Is pornography driving increased sexual violence in Ireland?

It is difficult to understand how any person aged between 12 and 14 could be capable of sexually assaulting and killing another. But experts have a one-word theory: porn

 Ana Kriegel (14). Photograph: RIP.ie

Ana Kriegel (14). Photograph: RIP.ie

 

For over a week the nation has digested news of two shocking killings. A 14-year-old girl sexually assaulted and beaten to death. And a foreign student abducted and strangled in an apparently spur-of-the moment sexually motivated attack.

Crimes such as the harrowing murders of school girl Anastasia ‘Ana’ Kriegel and 24-year-old Filipino Jastine Valdez almost never happen in Ireland. Yet these two occurred within a week.

It is thought by gardaí that Ana Kriegel’s killer may have been a similar age to the victim herself. It is difficult to understand how any child in this age range – 12 to 14 years – could be capable of the sexual assault and killing of another child.

And while the abduction and murder of Jastine Valdez is a completely different, and unrelated, crime, the background to it is also deeply disturbing.

Valdez was snatched from a roadside just outside Enniskerry, Co Wicklow, and killed – and her body dumped – by Mark Hennessy (40), who was himself killed the following day in a Garda shooting.

Hennessy has never cropped up on the Garda’s radar for any suspected involvement in violent, or even abusive, behaviour towards women. Yet this man, a married father of two, engaged in a predatory murderous crime.

The investigations into both killings are nowhere near complete. And so it is impossible to analyse, or draw conclusions.

But the offences throw into the spotlight violence against women in Ireland, especially sexual violence. And when one speaks to gardaí and others who deal with the fallout from sexual violence, they express concern about rapidly changing trends swamping the criminal justice system.

They are troubled by online sexual offending and about pornography giving rise to sex crimes, especially among teenage boys.

So is sexual offending on the increase? And is pornography, more hardcore and more available than ever, to blame?

According to the much maligned crime statistics for the Republic, sexual offending is rising and the rate of that increase is gathering pace.

Since 2003, the year the CSO assumed responsibility from the Garda for collating crime date, the number of sexual offences recorded in the Republic has almost doubled. In 2003, some 1,573 sex offences were recorded, rising to 2,945 last year.

That’s an increase of 87 per cent; two thirds of which has occurred in the past three years. Many other crime types were falling in the same period.

Sexual offenders

In 2016, the Garda’s Youth Diversion Programme dealt with 334 sexual offences, some 13 per cent of all sex offences that year. More than one in five rapes in the Republic that year was committed by a juvenile.

When one considers all of the sexual offences detected – those offences gardaí believe they know who was responsible – in 2016, a worrying 45 per cent were carried out by juveniles. The rate of involvement by juveniles in detected sex crimes is a multiple of their involvement in the vast majority of other crime types.

Marcella Leonard is a leading international expert on child and public protection and has over 30 years’ experience in the areas of psychosexual therapy. She runs her own consultancy which is currently advising the government of Gibraltar on overhauling its approach to child protection.

Asked why some men become sexual offenders while others do not, she is quick to point out sexual violence is neither new, nor carried out exclusively by men.

“You can have people who sexually abuse because it has happened to them; they see it as their norm,” she says. “You will also have some people who do it because they feel inadequate. They may not have the IQ, or feel attractive or have social skills.

“They may have also had adverse childhood experiences; with exams or bullying and so on. So to have their sexual needs met they will do that in an inappropriate way.”

One of the issues she is concerned about is that many young boys are “getting their sex education from pornography”.

When she was growing up in Ireland only a very limited quantity and type of pornography was available to young people. But that has now been swept away by the internet and smartphones.

“If you are looking at pornography two to three hours a day, you are going to run out of ‘the normal stuff’ and you will go on to watch more extreme, more unusual, content,” she says.

A new world of sexual norms is opened up. The online space also provides young people who watch pornography with meeting places to exchange views with likeminded individuals.

These will reinforce their view “that having sex without someone’s consent is okay, having sex with four people at the same time is okay”.

When this pornography-led conditioning occurs in boys who might also be growing up in homes where domestic violence is a feature, it can lead to a further deterioration in attitudes towards women generally, and specifically sexually.

“If that young boy is seeing dad beat mam and abuse her verbally in that sexualised way, and is also listening to make-up sex and also watching rape pornography . . . all he needs then is maybe a female in a bar to say to him one night, ‘No, I don’t fancy you, no I don’t want to go out to your car with you.’

Revenge

Other men, she was, will sexually attack women because “they simply like it”.

She believes it is vital that sex education is introduced to schools before children are turned on to smartphones.

Eileen Finnegan is the clinical director of One in Four, a national organisation that aids and counsels the victims of sex crimes but also offers treatment to sex offenders.

She is frightened by the pace at which online offending has changed, and its impact. “The escalation is astonishing,” she says of rape-based pornography.

Like Marcella Leonard, Finnegan says many young boys are now receiving their sex education from pornography. “With the level of aggression in these men; I wonder how they are going to ever have relationships with anyone,” she says of some of the offenders she has encountered.

All of the men in treatment she has encountered began offending at around 10 or 11 years of age. They developed what Finnegan calls “a deviant interest” in sexual violence.

At present, she says a major increased area of offending is so-called sextortion. This involves offenders befriending young people online, often on Facebook.

The offender will often pose as a young girl or boy and entice their target to take sexualised selfies and send those images to them. Once the first images are secured, they begin blackmailing their victims, threatening to post the compromising images on social media.

“Only that I am sitting in front of [these offenders] as a member of society I would find the detail of what’s happening hard to believe,” says Finnegan, who has noticed a big increase in this offending over the past year.

Finnegan says when most parents are considering what schools to send their children to, what sports clubs to join and where to take them on holidays, significant research is done.

Yet the same level of research is not conducted when offering them access to the internet; a place where they can easily become the victims of sex crimes or be primed towards becoming offenders.

Like Leonard, she says it is vital sex education is delivered before boys begin being negatively influenced about sex and females.

“Pornography is now our norm,” says Clíona Saidléar, executive director of Rape Crisis Network Ireland. “It’s no longer on the margins, it’s the wallpaper of our lives. The world is being framed by it. [Young males] will view young girls and women as being for their use.”

Saidléar adds that as boys or young men watch more pornography they become desensitised and gradually “ratchet up” the nature of the content they opt for.

This results in a constant edging towards more graphic content, in which women are even more degraded, she says.

“If you have young men whose sexual experimentation is essentially violence against women [as depicted in pornography], they are not going to have regard for women as human beings.”