Nipples and Crushed Heads Part 2: A Defense of Film Ratings

In my last post I asked the question: why do we seem to have a double standard in rating movies, such that violence is tolerated more readily than sex? The most obvious explanation for the current rating system is: conservative values. When I posed this problem to my friends, most of whom are secular liberals, they were quick to point out that the movie ratings system in the U.S. was designed by people with a very distinct moral and political agenda. They mentioned a documentary, which is indeed very good, called This Film Is Not Yet Rated, that chronicles the absurdities of the current system. The film shows that according to America’s current system, sexual content is divided into normal and deviant, according to a very questionable definition of these terms. Rape in the missionary position is considered normal, and earns a PG rating, while consensual sex on all fours is classified as deviant and thus deserving of an R rating.

Let us grant, as a matter of fact, that movie guidelines are determined by people who have a particular moral, and generally religiously-motivated, point of view, one that many of us might not agree with. But this is neither an argument nor even an explanation for the double standard. According to their stated values, religious conservatives should abhor violence as much as they do illicit sex. It may be that some are hypocritical – their hang-ups about sex are stronger than their abhorrence of violence – but I think many are quite consistent. If they were given a free hand, they would place severe restrictions on both sex and violence. Just as importantly, most of the secular liberals I know adhere at least as devoutly to the double standard as religious conservatives do. Ask secular liberal parents if they forbid their kids watching programmes with any violent content – even if it just cartoon slapstick like Looney Toons or the classic Disney shorts – and I guarantee they will, perhaps reluctantly, admit they do not. But you will be hard-pressed to find any who expose their children to shows with explicit sex, or who let them have free reign in surfing the internet.

Clearly we have an intuition that our children can handle media violence more easily than they can media sex – even though we want our kids to have sex eventually, when they are old enough, and we never want them to commit acts of violence. Perhaps this intuition is an irrational one. It could be the result of social conditioning, another indication that our society, at least if we live in North America, remains hung up about sex. In Europe, people grow up in a different social environment, and their threshholds for sex are as a result very different. But I do think there are several arguments that might at least potentially provide a reasonable defense for the existence of some sort of double standard, even if our current one might require modification.

1. More intense reality: Just about all the violence we see in the media is simulated, and we mostly know the difference between real and fake violence. Viewers can therefore brush the violence off as make-believe. One might worry that children do not differentiate between fiction and reality as easily as adults do, but in fact they generally have little trouble. I have watched violent cartoons with quite young kids, and objected to what the characters were doing to each other. The kids inevitably brush off my concerns, telling me: “Oh, that’s just pretend.” They in fact seem more able than adults to laugh off the violence – I have trouble watching cartoon characters get bonked on the head and knocked unconscious because I know far too much about the long-term effects of head trauma, but kids think it’s hilarious. And when the violence is real, we apply a different, stricter standard. Most parents would not let their children watch a YouTube video of someone actually being treated the way Tom treats Jerry. But with sexual content, it is arguably impossible to differentiate real and pretend in this way. Now of course the sex in movies and tv is simulated as well. But that is not quite so clear to a viewer – I was probably well into my teen years before I figured out that on-screen lovers weren’t actually having sex. And more importantly, there is no such thing as fake nudity. If a woman in a movie takes off her shirt, it makes no difference that she is an actress playing a role. Those are her breasts. You can’t say to your kids: That’s not really her naked body, it’s just the film.

While I think all of the above is true, as an explanation for the double standard it begs the question. We still need to establish why the reality of on-screen nudity is something that children need to be protected from. But I think we have made progress nevertheless. The differing levels of reality lead us into another, perhaps more compelling argument.

2. More intense inducement: There is a long and contentious debate in both the media and the academic literature about whether seeing violent movies, or playing violent video games, makes a person more likely to commit violent acts. This debate is far from settled, but at the very least we can say that, for most of us, the correlation is not close. If seeing people killed on screen inevitably made you want to kill them in real life, we would all be mass murderers, because we are all bombarded regularly with acts of on-screen violence. Most us are more likely to have the opposite reaction – to feel disgust at what we’re watching. As I said, that is one of the reasons on-screen violence might potentially have value. But with sexual content the inducement is hard to deny. There are just no two ways about it: watching someone take their clothes off – especially someone very attractive, as most people in movies and tv are – makes you want to have sex. It may not have that effect on children when they are young, but it certainly does by the time they hit puberty. And even young children may try to imitate sex acts when they see them, albeit in their clumsy and ignorant way.

