September 13, 2014

Why is There No Sex in Our Cinematic Violence?

When Harry Met Sally
Sex! Let's talk about it! And violence! (In the context of cinema, anyway.) In this informative, fun, and slightly risqué video, CineFix gives a quick history of censorship in the U.S., exposing differences between treatments of sex and violence, and asks why the two are not equal in the eyes of the MPAA.

It's fairly common knowledge that graphic sexual content in a film can become a major stumbling block for many U.S. filmmakers who are looking for less than an NC-17 rating, a rating which is seen as the mark of death in terms of box office success. And anyone who watches a good amount of movies will know, especially those who are familiar with films from many different eras, that sex seems to be, and always has been, punished more severely than violence by the MPAA (or whichever governing entity is in power at the time). So, the question is -- why.

The video below, entitled A$$, ( . )( . ), and GUNS: Censorship in Cinema, doesn't offer any definitive answers, but it does start a conversation about why it's more acceptable to the rating's board to show countless henchmen be shot to death by a machine gun than to show a woman's face while she receives cunnilingis. 

The answer to the sex vs. violence in film question can't really be given, because exactly zero ratings board members or representatives from the MPAA have come out to divulge their reasonings behind their decisions. If you've seen the documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated (if you haven't, watch it immediately), you know that the board is a rather clandestine group that whose privacy seems to be top priority. But, we don't necessarily need a direct explanation to form our own theories and learn. There's so much value in studying film censorship on a cultural level; the things censored in film are often things certain groups would want to censor in real life, whether they be exploding heads, graphic language, or homosexual sex. After all, films are great thermostats to measure what gives our society a fever, and for the last 100 years, it has been sex -- in all of its benign, sloppy, or controversial forms.

We've covered the storied history of censorship in the U.S. quite a bit, but if you want to learn more about the treatment of sex specifically, check out our write-up here.

Why do you think sex and violence are treated differently in cinema? Depictions of sex have continuously become more brazen. Do you think we'll get to a point where sex and violence will be treated the same by the ratings board? Let us know what you think down in the comments.     

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26 Comments

The MPAA is an ass-backward organization that has entirely too much power over film as an artistic medium. With that said, it's also an organization whose ratings reflect a much deeper cultural view of sex, one which is stigmatic to an insane degree. Unfortunately, America continues to be a sexually repressed nation in many ways. Until there's some dramatic shift in collective values, sex will continue to be seen as stigmatic, and will therefore continue to be censored in all forms of art, especially cinema.

September 13, 2014 at 11:36PM

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Robert Hardy
Founder of Filmmaker's Process
4120

The only real problem with the MPAA is that the PG-13 rating allows for extremely violent films to be watered down and shown to kids who probably should not be exposed to such things. I see 7 and 8 year olds in PG-13 film showings that are watching hundreds of people getting mowed down by gunfire, that can't be healthy especially when it is shown a bloodless sanitized way that doesn't reflect reality.

I don't get why people are making such a big deal about the MPAA rating system when it comes to sex. Making out with clothes or even underwear gets you PG-13. Nudity in a sexual context gets you an R. Not that complicated. Its not that sex is stigmatized by rather its graphic depiction in a public setting. I think people should feel the same way about violence but they don't, nothing can be done about that. Sex isn't censored. The ratings system is not censorship. Its a classification system that makes it easier for consumers to choose what to watch and not watch. That's it. Even more lax European nations give films with more graphic depictions of sex the adult rating. Not sure what all the controversy is about.

September 15, 2014 at 12:57PM

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Ideally that's how the MPAA ratings system should work, but the fact is that they actually do censor films with sexual content (oftentimes very mild sexual content) by threatening to rate them at NC-17 (which will destroy any chance at a profitable box-office run) unless whatever it is they don't like ends up on the cutting room floor. The controversy comes from the fact that nobody knows how the hell they make their decisions. The MPAA won't disclose that information to anybody. Add to that the fact that many of the changes they demand are completely ridiculous and arbitrary, and it becomes clear why filmmakers hate the organization so much.

Also, if you haven't already seen the documentary "This Film Is Not Yet Rated" I highly recommend that you check it out. It explains all of this much better than I ever could.

September 16, 2014 at 12:56AM

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Robert Hardy
Founder of Filmmaker's Process
4120

Disclaimer: I read through the article without watching the video. I can only assume the questions being posed in written form reflect the ones posed in the video.

Frankly, I don't understand the central question being put on the table: "Why does the MPAA treat sex differently than violence in terms of rating severity?" This seems relatively obvious. Sex is different from violence. One may as well ask why the MPAA treats profanity differently than violence, or "frightening images" differently than violence. It's because these are different categories being considered. Why shouldn't they be treated differently? So not meaning to be too critical, but I feel like the conversation doesn't seem to have a purpose, (Or perhaps a different question is really trying to be asked without being directly stated...)

