12 April 2017
This report is the second component of our research and consultation project exploring the effects on young people of viewing sexual violence in mainstream commercial media such as movies, TV shows, and games. We know from previous research that sex and violence in entertainment media can have a negative effect, however the impact of sexual violence specifically is not well understood – this is why we have made sexual violence our research focus for the past year. This phase of the research involved:
Sexual violence is often portrayed in a way that reaffirms problematic and false beliefs – for example that sexual violence is based solely on sexual desire and frustration, that sexual violence can be a way to establish intimacy, and that rape is something perpetrated primarily by strangers.
Predatory behaviour is often normalised or even glamorised on screen, and some depictions were perceived to normalise rape or present it as consensual sex.
Depictions (particularly in comedy) are often homophobic or misogynistic, and tend to minimise, trivialise, and otherwise make light of sexual violence and its impact – particularly on male victim/survivors.
Acts of sexual violence may be used for shock value or to drive a plot forward but is then presented as having little or no lasting effect, and in this way disregards the victim/survivor’s experience.
Some depictions seemed to eroticise sexual violence for the purpose of titillating (and potentially even sexually arousing) an audience. There was general discomfort about the common use of sexual violence in films and television shows – purely for the purpose of entertainment.
Participants were not only concerned about depictions of sexual violence, but also by the perception that media has a powerful role in promoting and normalising particular ideas about sexual relations, romance and gender. Participants generally believed that media helps to shape how young people see the world – and that the messages they receive from media may have the effect of making sexual violence in our community more likely or accepted.
Depictions of sexual violence may influence young people’s understandings and beliefs about sex, relationships and sexual violence, and that this potentially has negative flow on effects for young people’s attitudes and behaviours. As young people’s minds are still developing, along with their social skills and belief systems, participants thought that young people were more likely to accept media uncritically and to use it as an educative tool.
There was an overriding concern about the way sexual violence is used for the purpose of entertainment. The potential for desensitisation, normalisation, and the presentation of victim/survivors as dehumanised, is perceived as likely to have negative effects on young people’s attitudes to sexual violence.
Aside from the potential effects on young people’s attitudes and behaviour, participants were also concerned that stronger, more violent depictions, are likely to be disturbing, frightening and distressing for young people – and may lead to anxiety and fear, particularly in young women and girls. Further to this, there is the distinct harm of depictions of sexual violence triggering victim/survivors emotions and experiences of past abuse and trauma.
One way of mitigating the harms of exposure would be to change the nature of the depictions young people are exposed to. Participants were clear that not all depictions of sexual violence were necessarily harmful or problematic – and some may be beneficial in certain circumstances. There was a call for more positive, realistic, and diverse narratives dealing with sexual violence – those that prompted discussion, had constructive underlying themes, and made viewers reflect on their own beliefs. Such depictions could potentially have educational value if presented in the right context, and provide a counterweight to problematic depictions that participants believed were far more common.
Participants called for better and more comprehensive education – about sex and relationships, and about interacting with media in a positive and informed way.
Participants generally thought that the current classification system played an important role in providing guidance and protection to young people, and that it makes a useful contribution to broader strategies to reduce the harms of sexual violence in our communities. They acknowledged that young people were potentially being exposed to a variety of harmful content online and saw classifications as a key tool in mitigating the potential harms of exposure – at least by providing a level of warning and information to support young people’s viewing choices.
At present, online, on demand content providers (such as Netflix and Lightbox) are not covered by either the film classification or the broadcasting standards systems, and participants generally agreed that content regulation laws should be extended to cover these increasingly popular streaming services.
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. The third and final phase of the research involved a series of interviews with young people from across New Zealand. A report of findings will be released in the coming months.
We'd love to hear what you think about this research. If you have any feedback you can find us on Facebook and Twitter, or contact us by phone on 0508 236 767, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.