinking. The reason I mention children is, even though we recognize that child sexual abuse images are not protected free speech (that that is documentation of sexual abuse and thereby victimization), the reality is that the number one — or number two depending on the research you look at — type of pornography searched for worldwide is "youth."

It's not a big surprise that we have hyper-sexualized and commodified women and that wasn't enough, so we had to go with younger and younger. We've always discounted the sexuality of people as they age and hyped the sexuality of "young." But "young" used to mean 30, and then it meant college-age, then it meant sweet 16, then it meant the tween, and now we're hyper-sexualizing even infants.

That shows in the extreme what is depicted in child sexual abuse images, but it also shows in mainstream pornography — not just when women of age are made to look like they are clearly not. It's also the whole mainstream depiction that really hyper-sexualizes young people and makes it look as if it's okay and expected for adult men to be looking at them as if they are sexual objects, okay to view in that way and use in that way. That's a problem. That shapes arousal. Instead of creating a barrier that these are young people in need of our protection, it feeds the idea that it is okay to exploit them. That's the link to sex trafficking.

Second, it's like some adult survivors in the industry say, "Pornography is just prostitution on paper." The reality is that increasingly — and there's research that shows this too — the men coming to prostitute and to sexually exploit an adult woman want somebody young. They want young and they want younger and a lot of them don't care if that person's of legal age or not. In effect, some definitely want somebody who is not of legal age and very often want to document that or want the woman to say and do what they've seen in pornography.

C: There's a lot of shocking facts when you look into it, when you do the research, but it has to start somewhere a little less shocking, right? What are some of your ideas around how we create a culture that doesn't commodify young women?

CA: One is that we need accurate, comprehensive sexual relational health information for all ages, not just kids. That needs to include a media literacy element that helps us to understand the environment around us and what messages are being given. It also needs to go back — and this has to be done differently within faith settings or schools — to understanding what our core values are and how that plays in to the decisions that we make.

If ultimately we want to have relationships that have certain characteristics, we need to look at whether what we are doing and practising today, such as looking at pornography or buying people for sex, is going to help that. Will it get us there, to an ability to have a committed, loving, caring, trusting relationship and have a sense of sexual integrity?

C: For instance, as a Christian, I believe that all people are made in God's image. But to connect the dots between that belief and how it applies to pornography isn't something I would necessarily come to without a little bit of help. Which seems ridiculous, but the media's powerful and our culture's powerful.

CA: They're powerful and the images are very powerful. I think your point is so well taken. What happens with the way I define normalization of sexual harm is that something that was clearly understood as being problematic, if not criminal, becomes accepted as just the way it is, no big deal. When that happens, then the person who questions it is considered the problem.

"What's wrong with you? Don't you get it? This is just the way it is." It is hard for the people of the strongest belief system, whether that is faithbased or science-based, or whatever the basis is for your belief, it's very hard to say: "Wait a minute. I'm not crazy, am I? There's something wrong here. How does it fit?" It just doesn't seem to fit. Yet everybody else is saying it's okay.

C: I've read articles about just how young kids are as they start being exposed to some pornography now; terms they're familiar with that adults are shocked by. Where's the line between wanting to protect our children and not addressing the issue?

CA: I frankly believe that exposing our children to pornography is a type of sexual abuse. In a less dramatic way, it is a type of sexual neglect. If we allow the industry to educate and shape our children's arousal, that's neglectful.

It cannot be — going back to the public health — on the backs of individual parents alone to filter everything out, because other places don't filter everything out and because there's a second-hand effect. I might manage to filter everything for my own children or educate my children, instill all the values I want in them, but they're going to be affected by the behaviours and expectations of everyone and everything else around them. I think that's part of the challenge and I think, in addition to education, because I certainly wouldn't want to stop there, we need policies that say we won't allow the sexual exploitation of children in advertising.

I'd like to say that we would do that with adult women, too, but it would be good if we could at least agree that children will not be used as sexual objects in order to sell products. What used to be considered kind of outrageous, as to how children would be depicted, now looks tame. Now the depictions of young people are what I would call sexually exploitive, to the point where it's hard for people to tell the difference. Think of a children's dance class that is honouring their athleticism and their athletic ability versus having them dance to an adult song in pornified outfits that focus attention on them as sexual objects and commodities rather than as dancers.

The fact that many adults can no longer tell the difference and think the latter is simply cute, and that anyone who questions it has a problem, is an example of a normalization of sexual harm.

C: Can you draw the line for me between how that sense of children understanding themselves as sexual objects follows into how sex trafficking can take hold?

CA: The message for boys is you're supposed to be users, takers and pornography makers. The message for girls is you're supposed to want to be seen as sexy. You're supposed to want to have appeal, you're supposed to want to fit in and that's all about being sexy. It really sets girls up as the supply and boys as the demand. That is totally out of line with where we started with human value; we are not supply and demand.