Many people have different personal views in regards to sex, violence, profanity, and any other form of content that a large group of people could find objectionable to some degree. For some people, the severity of MPAA ratings line up with their personal values. For other people, they don't. Some groups think that words like "gosh", "crap", and "shoot" should equal R-rated movies and be banned. Other groups think that 20-minute long sex scenes should exist in PG-rated movies. *shrugs*

I think Robert nailed it when he said the MPAA reflects cultural values on an average scale. (paraphrased). And I think that's really the way it should be. If someone feels that the culture is too uptight or playing too fast and loose with a certain issue, feel free to preach it. But I doubt the MPAA should be the scapegoat or main topic of conversation here.

September 14, 2014 at 12:01AM

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Samuel Neff
DP / Editor
756

Fully agree.

September 14, 2014 at 1:19AM

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I don't understand when you talk about subjectivity and respect of what some people feel: some things are punished be the law and the 10 commandements but can be showed in film (murder for instance) while some things are admited by the law and the religion (like a couple having pleasure) and those things are problematic for MPAA ? I don't know if that was the point of the article but it is in my point of view a very good question.

September 14, 2014 at 2:59AM

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Thomas Aymard
Director of photography
91

Hey Thomas! To clarify, I wasn't referring to religion and law/legality, just cultural values. I'm pretty sure the MPAA doesn't rate based on an action's legality, but based on its level of acceptability in culture, specifically in terms of being experienced in media.

September 14, 2014 at 11:35AM

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Samuel Neff
DP / Editor
756

People ask why profanity is treated differently than violence on a fairly common basis. The issue of the "one F-Bomb allowed per PG-13 rating" comes up time and again, and for good reason.

Rating content characterized by violence more leniently than sex is wrong. It really is. The two "categories" are inherently different, you're right. Killing people is generally a bad thing. Having sex isn't. Suggesting that one should not take issue with the MPAA for employing a rating system that reflects backwards cultural values that glorify violence and negatively stigmatize sex is concerning. The MPAA has a very unreasonable amount of power, and that power should not exist in a vacuum. Change comes when people speak up. Change comes when people say, "dang, this film portrays gratuitous murder, but it's rated less severely than this film that portrays two individuals sharing intimate love."

Questioning that absolutely has a point.

September 14, 2014 at 3:09AM

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Steven Bailey
Writer/Director/Composer
1007

"one F-Bomb allowed per PG-13 rating". I didn't know that. That seems stringent, and you're right, it's probably just one example of many that seem strange in context. The MPAA definitely shouldn't exist in a vacuum. Do they? I'm curious, what is their process in regards to updating rules? Do we know?

If they're consistently trying to keep up with cultural values, then I don't think they're a problem, just a reflection/symptom of a problem for the people who disagree with those values.

However, if they *aren't* keeping up with cultural values (and this isn't determined by your own circle of friends, who do not equal the broad U.S. culture) or even attempting to, then I absolutely agree there's a conversation that needs to take place around reforming the MPAA.

September 14, 2014 at 11:42AM

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Samuel Neff
DP / Editor
756

In 2002, Ken Loach had to take the British equivalent of the MPAA (the BBFC) to task for giving his film Sweet Sixteen an 18 certificate on account of the language, meaning specifically that many of the people the film was about weren't able to watch it. It was a typical example of failing to see the language in the context of the community that it was set in. Basically, what sounds like aggressive language to some privately-educated civil servant in London is part of the general banter of every day life in working class areas of Glasgow. With the best will in the world, any censorship board is going to be unable to reflect the social values of wider society, because such values vary so much between societies, especially in a country as diverse as the United States. Hell, there are a significant minority of people in the States who would still consider "God damn" to be unsuitable content for children.

September 14, 2014 at 4:17PM

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I am aware that the attitudes and paradigms that my small sample of friends exhibit and ascribe to are not necessarily reflective of a general cultural value system as a whole.

I am also aware that violence is probably more acceptable to the average viewer than sex is. The MPAA rating system is very obviously reflective of this. Your suggestion that one should therefore restrict their conversation to the cultural problem, and not the institutional problem that is reflective of the cultural problem, seems very odd to me. Why?

I'm using an extreme example, I know, but I think it illustrates my point pretty clearly: slavery, as an institution, existed because of a broader cultural consensus that it was an acceptable (and useful) system. When the laws changed, they did *not* change because the general populace wanted them to. The volume of people who did not favor these changes in legislation was still huge, and the fallout can still be experienced to this day. Racism is a big problem, and people are still fighting it. The logic you're advocating would demand that systems exist only to reflect what the majority wants. I am fearful of this type of thinking. I don't think it's useful - I think it's dangerous.

