Sex, Violence, and the American Way

Being a prude vs. being able to distinguish fiction from reality.

This seems perilously close to Stating the Obvious, or else it’s 60 Minutes Andy Rooney-style crotchety old dude rambling. But I’ve seen the same claim made over and over again for years — I think I’ve even made it myself in the past — and I always accepted it without a second thought.

It typically goes down like this: there’s a discussion about the MPAA or the FCC or some other ratings organization, and it inevitably leads to a comment about the gross hypocrisy of their censorship policy. Viewers — our children — are exposed to countless violent images every day, but show them one image of a woman’s breast, and all hell breaks loose! You can show twenty decapitations before you can show one naked body! A film that shows a man murdering a woman can get a PG rating, but a man making love to a woman would automatically get an NC-17!

The conclusion is that America’s filled with bloodthirsty prudes who are also most likely misogynists. We’re numb to the most horrible violence, but terrified of sex. And Europeans (for instance) are reared with a much healthier attitude towards sex, because they’re not taught that the human body is something to be ashamed of.

For years, I thought, “Well yes, naturally that’s true. I have seen clips of European television to confirm this.” Now I’m skeptical.

What got me thinking was my reaction to In Bruges. Specifically: this was a movie about murderers, gangsters, and thieves being casually violent and murderous, doing (and stealing) various illegal drugs, being casually abusive to each other and to innocents, and shooting each other and the locals. So how come the thing that offended me the most was its casual homophobia and making fun of fat people?

At first, I started to form a theory based on the movie’s weird Hayes Code-style moral code: every character expresses remorse for what they’ve done and gets punished. What the movie decides to punish and leave unpunished is interesting.

But then I realized that it’s much, much simpler: I’m (hopefully) never going to meet a murderer in my lifetime, but I’ve met thousands of people who are casually abusive to the overweight. You can presume Martin McDonagh (writer and director of In Bruges) has encountered plenty of racists, because the movie gives a casual mention to the murder of a priest but two scenes lecturing a little person for making racist comments.

This isn’t advanced sociological insight or anything; every discussion about sex or violence in media invariably mentions imitable acts and the ability to separate fantasy from reality. But then, variations on the exact same complaint keep getting made in all kinds of different contexts. And you’re either sending out toxic, dangerous messages — won’t someone think of the children?! — or you’re curtailing free speech and grossly underestimating the audience’s intelligence and common sense. All based on what’s more convenient for whoever’s doing the complaining.

I’ve never seen a study that conclusively shows a causal relationship between violent imagery and violent acts. I know for a fact that there is a causal relationship between sexual imagery and sexual acts. (There’s an entire industry built around this, as a matter of fact). It’s perfectly reasonable — in some areas, even expected — that a person can go his or her entire life without ever firing a gun. It’s considered weird and unnatural if a person goes his or her entire life without ever having sex. If I see a guy curb-stomping somebody, I’m not going to want to go out and do it myself. If I see a guy making out with somebody, I’m actually very likely to want to do exactly that.

So it seems perfectly understandable that we’d be more concerned about sexual imagery than violent imagery. We’re pretty comfortable that we’re not raising a nation of violent sociopaths, but we are raising a nation susceptible to STDs and unwanted pregnancies.

I’m not saying that anything goes in terms of violence; I know I have less than no interest in seeing any of the Saw series or Hostel, for instance. And I’m not saying there aren’t prudes in the US; people like John Ashcroft have contributed a lot to our reputation as a nation of violent, sexually dysfunctional Norman Bateses.

What I am saying is that this is the one argument that seems to come from all corners — I’ve seen variations coming from the right and the left. Sometimes even both versions coming from the same source, all used to determine what is and what’s not acceptable to say. It’d be nice if we assumed more intelligence on the part of the audience, and showed a little more intelligence ourselves before jumping back to the tired, easy argument.

4 thoughts on “Sex, Violence, and the American Way”

  1. I agree that violence in fiction stays fiction, while with nudity the person is actually naked. But if I can jump in as a French person…
    The main thing, from my point of view, isn’t so much the “Americans are afraid of sex” (although there is a bit of that, I’ll get to it later) but more the “Americans think nudity equals sex”.

    Throughout my life, I have seen many movies with nudity, including full frontal male nudity, in movies rated for all audiences. The context wasn’t sexual in the least and there was no problem. It wasn’t inappropriate. But in North America (Canada is the same as the US), seeing, say, breasts, “means” sex for people. And that’s something I can’t wrap my head around.
    I have seen my parents and brothers naked, taken baths with them, and not worried about it. It didn’t mess me up and it wasn’t sexual at all. The only thing it gave me was a basic understanding of how boys look different than girls, and adults than children.

    Then in art class, we drew from naked people (male and female, although mostly female. Not that many male nude models apparently) and some of us were still minors, and people weren’t offended or anything. The only incident I remember is when one of the models was wearing a tampon and one of the boys giggled. Then someone else said “grow up” and it was over.

    In American media, I keep seeing scenes of “ugh, nobody needs to see that” when a man is naked from the waist down, with every other character (male or female) averting their eyes in disgust (which seriously, what kind of self image do people get when they’re told that?) or, for females, nudity turning you into some kind of sexual object. I don’t think it’s a healthy attitude towards nudity.

    So I would say that’s one big thing. In France (and I assume some other parts of Europe), nudity doesn’t imply sex more than it implies taking a bath or not having put clothes on yet after waking up, and it’s not seen as dirty and ugly, either.

