THE STANDING SENATE COMMITTEE ON LEGAL AND CONSTITUTIONAL AFFAIRS
OTTAWA, Wednesday April 21, 2021
The Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs met by videoconference this day at 4 p.m. [ET], to study Bill S-203, An Act to restrict young persons’ online access to sexually explicit material.
Senator Mobina S. B. Jaffer (Chair) in the chair.
The Chair: I am Mobina Jaffer, Senator from British Columbia, and it is my pleasure to chair this committee. Today we are holding a meeting of the Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs.
Before we begin, I would like to offer several helpful suggestions that we believe will help you have an effective and productive meeting. If you encounter any technical difficulties, including interpretation, please let the chair or clerk know and we will work to resolve the issue.
I will do my best to get to everyone who wants to ask a question of our witnesses. This time, especially, I ask senators to please have very short preambles and short questions. I will be forced to stop the witness from speaking at the three-minute mark.
Senators, we have an additional challenge today. We have to be finished by 5:55. Each panel will last until 4:55, as there is another meeting after us. Senators, this will be a real challenge today. I will leave my questions to the last. If we run out of time, then I won’t ask my questions.
Members of the committee, I ask you to only signal to the clerk through Zoom chat if you do not have a question. If you are not a member of the committee, please signal to the clerk if you have a question.
Senators, today we are beginning our study of Bill S-203, An Act to restrict young persons’ online access to sexually explicit material.
Before we begin, I would like to introduce to the witnesses our committee members: deputy chair Senator Batters, deputy chair Senator Campbell, Senator Boisvenu, Senator Boyer, Senator Carignan, Senator Cotter, Senator Dalphond, Senator Dupuis, Senator Keating and Senator Pate.
For our first panel today, we are happy to welcome the sponsor of the bill, Senator Julie Miville-Dechêne, who is accompanied by Murray Perkins, Consultant, Media Regulation and Age-Verification, 18North; and Dr. Megan Harrison, Pediatrician and Adolescent Health Physician, CHEO.
Hon. Julie Miville-Dechêne, sponsor of the bill: Dear colleagues, I want to thank you for having agreed so promptly to begin the study of Bill S-203, a bill aiming to protect children and adolescents from exposure to online pornography. Since it was introduced on September 30, 2020, the debate on online porn has burst into the public consciousness as a result of the headlining article in the New York Times on the videos of sexual exploitation of minors on Pornhub.
Indeed, when minors access these adult sites unchecked, they are not only viewing increasingly degrading and violent pornography, but also scenes of child pornography, which can normalize these criminal acts in their eyes. A new British study shows that one out of eight titles suggested to first-time visitors on porn sites are in fact descriptions of sexual violence. This is in no way anecdotal. The average age for first exposure to pornography is 11 years old, and 40% of Canadian high school boys and 7% of Canadian high school girls consume it.
Let me briefly outline Bill S-203 for you. A business that makes sexually explicit material accessible to young persons on the internet for commercial purposes commits a criminal offence liable to a maximum fine of $250,000. The target is therefore pornographic sites and not search engines or general web platforms where porn may be circulating. Since extraterritoriality will present us with challenges in many cases, Bill S-203 provides for an administrative level of sanctions for sites that do not comply with the act. Section 9 authorizes the minister in charge to require internet service providers to take the necessary measures, such as blocking any offending porn site.
This key section requires two updates, since it was written last summer before the tabling of Bill C-10, which would allow the CRTC to begin regulating certain online activities, and also before the Minister of Canadian Heritage proposed the creation of a regulator to fine web platforms that do not withdraw illegal material within 24 hours.
The way this issue has evolved makes two amendments necessary. First, make the Minister of Heritage, rather than the Minister of Public Safety, responsible for Bill S-203. This was a suggestion made by the critic of the bill, Senator Linda Frum. Second, indicate that the responsible minister must designate a person to issue blocking notices to internet service providers in order to avoid any political interference in these market access issues. Senator Dalphond and I have discussed this matter and there may be other proposals.
In the preamble to the bill, I affirm that protecting children against pornography is both a health and a public safety issue. Exposing minors, especially boys, to online porn is associated with a number of harmful effects: addiction, aggressive sexual behaviours, fear, anxiety and an increase in sexist beliefs that particularly affect girls and women.
I raise this issue at the outset because I am before the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee. The federal Parliament can adopt legislation pertaining to criminal law to protect public health and safety. This bill, in fact, is based on the criminal law purpose. The prohibition it provides for is intended to suppress an injurious and undesirable effect upon the public, since it is reprehensible that a business can profit from putting young people’s health at risk. The editors of porn sites must bear the responsibility of taking the necessary precautions to prevent minors — a particularly vulnerable group — from being exposed to increasingly extreme porn.
Moreover, if we look at the bill’s legal and practical effects, they relate to the use of the internet, and thus telecommunications; an area under federal jurisdiction.
You might also worry that this bill infringes on free speech, a right protected by the Charter. We do not believe so, because the bill has specific exceptions for any sexually explicit material with a purpose related to education, science, medicine or the arts. Children should learn about sex from sex ed, and porn is not in any case educational.
Besides, freedom of expression is not an absolute and there is general agreement in our society that access to porn magazines, sex shops and porn films should be reserved for those over the age of 18. Proof of age is required. Why, then, should we accept that in a virtual world the same restrictions should not apply?
Of course, requiring porn sites to verify the age of every visitor will mean that adults who want to visit these sites will have to go through an extra step. It would be a minor inconvenience and yet one that would prevent harm to minors. Besides, paid porn sites already monitor their clients’ identities through the use of credit cards, and gambling sites already verify age.
There are also concerns about the protection of private data. Does the bill endanger privacy? Technological advances allow specialized companies to verify a client’s age in seconds while encrypting his or her data, give them a digital identity and only send to the porn site the information that they are over 18. Data protection will certainly be a condition for age verifiers to ensure the protection and security of personal data.
The Chair: Senator, can you please wind up? Your five minutes have been over for a while.
Senator Miville-Dechêne: I’m going to conclude by saying that this is not a lost cause. Of course, there will be young people who are going to get around these age checks, but, just as with alcohol, there need to be measures to try to decrease access.
Here’s a very important point: France has gone much further than we have on this issue. Legislation came into effect last July, and the Conseil supérieur de l’audiovisuel will soon be able to send a formal notice to international porn sites, and blocking will probably follow.
In closing, I believe that we should not get lost in the technical details, bearing in mind that our goal is to protect children. Thank you very much.
The Chair: Thank you very much, Senator Miville-Dechêne.
We will now go to Mr. Murray Perkins. Mr. Perkins, you have five minutes. I’m sorry, but at the end of it I’ll have to cut you off.
Murray Perkins, Consultant, Media Regulation and Age-Verification, 18North: Thank you for your time today.
In my former role, I led the implementation of age verification for online pornography under the U.K.’s Digital Economy Act. In doing so, I spent a great deal of time engaging with the age verification industry and the adult industry, among other stakeholders. In my view, age verification for online pornography is not only viable but likely to be successful if implemented, and there can be no doubt that children will be considerably better off because of it.
Age verification online is not new. In the U.K. it has been in place for several years for online gambling and the sale of age-restricted products. There are multiple ways to verify that someone is an adult, from the use of government-issued documents to newer technologies such as age estimation using biometrics and artificial intelligence.
I considered that we needed two things to make age verification for online pornography work. We needed the adult industry to carry age verification and we needed consumers to use it. If we got these two things right, we would achieve the overall aim of improving child protection online.
Why does it matter to encourage compliance from the porn industry? We had very good enforcement powers, but they could all be circumvented in one way or another. Crypto-currencies and VPNs were risks. Circumventing enforcement is not without disruption for industry. We had to ensure that the disruption of age verification was less damaging than the disruption and cost of circumvention.
The porn industry will never go away, but it can go places that make it harder to reach and a lot more difficult to regulate. Compliance greatly mitigates the risk.
Why does it matter if consumers use age verification to access pornography in the event age verification is in place? Simply, because if people didn’t use age verification to access pornography and the traffic to adult sites fell dramatically, then that takes us back to the risk of circumvention. If the risks are sufficiently well mitigated — and they really can be — age verification for online pornography can become ubiquitous and normal.
Nonetheless, privacy is a challenge. Most people tend not to hide their smoking habit. We drink socially with friends and family. Gambling as a leisure activity is generally accepted, but people do not consume pornography in public, nor do most people talk about it. Privacy matters. Age verification need not risk privacy.