Our boys are raised to feel entitled and expected to treat females, or boys of a non-heterosexual status, in this way. Hyper-masculinity plays into this. Those messages make it really difficult. Why do we see so many young boys committing acts of sexual abuse and sexual harm and filming them? And expecting girls to take pictures of themselves to send them? Adult men taking their sons to prostitutes as a transition into manhood or show them porn so that they know they're fit, hyper-masculine men — and actually wondering what's wrong with them if they're not using this material.

C: The tradition of porn as a form of sex education is going strong, I think. You're an extremely impressive voice in the United States on this topic, but I know that you've toured Canada. Have you noticed any major differences?

CA: What I've found in Canada is a readiness to look at some of the policy issues. Readiness to look at the link between sex trafficking and pornography, particularly in recognizing that pornography feeds the demand, and that pornography is not healthy for our children. Granted, there still needs to be a lot of education in that realm. I think there's also more openness in Canada to not having the criminal justice response be the sole response, which is a problem in the United States. I get concerned about criminalizing youthful sexual behaviour, for example, then having them register as sex offenders.

I'm very concerned about that because so many people are groomed into this; not just by an individual perpetrator but by a society that gives multiple messages: This is what you're supposed to look at, this is what you're supposed to like, this is what you're supposed to do, but if you cross a certain line, you will be prosecuted and registered as a sex offender even if you're a child. I feel like Canadians are more sane about it.

There's a lot of possibility. There seems to be a lot of interest in the U.K. model of opt in/opt out. Prime Minister David Cameron really pushed to have Internet service providers (ISPs) voluntarily put filters on all technology, so that instead of as an individual person needing to say, "I don't want all my stuff to come with porn in it," then try to filter it out and block it. If I am an adult and I want it, I give my name and credit card and the ISP unblocks it. Then I worry about how to protect my kids or other people I don't want to have access to it. I opt in instead of everybody else having to opt out.

I think there are a lot of possibilities with that, but I also think there's pressure that can be put on different companies to say, "Why don't you have pre-existing filters?" Why do my basic TV channels come with porn? I want it to not, and if I want to add that, let me pay instead of having to work to get it off.

There was a hotel chain in Europe where the owner was very committed to ending child sex trafficking. He not only blocked out pornography as an amenity in his hotels he replaced it with art.

C: I noticed on your site that you talk about this "compassion fatigue." I know that's probably specific to social workers and to people working within the industry—

CA: Much broader than that.

C: Can you explain what that is?

CA: Yes. I think it's what we used to call burnout and self-care. Now it's referred to as secondary trauma, vicarious trauma or compassion fatigue. They're all slightly different but connected. A lot of that can be simply overwork and lack of balance that leads to burnout, but when you add exposure to trauma — listening to traumatic stories, seeing difficult things, being part of a community response — that's a secondary exposure to trauma that has a very real effect.

C: On a more personal level, there's also a kind of fatigue with pornography — that desensitization, that normalization. How does somebody engage the issue without falling victim to it?

CA: I think this is where the faith community can make a huge difference. We need to have respectful dialogue. It helps a lot to look at and to understand that the industry is hijacking our sexuality. The industry is manipulating the sexuality of others for profit.

It is not at all unusual to be seduced by and aroused by a lot of these images because the porn industry knows how to do that, how to hook us in, much like advertisers know how to hook us in. They know they need jolts per second and they know the best jolts per second are sex, violence and humour. If you pair those up, you hook people even more. This is all done intentionally by people who know how to draw our attention and keep our attention. It has a cost.

Think about the warning labels that the tobacco companies were forced to put on packages, or that alcohol companies are forced to put on labels to say "This can be hazardous to your health." With pornography exposure, much like alcohol exposure, different people have different tolerance levels for what they can consume.

It's not like everybody is going to become addicted, but some can. We certainly know that the younger the exposure along with a lack of counter messages, the greater of a problem. We also know that if you have other trauma in your life and you add this, there's more of a problem. If you already have sexually aggressive tendencies or problems and you add this to the mix, there's more of a problem. If you already have a lot of sexual shame and sexual guilt and you add this, there's more of a problem.

C: There's a strong sense of responsibility here. Especially for faith communities.

CA: I've been really impressed by the faith communities taking a leadership role. Something that surprised me, I think it was seven years ago, was the archdiocese, nationally, here, brought me in to do a talk on pornography. It was because they were hearing not only their own leadership but also all these parents saying, "I'm not sure what to do about my kids. Our relationship is suffering because of this," and they didn't know what to say. Parents are asking for help.

There's a lot of help out there. There's help out there for people who want to take action to prevent harm and for people that need to overcome harm.