Panicdotal Evidence: “Anal Tearing”

panicdotalevidenceAt the WOW feminist conference on the weekend, I was part of a panel discussing sex and porn. We didn’t have much time for questions at the end but the very first mentioned the worrying trend that teenage girls were presenting to doctors with “anal tearing” as a result of boys re-enacting the rough sex they see in porn.

The next day a fairly anti-porn discussion occurred in one of the sessions and once again this “anal tearing” story popped up, used as evidence of the evils of porn.

The question that wasn’t asked on either occasion was: where did this story come from? And, more importantly, is it actually true?

I myself had read this story at some pont and like everyone else, it produced a kind of visceral horror in me. I mean, imagine, what kind of introduction to sexuality would that be? But as a critical thinker, I was also skeptical.


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It turns out that this particular bit of “evidence” has popped up only recently. A bit of googling led me to a number of stories in Murdoch papers, all quoting a cyber-safety advisor called Susan McLean. Ms. McLean was a police officer for 27 years but now makes a living advising on cyberbullying and selling books on the topic.

The main source appears to be this piece in The Australian entitled “Kids at risk: sexualised behaviour ‘normal’

Ms McLean said teenage girls and young women were seeking treatment from family doctors and gynaecologists for physical injuries from rough sex.

“I’ve had GPs tell me about the injuries they are seeing in young girls when they have been forced or coerced to do what is in porn videos,’’ she said. “They’re not watching anything within a circle of normality — they’re looking at rape, bondage, torture and bestiality. The girls in the videos all appear to like it, so girls think that’s just how sex is.’’

She is quoted in a Daily Mail article entitled “Teenage girls subjected to shocking injuries during ‘rough sex’ with boyfriends influenced by violent porn.”

Susan McLean, federal government cyber-safety ­adviser, said she has seen an increase in the number of young women being treated for injuries sustained during ‘rough sex’, a symptom of the accessibility of explicit material.

‘I would liken it (the injures) to my days in the police force when I was dealing with a sexual assault or rape victim who had the act forced upon them,’ Ms McLean, who travels the country speaking to teenagers about online safety and sexuality, told Daily Mail Australia.

‘It’s akin to that but we’re seeing it among younger and younger people,’ she added.

Ms McLean said while the injuries have been an issue she has been dealing with over the past five or six years, the age of those engaging in such activity had lowered dramatically.

‘They’ve had rough sex, or sex with implements,’ she said of some of the young women.

‘You’re looking at vaginal tears, there’s anal tears from using bottles and sex implements.’

Ms. Mclean also discusses two individual cases of sexual assault to further her point in that article.

The same comments also popped up in Mamamia and The Daily Mail reprinted the story in its UK edition. This anti-porn piece on the ABC website also mentions anal tearing but doesn’t provide a source for that particular anecdote (her link to a UK study doesn’t mention it). Given that the ABC piece appeared at the same time as the story in The Australian, I can only assume that Susan McLean was again the source of that anecdote.

So what we have here is a single person saying she’s spoken to teenagers and GPs and has heard some bad things. We don’t know how many teenagers or doctors she spoke to. She has not done any controlled research; her evidence is purely anecdotal. And we know that the plural of anecdote is not data.

But that doesn’t matter because it has appeared in several major news outlets and is quoted as fact and it’s now entered the public consciousness and become an established truth about porn and teens. What’s more, it’s used as evidence for a moral panic about porn – Something must be done! Somebody think of the children!

Musing about this progression, I decided that the word “panicdote” should apply – anecdotal evidence that is used to advance a moral panic. And I think this “anal tears” story is a perfect example of how panicdotes happen.

So here’s the thing. It’s entirely possible that teenage girls are engaging in non-consensual rough sex and experiencing injuries as a result. And if that’s true, we should worry. But we need to ask the questions: Is it common? What are the numbers? What definitions are we using? What methods were used to decide those numbers? And is it linked to watching porn or a general lack of information about sexual techniques?

I haven’t spoken to Susan McLean. I’d like to ask her to elaborate on her anecdotes and tell me more about how she has reached her conclusions.

At the WOW conference, I spent a bit of time with Dr. Anne-Frances Watson. She has recently completed a PhD and her areas of expertise encompasses the way young people deal with sexuality and pornography. She’s gone into schools and done actual quantifiable research into what teens are learning from porn. Anne says that they’re more knowledgeable and media savvy than society and the media makes them out to be.

Her research is yet to be published but I have to say I think it holds more weight than: “I’ve spoken to GPs and they say…” I would also point to a 2011 Swedish study of 73 teens which found “Most participants had acquired the skills to navigate the pornographic landscape in a sensible manner. Most had the ability to distinguish between pornographic fantasies on the one hand, and real sexual interactions and relationships on the other.”

One useful thing about these various panicky articles is that they conclude that better and more comprehensive sex education is needed. This is something that we all agree on. Porn is here to stay and the sooner kids learn to view it critically, the better. That should be backed up with a much broader discussion about good sex, masturbation, consent, sexual diversity and gender issues.

Edit: Aeon has today published a great piece looking at the gulf between the panicked commentary about porn and the research – and reality of the industry. Worth a read.