In the U.K., we introduced a certification scheme for age verification providers to ensure that no personal information would be shared with adult websites and to encourage consumer trust in age verification. It required age verification providers to lift the hood on their products.
Before the U.K. government took the decision to fold the objectives of the Digital Economy Act into its wider online harms approach, most age verification providers had signed up to certification and were in the process of achieving it. We saw enough at that time to know that companies were protecting privacy just as they said they would.
In my engagement with the adult industry, I was always very clear that the law was about child protection and that it was not anti-porn. Industry supported the child protection goal. Of course, there were concerns about how well it would work, the need for a level playing field for all companies to be treated the same was very important, and there were concerns about what the risks would be. But people told me they would be compliant, and the conversation largely focused on practical matters.
Age verification is not a silver bullet. It will never be perfect. It will never stop every child or be on every site. But if I may, in closing, I would like to refer to a little safety-tech history.
In the late 1940s, the first U.S. car manufacturer to fit seat belts found that customers requested that dealers remove them before buying. In the mid-1950s, only 2% of customers would pay for what was then an optional extra in Ford cars. It wasn’t until 1970 that the first law was introduced to make the wearing of a seat belt compulsory. Seat belts still don’t prevent all road deaths or serious injury.
Age verification isn’t a silver bullet. Neither are car seat belts, but there really is no way I would drive my young daughter anywhere without making sure she was buckled in.
I am, of course, more than happy to try to answer any questions you may have. Thank you.
The Chair: Thank you, Mr. Perkins. We will now go to Dr. Megan Harrison. You have five minutes, doctor.
Dr. Megan Harrison, Pediatrician and Adolescent Health Physician, CHEO: Thank you very much for the invitation to speak today. I just want to orient you a little bit about my areas of expertise, to give you some background on how I might be able to provide some examples in my big support of this bill.
I am a pediatrician at CHEO who specializes in adolescent health and have a hospital-based practice where I support and treat youth who are both inpatients and outpatients in the clinical setting. My areas of expertise are adolescent sexual health, post-sexual assault care, teenage pregnancy and parenting, vulnerable high-risk youth, and pediatric and adolescent body image and eating disorders.
At CHEO, I am one of the medical physicians on the eating disorder team, and I am the lead adolescent health physician on the sexual assault team.
Outside of CHEO, I am the President of the Adolescent Health Committee of the Canadian Paediatric Society, as well as the Co-Chair of the advocacy committee of the North American Society of Pediatric and Adolescent Gynecology. Within all of those roles and while seeing youth for the past 15 years here in Ottawa in clinical practice, I feel I have some relevant experience to share that is definitely in great support of this bill.
It is difficult in five minutes to do this, so I hope I get some points across. Of course, if there are questions, I’m happy to do my best to answer.
There is more than 20 years of academic research that has explored, to some degree, the effects of pornography exposure on adolescents. Collectively, the majority of these studies associate pornography use with more permissive attitudes around sex, early age of sex initiation, stronger gender-stereotypical sexual beliefs, objectification of women, and greater experience with casual and risky sex behaviours, along with sexual aggression.
Children are not capable of distinguishing what’s real and what is not real on TV or online. That is why kids get scared when they see scary movies, because they don’t know what’s real and fiction. They worry there are monsters under the bed.
The developing brain is absolutely affected by the images that it sees. As they grow and develop, their brain continues to change at an impressive speed. Neuroplasticity is a process by which our brains create new neural networks and pathways, which means it is constantly optimizing itself. As we age, our brains become more resistant to change and less plastic. You may have heard you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. There is something to that.
Neuroplasticity is at its highest in children and even more so in adolescents. This means that repeated behaviours, repeated images, repeated ideas and values that a brain sees and internalizes during childhood and adolescence can have lasting impacts, as compared to adults, where the brain might be less affected.
The adolescent brain is an amazing thing. It’s a massive time of change. Adolescents are known to be risk takers for lots of different brain and biology reasons, and as pediatricians, we do not take away all the risks for our patients, nor would we want to. In the right environment, risk taking and experience leads to learning and growth. We do add layers of protection to prevent real harm, and we also rely on the government to send important messages about what is acceptable in society.
In my clinical practice, I see teens all the time who either inadvertently see pornographic images or who are curious and seek these sites out. Adolescence is a crucial time for identity formation, which includes sexual identity and forming a positive body image.
The teens I see who have accessed these sites either accidentally or on purpose — and it’s very, very easy to do and the images are very disturbing — have so much confusion about their bodies and what is expected of them sexually, what is normal, all sorts of things.
As pediatricians, we’re devoted to supporting kids, youth and their families in reaching optimal health and overall wellness. As health care providers, we look to the government to partner with us in protecting the wellness of these kids and youth.
In the clinical setting, health care providers try to modify certain risks that may adversely affect someone’s health. For example, although I try, I cannot easily modify a youth’s socio-economic status, their home environment, their upbringing or their genetic predisposition for a mental health concern, but I look for things I can modify. Access to pornography is something that together we can modify. There are rules around wearing seatbelts, when you can drive, when you can drink, and these are all very helpful modifiable things that help protect our youth.
In clinical practice, we ask about drug experimentation and safe sex practices. We try to reduce harm. We counsel around not getting in the car when someone has been drinking. We review internet safety, what sites are accessed, challenges with social media, do you know how to block people? What do you do if a stranger asks you for a nude picture, which is not infrequent believe it or not.
I recommend to children and youth not to access pornography sites for all the developmental and health risks stated above. Not only would this bill significantly support what health care providers are already trying to practise, it would enhance our ability to do so. Especially in this era of COVID-19, with massive increases in child and teen screen time like we’ve never ever seen before in pediatrics, reducing child and youth access to pornography is crucial, now more than ever.
A sincere thank you for the opportunity to speak today, and I’m again happy to try to answer any questions that I can.
The Chair: Thank you very much, Dr. Harrison.
Senators, we will now go to questions. May I please ask you to direct your question to the appropriate panellist, please.
We will start with Senator Campbell, deputy chair of the committee.
Senator Campbell: I have no questions at this time, chair. I’d just like to thank all of the witnesses. I thought that the information was clear and certainly helped to get my head around understanding what is going on. I thank them very much. I may have some later on but not right now. Thank you.
The Chair: We’ll now go to Senator Batters, deputy chair of the committee.
Senator Batters: Thank you very much. I appreciate that. My question is for Senator Miville-Dechêne. Senator Miville-Dechêne, thank you very much for introducing this very important bill and for all of your work on this issue.
I support your efforts, and because of that, I want to make sure that we make this bill the very best and most solid that it can be.
One thing I wanted to ask you about in that light is that I’m surprised about how much power this bill gives to the minister, and the power to charge people. One example is for corporations; you can be charged for someone working under you, whether or not that employee is “identified or proceeded for the offence under this Act,” and:
. . . any director, officer or agent or mandatary of the corporation who directed, authorized, assented to, acquiesced in or participated in the commission of the offence is a party to and guilty of the offence and liable on conviction to the punishment . . . .
And that’s even if the corporation is not prosecuted or convicted.
First of all, I want to tell you a brief technical thing. In that section 6, where you talk about “identified or proceeded for the offence,” I think that’s a typo and I think “proceeded” should probably be “prosecuted.” So you’ll need to amend that, I think.
In general, what I’m wondering about, for these sweeping powers, is how do you respond to this? Are you confident that those types of sweeping powers would withstand challenge, because it would apply even if the corporation is not prosecuted or convicted for that particular offence?
Senator Miville-Dechêne: I believe, Senator Batters, that you are referring to clause 5 of my bill. It seems to me here that, in general, when you prosecute a corporation, that is, a company, you also make sure that you can file charges against the officers and responsible persons in the company.
In this case, we’re asking companies to have an age verification system. So it’s not personal decisions that are made at each level of the company; the system has to be set up and designed by the company.
As I understand it, when corporate entities are involved, you also make sure in a bill that individuals in the company can be prosecuted. I know that in the case of YesUp in Toronto, the company was prosecuted and the company’s officers were held accountable.
You think it goes too far to say that it can be other people in the company. However, the officers, directors, and agents are the ones responsible for implementing this age verification system.