    The second part, that I said I’d come back to. Another worry is the rejection of sex and our bodies as something dirty and bad. That is, the US seems, from my outsider point of view, to just say things like “sex is bad, don’t do it”. It’s a bit like abstinence education doesn’t stop people from having sex, only from doing it in a responsible way.
    I looked for ages of first sexual experience online to see if your theory that people are more likely to do it if they see it was true, and found a bunch of results, none of which showed a significant difference between the US and Europe, and the difference usually being the other way around (that is, sex happens earlier in the US, but it’s by like 6 months so I don’t think it’s that relevant).
    Now, do people do it more often (rather than earlier) if they see it? Quite possibly, if I see a romance movie I’m likely to snuggle with my boyfriend and make love, but I hardly see that as a bad thing. Will I go out and have sex with the first person I find? Not likely.

    I think it’s important to show sex as that healthy thing people do. It’s an intimate form of communication, like hugs are, except of course more intimate. Yes, there are health risks tied to doing it: let’s be aware of them. Let’s learn about birth control. Let’s learn about masturbation. Let’s learn about protection from STDs and STIs, which include so much more than HIV. Let’s learn to get regular check-ups.
    That something is risky doesn’t generally prevent people from doing it. Driving is risky, people learn to do it safely. You should learn to have sex safely too, since you’re very likely to do it either way.
    Not to mention the health benefits of having sex. It’s not always risky, and doing it responsibly is good for you.

    It’s not like people aren’t aware of sex just because the scene is skipped. And since they’re aware of it, they can find it if they want.
    Sex being something natural that is likely to happen, I feel the best course of action is to prepare people so they can know how to react to it, and how it’s supposed to happen, etc. The more you hide it, the more they have to figure it out all on their own, and the more stupid mistakes they’re likely to make.

    As for violence in the media, I think the problem isn’t necessarily the violence itself, but how much it’s glamorized. You constantly see men characters particularly who are “awesome” and “badass” and “cool” because they’re violent, and I don’t think it’s very healthy either, because it seems to me that it detracts from all the qualities that do make someone badass, and while people might not emulate the violence itself, they might emulate the tough guise (to reuse the phrase from the documentary of the same name – awesome documentary by the way).

    Not to mention, the US doesn’t only have fake violence in its media. It has plenty of real violence being reported on TV, much moreso than I ever saw from the news in France (from local news I mean. Obviously international news is the same).

    So, here you go, this is my point of view on the subject. I thought input from someone European might be instructive (plus, it’s from the country of nude beaches and nude towns!).

  2. Re: violence, I think it all kinda evens out. In today’s fast-paced modern world we’re exposed to Extreme Cage Wrestling, YouTube decapitations and dozens of variations on and iterations of Saw. But in the olden days people were first-hand witnesses to train wrecks, thresher accidents, and wheelbarrows full of plague victims.

    Note that I’m only referring to comfortable middle-class America when I say “we.” Much of the world isn’t safely insulated from real-life death and destruction. We’re a bit too insulated, perhaps?

  3. I don’t disagree with much of your analysis, but do think that the link between viewing violence and aggressive behavior is complicated, and that the evidence for at least some causal relationship is there. When looked at in randomized controlled studies there is a causal link between media violence and aggressive behaviors. These are all lab setting, of course, and as this article below states, the real world influences are more complicated and less clear cut.

    http://www.surgeongeneral.gov/library/youthviolence/chapter4/appendix4bsec2.html

    I’d also agree that viewing a murder doesn’t mean that someone will go out and murder (as you point out most people aren’t murders). But what if viewing murders every day on TV make a child or an adult more likely to hit another person, or perform more lower level aggressive acts? Again, I think the above article is good for pointing out that we can only draw cautious conclusions between TV aggression and behavioral violence and that frequently the message that’s taken from those studies is that media violences causes aggression, full stop, end of discussion. That’s much too simplistic. But the link is worrisome enough to me that I don’t want my 5 year old watching media aggression.

    Perhaps another thing to think about is that aggression, by definition, is hurtful to other people. While sex can be hurtful, and can be a bad thing in the wrong context, and isn’t something to encourage young people to do, etc…. in the right contexts it’s not hurtful and is part of a fulfilling relationship. I know plenty of the sexual images portrayed in the media aren’t so healthy, so that’s something to pay attention to when thinking about what kids are exposed to. But I’d certainly rather my child saw nudity and even healthy sexual relationships than excessive violence.

    I appreciate your post–it made me think!

  4. Jeff: That’s part of what I’m talking about. It’s such a bizarre, nonsensical concept that we’re “too insulated from violence.” But we keep hearing variations on that from both sides: either that we’re getting too coddled and need to man up, or from the opposite end, the white liberal American guilt that says other places have to deal with violence all the time, so it’s somehow bad that it’s so alien to us.

    Jamila: I’ll defer to the child psychologist, of course, but doesn’t that report keep repeating that it’s not causing aggressive behavior as much as bringing it out in people already predisposed to it?

    In any case, I’m not so much talking about very young children. I don’t even know if you need a study there, since anecdotal evidence is more than conclusive. If you hand a five-year-old anything even remotely resembling a sword, he’s going to start banging stuff with it. Personally, I strongly believe that parents should have complete control & responsibility over their kids’ media until adolescence. (I kept mentioning “think about the children!” because that’s always used as a crutch. I say yield control of kids to their parents, and turn the discussion back to one of our responsibility as adults).

    I was thinking more about adolescence to adulthood. This was all partly in response to a kerfluffle over a webcomic about videogames recently. There were a ton of people who just refused to acknowledge a difference between fantasy and reality, and it got so overblown it was disturbing. So my point is just that sexual images are more relevant and realistic to almost all of us than violent images ever will be, and we need to acknowledge that.

    That of course doesn’t mean I’m going Zardoz-style “guns good! penis bad!” Just that sexual imagery is more powerful than people make it out to be, and that viewers are better able to distinguish fantasy from reality than they’re ever given credit.

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