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Young New Zealanders Viewing Sexual Violence - Stage 2

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: 

  • 46 participants from 20 different organisations including NGOs, government officials, academics and others.
  • Participants were grouped into four workshops, based around location and area of expertise, each approximately three hours long.
  • Short video clips from films and television shows were shown to participants to prompt discussion.

Download the full report - Young New Zealanders Viewing Sexual Violence Stage 2 (PDF, 969KB)

Main findings 

Issues identified with depictions of sexual violence

Most media depictions do not reflect the realities of sexual violence

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 can be normalised

Predatory behaviour is often normalised or even glamorised on screen, and some depictions were perceived to normalise rape or present it as consensual sex.

Sexual violence is often trivialised and joked about

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.

Depictions often focus on an extreme act of physical violence

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.

Sexual violence can be presented as erotic or titillating

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.

Media messages about sexual relations, romance and gender can be harmful

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.

screen grab from 'Outlander' of two men in act of sexual violence
Rape scene from an episode of 'Outlander'
screen grab from 'Family Guy' of bull talking to man huddled on ground with pants down
A bull and Peter Griffen talk following a sexual assault, from an episode of 'Family Guy'

Impact on young people exposed to depictions of sexual violence

Depictions can negatively affect young people’s attitudes and behaviours

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.

Young people may become desensitised to sexual violence

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.

Depictions may be disturbing, frightening or triggering

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.

Screen grab from movie 'Jack & Diane' showing a young woman being sexually assaulted
Scene from 'Jack & Diane' showing a young woman being sexually assaulted
Screen grab from an episode of 'Criminal Minds' showing woman being sexually assaulted
Scene from an episode of 'Criminal Minds' showing a woman being sexually assaulted

Mitigating the harms of exposure to depictions of sexual violence

Positive, realistic, and diverse narratives dealing with sexual violence

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.

More comprehensive education about sex, relationships, and media

Participants called for better and more comprehensive education – about sex and relationships, and about interacting with media in a positive and informed way.

Classifications are a useful tool to help mitigate harms

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.

Screen grab from 'The Vampire Diaries' showing an anxious woman following an assault
Scene from an episode of 'The Vampire Diaries' showing an anxious woman following an assault
Screen grab from comedy stand up 'Jim Jefferies Freedumb'
Comedian jokes about rape in 'Jim Jefferies Freedumb'

The wider research and consultation project

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.

Let us know what you think

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 info@classificationoffice.govt.nz.