Doris Landry spent a large part of her career as a public health nurse teaching young people about sexuality. The goal was to integrate young people’s emerging sexuality into a healthy lifestyle.
For the last 18 months her job has been to coordinate the Yarmouth County portion of a Tri-County Women’s Centre project to address sexual violence within the context of the hyper-sexualized environment in which most young people now live. The irony is not lost on her.
“As a sexuality educator for 18 years, we tried to help people become more comfortable with their sexuality, I encouraged parents to be more open, to see sexuality as normal – that it is not just about the act of sex,” she said, reflecting backwards in time during a recent interview with the Vanguard.
But times have changed and Landry has joined others in recognizing that a confluence of factors – centred on technology and the advent of the Internet marketplace – has given the porn industry a grip on popular culture that is becoming more and more pervasive. She says as porn becomes more accessible, it puts pressure on mainstream media to compete. The result has been a blurring of the lines between pornography and mainstream culture. Elements of pornography, like sexual violence and the dehumanization of women, now permeate popular culture.
“In the last 10 years, I’ve started to have these gut feelings … that something was happening. There was something wrong,” she said.
“As we try to be more open about what sexuality is, the message gets abused and misrepresented,” said the Tri-County Women’s Centre’s executive director, Bernadette MacDonald.
Over the last 18 months the project team at the centre has been working with youth to develop sexual violence prevention tools and with stakeholders to improve intervention services for victims of sexual violence. The project is titled Addressing Sexual Violence Prevention and Intervention through Civic Engagement and Resource Development. It’s a long name for a complex and poorly understood issue. And it is not a gender-specific problem.
MacDonald points to research suggesting boys as young as nine are accessing online porn. That research has found the average age when boys first access porn is 11.
“We have to engage young men and boys in leadership roles,” she said.
The hyper-sexualized environment in which children now live – at the mall, in school, on their music play lists, in magazines, at the theatre, on the Internet – is affecting every aspect of their lives, whether it’s the clothes they wear, the sexual activities they engage in or the behaviours they tolerate within their peer groups. Those are among the conclusions the project team has reached during a series of focus groups, youth forums and working groups.
As the project winds down, the team has recently unveiled a sexual violence prevention tool kit and a sexual assault response framework, designed both to reduce sexual violence through education and to improve services to victims of sexual violence. The kit will be distributed to every high school in Yarmouth, Shelburne and Digby counties and is available in both English and French. It will also be available at Juniper House, the region’s women’s shelter, and at the women’s centre, where it can be borrowed. The tool kit is also available online at www.tricountywomenscentre.org .
The kit is the result of input from hundreds of youth across the tri-counties about how to address issues surrounding sexual assault and hyper-sexualization.
“The youth were an incredible source of information and helped guide the development,” said Landry in a media release. “They want to be able to analyze the current hyper-sexualized culture they are growing up in.”
The kit is meant to aid conversations on sexual violence and hyper-sexualized messaging, enabling youth to talk to their peers, teachers to talk to their students and parents/guardians to talk to their children, she said.
The other part of the project addressed how intervention services, in response to a sexual assault, can be improved. The team worked with young women and service providers to look at what was needed.
MacDonald anticipates a sexual assault response team protocol will be finalized in four to six months.
“The end of the project is not the end of the work,” said MacDonald in a media release. “We will continue the work with all stakeholders in the tri-counties and the province’s Sexual Violence Framework Committee to improve services and prevent sexual violence.”