19 December 2008


Violence and sex

When you think about it a little, the two major things we prevent our children from seeing, sex and violence, are pretty weird. Not in themselves individually, but on how we fixate on them as a yin-yang pair. What's even weirder is that we treat sex (which, of the two, is certainly the good one) as the worst—even for adults.

Consider: When the great photographic website The Big Picture has a year-end picture retrospective, it warns us about violent images but still lets us see them, but doesn't include any sexual pictures at all, even though I'm sure 2008 included some amazing ones. And your local video rental store puts the porn in a hidden back room, but leaves the horror movies out on the public shelves.

I think I know why.

What I mean is, while we generally protect our kids from seeing extreme violence and gore, whether real or simulated, they still get exposed to a lot of lower-level stuff. Even for rather young children, everything from Mario pounding enemy characters with a hammer in videogames, to Bugs Bunny and Batman cartoons, to TV shows like Destroyed in Seconds (a guilty pleasure both for me and for my ten-year-old daughter) is fair game. As they get older, we're pretty much fine with letting them play more graphic games, watch CSI and Indiana Jones, and see shows where stuff (and people) get blowed up real good.

But apparently we're not going to let them see any sex. Nudity and sexuality are going to get a PG-13 or R or NC-17 from the ratings board a lot more easily than violence. And when was the last time a violent movie received an X rating? Surely any suggestion of sexuality between kids' videogame or TV characters would probably lead to a recall or cancellation—yet it's fine if they punch each other. The key example here? The infamous "hot coffee mod."

Here's my theory. For most people in developed western societies, any violence beyond accidents or schoolyard fisticuffs is pure fantasy. Unless you're a solider or maybe a gang member, or just perhaps a police officer in an extreme and unusual situation, chances are you will never kill or maim anyone on purpose in your entire life. You will never break someone's neck in hand-to-hand combat. You will never blow up a building or shoot down a plane. You will never aim a machine gun or a rocket launcher, or wield a sword in anger. You absolutely will not ever vaporize a planet.

And that's a good thing.

But nearly everyone, once they become adults, eventually has sex. Maybe a lot of it.

And that's also a good thing, or should be.

Children who see violence, especially exaggerated violence of the Donkey Kong or blowed-up-real-good variety, are seeing something they can fantasize about, but which they will never do. Children who see sex are seeing something they will almost certainly do eventually.

And that's why we adults think of sex as more dangerous for our kids. It's why we shield them from it for longer. It's why when we do discuss it at first, we have Serious Talks about the Human Reproductive System. And why we don't have Serious Talks about High Explosives.

Because sex is real, and important, and as we become adolescents we're wired by evolution to want it way more than we want to blow stuff up. So children need to learn about sex as a real thing, so they can make wise decisions when they get there. (How many of us, conversely, ever need to make any sort of decision about, say, wearing ear protection when firing a mortar in battle?)

I'm sure some sociologist has considered this already. However much the dichotomy between sex and violence makes sense, however, it's still pretty weird.

Don't even get me started on swearing.

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"Unless you're a solider or maybe a gang member, or just perhaps a police officer..."; in the US we have two wars going on, and I have seen my six year old grandson for years playing games with his friends that involve playing with make believe guns and "getting the bad guys." It does not seem so far fetched that some of these boys, in twelve years, will be "proudly" signing up for the military. The idea that my sweet, loving, grandson might be one of them is enough to break my heart.

My older daughter, born in 1970, said to me perhaps ten or fifteen years ago, "Everybody talks about 'sex and violence' like they're the same thing; but they're not anything the same. I think there should be a lot more sex on television, and a lot less violence."

I have long thought that in the US we have a schizophrenic society. We use sex to sell just about everything, but are horrified at the idea of nudity, even a woman's bare breast, on television... this even as the female police officers on the TV crime shows are showing more and more cleavage. It's okay to see peoples' heads blown off but not an unclothed person. Makes no sense to me. I have always abhorred viloence, even the kind in cartoons, from the time I was two and a half or so, but what's the big deal about seeing someone naked? Other societies do not equate nudity with sex the way people in the US do.

I think you're theory is interesting, worthy of discussion, but I can't say that I agree with it entirely.
I should make sure that I don't think that the way our society effectively prefers violence to sex is at all correct or morally right (indeed, I think quite the opposite), but that we do it, and there must be reasons why, however strange.
Perhaps the answer is in your asking.

Sex and sexuality cannot, for most people, be separated from moral question of right or wrong, and there's a wide variety of answers for what is right or what is wrong...

Violence, on the other hand, is usually presented with a moral context. On crime dramas, it's bad, and the perpetrators are (usually) caught. The generally accepted morality of it ain't nice to do wrong to others is upheld. Good triumphs.

On nature shows, or Destroyed in 60 Seconds, the context is usually "Look at this awesome display of physical force in the real world". And that would be awesome not as in cool (generally) but as in Wow. As a kid I used to sit and watch Thunderstorms in the south. Extremely violent, but awesome, as in God saying, "All the power of the Hoover dam over the next year? Here you go."

So I guess what I'm saying is that if you could quantify the moral aspect of violence vs. sex, violence would present a smaller standard deviation about the mean idea of morality than sex, hence there's less controversy.

Sorry for the ramble.