Sex and violence: Which is “worse”?

January 25, 2008

From a 2006 blog post:

Hearts ripped out of chests and held aloft in all their pulsating, graphic glory as thousands of people cheer in delirious approval. Heads decapitated and tossed as gifts to the crowd, people rushing to catch them with the same fervor and delight as a child catching a foul ball in their mitt at a baseball game.

Just two of many such violent, over-the-top, gut-wrenching, stomach-turning scenes in Mel Gibson’s masterful piece of moviemaking, the R-rated “Apocalypto,” which opened at No. 1 at the box office.

Now imagine a movie featuring a man and a woman madly in love — so much in love they can’t keep their hands off each other. In this movie, which tells a compelling story that is also masterful, they repeatedly make love to each other and we see them naked (as we see the Mayan tribesmen and women in “Apocalypto”). The scenes are as sexually explicit as “Apocalypto” is violently explicit and nothing is left to the imagination.

How would that movie be rated? R or NC-17?

When it comes to media, squeamishness with respect to sex and nudity coupled with comparative tolerance for violence is probably more correctly described as an American phenomenon, rather than one specific to Mormondom. Recall the Janet Jackson Super Bowl XXXVIII controversy (“Nipplegate”)–Mormons certainly weren’t alone in their outrage.

That controversy is emblematic of this idiosyncrasy. The big television companies take comparatively little heat for profuse amounts of violence featured in their shows, but the instant a bare breast shows up, controversy ensues, and the FCC decides it’s time to “crack down.” While we’re willing to tolerate incessant beatings and killings in prime time dramas, a bare nipple (something that every human being has) on a female breast (something that roughly half the human population has) is “obscene.”

The MPAA apparently embraces a similar philosophy. While a movie may feature a liberal amount of violent content and still sneak in under the PG-13 rating (e.g., Mr. and Mrs. Smith or any James Bond film), an exposed breast is almost a guaranteed R. Too much sex, and you’ve got an NC-17 on your hands (e.g., Ang Lee’s recent Lust, Caution). I’m really not sure how much violence would be required to merit an NC-17 rating, but as the blog post quoted above hints at, apparently it’s not a particularly stringent standard.

Why is this? This perplexing approach seems totally arbitrary. When you get down to it, nudity is unspectacular (even though, in a strange alliance, both pornographers and social conservatives have tried to convince us that nudity is inherently sexual); all of us have nipples and genitals. Sex is one of the most beautiful, natural, and common of human behaviors. The desire for such intimacy is something that virtually every human being, from adolescence onward, can relate to. Violence, on the other hand, is one of the most disturbing of human tendencies. If sex represents a high point in human relations, intentionally killing or inflicting physical pain on another person certainly marks a low point.

Yet we love it when Tom Cruise shoots another nameless bad guy in the forehead and when Matt Damon kills with his bare hands.

Levi Peterson writes, “I consider the depiction of violence unrelated to sex far more pornographic than the non-violent depiction of sexual parts and acts. Ironically, millions of readers and TV watchers who pride themselves upon their militancy against sexual display calmly ingest graphic shootings, stabbings, decapitations, and disembowelments.” Such people, he continues, “do not commit a sin of lust, [but] they commit an obverse sin of prudery. Prudery forces the sexual impulse underground, banishes it to the territory of the abnormal and forbidden. Ironically, prudery reinforces pornography.”

Before I conclude, I would like to clarify that I am neither condemning all violence in media nor advocating the graphic or gratuitous depiction of sex. I believe that violent imagery may be used to reinforce a non-violent message. I also believe that sex should not be exploited, but should be treated in a tactful, mature manner. (Note that, as just implied, I feel it should be treated, rather than neglected, in our media.)

If we are more comfortable seeing one person blow another’s head off than we are two people in passionate embrace, I have to wonder: What is wrong with us?



  1. I’m not comfortable with either. The sex and violence are both so erroneously unrealistic; not that making them so would warrant the need to show it.

    Violence –even unrealistic violence — is more common because it is something dealt with in a public sector. War, crime, etc. Sex? A private act between two people. It is not something that should be shared. To our deepest cores, despite any religious affiliation, I believe most would agree –Sex is private.