Senator Dalphond: My question is for Mr. Perkins. I understand you were the former policy director of the British Board of Film Classification. You referred to Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act. But I understand — and please correct me if I am wrong — that this part was not put into force.
Are you referring now to codes of conduct and measures left to the providers of these services?
Mr. Perkins: You’re right. So Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act did not come into force. What I was referring to is all of the implementation work that was done ahead of the government’s decision to not bring that into force.
So we were effectively ready for the law to come into force. All of the guidance that was required under the legislation was in place, all of the relationships with other stakeholders, the enforcement powers that we had in relation to, for example, the internet service providers and the role that they would play. Everything was effectively ready at the point at which the government chose not to bring the law in, when it did start to bump up against both the general election and the conversation around the wider online harms approach, and tackling not just commercial online pornography — which was what was in scope under the Digital Economy Act — but also social media and other places which carried pornography, and in some cases, considerable quantities.
At the initial introduction of the age verification regime under the Digital Economy Act, back in 2016 and when the bill was being formulated, there wasn’t — I think it’s fair to say — confidence that you could tackle social media, for example, at the same time as you would commercial pornographic services. We had to start somewhere.
I do believe that we demonstrated a lot of confidence in the regime and the likelihood and the high expectation of compliance from the industry, and that gave government more confidence that more could be done.
Senator Dalphond: I understand it is voluntary compliance because there’s no scheme under which you would be punished or prosecuted if you don’t comply; it’s voluntary conduct of business and compliance by businesses themselves.
Mr. Perkins: Apologies if I misunderstand. In terms of the U.K. position at the moment, there is no framework outside of some European directives, which have much more limited scope for commercial pornography sites or for social media, for that matter, to currently carry age verification on a voluntary basis or otherwise.
Senator Dalphond: Can a charge be laid against a provider?
Mr. Perkins: Not at the moment. Not without either the Digital Economy Act being in force or the upcoming online safety bill or the online safety act. The latter will introduce requirements. It’s the full expectation that it will introduce requirements for age verification.
What I can speak to at the moment is what we were able to put in place in terms of a structure for the regulation of the — [Technical Difficulties] — and introduction of age verification. And as I’m sure you will all be aware, under Part 3, there were enforcement powers that the regulator had that were very effective. As I said earlier, nothing was beyond circumvention, but the cost of circumvention would have been greater, we believe, than the cost of age verification.
Senator Miville-Dechêne: Can I add something?
The Chair: Very quickly.
Senator Miville-Dechêne: I just want to say Great Britain is the country that went further. For political reasons, when Theresa May was replaced by Boris Johnson, the law was dropped, because they were in the middle of Brexit, so it was one more controversy to avoid. However, France and Germany are really advanced on that path. Australia is also looking very seriously at legislating on that front. But I would say that France is the one that is ahead now.
Senator Keating: My question was just answered by Mr. Perkins, but I want to take the opportunity to thank the witnesses for appearing today. I also want to acknowledge all the work done by Senator Miville-Dechêne on this very critical matter.
Senator Boisvenu: Once again, I would like to acknowledge the presence of all our witnesses, and our colleague Senator Miville-Dechêne.
Madam Senator, there is already a provision in the Criminal Code for the recognition of an offence of this nature. It is section 171 of the Criminal Code, which provides that anyone who shares sexually explicit material with minors commits an offence.
I am trying to understand why you created a specific law in this area when minor changes could have been made to the Criminal Code that would have done the job effectively.
Senator Miville-Dechêne: That is an excellent question and the answer is this. When you look at section 171(1) of the Criminal Code, you notice that anyone who distributes sexually explicit material for the purpose of facilitating the commission of an offence against a child covered by another section is guilty of an offence. So, it is not just the distribution of sexually explicit material to children that is criminalized, but also the fact that it is accompanied by another offence.
So, we were inspired by section 171 to create our law, which is, in fact, a parallel law that is not in the Criminal Code, and we made the choice to proceed by summary offence as far as punishments are concerned. It was felt that this was a simpler route than amending the Criminal Code because, obviously, there are other reasons in these sections for establishing this double condition to rule that the distribution of sexually explicit material to children is criminal.
Senator Boisvenu: If we really wanted to send a very clear message about the repercussions for people who distribute this kind of material, would it not have been more effective to use the Criminal Code and then impose penalties that, in my opinion, should be even more severe?
Senator Miville-Dechêne: I don’t think there is a definitive answer to this. This is a Senate bill. According to the experts we consulted, it was simpler to create a stand-alone bill, and you are right that the fines may not seem like enough — it’s $250,000 for a company for the first offence. At the same time, there can be multiple offences and higher fines for repeat offences.
Don’t forget that there is another avenue available to us, the administrative route, which in fact, to be quite frank, is almost more important than the offence route, because most of these sites are not in Canada.
Senator Boisvenu: Yes, but who will —
Senator Miville-Dechêne: We may —
Senator Boisvenu: Who will be administratively responsible for enforcing sanctions?
Senator Miville-Dechêne: In the bill, you’ll see that we mention in section 9 that it’s the Minister of Heritage — and I’ve proposed an amendment.
That said, I have thought about this and in all transparency, I must tell you that my colleague Pierre Dalphond and I have discussed this. If the minister himself is responsible for administrative sanctions, there could be a perception of political interference, because obviously pornography is a controversial issue.
So, ideally, we’re asking that the amendment that I intend to introduce here at this committee — and I will be assisted in introducing it — make it so that the minister can designate a person, which would obviously be an agency, to put these administrative sanctions into practice. That could theoretically be the CRTC or it could be the new regulator that Minister Guilbeault has been talking about for months, which could also oversee the platforms.
Senator Boisvenu: Thank you, senator.
Senator Dupuis: My question is for Senator Miville-Dechêne.
Senator Miville-Dechêne, I am certainly with you on the purpose of the bill. My question is this. I’m trying to understand what your bill does in relation to what is already a set of provisions in the Criminal Code on sexual offences, including pornography and things that are directed at youth. I have some of the same reservations as Senator Batters. A minister is given undefined discretionary powers; subsection 9(2) of the bill states that the notice must:
(d) provide any information that, in the Minister’s opinion, may assist the Internet service provider in complying with any requirement imposed by the notice;
It is a notice of violation, but at the same time, it gives a minister the ability to assist the person in complying with it. In my view, there is a fundamental problem with the construction of this entirely discretionary power that is intended to be given to a minister.
My concern is that this could be a completely bogus power if it is not framed in legislation. This leads to my question: What has prevented you from specifying, once the offence is recognized, who can point it out, who can demand what, and what the offences are, rather than leaving these things very unclear? Depending on whether or not the minister agrees with the intent of the legislation, it may not be enforced at all.
Senator Miville-Dechêne: In the current Criminal Code, there is no section, as written, that allows for a pornographic site to be charged if it does not verify age. It doesn’t exist, we don’t have that possibility. That is why we created a summary offence.
On the other hand, we’re talking about two different paths here. There’s the offence route and the court route, but there’s also the administrative route, which is essential, because we’re talking about pornographic platforms that are often located outside Canada. So we won’t be able to sanction them or prosecute them because they’re not in Canada.
That’s why we wouldn’t act directly on the platforms, the pornographic sites, but rather on the Internet signal distributors, like Bell and Videotron, who distribute the signal of pornographic sites. So it’s to them that we would turn and say that eventually they would be able to block the site.
You’re right about the minister’s powers not all being defined. That’s why there will be regulations. As I said in my statement, I want to propose an amendment so that it is the minister who designates a person, so that his powers are less discretionary.
Senator Boyer: My question is also for Senator Miville-Dechêne. I thank you for sponsoring this very important bill.
In my life prior to coming to the Senate, I was commissioned by Public Safety Canada to research and co-author a paper on trafficking of Indigenous women and girls. The study was based on 71 interviews with subject matter experts, many of whom were survivors of child sexual abuse or sexual exploitation, whether through porn and/or trafficking. We know that Indigenous women and girls are subject to a much higher rate of sexual exploitation because of the effects of colonialism and socio-economic issues. I’m wondering if you can speak to the issue of how this bill will impact Indigenous people in Canada.
Senator Miville-Dechêne: There are no barriers to viewing pornography online for Indigenous youth, just as for non-Indigenous youth. So young Indigenous women and boys are viewing this pornography.
According to the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, this helps normalize these sexual activities. In English, we use the word “grooming,” or conditioning process. So in that sense, preventing young people from viewing pornography can help decrease the incidence of sexual exploitation.
