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Young people's views about sexual violence: some initial findings from focus group research

Posted on 08 September 2016 by Henry

Earlier this year we asked Colmar Brunton to carry out focus group research with young people to learn about their views on sexual violence in media entertainment like movies, games and television shows. This forms part of a wider research and consultation programme the Classification Office is conducting to assist us with the classification process.

Young people's views on the subject are varied and complex — and they often found conversation about the topic difficult. We found that some of the terminology was confusing to the younger groups, who generally hadn't given much thought to this topic before, and generally indicated that they had not been much exposed to sexual violence on screen.

The participants were split by gender and age — into younger (14-15 y/o) and older (16-17 y/o) groups. Colmar Brunton also conducted a supplementary interview (in Wellington in June) with two 16 year old boys with assistance from a Classification Office staff member. All participants were made aware of the subject matter in advance, as were their parents. See further information about the groups below*.

We're still working on the results and will bring out a full report in the coming months, in the meantime, here some initial findings that have come out of the research.

Are there harms associated with viewing sexual violence?

Some of the participants indicated that viewing sexual violence on screen could be harmful in some way, particularly to people younger than them:

I'd agree [that sexual violence generally has a higher impact than other content], more so than violence in general, more so than drug use or anything, I think sexual violence is a bit more extreme. And if it's a young person who might not understand then that’s definitely going to have more of an impact.

Supplementary interview – older boys

Younger people won't understand what's happening.

Younger girls group

Harms identified by young people included having attitudes and behaviours influenced by what is seen on screen, acknowledging that the effects of viewing certain material might not be obvious to the person viewing it:

I think teenagers can distinguish what's real and what's not but I suppose if that's all that we see then that's all that we'll know, and even if you’re told and you completely understand that it's wrong, it's still the only thing you see.

Supplementary interview – older boys

Something can be more harmful if it's considered normal within the scope of the film because we do get cues about society from media.

Older girls' group

[On the effect of media content generally] I guess that we might sort of think we handle it but then maybe it is having an effect and we don't know. In a few years you'll see how we develop as people, and how a whole generation develops.

Supplementary interview – older boys

Some young people said that they personally do not like seeing sexual violence on screen:

No one wants to see that even when it is a reality.

Younger girls' group

I was a fan of spy films growing up, they had violence, they had sex scenes but they don't have sexual violence and I think that's why I find them ok. But as soon as there would be any form of sexual torture it would just sort of bring it to a whole new level of uncomfortability.

Older girls' group

A man attacking a woman is something that happens every day. It's something none of us like to think about happening to us.

Older girls' group

If it's got sexual violence it's not something that's very happy, it doesn't make you feel very good, it's not something you'd watch again.

Supplementary interview – older boys

Clips of various types were shown to participants as an aid to discussions. The idea that viewing sexual violence can be uncomfortable was confirmed when some clips from R16 movies were shown to the older groups. Most of the participants indicated that this material made them uncomfortable — they were reluctant to discuss it and said they would prefer not see this this kind of thing. Many thought this material should in fact be R18:

With the last two clips I felt so uncomfortable that I was tempted to just look away.

Older girls' group

I didn't want to see that. Just something about it was so up close and personal.

Older girls' group

I'm glad it stopped when it did.

Older girls' group

Some mentioned that survivors of sexual violence would likely find this sort of material particularly uncomfortable to watch:

Other people could have experienced it and not liked it.

Younger girls' group

It would probably make them quite upset to see it...if you had been a victim of sexual violence and then you saw that then that would probably bring back something that you don't want to remember.

Supplementary interview – older boys

How should sexual violence be classified?

Some indicated that warnings for sexually violent content are useful:

I wouldn't want to see that in an R16 movie...I wouldn't even go and see anything like that. If there was a warning on it or something that said 'there's going to be rape scenes' I'm not going to see that.

Older girls' group

If they give you more specific ratings then the viewers have a choice like I don't really want to watch a movie with rape in it so I won't watch that movie so they should be warned.

Older boys' group

[A warning] would be important to people who had survived sexual violence, because for some people it could be uncomfortable watching most forms of it.

Older girls' group

When is sexual violence on screen appropriate?

Some participants thought that it was ok to show sexual violence when it was appropriate to the plot, and may have some positive aspects:

I don't like seeing sexual violence obviously. But it's ok if it's in order to show how the character becomes in the end or if it's about a person's actual life or something...a story that's worth telling about it. If it's not just there for no reason.

Older girls' group

If it's there to show the negative things that surround it, like wanting to commit suicide or something. If it's there to show that you can get over that and from the victim or survivor's point of view, then I think that's ok. But the act itself, not really.

Older girls' group

You shouldn't ban sexual violence from all TV because that's kind of like saying it doesn't exist.

Older girls' group

What's next for the project?

While we continue to work on a report of findings for these initial focus groups, we have been liaising with people and organisations with an interest in sexual violence prevention, including community organisations working with young people, academics and other experts. If you'd like more information or would like to be involved please contact us.

Download our discussion document: Young New Zealanders Viewing Sexual Violence (PDF, 835KB)

*Depictions of sexual violence focus group research: Colmar Brunton held four 2-hour focus group sessions with teenagers in February — the sessions with girls/young women were held in Wellington and the sessions with boys/young men were held in Auckland. The participants were split into younger (14-15 y/o) and older (16-17 y/o) groups. The older girls/young women group had 7 participants, the other groups had 8 participants. Colmar Brunton was assisted by Wellington’s Sexual Abuse Prevention Network (SAPN) and Auckland’s Rape Prevention Education (RPE). Colmar Brunton also conducted a supplementary interview (in Wellington in June) with two 16 year old boys with assistance from a Classification Office staff member. The Classification Office was provided transcripts of the focus groups and will be producing a report in-house in the coming months.

Henry works in the Information Unit at the NZ Office of Film and Literature Classification. His views do not represent those of the Chief Censor or of the Classification Office. The Information Unit provides information to other staff, to the public, and to industry members - they are not involved in assigning classifications. Keep up with our blog posts by following us on Facebook and Twitter.

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