The double standard between violence and sex in US media

Mar 24 JDN 2458567

The video game Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion infamously had its ESRB rating upgraded from “Teen” to “Mature”, raising the minimum age to purchase it from 13 to 17. Why? Well, they gave two major reasons: One was that there was more blood and detailed depictions of death than in the original version submitted for review. The other was that a modder had made it possible to view the female characters with naked breasts.

These were considered comparable arguments—if anything, the latter seemed to carry more weight.

Yet first of all this was a mod: You can make a mod do just about anything. (Indeed, there has long since been a mod for Oblivion that shows full-frontal nudity; had this existed when the rating was upgraded, they might have gone all the way to “Adults Only”, ostensibly only raising the minimum age to 18, but in practice making stores unwilling to carry the game because they think of it as porn.)

But suppose in fact that the game had included female characters with naked breasts. Uh… so what? Why is that considered so inappropriate for teenagers? Men are allowed to walk around topless all the time, and male and female nipples really don’t look all that different!

Now, I actually think “Mature” is the right rating for Oblivion. But that’s because Oblivion is about a genocidal war against demons and involves mass slaughter and gruesome death at every turn—not because you can enable a mod to see boobs.

The game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas went through a similar rating upgrade, from “Mature” to “Adults Only”—resulting it being the only mass-market “Adults Only” game in the US. This was, again, because of a mod—though in this case it was more like re-enabling content that the original game had included but disabled. But let me remind you that this is a game where you play as a gangster whose job is to steal cars, and who routinely guns down police officers and massacres civilians—and the thing that really upset people was that you could enable a scene where your character has sex with his girlfriend.

Meanwhile, games like Manhunt, where the object of the game is to brutally execute people, and the Call of Duty series graphically depicting the horrors of war (and in the Black Ops subseries, espionage, terrorism, and torture), all get to keep their “Mature” ratings.

And consider that a game like Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, rated “Everyone 10+”, contains quite a lot of violence, and several scenes where, logically, it really seems like there should be nudity—bathing, emerging from a cryonic stasis chamber, a doctor examining your body for wounds—but there isn’t. Meanwhile, a key part of the game is killing goblin-like monsters to collect their organs and use them for making potions. It’s all tastefully depicted violence, with little blood and gore; okay, sure. But you can tastefully depict nudity as well. Why are we so uncomfortable with the possibility of seeing these young adult characters naked… while bathing? In this case, even a third-party mod that allowed nudity was itself censored, on the grounds that it would depict “underage characters”; but really, no indication is given that these characters are underage. Based on their role in society, I always read them as about 19 or 20. I guess they could conceivably be as young as 16… and as we all know, 16-year-olds do not have genitals, are never naked, and certainly never have sex.

We’re so accustomed to this that it may even feel uncomfortable to you when I suggest otherwise: “Why would you want to see Link’s penis as he emerges from the cryonic chamber?” Well, I guess, because… men have penises. (Well, cis men anyway; actually it would be really bold and interesting if they decided to make Link trans.) We should see that as normal, and not be so uncomfortable showing it. The emotional power of the scene comes in part from the innocence and vulnerability of nudity, which is undercut by you mysteriously coming with non-removable indestructible underwear. Part of what makes Breath of the Wild so, er, breathtaking is that you can often screenshot it and feel like you are looking at a painting—and I probably don’t need to mention that nudity has been a part of fine art since time immemorial. Letting you take off the protagonist’s underwear wouldn’t show anything you can’t see by looking at Michelangelo’s David.

And would it really be so traumatizing to the audience to see that? By the time you’re 10 years old, I hope you have seen at least one picture of a penis. If not, we’ve been doing sex ed very, very wrong. In fact, I’m quite confident that most of the children playing would not be disturbed at all; amused, perhaps, but what’s wrong with that? If looking at the protagonist’s cel-shaded genitals makes some of the players giggle, does that cause any harm? Some people play through Breath of the Wild without ever equipping clothing, both as a challenge (you get no armor protection that way), and simply for fun (some of the characters do actually react to you being “naked”, or as naked as the game will allow—and most of their reactions would make way more sense if you weren’t wearing magical underwear).

Of course, it’s not just video games. The United States has a bizarre double standard between sex and violence in all sorts of media.

