Of Nipples and Crushed Heads: On the Double Standard for Sex and Violence

Would you prefer to look at a nipple or a crushed head?

Facebook’s censorship guidelines were recently leaked, and they are somewhat surprising:

Facebook bans images of breastfeeding if nipples are exposed – but allows “graphic images” of animals if shown “in the context of food processing or hunting as it occurs in nature”. Equally, pictures of bodily fluids – except semen – are allowed as long as no human is included in the picture; but “deep flesh wounds” and “crushed heads, limbs” are OK (“as long as no insides are showing”) . . . . Obvious sexual activity, even if “naked parts” are hidden, people “using the bathroom”, and “sexual fetishes in any form” are all also banned.

The message seems relatively clear: depicting violence is okay, depicting sex is not. (“American”, says the Guardian dismissively of the values behind the regulations.) It is often said, similarly, that the movie rating system is much more tolerant of violence than of sex. This blog post provides a thoughtful, though not I think decisive, attempt to test this empirically. As the author points out, any such evaluation depends on our threshhold for both sex and violence. But it certainly seems to me that I have witnessed a lot of pretty explicit violence in PG-rated material – I have already voiced my consternation at the content of a Batman cartoon (!) called Under the Red Hood, which starts with a graphic scene of the Joker beating Robin to death with a crowbar, and pretty much goes downhill from there – while even the mildest sexual content, such as the few fleeting shots of topless women in The Wedding Crashers, earns a movie an R.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that this is true. Let’s also assume that it is deliberate – that the ratings people, whoever they are, choose, like the Facebook people, whoever THEY are, to focus more on sex than on violence in assigning R ratings. I want to ask, if all this is so, are there any arguments that might justify this double standard?

I can certainly see an obvious argument against it. The moral and legal status of the acts being depicted is exactly the reverse of how the raters seem to view them. In real life, almost any act of brutal violence is considered objectionable and indeed illegal – certainly any that involve “crushed heads, limbs” or “deep flesh wounds” – whereas almost all sex acts between consenting adults are perfectly legal, and generally tolerated. (There are plenty of exceptions, obviously, but it holds as a rule of thumb.) Both the MPAA and Facebook are presumably concerned with underage viewers, so we could respond that what is fine for adults may not be fine for them. But this is just the question at issue: why should we protect children from viewing legal, moral acts, and give them free access to illegal, immoral ones?

Perhaps the solution is the one advocated by some parents’ groups: crack down on all of it. In fact, I think it would be a mistake to try to keep children away from depictions of violence altogether. Kids need to be exposed to the reality of the world, even if it includes some unpleasant truths. And maybe this gives us an argument for the double standard. It would be impossible, for instance, to teach children anything about nature and its life cycle without letting them see how much of it is based on the struggle between predator and prey. Equally, it would be hard to make kids understand why war and violent crime are so horrible, which is an urgent lesson, without giving them some sense of their effects. There is no equivalent justification for sexual content. There is arguably nothing to be learned from seeing someone naked, or watching a sex scene, that wouldn’t be better learned in a classroom using charts and dolls (or whatever teachers use these days – it’s been a while since I sat through a sex ed class). Most movie sex scenes gives a decidely inaccurate portrayal of what it’s like to have sex. When I first had sex, I was shocked at the amount of awkward positioning and strenuous effort it required. In the movies, people just seemed to embrace, rub against each other a bit, then break off for a cigarette.

But the movie raters do not seem to express any interest in the educational value of the work they are evaluating. On the contrary, Under the Red Hood, the violence in which is entirely gratuitous, earned a PG rating, while Saving Private Ryan was rated R “for intense prolonged realistically graphic sequences of war violence” – exactly what I think we might want kids to see.

I welcome any ideas for tenable arguments in favour of the double standard. I am just working through my own ideas on the subject, and will explore them in a future post.

Image: Jean Benner, Salome with the Head of John the Baptist, c. 1899

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  1. Clive

    Is there not also here a vector about co-operation, empathy and altruism? Allowing violence is saying the nature red in claw philosophy is correct, and hiding breasts is censoring the reality that our success as a species is because of our abilities to live and work with each other. It is now probable that we coevolved these ways of being with dogs, two predatory hunting species cooperating.

    There have been recent studies showing how God’s wife Asherah was written out of history, facebook are following a noble tradition of trying to shape the world as they want. Not American, just two completely contradictory ways of looking at life!

    Posted February 26, 2012 at 5:22 am | Permalink | Reply
  2. Unfortunately double standard are present everywhere. Lovely composed material! Appreciate that you post it here.

    Posted September 29, 2012 at 2:09 am | Permalink | Reply
  3. Thank you for sharing this first-class piece. Very interesting ideas!

    Posted October 1, 2012 at 5:40 am | Permalink | Reply

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