That said, Senator Boyer, there is a lot of child pornography on porn sites and my bill does not address that. You may have heard that Minister Guilbeault wants to introduce a bill to force porn platforms to remove this material within 24 hours.
My bill is strictly aimed at preventing minors from viewing pornography, which as you know is increasingly violent and degrading.
Senator Boyer: Would you say it is tied to the trafficking issue as well?
Senator Miville-Dechêne: Certainly, since just viewing pornography, for a child or teenager, whose brain is not yet fully developed, can help normalize sexual exploitation. It may make that child more likely to accept web-based requests from abusers. The bill may have a definite positive, if indirect, effect.
Senator Boyer: Thank you very much.
Senator Pate: Thank you, Senator Miville-Dechêne, for introducing this legislation, and to both of the other witnesses for appearing.
My question is for Dr. Harrison. Senator Miville-Dechêne has indicated there are other jurisdictions that have protections. Are there any other protections that either you would like to see incorporated in this legislation or potentially in the regulatory regime that would be accompanying the legislation, in light of your work with young people?
Dr. Harrison: That’s a great question. There are probably a lot of things, but they’re probably things we can’t do. I’d like to take the whole internet down sometimes, but I don’t think we’ll be able to do that. I could put some more thought into that and certainly get back to you.
There are different things that are similar to what Senator Miville-Dechêne is requesting in terms of pop-ups and having an age verification. The reason I think this would be helpful for the youth and kids that I see is that, although we’re never going to take it away — people can absolutely get around those, we know that and we know that adolescents get around things all the time — but it will absolutely deter accidental viewing.
It’s also, believe it or not, going to deter a lot of adolescents and kids who are curious and type something in. If that comes up, there are a vast number who would stop right there, because that was their risk-taking; actually typing something in and seeing a pop-up and thinking, “I’m not going to go any further because this is not something I should be seeing.” The reason I’m happy about things like this is because I think it will have a big impact on a whole bunch of children and youth. I know we can’t take all the risks away, like I mentioned, but this is a really important step that will deter a lot of kids.
In terms of other things that we’d like to see, I would request that I might be able to get back to you on that if I can, because there’s certainly a lot of stuff that kids and adolescents are stumbling upon that have great consequences.
Senator Pate: A number of individuals working in this area that I’ve been in touch with have indicated that we should be looking at putting in place better sexual education and preparatory materials for very young children, including in primary school. Are there any materials like that or recommendations that CHEO has made in the past — well, I know there are. If you could talk about the types of recommendations that have been made, that would be helpful.
Senator Miville-Dechêne, I saw you putting your mic on, if you would be interested in answering that.
The Chair: There is only 30 seconds.
Dr. Harrison: Go ahead, senator.
Senator Miville-Dechêne: I won’t be long. Yes, sexual education is at the heart of it, because children are curious. Not only do we need sexual education at school — which we don’t have everywhere and not at the level we would like — but we need some programs on the web where they go, and where a healthy sexual relationship can be seen. We need to have a balance, because now we just have porn, which is very violent many times, and we don’t have a lot of material for sex ed on the web. That’s really problematic.
Senator Pate: Thank you.
Senator Cotter: Thank you to the three of you for your presentations on this very important topic. I’m entirely with Senator Batters on the idea of making this as effective as possible. My question is probably for Senator Miville-Dechêne and is in two parts.
My main focus is that it seems to me that the administrative sanctions have the most potential to be wide-ranging and effective. I guess I’m a little bit confused about how they would work. I see, for example, in section 9 of the proposed bill that when the minister, whoever that happens to be, has reasonable grounds to believe a person has committed an offence under this particular section — which sounds like any person, and my guess is that right now that offence is being committed in multiple places as we speak — when that happens, the minister can give notice under this section to any internet service provider.
I guess I’m not clear on how all that linkage occurs then, because we don’t know at that stage whether or not that service provider is creating the opportunity for violations of the law or not. I’m wondering how tight that should be, or maybe be more tightened up, in order that the linkage between the bad behaviour and the service provider is clear enough that it justifies the administrative intervention.
Senator Miville-Dechêne: I’m going to explain again what I may not have explained very clearly.
First of all, I want to propose an amendment that it not be the minister, but a designated person — so an agency — that would be in charge. However, you are right to ask who will decide whether the pornographic site is in violation. Of course, it’s relatively easy to do because we’re talking about age verification. So you don’t need a very long police investigation to find out whether or not a site is checking the age of people who are accessing the site; you don’t need a search or a demand letter.
At the moment, that’s exactly what France is doing, which is to say that it has administrative options. The Conseil supérieur de l’audiovisuel is going to send a formal notice to the site that it has already contacted and that has already responded, to tell the managers that if they do not establish an age verification program in their company by a given date, the council will resort to sanctions. So the proof, in this case, is not hard to make. However, we cannot expect the porn site to be convicted, as in some cases, these sites will never be reached on summary conviction since they are located outside of Canada.
As you say, this is the —
Senator Cotter: If I understand, senator, this means we’re talking about not just any internet service provider but the internet service provider through which this offence — about which we have a reasonable belief — occurred; is that correct?
Senator Miville-Dechêne: Absolutely. We are aiming at porn sites. Not all the internet is there. This is a very narrow law. You have to distribute porn for commercial purposes, and this reduces the number of platforms.
Senator Carignan: My question is for Senator Miville-Dechêne. I also agree with the bill and want the most effective and efficient implementation possible.
Have you considered using the word “organization” rather than “corporation?” The word “organization” is already defined in the Criminal Code in section 2, and that includes corporations, companies, unions, associations of persons... It seems to me that this could cover a broader range and still include the corporation. That’s my first question.
Here’s my second question: Have you thought about adding a concept of negligence? In one of your sections, regarding leaders, it says: “who orders,” “who authorizes.” However, it seems to me that if you added the notion of negligence, you could refer to section 22.1 of the Criminal Code and include people who will stick their head in the sand and say that they did not know and that they did not give the authorization. Whereas if anyone acts negligently, for example, by not putting the age verification system in place, at least they will be charged.
These are, I think, two things that could accomplish the purpose of the bill. So I wanted to know if you had discussed those two things.
Senator Miville-Dechêne: Well, no, Senator Carignan, but both suggestions seem interesting to me. I must admit that I can’t say whether we should replace “organization” with “corporation;” that is quite possible.
The issue of negligence may be an interesting avenue because yes, what we want to do is punish those who have not put a system in place. It can happen that the system is thwarted by one person. Accidents can happen, because what we want is for a third party to do the age verification. What we’re asking for is that there be an intention and especially the implementation of a system — the best possible system — to verify the age of all visitors.
So, I’ll take those two suggestions and we’ll look at them seriously.
Senator Carignan: Fine, thank you. Those were my two questions.
The Chair: Senator Batters has a clarification and then I’ll ask a short question, because we’ve run out of time.
Senator Batters: I wanted to raise to Senator Miville-Dechêne that part of my question I was asking you before referenced the section 5 powers, but part of it also referenced the section 6 powers. It is section 6 that contains the possible typographical error, where it says “proceeded” instead of “prosecuted.” If you could look at that. I just want to make sure your bill is the best it can be. Thank you.
Senator Miville-Dechêne: Thank you very much for your consideration, Senator Batters.
The Chair: I have a question for you, Mr. Perkins.
Besides France and Germany, are there any other countries that are currently doing the verification and some of the things that Senator Miville-Dechêne has said?
Mr. Perkins: In terms of having the enforcement up and running, no, is the short answer. There are, as I said, limited schemes or operations in the U.K. in terms of U.K.-hosted content under a European directive, notwithstanding Brexit. Australia is also looking at that. This is something around which momentum is gathering. I think it’s partly, not so much a lack of will, but people realizing that the technological means of achieving the objectives are available now — in terms of privacy, for example — that they weren’t so much previously. Earlier iterations of age verification online were not so privacy protecting, for example, as what is available now.
The Chair: Thank you so much. We have run out of time, so I won’t ask you any further questions, but I will send you a note.
To the panellists, I want to say to you that we’ve learned a lot from you and you’ve clarified many things for us, as you heard from Senator Campbell. I apologize for cutting you off. I’m trying to get all the senators here to ask questions. If you think you want to provide a fuller answer to any of the questions that were asked, may I please ask you to send it to the clerk, and the clerk will distribute it to all of us.