    Interesting post, though.

  2. Although I try to avoid seeing both graphic violence and explicit sex and nudity, I think one of the reasons some people are more disturbed by sexual imagery than violent imagery has to do with what feelings the images evoke.

    I’m going to make a few generalizations now, which obviously have lots of exceptions.

    I do believe that graphic violence must have a damaging effect on the spirits of those who view it. But IMO, most people are not probably not prompted to murder or main others after seeing people killed in a movie or on TV. In mainstream US films I get the impression that murder is not usually portrayed as morally justified, and killing is often reserved for people who have been shown to be “evil,” or else the killer is shown to deserve to suffer unpleasant consequences (even if he escapes those consequences in the story).

    But a lot of normal people can become sexually aroused by even mildly sexual imagery; and sexual intimacy for unmarried people is often portrayed as normal, healthy, moral, good, desirable, etc. Thus many viewers (particularly the young and inexperienced) can be prompted to think not only that “almost everyone has sex outside of marriage,” but that as long as the participants are not married, and take precautions to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, there are unlikely to be lasting unpleasant consequences.

    Most of us think violent behavior is bad, unless we think it necessary to prevent a greater evil or bring about justice.

    But precisely because we know that sexual intimacy is a supreme good to be experienced in privacy by those joined in the bounds of matrimony, we may think that images calculated to arouse sexual feelings for people other than a spouse are best avoided, no matter how “artistic” or “beautiful” they may be.

  3. Make love not war, eh Steve.
    What RoAnn said, with the caveat that I agree we are far too cavalier about violence in entertainment. I feel its even more harmful in the cartoonish form we find in our movies. That leads us to support such a thing as war without full acknowledgement of just what that will mean.
    The more realistic, graphic, and stomach turning, the less likely we are to seek after it, with the exception of a particularly sadistic societal subgroup. Violence just isn’t as enticing, though it certainly is gratuitously used. Maybe I’ll have to ponder that one.

  4. Probably because the violence is fake, but the nudity is real. If you watched real violence for entertainment a la Faces of Death, not only would you get the NC-17 rating, but people would think you were a freak, and rightfully so. Also, I think Levi Peterson is wrong to say that “prudery reinforces pornography.” Our European counterparts are far less prude, and pornography there is far more prevalent.

  5. mephi, (ok to shorten?)
    Just to play devil’s advocate, what about nudity and sex in video games? Is that okay or at least less bad because it’s not real?

  6. violent sex

  7. Re: Mephibosheth,

    Also, I think Levi Peterson is wrong to say that “prudery reinforces pornography.” Our European counterparts are far less prude, and pornography there is far more prevalent.

    I’m a bit skeptical of this claim. If you can substantiate it, then please do. My two cents is that in many European countries, erotic material may merely seem more widespread because it is less taboo there. I imagine that in the U.S., most porn consumption is less public (i.e., Internet, hotel Pay-per-view). I’ve had a hard time finding figures for European porn consumption, but one U.S. News article reported the following (sorry for the lengthy quote):

    “In 1969, Denmark became the first nation in the world to rescind its obscenity laws, an act taken after much deliberation and study. . . . [W]hen the Danish obscenity law was overturned, there was a steep rise in the consumption of porn, followed by a long, steady decline. ‘Ever since then,’ [one expert] says, ‘the market for pornography has been shrinking.’ Porn sales remain high in Copenhagen mainly because of purchases by foreigners. . . . In a survey of Copenhagen residents a few years after the ‘porno wave’ had peaked, Kutchinsky found that most Danes regarded porn as being ‘uninteresting’ and ‘repulsive.’ Less than a quarter of the population said they liked watching hard-core films. Subsequent research confirmed these findings. ‘The most common immediate reaction to a one-hour pornography stimulation,’ Kutchinsky concluded, ‘was boredom.'”

    The same article notes that, in the U.S., “The Reagan-Bush war on pornography coincided . . . with a dramatic increase in America’s consumption of sexually explicit materials.”

