Melinda Tankard Reist—activist, speaker and founder of Collective Shout—is driven by deep concern for the women, children and men she advocates for, and by a tenacious sense of hope. For more than ten years, Melinda and her organisation have been raising awareness about the destructive effects of pornography.
As well as running national and international campaigns against businesses who engage in the objectification and sexualisation (or ‘sexploitation’) of women and children to sell their products, they engage in political advocacy and are in increasingly high demand to speak at schools around the country on these issues.
The growth of the pornography industry is of special concern to Catholics, since it violates the meaning and dignity of the human person. Created in the image and likeness of God, our bodies have a sacramental meaning. Rather than products to be bought and sold for the personal gratification of others, they are intended to be gifts, given in a love that reflects the God who is love.
Ending the objectification and sexualisation of women and children is a daunting mission, so it’s not surprising that Melinda’s workload, and that of her team, continues to grow. But her passion has not diminished.
‘No day of the week is the same,’ she says. ‘I can be doing everything from tweeting our latest campaigns, speaking to media, speaking in a school, doing political advocacy … I always wake up and think: What does the day hold? I’m never bored.’
In January this year alone, they achieved 16 victories against different corporations, including getting accounts promoting ‘child sex abuse dolls’ removed from social media platforms like TikTok, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube. Over the years, they’ve taken on some behemoths of the corporate world.
In 2020, they had a stunning 21 victories, one against a multi-trillion-dollar e-commerce corporation; and in 2021, with the aid of global partners, they won huge victories against an international pornography corporation, helping to bring it to greater account for its lack of child protection and its engagement in human trafficking. One of their petitions for this attracted a staggering 2 million signatures.
‘The power of Collective Shout is that we equip concerned individuals and groups to take action in the public square and realise their voice does count,’ she explains. ‘I think what happens is that people become overwhelmed by the problem and also underestimate the power of their voice. I’ve been campaigning for a long time. I see what’s possible.’
One of the responses we get from women especially is, ‘You make me brave. You make me feel like I can be brave and speak out.’ And the more people that do this the more effective we can be in Australia and globally.
Pornography is not a peripheral problem, Melinda points out, harmlessly consumed in private. Rather, it shapes behaviour in observable ways, promoting the objectification and sexualisation of women and children, which in turn leads to significant harm. Melinda describes the porn industry as ‘the biggest department of education in the world’, one that is compromising the healthy development of young people on a massive scale.
If we really want to end the blight of violence against women and children, she says, then dealing with pornography is a vital step.
‘All the best consent programs and all the millions of dollars being thrown at those programs cannot compete with the world’s biggest department of education,’ she explains, ‘which is spewing misogyny and hatred of women into the lives especially of young boys every day on a global scale.’
Sadly, the age at which people are being exposed to pornography is getting younger and younger. Melinda says they’re now addressing grades 5 and 6 on these issues.
‘We’re meant to be in the business of forming good young people, young people of virtue and character and integrity,’ she says. ‘This is an act of child abuse on a massive scale. This is an experiment on the healthy sexual development of our children … This needs to be stamped out.’
One of the things Melinda and her organisation have fought to have introduced for years is a proof-of-age verification system. They lobbied the federal government for some time and finally a parliamentary inquiry into the issue was announced, resulting in the February 2020 report ‘Protecting the Age of Innocence’—but some recent developments concern her.
‘The previous federal government then instructed the E-Safety Commissioner to come up with a roadmap for the rollout of a system of age verification,’ she explains. ‘That report was supposed to be issued in December. It’s been delayed until March. We are afraid that the vested interests of the sex industry will be put before the wellbeing of children and young people.’
Not only is pornography damaging the healthy development of children, but it’s also proving destructive to marriages and relationships—the subject of her most recent book, He Chose Porn Over Me (2022).
