When I was in the 7th grade and studying German our teacher brought in popular mainstream German magazines to aid us in our second language education. I don’t remember much German and I don’t really even remember which magazines, but I do remember they were filled with nudity, including the infamous picture of a naked David Hasselhoff (ew) covered in puppies. Our teacher had blocked out all the nudity in the magazines to avoid getting in trouble with the school administration and in response to this he daringly made one point–in Germany, he said, they censor violence, not sex. In Germany, like the US, a country with a very violent history.
In a similar vein, this week the US Supreme Court ruled that the ban on selling violent video games to minors was unconstitutional. Which in and of itself seems a viable decision: it advocates for the rights of minors to make decisions for themselves, we already know censoring things don’t stop them from circulating and the evidence as to whether violent video games leads to violence is questionable. But this decision is noteworthy in comparison to the fact that purely sexual material is still censored.
Robert Scheer writes at the Nation,
The Supreme Court, in essence, said no—“sexually assaulting an image of a human being” is protected speech, but depicting graphic sexual activity that is nonviolent and consensual is not.
“California has tried to make violent-speech regulation look like obscenity regulation by appending a saving clause required for the latter,” Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in the majority opinion. “That does not suffice. Our cases have been clear that the obscenity exception to the First Amendment does not cover whatever a legislature finds shocking, but only depictions of ‘sexual conduct.’ ”
As Scalia put the prevailing argument that says yes to violence and no to sex, it is only violence that possesses deep cultural roots going back to our favorite fairy tales. Arguing that “violence is not part of the obscenity that the Constitution permits to be regulated,” Scalia made clear that the problem is with the sex and not the violent or misogynist behavior that some critics argue will result from material the Court defines as obscene: “Because speech about violence is not obscene, it is of no consequence that California’s statute mimics the New York statute regulating obscenity-for-minors that we upheld in Ginsberg v. New York. That case approved a prohibition on the sale to minors of sexual material that would be obscene from the perspective of a child.”
Culturally, if you look at movies or video games, violent content is always considered more age appropriate then sexual content. MPAA ratings tend to allow violent content in PG-13, but absolutely no nudity. And many of these video games have violent sexual imagery, or highly sexualized imagery. Do they in and of themselves cause young men who are playing these games to act out violently towards women? Probably not (maybe sometimes), but either way the references in these games reflect and reinforce a culture that relies on violence and the objectification of women.
Allowing images of violence while disallowing images of consensual sex (which to be clear, don’t generally represent realistic representations of sex in popular culture) adds to the mystique of sex as something that men must fight women to have possession of. It normalizes violence while making sex something that is impure, illicit and difficult to obtain. As comprehensive sex education advocates have argued, the key to end a culture of rape is to demystify some of what sex is, to talk about it openly, to understand and learn about desire and consent. Graphic images are going to always appeal to younger generations of media consumers, trying to stop it is pointless, but using this moment to propagate violent imagery does not allow for a healthy cultural attitude around sex.