30 November 2016
This report is the first component of our research and consultation project exploring the effects of viewing sexual violence in mainstream commercial media such as movies, TV shows and games. Sexual violence is a complex social problem and its depiction and impact on audiences is not well understood, particularly with respect to young people.
In order to learn more we commissioned Colmar Brunton to hold a number of focus groups and one paired interview with teenagers aged 14-17 in early 2016. The research is unique in that it addresses young people's own understandings of sexual violence in media entertainment.
Browse other research on our research page.
Participants understood rape to be sexual violence, but there were differences in understanding of other forms of sexual violence, particularly non-physical behaviour and coercion. Some of the boys expressed potentially harmful attitudes and misconceptions about the nature of sexual violence.
Some participants said they learn about issues (including sexual violence) from entertainment media and that this impacts on their thinking.
The research suggests maturation by age and life experience may be necessary before a young person is able to recognise that what they are seeing on screen is sexual violence, articulate this and understand issues around its portrayal.
The older girls in particular emphasised that sexual violence on screen could be appropriate if portraying realistic, victim/survivor-orientated experiences, and that they should not be included for otherwise gratuitous purposes.
A core concern was whether or not the viewer understood the sexual violence on screen. Most of the participants suggested that younger viewers would be more susceptible to misunderstanding. Participants said that inaccurate depictions or misrepresentations of sexual violence in entertainment media are potentially harmful to younger viewers.
While some of the participants said they were not personally affected by viewing sexual violence, participants acknowledged that there could be negative or harmful effects on some viewers, particularly younger viewers. The harms of viewing sexual violence that young people identified included: feeling bad, shock and upset, normalisation, perpetuation of harmful stereotypes, undue introduction to sexual violence, misrepresentation of sexual violence and its consequences, nightmares, negative impact on victim/survivors, and imitating or copying behaviour.
Participants were asked to consider types of depictions that might be more or less harmful. The older groups indicated that this is very context dependent, however they did identify some features that may make a depiction more or less harmful – including explicitness, realism, suspense and how seriously the matter is treated. Younger participants were less articulate and detailed.
The older girls suggested a depiction may be positive if it addresses victim/survivor experiences, the emotional impact of sexual violence, and coping with and overcoming trauma. They were the only participants to suggest this. The older boys also thought that some depictions might have a positive effect however they were not specific about the types of depictions.
The research revealed limited information about how the gender of perpetrators and victim/survivors of sexual violence may affect the impact of depictions. The older girls were more aware of problematic portrayals of sexual violence in less typical scenarios, for example violence perpetrated by a woman or against a man. The younger boys in particular were less likely to look at depictions critically, and less likely to view sexual violence towards a male as a serious issue. The findings suggest that some depictions of sexual violence may be reinforcing potentially problematic attitudes.
There were stark gender differences on the issue of the use of humour, in particular the lack of empathy shown to victim/survivors by many of the boys when the depiction was framed as humorous. Only in the abstract did these boys begin to think more critically about the issues surrounding the use of humour. This clear difference may be related to gendered expectations of, and experiences of sexual violence.
Young people generally supported age restrictions for depictions of sexual violence, particularly graphic sexual violence. Despite their self-reported experiences of non-compliance, the research indicates that young people desire more and better information rather than less when making viewing choices. Participants generally wanted more specificity in the content warnings.
The project as a whole explores the impact depictions of sexual violence may have on our communities, and builds on international research looking into the effects of violence and sexual content in entertainment media. We have consulted with specialists in the field of sexual violence prevention, treatment and education (including front-line victim/survivor counsellors) and academics and officials with expertise in sexual violence. Further reports of findings will be released over the coming months.