Mary Sharpe, Chief Executive Officer

Mary Sharpe was born in Glasgow and grew up in a family dedicated to public service through teaching, law and medicine. From a young age, she was fascinated with the power of the mind and has been learning about it ever since.

Education and Professional Experience

Mary completed a Master of Arts degree at the University of Glasgow in French and German with psychology and moral philosophy. She followed this with a Bachelors degree in law. After graduation she practised as a solicitor and Advocate for the next 13 years in Scotland and for 5 years at the European Commission in Brussels. She then undertook post graduate work at the University of Cambridge and became a tutor there for 10 years. In 2012 Mary returned to the Faculty of Advocates, Scottish Bar, to refresh her court craft. In 2014 she went non-practising to set up the The Reward Foundation. She remains a member of the College of Justice and Faculty of Advocates.

The Reward Foundation

Mary has had several leadership roles at The Reward Foundation. In June 2014 she was the founding Chair. In May 2016 she moved into the professional role of Chief Executive Officer which she then held until November 2019 when she rejoined the Board as the Chair. Most recently, in March 2021 she again moved into the role of Chief Executive Officer.

University of Cambridge

Mary attended the University of Cambridge in 2000-1 to do post graduate work on sexual love and gender power relations in the period of Classical Antiquity through to the early Common Era. The conflicting value systems apparent at that pivotal time still influence the world today especially through religion and culture.

Mary remained in Cambridge for the following ten years.

Sustaining Peak Performance

In addition to her research work,  Mary trained as a workshop facilitator at the University with two international, award-winning organisations using research from psychology and neuroscience in an applied way. The focus was on developing resilience to stress, connecting with others and becoming effective leaders. She also worked as a mentor to enterprise students and as a science writer for the Cambridge-MIT Institute. This is a joint venture between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the University of Cambridge.

Her affiliation to the University of Cambridge remains through both St Edmund’s College and Lucy Cavendish College where she is an Associate Member.

Mary spent a year as a Visiting Scholar at St Edmund’s College, University of Cambridge in 2015-16. This allowed her to keep apace of the research in the emerging science of behavioural addiction.  During that time she spoke at a dozen national and international conferences. Mary published an article on “Strategies to Prevent Internet Pornography Addiction” available here (pages 105-116). She also co-authored a chapter in Working with Sex Offenders – a Guide for Practitioners published by Routledge.

From January 2020 until the first lockdown of the pandemic, Mary was at Lucy Cavendish College as a Visiting Scholar. During that time she published a paper with Dr Darryl Mead on where future research into problematic pornography use should go.

Research Developments

Mary continues the work on behavioural addiction as a member of the International Society for the Study of Behavioural Addiction. She presented a paper at their 6th International  conference in Yokohama, Japan in June 2019. She publishes research on this emerging area in peer reviewed journals. The latest paper can be found here.

The Reward Foundation

Technology Entertainment and Design (TED)

The TED concept is based on “ideas worth sharing”. It is an education and entertainment platform available both as live talks and online. Mary attended TED Global in Edinburgh in 2011.  Shortly thereafter she was  asked to co- organise the first TEDx Glasgow event in 2012. One of the speakers attending was Gary Wilson who shared the latest findings from his popular website yourbrainonporn.com about the impact of online pornography on the brain in a talk called “The Great Porn Experiment”. Since then that talk has been viewed over 13.6 million times and been translated into 18 languages.

Gary Wilson expanded his popular talk into an excellent book, now in its second edition, called Your Brain on Porn: Internet Pornography and the Emerging Science of Addiction.  As a result of his work, thousands of people have stated on porn recovery websites that Gary’s information inspired them to experiment with quitting porn. They have reported that their sexual health and emotional problems began to diminish or disappear since quitting porn. To help spread the word about these intriguing and valuable social health developments, Mary co-founded The Reward Foundation with Dr Darryl Mead on 23rd June 2014.

Our Philosophy

Porn use is a matter of personal choice for adults. We are not out to ban it but we do believe it is a high risk activity even for those over 18 years. We want to help people make an ‘informed’ choice about it based on the evidence from the research currently available. We believe it is better for health and wellbeing to spend time developing the social skills necessary to make intimate relationships work long term.

The Reward  Foundation campaigns to reduce children’s easy access to internet pornography because dozens of research papers indicate that it is damaging to children at their vulnerable stage of brain development. Children on the autistic spectrum and with special learning needs are especially vulnerable to harm. There has been a dramatic rise in child-on-child sexual abuse in the past 7 years, in porn-related sexual injuries according to healthcare professionals who have attended our workshops and possibly even deaths. We are in favour of the UK Government’s initiatives around age verification for users as it is a first and foremost a child protection measure. As the Digital Economy Act Part III has been set aside, we hope the government will accelerate work on the Online Harms Bill. This is not a silver bullet, but is a good starting place. It will not replace the need for education about risks.

Awards and Engagement

Our Chair has received a number of awards since 2014 to develop the work of the Foundation. It started with a year of training through the Scottish Government-supported Social Innovation Incubator Award. This was delivered at The Melting Pot in Edinburgh. It was followed by two start up awards from UnLtd, two from the Educational Trust and another from the Big Lottery Fund. Mary has used the money from these awards to pioneer digital detoxes in schools. She has also developed lesson plans about pornography for teachers to use in schools. In 2017 she helped develop a one-day workshop accredited by the Royal College of General Practitioners. It trains professionals about the impact of internet pornography on mental and physical health.

Mary was on the Board of Directors of the Society for the Advancement of Sexual Health in the USA from 2016-19 and has produced accredited training workshops for sex therapists and sex educators about problematic use of internet pornography by adolescents. She contributed to a paper for the National Organisation for the Treatment of Abusers on “Prevention of Harmful Sexual Behaviour” and also delivered 3 workshops to practitioners about the impact of internet pornography on harmful sexual behaviour.

From 2017-19 Mary was  an Associate at the Centre for Youth and Criminal Justice at the University of Strathclyde. Her initial contribution was speaking at the CYCJ event on 7 March 2018 in Glasgow.  Grey cells and prison cells: Meeting the neurodevelopmental and cognitive needs of vulnerable young people.

In 2018 she was nominated as one of the WISE100 women leaders in social enterprise.

When not working, Mary enjoys jogging, yoga, dancing and sharing new ideas with friends.

Contact Mary by email at mary@rewardfoundation.org.

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