    I’ve uploaded another article (this one from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology). It describes a study that found a high correlation between sex guilt and physical arousal in subjects following exposure to erotic stimuli. Of course, all of the subjects were female, and sex guilt is not synonymous with prudery (although it may be a consequence of it, for some). But the author’s theorizing as to the reason for the findings may be relevant:

    “As forbidden material, however, the erotic intensity of this stimulus may have been greater for these women than for the low sex-guilt group, who under normal circumstances would not avoid such material. This may account for its greater capacity to elicit arousal. . . .

    “[O]ne can hypothesize that guilty individuals, by avoiding sex-related situations, do not learn to fully experience their sexual feelings arid reactions and to accommodate them to societal expectation. They conform to societal expectations instead by avoiding sexual situations. Thus, normally avoided explicit erotica remains an intense and potent arouser.”

    If you want my opinion, I think that sexual repression may be more to blame for Mormon men’s pornography problems than lustfulness or carnality. I side with Peterson in concluding that “prudery reinforces pornography.”

    To be clear, I’m definitely not advocating pornography or any other depiction of graphic or gratuitous sex. In this post, I’m more concerned with the arbitrariness and even hypocrisy of rejecting sexual media while embracing violent media. But I do believe that the subject of sex can and should be treated in our art, literature, and other media. Again, as Peterson writes,

    “Sexuality is a part of living. There is health in treating the broad range of experience in literature, in viewing clearly the full spectrum of human act and emotion, thereby helping to domesticate the disorderly impulses and to disarm an unfounded fear of those that only seem disorderly.”

    Peterson’s novel The Backslider deals extensively with the theme of sexuality. Some of its descriptions are quite graphic. Yet it ultimately sends a powerfully moral, Christian, and yet sexually affirming message. In my opinion, it may be the most masterful treatment of sex and sexuality in Mormon culture to date.

    To be honest, I’m not sure how or to what extent sex (the act itself) ought to be depicted in visual media. But I do believe that sexuality is a vital topic that ought to be treated frankly yet tactfully.

    Phew, this comment was way too long. My apologies to everybody.

  8. fun fact of the day:

    the owner of ‘flix club’ (orem’s distributor of family-friendly edited movies) was arrested today for paying minors for sex and illegally selling and distributing pornography. oh the irony.

  9. ok, i just realized that maybe labeling any news involving sex-crimes with children as a ‘fun fact’ was probably not a good idea.

  10. Doc,

    Dunno. I don’t want to be seen as defending violence in media. I used to think that movie violence was no big deal, and then I started working on an ambulance and movie shootings, stabbings, and deaths began to evoke memories of actual shootings, stabbings, and deaths. For me, Apocalypto was almost unwatchable.


    Whether porn just seems more prevalent or is more prevalent in Europe strikes me as kind of an odd distinction to make for a visual medium. It’s like saying, “Although you see more porn in Europe, it’s the same in America –you just don’t see it.”

  11. The Narrator,

    Irony indeed.

    I think that edited movies would be great if someone could figure out how to do them without mangling the film. For example, over Christmas break we tried to watch Eastern Promises on a DVD player that filters out language, violence, nudity, sex, etc. depending on the settings. It mostly worked but being a movie about the sex slave trade soon became incomprehensible so we gave up and watched it unfiltered. Highly recommended by the way, although I could have done without the scenes that show Viggo Mortensen’s junk.

  12. Meph,

    I don’t think it’s a meaningless distinction. You may see more porn in public spaces in Europe, but it may nonetheless penetrate deeper into American society, just through less public means (i.e., the Internet). It depends on whether you define “prevalence” strictly in terms of its public visibility or in terms of society-wide consumption, both in public and private.

    In any case, until we can see more concrete data, it’s difficult to make any definite conclusions.

  13. Steve,

    I agree with where you are going. I know from other posts that our views on sexuality and media differ, but I definately agree that there are many of us that shun pornography while embracing violence.

  14. Steve,

    If you get this can you shoot me an email at waitingforzion@gmail.com? Not sure if you remember me. I am the Drew you communicated with about a year ago. I have since lost your email and had a few questions I wanted to ask.

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