I want to thank all three of you, and we look forward to working with you in the future.
Senators, for our second panel, the witnesses are Dr. Gail Dines, Culture Reframed; Dr. Jocelyn Monsma Selby, Co-Chair, Global Summit, Connecting to Protect; and as an individual, Jacqueline Gahagan, Professor, Health Promotion, Dalhousie University.
We will start with Dr. Gail Dines.
Dr. Gail Dines, Culture Reframed: Thank you very much for inviting me.
I am a professor emeritus of sociology. For over 30 years, I have been researching the impact of pornography on young people and the ways porn consumption disrupts healthy development. I’m here today to speak on behalf of Bill S-203 because our children deserve it. I am the Founder and President of Culture Reframed, the only non-profit in the world that develops research-driven programs for parents and professionals on how to build resilience and resistance in young people to pornography.
In light of the mountain of empirical research from multiple disciplines, Culture Reframed defines pornography as the public health crisis of the digital age. This is a stealth public health crisis because few parents or experts charged with child protection are aware of the multiple harms of pornography on young people.
When I first started this work over 30 years ago, to buy any pornography material, you had to prove that you were over 18. As pornography moved online around 2000, not only did it become more hardcore, cruel, violent and abusive to women, but it became universally accessible. It is now just a click away.
How have we reached this point where kids as young as 7 are accessing pornographic materials that show women being sexually abused for commercial purposes? Where are the policy-makers and professionals tasked with safeguarding children? Indeed, where are all those adults with a vested interest in the well-being of the next generation?
The good news is that a lot of them seem to be here in Canada, taking a bold and courageous stand to support a bill to stop kids from being pulled into the world of hardcore porn. We now have over 40 years of empirical evidence that demonstrates without a doubt that early access to porn undermines the healthy social, emotional and cognitive development of boys and girls. We have a perfect storm of porn being more affordable, anonymous and accessible, produced by a predatory industry that is practically unregulated. We regulate alcohol and tobacco because of the social harms, especially to minors. Free unregulated porn is like offering free cigarettes or beer to children outside a school, or worse, delivering it to them in their bedrooms.
We do not allow the tobacco or alcohol industry to self-regulate because we know they can’t be trusted. We know that in a democratic society, it is the role of government to regulate harmful industries. Question: Why do we give the porn industry a pass that we would not grant any other industry? Answer: The well-oiled PR machine of the porn industry has cloaked itself in the dual narratives of free speech and the right to privacy. But when kids watch violent porn, it is actually a form of child abuse. When a minor first puts “porn,” “boobies” or “butts” into Google, they expect to see a pair of breasts or maybe a naked woman. They are not expected to be catapulted into a world of sexual abuse, degradation and humiliation.
Put yourself in the body of the 11-year-old boy who is bombarded by images of women being strangled; spat upon; penetrated orally, anally and vaginally; being called a slut, whore and worse. Now imagine the toxic stew in his stomach of arousal, shame, fear, self-loathing and disgust.
What is he to do with this tsunami of emotions and feelings? Absent good sex education or adult role models, this boy — my boy, your boy, our boy — is being groomed by the porn industry into toxic masculinity. He’s being robbed of his right to be the author of his sexuality, identity and humanity.
Over 40 years of research tells us that the earlier boys see porn and the more they watch, the more likely they are to develop risky sexual behaviour; sexually assault a girl or woman; develop sexist attitudes and behaviours; suffer with anxiety and depression; and have decreased capacity for empathy, connection and healthy relationships — the very things that make us human and make life worth living.
Research also points the enormous toll on girls and women who have to live in a world where rape and the fear of rape are omnipresent, where being treated as a disposable sex object is the norm and being forced into performing porn sex is commonplace. It is no surprise that we are seeing an increase in child-on-child rape, where the perpetrators are often between 11 and 15, and the victims 4 to 8.
We simply cannot allow the pornography industry to continue hijacking the healthy development of our children. Bill S-203 sends a message to the world that Canadians are resolute in their commitment to building a safe and nurturing society that puts children before profits. Healthy children are the backbone of a sustainable culture, and it is the job of adults to grow a spine and say “enough.”
Thank you for inviting me.
The Chair: Thank you very much. We will now go to Dr. Jocelyn Monsma Selby.
Dr. Jocelyn Monsma Selby, Co-Chair, Global Summit, Connecting to Protect: Honourable chair and all members of this committee, I am so pleased to be aiding the investigation of this act.
I have over 40 years of clinical practice, experience and research focused on the evaluation and assessment of problematic sexuality in forensic cases. I’m also the Co-Chair of Connecting to Protect, a global initiative addressing the harms of children accessing pornography online.
We have over 8 million children in Canada, and about 6.5 million are between the ages of 5 and 19. Most of those children use electronic devices. At least 80% of them use cellphones — cellphones that are not protected from accessing harmful sexual and violent content on the internet.
Research shows that children as young as 7 years old are stumbling upon pornography by accident, and 60% of children between the ages of 11 and 13 who had seen pornography found it unintentionally. Over 65% of boys and 30% of girls have seen pornography by the age of 12 or younger. Most will see violent depictions of sex before they have had their first kiss.
Selling sex for profit is a brilliant business model and one of the oldest forms of sexual exploitation. It’s also lucrative. Globally, unregulated porn revenues are estimated to be around $100 billion a year. This revenue is protected by complex business structures, often sheltered in tax-free jurisdictions.
Companies like our Canadian-born MindGeek, the parent company of the world’s most accessed site, Pornhub, take full advantage of this business model. In 2019, Pornhub reported they had 42 billion users and 80,032 visits each minute.
Canadians are prolific consumers of porn. We rank fourth globally in the viewing of pornography, and we have no way of knowing how many of those visits were by children.
Thirty to 35% of individuals who watch online pornography will become addicted to it. That is three times the level of substance use disorder in the general population. Research and clinical practice experience also show that if an individual develops problematic sexual behaviour from viewing online pornography, it can take them 15 to 20 years to recognize that they have a problem and to seek therapeutic support.
Watching pornography stimulates the production of endogenous endorphins. It gives viewers a feeling of pleasure, increasing the production of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which provides a drug-like high. To keep getting this high, viewers crave more and more images. They also need novel images to keep achieving the desired pleasurable effect. This is also known as tolerance.
We refer to this type of behaviour as the disease of addiction. It’s recognized by the World Health Organization as compulsive sexual behaviour disorder. The brain perceives pornography as reality. It stores this reality as of its structure. It overpowers cognition, reason, logic and other literate functions. Pornography hijacks an individual’s brain function, nullifying the meaning of informed consent and the ability to monitor and correct unhealthy conduct.
This is of special concern to adolescents who have an undeveloped prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex, referred to as the CEO of the brain, doesn’t fully develop until individuals are in their mid-twenties. This is a big concern for children and adolescents who become addicted to pornography. Without intervention and educational support, children’s access to online pornography will continue to fuel child trauma, sexual exploitation, self-produced sexual images, child-on-child sexual abuse, sexism and objectification, sexual violence, risky sexual behaviours, family breakdown, mental health issues and addiction. This bill is crucial because the harm is real and measurable.
Children having access to pornography is essentially child abuse through digital images. As Canadians, we have an obligation to support the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child to protect children. We also can’t allow children’s exposure to online pornography to undermine the other significant benefits of the digital revolution.
Instead, a multi-dimensional public health approach to internet access is required, combined with a regulatory framework that protects children and other individuals from harm. One possibility —
The Chair: Dr. Selby, can you wind up, please?
Dr. Monsma Selby: Yes. One possibility is a solution like the U.K. age verification regime in their Digital Economy Act. We are at a critical juncture and the world is watching. As Canadians, we have an obligation to protect the youngest and most vulnerable members of our society.
Thank you all for considering this important issue and the opportunity to speak to you today.
The Chair: Thank you, Dr. Selby. We’ll now go on to Professor Gahagan.
Jacqueline Gahagan, Professor, Health Promotion, Dalhousie University: Hello. My name is Jacqueline Gahagan. Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you about Bill S-203. In my opening statement, I would like to commend the Honourable Senator Miville-Dechêne for the work that has gone into the development of this important bill.
I would also like to point out the urgent need for additional supports in advancing sexual health education in such a way that Canada is preparing our society for greater digital literacy, to assist with the prevention of sexual violence, both online and in person.
