Sex is scarier, and more dangerous, than violence.
That was the cultural belief the Supreme Court reinforced on Monday when it rejected an attempt to ban the sale of violent video games to minors. Despite the frequent rhetorical link made by politicians and activists between sex and violence in the media, when it comes to First Amendment exemptions, sex stands entirely on its own. The majority ruling states clearly that federal obscenity law applies only to “depictions of ‘sexual conduct’” and not to scenes that are “shocking” for other reasons, like extreme violence. The Court ruled in the 1968 case of Ginsberg v. New York that states could ban the sale of sexual material to children, even if the content is not considered “obscene” for adults.
This latest ruling reveals a remarkable double standard — one that dissenting justice Stephen Breyer calls out in his written remarks. He asks:
[W]hat sense does it make to forbid selling to a 13-year-old boy a magazine with an image of a nude woman, while protecting a sale to that 13-year-old of an interactive video game in which he actively, but virtually, binds and gags the woman, then tortures and kills her? What kind of First Amendment would permit the government to protect children by restricting sales of that extremely violent video game only when the woman — bound, gagged, tortured, and killed — is also topless?
He ultimately takes this argument to a place I’m uncomfortable with, calling for more aggressive restrictions, but his basic point is well made: There is a disturbing inconsistency here.
Blogger Nilay Patel points out that the Court’s decision uses examples of gruesome scenes in “Grimm’s Fairy Tales,” “Snow White” and “Lord of the Flies” to make “a forceful case for treating video games exactly the same as any other literature or media” — but it also underscores “the incredible disparity in American societal attitudes toward sex and violence.” Because if those are valid defenses, then why aren’t depictions of nudity or other sexual content in literature also reasonable arguments against restricting the sale of sexual content to children? As Breyer argues: “For every Dante, there is an Ovid. And for all the teenagers who have read the original versions of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, I suspect there are those who know the story of Lady Godiva.”
What it really comes down to is that, as Justice Samuel Alito wrote, “For better or worse, our society has long regarded many depictions of killing and maiming as suitable features of popular entertainment, including entertainment that is widely available to minors.” Killing and maiming? Bring it on! But nudity or “sexual conduct”? Good heavens no — we are a civilized people. This attitude pervades our culture, as Adam Cohen writes in Time magazine: “The court’s tougher line on sex parallels the movie industry’s voluntary ratings system, which is much quicker to give a rare NC-17 rating for sex than for violence — but the industry has not done much to explain its double standard, either.”
Regardless of your feelings on this particular case, the culture-wide acceptance of violence over sex deserves some critical attention. It’s no accident, at least on a primal level, that sex and violence are so often linked. Evolutionary psychologists point to the violence that can erupt between male animals during sexual competition. It’s also the case that scientists have found a neural link between the two behaviors — in mice, at least. I’m partial to the philosophical explanation: Violence is destructive and can cause death, while sex brings life (OK, it can also bring death, but I’m talking symbolism here). There are the inherent themes of dominance and submission, power and vulnerability; and then, of course, there is straight-up sexual violence.
Developmental psychologist James W. Prescott, formally of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, argues that there is a “preference for sexual violence over sexual pleasure in the United States.” He says, “This is reflected in our acceptance of sexually explicit films that involve violence and rape, and our rejection of sexually explicit films for pleasure only (pornography),” he says. “Apparently, sex with pleasure is immoral and unacceptable, but sex with violence and pain is moral and acceptable.”
We do love our sexy violence, don’t we? A gun-toting busty babe makes for a Hollywood blockbuster — but if all the blood, gore and cleavage was replaced by simple nudity or sex? No way — at least not until we’re behind closed doors, secretly watching it by our lonesome.
I am far from the first to suggest it, but it deserves to be said again: Our cultural blood lust is such a blatant transference of sexual shame and repression. (By the way, in a cross-cultural survey, Prescott found a strong link between “deprivation of body pleasure” — meaning physical affection that is, importantly, not explicitly sexual — and “the amount of warfare and interpersonal violence” in a society. I’m just sayin’.) Sometimes I really have to wonder who we’re most trying to protect by restricting sexual imagery.