Sex is inappropriate for minors, but violence is a-OK

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.

Join the Conversation

  • Mark Kernes

    As a journalist in the adult entertainment industry, I did an analysis of Brown v. Entertainment Marketing Association from a sex-positive viewpoint:

  • Jessica “Jess” Victoria Carillo

    I take it blood gushing out someone’s head or chest beats blood spots on underwear or sitting surfaces according to the rule of “Sex is inappropriate for minors, but violence is a-OK” also. I’m so lending my cousin a copy of “Are you there God? It’s me Margaret”

    • Emolee

      Yes, I remember when the movie Towelhead came out a few years ago (this is not a comment on the movie itself) and there were all of these reviewers who were disgusted that there was a scene in which menstrual blood was shown (I think it was on a pad or a tampon?). One reviewer in particular said that it was too much “gore.” And it was so much less blood than in the average war or crime movie… but because it came out of a woman’s vagina instead of gushing out of a head or chest… gross.

  • F.Toth

    I have not been to Germany in ten years, but as I remember it wasn’t that they censored violence but not sex. They did censor violence but the sex was horrifyingly male dominent. I remember in particular a bar soap commercial on TV wherein a woman was showering and there was a close up of the soap going over the nipple and a clothed man outside the shower talking about how great the soap was. After that I turned off the TV.
    I’m not sure what to think about David Hasselhoff and the puppies but I will say I’d rather have sex censored than have alpha male sex celebrated.

  • Brüno

    You gotta desensitize the average American male to violence and also advertize violence through the media, seen as America is expected to take on the bulk of military operations. Germanys job is to crank out engineers.

  • Emolee

    The idea of “sex is worse than violence” has always disturbed me. Dominant American culture definitely censors sex more than violence, and I don’t really get it. While really young kids probably shouldn’t see graphic depictions of either, I would much rather my older child see healthy depictions of sexuality than a bunch of gratuitous violence. Yet it takes MUCH more violence than sex for a movie to become R rated.

    I remember seeing the movie Boys Don’t Cry on TV years after seeing it in the theater and thinking how odd and just plain not right it was that they cut out the loving lesbian sex scene but left in the brutal rape and murder at the end. Although this could have been more about believing that “hetero sex,” even when it is rape, is better than consensual sex between two women.

    • Dawn West

      Ugh, I know exactly what you mean re: Boys Don’t Cry. I watched it both on DVD and later on TV, and I was so pissed off when they cut the consensual-and-important-to-the-story lesbian sex scene, but left in the entire rape scene and later the murder scene. Yes, those scenes are important to the plot as well, but what’s with the selective censorship? Total bullshit. I was especially upset because rape scenes upset me so much that I have to either skip through them or leave the room if I can’t skip if it gets too graphic. Just thinking about that scene makes my heart race. How the fuck is a fucking RAPE SCENE appropriate but a consensual lesbian sex scene isn’t??? (Sorry. This obviously pisses me off, haha.)

  • Carolyn

    America definitely has a problem with condoning violence and censuring sex. I feel that by the time someone is a teenage, they’re completely desensitized to seeing the most graphic and horrific of violent acts in films and on TV while healthy depictions of sexuality in mainstream media and few and far between. No wonder teenagers so often have distorted views of sex and sexual relationships. The media’s focus on violence instead of sex does a great disservice to minors, normalizing one over the other.

  • Ambrosia

    This is a few days old, but there’s something that really bothers me here. You, your German teacher and various commenters all include nudity under “sex”. While I think sex itself does not need as much censorship as it gets, equaling nudity with sex still bothers me more than anything.

    It’s simply illogical. The body parts classified as sex, and censored as such, exist regardless of whether or not the people involved are presently interested in sex or even capable of being interested in sex. There’s plenty of possible situations where nudity is present yet the situation is not sexual, and conversely possible sexual situations where no nudity is present. In a society where everyone is nude all the time, nudity means nothing special, and no connection will be made between just being naked and sex. It’s true that nudity often means sex in our society, but that’s simply the result of our attitude towards nudity, of letting it only exist in sexual situations.

    Defining the human body as sexual content defines people as inherent sex objects. They can hide the sex, but can’t cease being a sex object.

    This is particularly bothersome considering how we define which body parts constitute nudity/sex and which ones don’t. They reflect the sexual preferences of the people (=men) who originally made the laws and censorship/age rating guidelines more than they reflect reality.

    For example; female and male nipples: While nipples have more nerve endings than most body parts and even types of nerve endings only found in very few parts, including genitalia and nipples, both male and female nipples feature these; some women can reach an orgasm through nipple stimulation, but same is actually true for some males as well (and some people report orgasms from stimulation to other sensitive areas, including feet); While the shape of female breasts is a visual cue of sexual maturity, so is the shape (muscularity) and hair in men’s chests (as is men’s facial hair); many find female breasts sexy to look at, but many also find male chests sexy to look at. So, while female nipples are in general somewhat more sensual than male ones, they are still essentially the same exact thing; some men get more sexual use out of their own nipples than some women do out of theirs. Drawing a line there and defining female nipples as sex items but not defining male nipples as sex items is highly arbitrary, and sexist, because it means in practice women’s chests are made through censorship into dedicated sex objects, not allowed to be used for much else, while males remain free to use their chests for whatever they want, still including sex.

    Furthermore, since various other body parts from feet to ears are considered both erogenous to the touch by some people, and very sexy to look at by some others, any line drawing between body parts that constitute sex and nudity and ones that don’t is quite arbitrary.