Drawing on the power of narrative, the book collects the stories of women in relationships with men who habitually consume porn and who show no will or desire to change. These women describe the devasting and sometimes violent impact of their partners’ pornography use on their family life, and their stories are tragic and confronting.
‘This book came together very quickly,’ she says. ‘I’d been thinking about it for a while, but it really came together when I posted on my Facebook page the story of a 23-year-old woman who discovered in the week she was due to get married that her fiancé was a compulsive porn user and hadn’t told her, and she cancelled the wedding.’
The response was significant, and Melinda had soon collected enough stories to put a book together. ‘It got such a response that I thought these stories needed to be told.’
In the more than ten years since Melinda started doing this work, the cultural landscape has changed significantly, and she can certainly identify things that give her hope and inspire her to keep going.
‘I get made fun of less than I used to,’ she says. ‘When I first started out … speaking on this issue more than a decade ago, we got a lot of push-back, my colleagues and I, for talking about porn as harmful, as a danger to children, that it would socialise and mould children to have harmful ideas about bodies, sexuality and relationships.’
Back then, I was mocked and derided on social media. I was told I was creating a moral panic. My response was: ‘If only there was one!’ But now the harms are much more established, in Australia and globally.
Culturally, she says, we’re also a lot more attuned to the care of children and young people. In Australia’s National Plan to End Violence Against Women and Children (2022–2023), for instance, pornography was frankly acknowledged as a driver of violence against women and young people, a finding that was the result of sustained research into the issue.
According to the National Plan, ‘the more often young men consume pornography the more likely they are to enact sexual behaviour that the other person does not want …
‘With pornography now overwhelmingly consumed online and via mobile devices, it is both prevalent and pervasive, perpetuating sexist, misogynistic and degrading views about women. This is a serious concern in addressing the drivers of violence against women and children’ (p. 52).
‘It’s great to see [this] now acknowledged in our peak bodies, by our peak government agencies,’ Melinda says.
She also draws hope from the way young people are receiving her message. The fact that Melinda and her team are in such high demand speaks volumes, and she has found that young people are yearning for something different from the narratives offered by pornography.
‘Young people themselves want something better,’ she says. ‘They recognise that the scripts of the porn industry are harming them, that they won’t have healthy, integrated relationships if they are consuming porn, or in relationships with porn-consuming partners. Some of the global action against porn is being led by young people.’
‘They write to us. Some boys tell Daniel [Melinda’s colleague] they’ve stopped watching porn, they want to be better, they want to get their dopamine hit somewhere else. Girls say things like, they’ve realised they’re allowed to say no, they’re allowed to act according to their values, enforce their values, and not do stuff they don’t want to.’
On top of this, the word sexualisation is now part of the public lexicon. Ten years ago, this wasn’t the case.
What she’s less hopeful about, though, ‘is that we will see effective regulation of Big Tech and the global porn industry.’ Still, she continues to campaign, and invites others to join her.
People who are caught in the web of a pornography addiction need all the help they can get, she says. It’s too hard to overcome on your own.
‘There needs to be more face-to-face assistance, with equipped, qualified professionals and counsellors. It’s very hard to refer young people to services because many of the counsellors actually think porn is useful, that porn is good,’ Melinda explains. ‘So it’s hard, but most of the resources are online.’
Above all, Collective Shout relies on the support, generosity and signatures of ordinary, concerned people. Together, the impact people can have is powerful, and there are plenty of easy ways to get involved.
‘It’s not that hard to retweet, share a Collective Shout petition or fill it out yourself … Even if you don’t want to be right out front and have your name in the papers, there’s still lots of ways to campaign which don’t take a lot of effort.’
‘It would be great to have more people join us and help us out,’ she says. ‘We’d love to have your support.’
If you or someone close to you struggles with pornography use, Integrity Restored provides scientific and faith-based resources for individuals, spouses and families that have been affected by pornography and pornography addiction.
Cover photo by Fiona Basile
VMCH11 December 2023
Melbourne Catholic08 December 2023