Do you think sex should be rated more harshly than violence? Do you think this trend should be perpetuated? These are appropriate questions! They do not have to be redirected to a broader context - the two are one and the same.

September 14, 2014 at 5:01PM

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Steven Bailey
Writer/Director/Composer
1007

I don't understand why sex should be censored in the first place... We're not in Middle Age anymore...

September 14, 2014 at 1:56AM

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Vincent Galiano
Filmmaker / Screenwriter / Photographer
139

Its not censored. Giving a film a rating is not censorship. Films are not required to get a rating to be released, they get MPAA ratings because its much more difficult to sell an unrated film. In R rated films, you can pretty much show anything sexual just short of actual intercourse. Yes, the MPAA is much more lax with violence but its not like you can't show sex in films. They do it all the time.

September 15, 2014 at 12:39PM

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MPAA is probably more in tune with the general public sentiment, than most would like to admit.

September 14, 2014 at 2:40AM

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How do you know? From what the article says, the MPAA seems to be a uniquely secretive and unaccountable organisation. If the public has never had the opportunity to express their views on the issue directly, they can't reasonably claim to be reflecting the sentiments of the wider public. They get away with it by officially being a voluntary scheme, although in reality, it's compulsory for anyone wanting a wider release of their film. As online delivery becomes more prominent, we might see their influence decrease.

But worryingly, American websites like Youtube seem to follow their lead when it comes to censoring sexual content, yet allowing extremely violent videos, racist videos, etc to go unrated. Maybe that's a reflection of the sort of videos most likely to be flagged by users, because Youtube relies on a flagging system. But is that really a reflection of the views of wider society, or just a reflection of the views of the most prudish of that society? Are the majority of users actually flagging videos, or just the most sensitive of them? I've seen videos on Youtube flagged as 18+ for the tamest of "sexual content" yet I've never been asked to log in to view any of the violent content on Youtube, including the masses of real violence uploaded.

But maybe you're right. It's certainly the case that most Americans would accept the current situation as the norm, and therefore would naturally be more shocked at a sexually explicit scene than an ultra-violent one, for no other reason than it's what they're used to seeing. Whether they would accept it as what should be the norm if asked is another question entirely.

September 14, 2014 at 3:51PM

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I wonder if it has anything to do with history. It's interesting to think that even as early back as the 40's. Men were sent off to face extremely violent times of war, but talking about anything sexual in social groups was still not kosher.

There's also the subject of drug use. Which seems to be the focus of a lot of famous movies.

September 14, 2014 at 4:32AM

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Alex Smith
Documentary/Cinematographer
1441

The seemingly age old question of "sex vs violence" falls into one of the biggest grey areas and, on the surface, most dillusioned debates out there. While I'm not going to reply with my stance on the subject, I'd rather like to offer some food for though statements that will hopefully prove how sticky this whole situation really is.

While the choice is currently all up to the MPAA whether or not a film is rated the way it is, if a different organization were to take over (one with loser or stricter guidelines on either side of the debate) or if ratings were simply done away with altogether, there would be mass disapproval and the film industry could very well dissolve altogether. There's no way to make everyone happy, even when the mass majority of people are satisfied with something, there will always be a group who is not; and in today's society where everyone has to be happy and there can be no disagreements, this simply would not work. Unfortunately right now, the people pleased or content with the current system outways those who are not.

Secondly, the separation/difference of sex and violence is not as black and white as most in the film world would like to believe. Generally speaking, no two families in the world are the same. Just because one believes (and thus raises their children to believe) that sex is sacred or only for private consumption and focuses less on violence does not mean that other families have the same view and vice versa. While there's also a much deeper and much more complicated debate on the deep nature and integral history of sex and violence for ourselves as a species, both are generally viewed as two extremes on opposite ends of the spectrum. Generally speaking again, one is more likely to encounter some form of violence in everyday life than a form of explicit sexuality.

Again, these are just a few simply thoughts that hopefully shed a little light on how complicated the topic is.

September 14, 2014 at 11:06PM, Edited September 14, 11:06PM

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Emerson Shaw
Student
664

Why and how would the film industry dissolve? Why do you believe the existence of the industry as it stands depends on the MPAA rating structure? Why do you believe that people experience violence more than they experience sex? Or did you mean to suggest that people are exposed to violence more than they are exposed to sex (in which case, why do you believe that, also?)

Finally, why do you think the volume of those who are satisfied with the status quo outweighs the volume of those who don't? What are you basing this statistic on? An article? A study? Something? Anything?

You're saying a lot of things, but you've actually made no attempt to illustrate where you are drawing these generalizations from, and why. This is very problematic when you're entering any sort of discussion.