On television, you can watch The Walking Dead on mainstream cable and see, as Andrew Boschert put it, a man’s skull being smashed with a hammer, people’s throats slit into a trough, a meat locker with people’s torsos and limbs hung by hooks and a man’s face being eaten off while he is still alive”; but show a single erect penis, and you have to go to premium channels.

Even children’s television is full of astonishing levels of violence. Watch Tom and Jerry sometime, and you’ll realize that the only difference between it and the Simpsons parody Itchy & Scratchy is that the Simpsons version is a bit more realistic in depicting how such violence would affect the body. In mainstream cartoons, characters can get shot, blown up, crushed by heavy objects, run over by trains, hit with baseball bats and frying pans—but God forbid you ever show a boob.

In film, the documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated shows convincingly that not only are our standards for sexual content versus violent content wildly disproportionate, furthermore any depiction of queer sexual content is immediately considered pornographic while the equivalent heterosexual content is not. It’s really quite striking to watch: They show scenes with the exact same sex act, even from more or less the same camera angles, and when it’s a man and a woman, it gets R, but if it’s two men or two women, it gets NC-17.

The movie Thirteen is rated R for its depiction of drugs and sex, despite being based on a true story about actual thirteen-year-olds. Evan Rachel Wood was 15 at the time of filming and 16 at the time of release, meaning that she was two years older than the character she played, and yet a year later still not old enough to watch her own movie without parental permission. Granted, Thirteen is not a wholesome film; there’s a lot of disturbing stuff in it, including things done by (and to) teenagers that really shouldn’t be.

But it’s not as if violence, even against teenagers, is viewed as so dangerous for young minds. Look at the Hunger Games, for example; that is an absolutely horrific level of violence against teenagers—people get beheaded, blown up, burned, and mutilated—and it only received a PG-13 rating. The Dark Knight received only a PG-13 rating, despite being about a terrorist who murders hundreds and implants a bomb in one of his henchmen (and also implements the most literal and unethical Prisoner’s Dilemma experiment ever devised).

Novels are better about this sort of thing: You actually can have sex scenes in mainstream novels without everyone freaking out. Yet there’s still a subtler double standard: You can’t show too much detail in a sex scene, or you’ll be branded “erotica”. But there’s no special genre ghetto you get sent to for too graphically depicting torture or war. (I love the Culture novels, but honestly I think Use of Weapons should come with trigger warnings—it’s brutal.) And as I have personally struggled with, it’s very hard to write fiction honestly depicting queer characters without your whole book being labeled “queer fiction”.

Is it like this in other countries? Well, like most things, it depends on the country. In China and much of the Middle East, the government has control over almost every sort of content. Most countries have some things they censor and some things they don’t. The US is unusual: We censor very little. Content involvingviolence and political content are essentially unrestricted in the US. But sex is one of the few things that we do consistently censor.

Media in Europe especially is much more willing to depict sex, and a bit less willing to depict violence. This is particularly true in the Netherlands, where there are films rated R for sex in the US but 6 (that’s “minimum age of viewing, 6 years”) in the Netherlands, because we consider naked female breasts to be a deal-breaker and they consider them utterly harmless. Quite frankly, I’m much more inclined toward the latter assessment.

Japan has had a long tradition of sexuality in art and media, and only when the West came in did they start introducing censorship. But Japan is not known for its half-measures; in 1907 they instituted a ban on explicit depiction of genitals that applies to essentially all media—even media explicitly marketed as porn still fuzzes over keys parts of the images. Yet some are still resisting this censorship: A ban on sexual content in manga drew outrage from artists as recently as 2010.

Hinduism has always been more open to sexuality than Christianity, and it shows in Indian culture in various ways. The Kama Sutra is depicted in the West as a lurid sex manual, when it’s really more of a text on living a full life, finding love, and achieving spiritual transcendence (of which sex is often a major part). But like Japan, India began to censor sex as it began to adopt Western cultural influences, and now implements a very broad pornography ban.

What does this double standard do to our society?

Well, it’s very hard to separate causation from correlation. So I can’t really say that it is because of this double standard in media that we have the highest rates of teen pregnancy and homicide in the First World. But it seems like it might be related, at least; perhaps they come from a common source, the same sexual repression and valorization of masculinity expressed through violence.

I do know some things that are direct negative consequences of the censorship of sex in US media. The most urgent example of this is the so-called “Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act” (it does more or less the exact opposite, much like the “PATRIOT ACT” and George W. Bush’s “Clean Air Act”). That will have to wait until next week’s post.

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