As we know, April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. It is important to acknowledge the social mobilization and activism that began in the 1970s to increase awareness of violence against women, from Take Back the Night marches to pressing police, government, educational sectors, among others, to take these issues seriously in their policies and programs. These efforts predate the internet by many decades, and sadly, we are here having a similar conversation about the negative impacts online sexually explicit materials have on youth and women.
Access to sexually explicit material is not a new topic. The internet is simply amplifying the issue by making it easier to access, share, produce and profit from. Preventing internet-based sexually explicit information, and companies that produce this information, from exploiting youth in the process of turning a profit is clearly an important health and social issue facing Canada.
However, we also know that this issue comes with a variety of challenges, ranging from regulation and enforcement through to monitoring and evaluating the ways in which our efforts can realize the overarching purpose as stated in Bill S-203. While the effects of access to sexually explicit internet material, or SEIM, continue to be debated, what is clear is the need to have a more robust understanding of the drivers behind the intersecting inequalities associated with issues of gender-based violence and misogyny often depicted in SEIM.
What is often missing from the debate in the Canadian context is our long-standing commitment to sex- and gender-based analysis in federal policies and programs. What role, if any, should other federal departments such as WAGE, Heritage, Human Rights, the Public Health Agency of Canada, Statistics Canada, the Tri-Council, among others, have in fully realizing the potential impacts of Bill S-203? How could a sex- and gender-based analysis approach or element to this bill contribute to collecting Canadian data at the federal level, to offer a more comprehensive understanding of not only the level of SEIM consumption by —
Mr. Palmer: Professor Gahagan, I wonder if you could slow down a little bit, please. Thank you.
Jacqueline Gahagan: Sure. I will just repeat that last sentence. How could a sex- and gender-based analysis element to this bill contribute to collecting Canadian data at the federal level to offer a more comprehensive understanding of not only the level of SEIM consumption by age and sex, and other key determinants, but to understand the connection to violence, broadly defined, against women and children and the consumption of SEIM?
As indicated in the OECD document Recommendation of the Council on the Protection of Children Online, many countries are proposing policies and legislation to ensure the ways in which data are collected online, through all manner of websites, including those offering SEIM, are not being used for commercial purposes. This is challenging in that the algorithms that are gleaned from data traces and inferred data can then be used to encourage youth engagement with websites that offer SEIM.
The OECD recommendations go on to suggest the need for policies and practices that can build further capacity in digital citizenship. As we know, digital citizenship refers to the responsible use of technology by anyone who uses computers, the internet and digital devices to engage with society on any level. This entails firmly entrenching digital literacy in school curricula, in teacher training, in online information campaigns and in diverse partnerships between interest groups and education systems aimed at advancing our digital citizenship efforts.
As someone who works in the field of health promotion, including sexual health promotion, more needs to be done to reduce both the inadvertent access to SEIM among youth, and the purposeful marketing of SEIM to youth through clickbait or other open-access SEIM websites.
However, as the Honourable Senator René Cormier has pointed out, there are Canadian youth, including LGBTQ youth, who may access sexual information from SEIM websites as a means of supplementing their lack of access to non-heteronormative sexual health education provided in school curricula. While I wholeheartedly agree with the statement that pornography is not the same thing as comprehensive sexual health education, we need to realize that youth who have smartphones, tablets, laptops and an internet connection can find their way to this material.
Further, a review of existing sexual health education provided in Canadian schools suggests the need for additional supports to appropriately address sexuality, sexual health and sexual expression of all sexual orientations.
To quote the Honourable Senator Cormier, this is why positive and inclusive sex education in Canada’s schools is vital to ensure the sexual health and development of young people. I couldn’t agree more with this statement, and I would urge the Senate to work alongside other government agencies to ensure that we not only monitor and evaluate the impacts of Bill S-203, but that we also address the long-standing gaps in our sexual health curricula in this country in a manner that is comprehensive, acknowledges and respects diversity in sexual orientation and gender expression, and takes a sex- and gender-based analysis approach, while at the same time contributing meaningfully to advancing digital citizenship.
In closing, I would argue the time for a national sexual health promotion strategy in tandem with Bill S-203 is now. Thank you very much.
The Chair: Thank you very much, professor.
We will now go on to questions, and we’ll start with the sponsor of the bill, Senator Miville-Dechêne.
Senator Miville-Dechêne: First I would like to thank the panel for all that was said.
I want to ask a question of Dr. Gail Dines. Among the pushback that I’ve been having, one of them is to say that yes, there are links between harms and exposure to pornography for young people, but science has not yet found a causal relationship between those harms and watching porn. Can you tell me a little bit about this? Is this a sufficient reason not to act? Is this a true statement?
Dr. Dines: Had you brought up that question 10 years ago, I would have said, indeed, we have lots of studies on correlation but not on causation. In the last 10 years, there have now been a number of robust studies that have longitudinal data that are showing correlation rather than just causation, where they hold other variables constant and the only variable that shifts is access to pornography.
So in terms of how a social scientist approaches this, it is that you go with the weight of the evidence. There is no question that the weight of the evidence is that pornography is both causally and correlated to all those issues that we talked about: violence against women, depression, anxiety in boys, lack of empathy for rape victims, more likely to sexually aggress.
So, no, first of all, the science is there, and we have, as I said, many studies in the last 10 years have given birth to an enormous amount of science that is longitudinal, and shows causation and correlation. Given that science, I think it is absolutely incumbent on us to act, given the nature of the science.
Senator Batters: Dr. Dines, on your website you provide some alarming statistics. For example, you say that porn sites get more visitors each month than Amazon, Netflix and Twitter combined. You cite an analysis of 22 studies between 1978 and 2014 from seven different countries which concluded that pornography consumption is associated with an increased likelihood of committing acts of verbal or physical sexual aggression, regardless of age.
Given that pornography is legal in Canada, as it is in many countries, do you believe there is a way to tackle this cultural problem, beyond restricting access to youth? If pornography consumption, regardless of age, as you’re saying, is linked to physical sexual aggression and violence against women, how do we address this issue on a larger scale?
We’ve now been in this pandemic for a year. I’m assuming that this has exacerbated the proliferation of pornography and its worst impacts, given the isolation and increased addiction issues that we’re seeing. Could you please comment on that? Thank you.
Dr. Dines: Thank you for your question. First of all, I would argue that we absolutely need to start regulating this predatory industry. It is the only above ground multi-billion dollar a year industry that I know that is virtually unregulated.
But regulation in and of itself is not enough to solve this problem. We need robust sex education alongside this bill. What is important is we need sex education that stresses gender equality, that speaks to LGBTQ2 youth as well, because they are being especially exploited by the porn industry because they have nowhere to go, so they tend to be more reliant on pornography.
I would argue that the sex education needs to have a porn critical lens. Much of sex education is as if we’re living in the 1900s and pornography is not around. The reality is you can’t teach sex education to kids without first unpacking the hegemonic discourse; the dominant ideologies they have learned through access to pornography. I think any regulation has to come along with a robust nationwide science-based sex education program.
As for the pandemic, what we know has happened is, first of all, in literally the first week of the pandemic of lockdown, Pornhub made its premium content free. This was their gift to the world. For example, you saw in Spain a 57% increase almost overnight of men — and it’s mainly men who use these sites — going to Pornhub.
Also what we’ve seen from the pandemic is a big increase in the production and consumption of child sexual abuse images.
And the other thing is that kids who did not have access to tablets and cellphones now do, because the school has given them out. Now you have more and more kids accessing more and more porn, and by the way, the porn industry builds algorithms to target kids. In the crosshairs of their rifle is an 11-year-old boy whose brain is still developing.
In cultural refrain we call it the “Gulliver strategy.” You come at this monster industry piece by piece. There’s never one solution to a global social problem.
So yes, I would agree with you. But this bill is critical because it is saying to the industry that you should be regulated. Why should you have unfettered access to kids and be completely unregulated when no other industry has that right? What gives the pornography industry that right?
Senator Dalphond: My question is for Dr. Dines but maybe it’s also for Dr. Selby. We as a society have great access to TV ads for sugary cereals and toys for kids. We ask for age verification from people buying cigarettes or alcohol, so I don’t see why we shouldn’t do the same thing with another harmful product like pornography.