Against this, we could argue that what on-screen sex stimulates is arousal, and arousal is not in itself harmful. We need to establish empirically that seeing on-screen sex makes someone more likely to engage in actual high-risk sexual behaviour. Opponents of pornography have tried to do just this, with much more explicit material than we are discussing here, and they have had just as much trouble establishing a causal connection between the bevaviour on screen and the behaviour in real life as have the opponents of on-screen violence. And if it is hard to establish this connection with outright porn, it will be much harder to establish it with mere nudity or with the tamer sort of sex found in main-stream movies.

3. Desensitisation. We might argue in the opposite direction, and suggest that too much exposure to on-screen sex, far from intensely arousing people’s sexual desire, eventually just makes them blasé about sex. As an argument for the double standard, this might seem paradoxical. We don’t want our kids to become desensitised to violence either. But I think the reasons are very different. We worry about desensitising our kids to violence because we think it will weaken our moral prohibition against it. If kids are told, “Never do this,” but then see it constantly being done by others, they may simply tune out the moral imperative. This is a slightly different argument than the inducement argument, but it is equally dependent on empirical confirmation. We must still establish a causal link between exposure to violent media and actual violent behaviour, and I have just said this link has not been established. But our concern about sexual desensitisation, by contrast, need have nothing to do with the possible inducement to high-risk behaviour. When people complain that society is becoming too sexualised, they may not just mean that we are creating an environment where young people are encouraged to behave irresponsibly (though they often do mean this). We may be worried instead that by saturating the public sphere with increasingly-explicit content, and exposing children to it at an increasingly-young age, we are undermining the specialness of sex, that peculiar magic that it gets from being something rare and private. We want to preserve for our children, once they finally reach the age of consent, that flutter in the stomach we feel watching someone peel away their clothes and reveal themselves to us, that feeling that sex, when we have it, is an experience totally apart from the world of the everyday. If young people have free access to sexually explicit shows and websites from a very young age, sex will be no more exotic to them than eating or sleeping. And we might think that would be a great loss.

Because we are talking not about behaviour but about something more subjective and ephemeral, a belief in the specialness of sex, it is harder to debate empirically whether this specialness is lost in a society where young people are more frequently exposed to explicit content in films and tv. It is therefore hard to see how we would convince someone who doesn’t see this argument’s immediate appeal. I don’t think we can dismiss the argument out of hand – it does potentially provide a reasonable justification for the double standard. But someone who wants to actually defend the double standard should probably hope for an argument more capable of convincing someone who is undecided. And I believe there is at least one such argument available.

4. Complexity and Controlled Knowledge: I suggested above that it is relatively easy for even children to tell the difference between real and fake violence. We could also argue that the moral rules around violence are simple and easy for parents to explain, even to very young kids. We can tell them: don’t hurt other people, even if you see it happening on tv. It may be true that on-screen violence tends to work against that message, but it does not undermine it entirely. Otherwise, as I’ve said, most of our kids would be sociopaths. But the rules around when and how we should and shouldn’t have sex are endlessly complex – indeed, it is the task of this blog, and the course associated with it, to figure out just a few of them, and it’s a full-time job. Movies and tv shows that depict nudity or sexual acts raise questions they cannot themselves begin to answer, and in contexts where there may be no one around to do so. If we expose our kids to sexual content before we have had a chance to work through with them even the most basic issues of what sex means and what are the risks of having it, they are liable to end up confused or, worse, misinformed. Though children obviously cannot be protected from anything sexual till they have talked the birds and the bees with their parents, movie ratings are at least one way of helping parents ensure their children aren’t bombarded by confusing and upsetting material before they are ready to deal with it. Our kids will be teen-agers soon enough, god knows. Movie ratings are one way, admittedly limited and imperfect, to allow them to just be kids, at least for a little while. They also give parents greater control over when and how children finally do start dealing with the complex issues surrounding sexuality, so they can ensure the discussion takes place in line with their (the parents’) own values. Again, as a tool to accomplish this, movie ratings are very limited and imperfect, but they are at least one small thing we as a society can do to help them cope with one of parenthood’s greatest challenges.

I think that I am more or less convinced by this fourth argument, though like many people I would like to see some problems with the current system corrected. No system will be perfect, however. One of the effects of the system that many artists deplore is its effect on the sort of films that actually get produced. Because producers fear the negative box-office effects of an R, or worse an NC-17, rating, they force film-makers to strip their work of its sexual content, ensuring that certain films are either less true to their creators’ vision, or don’t get made at all. I agree this is a great loss. Corrections to the current system might help, but I think it will be hard to avoid this self-censorship effect altogether, given the realities of the market. Films are expensive to make, and so they need to find a broad audience to earn back their costs. And if we want to protect under-age viewers from certain sorts of content, that inevitably shrinks the potential market. But film-makers always have to negotiate the trade-off between artistic integrity and commercial success in a thousand different ways. This is just one more.

Image: Still from Louis Feuillade, Les Vampires (1915)

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