September 15, 2014 at 4:15PM

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Steven Bailey
Writer/Director/Composer
1007

Sorry about the confusion, I wrote my comment last night pretty quickly and really just wanted to get my thoughts down before I lost them.

When I say "the industry would dissolve" I was trying to say the side of the film industry that appeals to those who enjoy it as an art form and an avenue of expression. The reason I say this is that if film makers were allowed to make films that featured more explicit sex and less or equal parts violence, I believe that the majority of audiences would not approve and said films would make very little money. Unfortunately, in order for films to get funding, producers and investors have to be convinced that they'll at least make their money back or make a profit. If no one goes to see movies that have explicit content (regardless of the ratings) then its unlikely movies feature the same kind of content will get made.

While I wasn't trying to imply that the entire industry rides on the MPAA rating structure, I would like to propose that whether or not a film is seen or not by the general public does. Most people that go to movies are not critics or people that love cinema as an art form; they're people that want to be entertained. Some even bring their children and others are young adults themselves. The vast majority of this group won't want to PAY to see explicit content.

On the comment about people being exposed to violence more than they are exposed to sex, I was simply making an observation based on what I see around me every day. I was mainly focusing on public interactions, not those that take place in private or at home. I can certainly remember being exposed to more violence throughout grade school and high school than I was explicit sex.

On why I believe the status quo outweighs those who don't approve of the current rating system: outside of the film websites I visit and a few friends who are as interested in film as I am, I have never once heard someone mention how violent a PG-13 movies is compared to how much sex or vulgarity is in it.

In general, all my statements have been my personal thoughts and observations.

September 15, 2014 at 5:59PM

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Emerson Shaw
Student
664

Thanks for clarifying! :)

Your comments in regards to the industry dissolving are confusing, and are a bit of a straw man. The discussion isn't about whether or not one is allowed to film more explicit sex scenes - it's not about censorship. It's simply about how content is rated, and more specifically, how certain things are being rated against others. I get the feeling that you're suggesting that if violence is rated more strictly, and sex is rated less strictly than violence, then the film industry would dissolve because more people would start making films with more explicit content in them, which no one would pay to go see. Is that along the lines of what you're trying to say? First, this is a bit of an inane extrapolation. Why would anything but the volume of films with explicit content be affected? How would this "dissolve an industry"?

If, as you yourself suggest, content that is produced is content that is reflective of the current nature of the general movie-going culture, then that is the content that will be produced. Sure. That's what happens now. That's what will continue to happen. How we arbitrarily rate that content, though, is what we're talking about. So, again, a straw man.

Personal experience is invalid when used to form arguments and conclusions that would extend to a broader sample of the human population. If you're going to suggest that people, on average, are more exposed to violence and less to sex, and that they are also, on average, content with the current rating system, then appealing to something other than personal experience is always helpful to a conversation. Broad statements require broad backing, which you have not produced.

One more thing: if something should be changed but the majority of people don't think it should be changed, is that a valid reason to refrain from change?

September 16, 2014 at 1:54PM

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Steven Bailey
Writer/Director/Composer
1007

Again, these are simply my thoughts and opinions (which the question at the end of the article called for) not blatant facts or statistics. If that's not clear by now then I don't know what else to say. I'm not trying to pound these things into people's heads, just state my views and observations. If you don't agree with them or find fallacies with what I've written that's fine. I guess I'll just have to avoid writing anything that could be wrong. I thought this was just a casual comment section on a website, not a debate course.

September 17, 2014 at 8:31AM

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Emerson Shaw
Student
664

Haha, you're right. I guess that's the trouble with expressing opinion - sometimes there are people who disagree with you. :)

September 17, 2014 at 2:18PM

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Steven Bailey
Writer/Director/Composer
1007

I'm highly against censorship, however I do understand that, as far as a closeup on full penetration, or showing a white shower, it's pretty difficult to argue that it moves the story along. That's really why Brown Bunny was shocking, because the scene didn't add anything to the movie. But then, not many respectable, quality, actors or actresses would agree to such a thing anyway.

September 18, 2014 at 7:07PM, Edited September 18, 7:07PM

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That's an interesting comment. At a time when everyone stresses "if it doesn't serve the scene or the script" then cut it, the rule seems to not apply to explicit sex (or violence in some cases). Also interesting in that aspect is the idea that what isn't seen, but is instead implied, is more powerful than blatantly displaying something.
Just food for thought.

September 19, 2014 at 12:27AM, Edited September 19, 12:27AM

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Emerson Shaw
Student
664

My guess is that kids are more likely to try sex than violent behavior.

September 19, 2014 at 6:59PM

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Ryan Gudmunson
Recreational Filmmaker
167

Well maybe because the rating guys are underendowed?

November 1, 2016 at 7:58AM, Edited November 1, 8:04AM

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