You mentioned addiction of youth, assuming this is a phenomenon that is more prevalent among youth than adults. Also, I am particularly interested in hearing more about the strategies targeting the youth, especially those who are not adults, to consume these products.
Dr. Dines: I’ll answer the second part. Then I think Jocelyn is better to answer the first part around addiction. That’s more her area.
What we know is that the porn industry develops certain algorithms and goes out to get the 11-year-old boy. What’s also interesting is that the landing page of Pornhub is built around the algorithm as if the person going onto Pornhub is a 25-year-old seasoned porn user, which is why when you go on to the first page of Pornhub you’re met with image after image, of video after video, of violence against women. Because they are assuming that this is a 25-year-old man who is used to using pornography.
In England, for example, studies are showing that the first age of viewing pornography intentionally or unintentionally is 7 years old. Then I ask you, as I did before, to think what it means for a 7-year-old boy, or an 11-year-old boy or a girl — because increasingly girls are going to pornography but not at the same level — to actually be catapulted into this world. As an adult who studies pornography, I can barely stand to watch it, and I have developed a very thick skin. Every time I am watching it and researching Pornhub — which is the most travelled website in the world — all I can think about is how does an 11-year-old boy or girl make sense of this, and what are they going to do with all those emotions that this is going to stir in them?
One of the arguments I would give is that we are actually traumatizing our next generation. These are traumatic images that I would argue have a traumatic impact on young boys and girls. And this is part of the business model of the porn industry. Because if you don’t resolve the trauma, then you keep going back to the point at which the trauma happened, which means you’re feeding an addiction, because they keep going back to the porn sites. I think Jocelyn should then respond with this notion around addiction.
Dr. Monsma Selby: We know that the majority of individuals that I personally see in my practice started accessing pornography at a very young age. It takes a great deal of time before they realize they have a problem.
What happens is they are traumatized, and we know underlying addiction issues are always trauma and attachment disorders. What happens is these individuals then need to spend many years — a minimum of three to five years — doing therapy and intense recovery work to deal with the trauma that they have experienced, vicariously in some cases, from observing the pornography. I had a young medical professional that I was dealing with who was choking his partners and thinking that that was what they wanted sexually.
Individuals don’t always differentiate what they have seen, and they have a tendency to act it out. We call this the “mirror neuron system.” Some can call it script forming and re-enacting that behaviour. But it becomes very dangerous with some individuals — not all, but with some.
I hope that helps answer your question.
Senator Pate: Thank you again to all of our witnesses for appearing. I know it’s a bit beyond the scope of this bill, but because all of you have mentioned the importance of good sexual education, could you point to some examples internationally of some of the better schemes that we could be looking to in terms of, perhaps, a way to wedge it into this or into the regulatory, or at least as a recommendation or observation?
Dr. Dines: I’m actually living in the United States, despite my accent, but in England, they made it mandatory in September 2020 to teach sex ed from K through Grade 12. What they found was the teachers were wholly unprepared. There was no curriculum that was considered robust and scientific. The teachers didn’t want to teach it. The kids didn’t want to hear it. In fact, the studies coming out now are finding it’s not having a particularly positive effect.
What’s happening is that at Culture Reframed, we have brought together progressive sex educators to build out the core of a curriculum that is sex ed, that is based on gender equality and has a critical porn lens. The first thing we do is to unpack what the kids have learned through pornography and then we start. We build in: What do gender equality and healthy relationships mean? You can’t just do it as sex education. It has to be sex and relationship education, and intimacy education.
At this moment, I am not familiar with a good sex education curriculum that teaches kids what it means to be brought up in a porn culture and how to deal with all of those images and narratives that come at you.
What is interesting — it’s not really surprising — is there are interesting studies that show that the most effective sex education is if you centre girls’ and women’s sexual pleasure, because what happens is girls realize they have a right to sexual pleasure which, of course, in this culture no one ever talks about. What they have found is that when you centre girls’ pleasure in sex ed, they tend to put off sex to a later age, they feel more empowered to say no, they are less likely to be targeted for rape, although this is not putting the blame on girls, to make that perfectly clear.
A lot of sex ed is about what you shouldn’t do and fear: You’re going to get STDs; you’re going to get pregnant. We need to let kids know that sex is fun and part of developing who you are. It’s part of creating successive skills of how to interact.
I would argue that any legislation has to be good science-based and assessment-based sex education. I cannot point to anything at the moment. Maybe others on the panel can.
Senator Pate: Well, that says something that’s depressing.
Senator Dupuis: Thank you to the three witnesses we just heard from. I was struck by what each of you had to say. We are talking about access to the internet, about putting in place technical mechanisms to verify the age of the user who wants to access pornography. Shouldn’t we, as senators, make sure that we create bills that take into account the extreme violence that pornography represents?
In other words, you’re telling us about the statistics that rank Canadians fourth in the world for porn site visits. Is the solution really to have a mechanism to verify the age of the user who wants to access pornography or is there not much more extensive work to be done, including education and offences, if necessary? I really believe that much more in-depth thinking is needed. I would love to hear from you on that question.
There is an element of violence for children who access it and also towards girls, women, LGBT persons and others. Thank you.
The Chair: Senator Dupuis, who did you want to answer your question?
Senator Dupuis: I would like to invite all three witnesses to respond if they can. Thank you.
The Chair: Unfortunately, there is not enough time for three responses.
Senator Dupuis: I’ll let them choose who will dive in and respond.
The Chair: Dr. Dines, would you like to start?
Dr. Dines: I completely agree. What we’re talking about is violence against women. Pornography is the documentation of violence against women. We have to come at this at every which way.
The beginnings of an age-verification bill is absolutely crucial, and Canada can lead the way to show the rest of the world that you are, indeed, putting children before profits. I don’t think anyone thinks this is going to be the panacea. It’s going to be one thing in a whole toolkit of how we come after this multi-billion dollar a year industry.
There needs to be education and awareness. It’s astounding that when you speak to pediatricians and child protection agencies — all of these people who are charged with taking care of kids — do not understand the visual landscape within which these kids grow up, and they are not aware of what it means to grow up in a porn culture. That’s why at Culture Reframed, we really did centre speaking to parents and experts about giving them the awareness, the science, the statistics, the knowledge and the skills to really address this issue.
I agree, we have to come at this and have lots of tools in our toolbox.
The Chair: Professor, you had a response as well.
Jacqueline Gahagan: Clearly the issue of violence against women and children is central to this bill, and I appreciate and applaud the work of the Senate in putting this bill forward. I am, however, still concerned about the significant gaps in our sexual health curriculum in the school system, and as has already been pointed out, it is incredibly variable and outdated. I believe one of your colleagues has already alluded to this in his comments. Honourable Senator René Cormier mentioned this.
We need to ramp up how we are approaching sexual health so that there is a national standard, and as I’ve said before, we need to have a national sexual health promotion strategy in Canada. Now is the time. If this bill goes forward, this would lend credibility to refocusing on how we currently deal with sexual health promotion in Canada, which is a patchwork.
I understand the federal versus provincial and territorial jurisdictional issues, but what we are doing is failing our children, and we are then graduating the next generation of kids who are not literate in pornography. They don’t have the digital literacy to understand the significance of this material that they are consuming or sharing.
Here in Nova Scotia, as you well know, we have had some fairly high-profile, heartbreaking scenarios where children — and they are children because they are under the age of 18 — were completely unaware of what they were doing with homemade pornographic footage of their friends, and circulating that information.
I understand this bill is not about prosecuting children and taking away their rights to express their sexual identity, but we really have failed our children by doing such a terrible job in providing this inappropriate level of sexual health education in the classroom. We need to take it out of the classroom. This is something I argued to the Sex Information & Education Council of Canada. We revised the Canadian Guidelines for Sexual Health Education in 2019. At those consultations, we actually argued for the need to take sexual health education out of the schools. The schools get a flat-out failing grade for doing this work well.
We need to have partnerships in the NGO sector and with government partners to ramp this up as a national campaign so that the awareness of this bill, the purpose of this bill, is happening in tandem with changing the landscape of how we approach sexual health education in Canada.
Clearly, we’re not preparing the next generation of digitally savvy kids. We’re setting them up for a brutal experience when they do consume these pornographic materials and end up being charged, end up being in jails, end up losing their jobs. We can see this whole cascade effect, and the end result is “no one told me” and “I didn’t have the information I needed to make informed decisions.”
The Chair: Thank you, professor.
Dr. Selby, did you want to add anything?
Dr. Monsma Selby: I have one comment. Senators, I really plead with you that whatever resolutions you determine from this investigation, that we don’t make the same mistakes that we made with Bill M-47, where we turned this issue of sexual health education over to Health Canada. When that happened, nobody was given any resources and there was no input. As a result, nothing happened.
Our approach needs to be multi-dimensional, engaging with all the stakeholders. There are so many adults who absolutely have no idea when you talk about the harms of pornography, never mind children. We have a lot of work to do in Canada. Thank you.
The Chair: Thank you, Dr. Selby.
Senator Boisvenu: Thank you very much to our witnesses. My question is for Dr. Dines or Dr. Monsma Selby.
I’d like to raise the topic of domestic violence with you. Among 13, 14, 15-year-olds, we know how important the other person’s gaze is in defining themselves. Are there any studies that deal with the consumption of pornography at a young age — you were talking earlier about 7-year-olds in England — but I’m thinking of 12, 13 or 14-year-olds who are discovering their sexuality? Is there a correlation between the use of unfiltered pornography and domestic violence? Are there any studies that show that correlation?
Dr. Dines: Yes, there are numerous studies which show that men who abuse their partners are more likely to also be consumers of pornography. Also, one of the most prevalent acts on Pornhub, which is where the kids get most of their pornography, is strangulation, where the man has his hands around the woman’s throat and strangles her to the point that she almost passes out.
We know from studies that women who are battered by their partners and strangled during the battery are more likely to die at the hands of their batterer. We also know strangulation is increasingly seen in child-on-child rape, where the average age of the rapist is 11 to 15, and the average age of the victim is 4 to 7. When you speak to child protection organizations, as I do all over the world, they had never seen strangulation before. This is all new.
I gave a talk recently to a child protection agency in New York and they were dealing with adolescent boys who were in for raping younger girls. They give the adolescent boys 23 different things and they ask them to rate these in terms of what made them rape the girl, and they said pornography is consistently rated as number one by these boys.
There is a whole new world out there going on with this. It causes domestic violence, it causes date rape, it causes stranger rape, all of these things, and we’ve known this for many years now. It’s just all amplified and accelerated because pornography has become so much more violent and accessible, and it’s getting into the hands of those who are younger and younger.
Senator Boisvenu: What we are seeing more and more in the phenomenon of domestic violence is sexual assault. Often, women who experience domestic violence are also victims of sexual assault by the spouse or ex-spouse.
Do you see a relationship between pornography use at too young an age and later romantic relationships that turn into domestic violence?
Dr. Dines: Yes, that’s what the studies are showing, absolutely. Interestingly, there are studies that look at the timeline between when you first look at porn and how long after that you play out that violence. In one recent study I was reading, they were saying it was within six months, about 60% of boys had played out the violence they had seen in porn on their partner, their girlfriend or the woman they hooked up with.
There is no question, there is a cornucopia of studies out there that show this; both causation and correlation.
Senator Boisvenu: Thank you very much.
The Chair: Dr. Dines, I see on your website that your organization emphasizes parent programs and courses. What role do you think parents have in ensuring their underage child does not view pornographic material?
Dr. Dines: Well, first of all, I think asking a parent to prevent their kids from looking at pornography is like asking them to stop breathing polluted air. It’s impossible. It’s too much for parents to do. Pornography is everywhere.
Parenting is the most humbling thing you’ll ever do in the world, and to have to layer on this now is just too much to ask of parents, which is why at Culture Reframed we built those programs, because parents were coming to us. They just don’t know what to do. Interestingly, we originally built those programs for parents and now what we’ve found is therapists, educators, child safeguarding, all professionals such as pediatricians are using our programs in their work because there’s nothing like it, and there are not enough places they can go for all the research to be very clear, accessible and robust. The programs are now being used all over the world, and not just by parents but by experts, which tells you the need for this kind of education.
The Chair: When you talk about education, we all know that sex education is vitally important and you covered that. Do you believe that sex education should also be important at home and parents should also play a role in that?
Dr. Dines: Yes, but studies show parents often feel awkward talking to their kids. Also, we know that kids would often rather be anywhere else in the world than looking across the table talking to their parents about sex.
You need multi-stakeholders here; you need parents and educators. Where are the pediatricians? I gave a keynote address to the American Academy of Pediatrics four years ago — 10,000 pediatricians in that room — and what I was telling them about pornography was new. It shouldn’t be new to pediatricians. They should know this. They are the front line of defence and yet none of the pediatricians there knew this. The outcome of that was enormous because I was being asked to travel all over the United States to give grand rounds in hospitals to pediatricians.
Again, this should not be new to any of those people who are tasked with taking care of children. They also need to be educated along with the parents.
Jacqueline Gahagan: I want us to be careful that we don’t go down a slippery slope that pornography is the catch-all for misogyny, violence and hatred against women, because it is more complex. I fear that if we collapse all of the violence we see perpetrated against women all over the world to pornography, we’re missing an important opportunity to correct our course of action. Yes, pornography is clearly contributing in multiple ways, but we need to parse out some of the issues around violence against women and see the complexity of that in isolation from simply looking at this as an issue only related to pornography.
Dr. Monsma Selby: I would echo Dr. Dines’ comments and those of Professor Gahagan. I also know, for those of you who are interested, if you go on Culture Reframed’s site, they have a list of research that is available which mentions all of these areas.
It is so important that we look at this multi-dimensional approach, including age verification, and that we hit this issue from many, many different angles. It’s not just one solution; it just won’t work.
The Chair: Thank you very much.
Dr. Dines: May I respond to the professor’s point? Certainly, you can’t argue that the only issue of violence against women is pornography. However, I do want to say something very important here. We increasingly live in an image-based culture where we are socialized via the image. As Neil Postman, the media critic, once said:
We develop an immunization to the seduction of eloquence of the printed word. We have no such immunization to the seduction of eloquence of the image.
Images are very powerful tools for socialization. Nowhere is the ideology of misogyny more succinctly, crisply and unambiguously delivered to men’s brains via the penis than with pornography. This is a whole new way of thinking about the way that images work.
Men don’t just become violent; they pick up these messages from a patriarchal culture, and pornography is the propaganda centre of patriarchy, in terms of the messages that it develops. It plays a much larger role than it ever has before.
The Chair: Professor, did you want to respond to that?
Jacqueline Gahagan: I could respond to that, but we might be here for quite some time. To keep it brief, we need to be mindful, again, as I said, about all of the contributing factors that lead to violence against women, including economic dependence on male partners.
Aside from that, we also need to think that gay, bi and other men who have sex with men also have a penis and also consume pornography. They’re not out there raping and pillaging. We need to put some parameters around the cause and the effect between pornography and sexual violence. It’s much more nuanced than that.
Senator Pate: I worked for a long time in and around the prison systems. One of the things I really like about this bill is that instead of going to the criminal legal system to try and address this, it really is about trying to model a different approach and hold accountable those who are profiting from this.
If there’s any other information you have about where we could be looking in terms of positive modelling, as opposed to punitive deterrent types of approaches, I would be happy to hear more. Dr. Dines, it sounds like you have some, and Professor Gahagan, it sounds like you do as well — or anybody else. Thank you.
Dr. Monsma Selby: I can pipe in here. In our own backyard, we have Marshall and Marshall in Kingston, Ontario, which has developed programs to deal with offenders. They are first rate as far as dealing with this issue for what it is. They support child-porn offenders to be rehabilitated in ways that the rest of the system is not doing. So I would look at their work to see what they have done, just for information. Thank you.
Dr. Dines: One of the most punitive things is to have girls who are sexting images of themselves being put on the sex offender list or being treated as sex offenders. That goes for boys as well, because a lot of them don’t know what they’re doing. I don’t know how it works in Canada, but in the United States, you can get on the sex offender list, and that absolutely blows apart the rest of your life.
We need to stop being so punitive, and we need to stop blaming and shaming kids for this, and put the blame and shame where it needs to be, which is on the porn industry.
The Chair: Panellists, you can see there are so many more questions. If there’s anything that you think I didn’t give you enough time to answer, can you please send your answer to the clerk? He will distribute it to us.
I want to thank you for being here. We’ve learned a lot from you. Thank you so much.
Senators, this brings us to the end of today’s committee hearings. We’ll see you the same time next week. Thank you for your patience.