Behavior

A soft focus on erotica, a hard line on violence

Mark Czarnecki November 3 1980
Behavior

A soft focus on erotica, a hard line on violence

Mark Czarnecki November 3 1980

A soft focus on erotica, a hard line on violence

Behavior

Mark Czarnecki

"Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” must be what Danish under-12s are thinking these days when they find out they’re forbidden by law to see Star Wars and its successor, The Empire Strikes Back. But no matter, they can always move on to the theatre next door and enjoy a thoroughly explicit nonviolent homosexual film. In setting age restrictions for juvenile viewing, Denmark gives carte blanche to loving sex but prohibits entry to films that might desensitize children to violence and suffering.

The wisdom of Denmark’s ways was recently confirmed in two separate psychological studies conducted by the University of Wisconsin’s Edward Donnerstein and by Neil Malamuth and James Check of the University of Manitoba. Both studies showed that, while nonviolent erotica had no significant effect on antisocial behavior, non-erotic depictions of violence increased aggressive behavior by both sexes against both sexes. They also demonstrated for the first time that films fusing sex and violence triggered even more aggressive attitudes and behavior toward women in normal male subjects than violence alone.

In the Manitoba study involving 271 students, one group was sent to see nonviolent erotic films (A Man and a Woman and Hooper) while another went to “aggressive-erotic” films (Swept Away and The Getaway) in

which violence against women was “justified” by an eventual relationship between the women and their assailants. A carefully worded 104-item questionnaire completed a week later showed that men in the second group were more willing to accept interpersonal violence against women, a finding paralleled by more aggressive behavior (also prompted by films) in Donnerstein’s male subjects.

The fact that such studies are being done at all is in itself significant. Ever since the U.S. President’s Commission on Obscenity and Pornography concluded in 1970 that there is “no evidence to date that exposure to explicit sexual materials plays a significant role in the causation of delinquent or criminal behavior among youth or adults,” researchers have tended to ignore the subject, even though the commission’s findings were disputed, especially by feminists. In explaining the apparent contradictions between the commission’s findings and their own, Donnerstein and Malamuth point out that erotica, both hard-core and soft-core, has become increasingly violent since the commission’s study, which examined relatively mild material.

The Manitoba study is particularly interesting because it was not conducted in a laboratory setting and tried to assess the effects of mass media stimuli over an extended period of time. If other studies confirm the applicability of these findings to daily life, there should be further implications for cen-

sorship. University of Toronto professor Lorenne Clark, coauthor of an influential book on the legal aspects of rape, asks: “What more do you have to show to get sadomasochistic and child pornography banned? If men learn to associate sex with violence they will act upon it.” In answer to men who argue that aggressive thoughts do not a rapist make, Malamuth has conducted another study in which men were asked whether they might commit rape if there was no chance of being caught—and an astonishing 40 per cent said yes. Concludes Malamuth: “In the general male population, a sizable minority shows the arousal/behavioral pattern of rapists.” However, interviews with convicted rapists rarely reveal a direct link between violent erotica and a particular act of rape. Says Dr. Barry Boyd, retired superintendent and medical director of

Ontario’s Penetanguishene Mental Health Centre: “There’s very little evidence that violent erotica has a direct effect on the behavior of sexual offenders. I’ve talked to dozens of them, and more often than not it seems to have kept them from committing a crime by providing a sexual outlet at the fantasy level.” Of far more relevance in determining the bases for rapists’ behavior is their exposure to sex in childhood and adolescence. In a book on the effects of pornography on sexual deviance, University of California psychologist Michael Goldstein reported that offenders had much less exposure to sex education or erotica during adolescence and when caught by their parents reading erotica were invariably punished whereas only 20 per cent of non-offenders caught were reprimanded. Interviews with offenders have shown that as adolescents they felt guilty about masturbation and normal sexual fantasies and were unable to

translate desires and fantasies into healthy sexual relationships in later life.

Some psychiatrists believe that suppressing erotica entirely is impossible and may even be harmful: adolescent exposure to sex education or erotica (for most people their only sex education) may “immunize” juveniles against the overwhelming emphasis on sexuality in modern Western culture. Encouraging evidence for this idea comes from Donnerstein’s study and several others demonstrating that exposure to mild erotica such as Playboy in fact reduces aggressive male tendencies toward women. If such erotica could be controlled so that its content did not degrade women, it might play a useful part in adolescent socialization: since North American society has traditionally made sexual relations difficult for youth, they would learn to mitigate the desires prompted by erotica and, if necessary, develop defence mechanisms such as sublimation, repression, postponement and self-control. Sex offenders who have had little exposure to erotica may not have had the chance to develop these capabilities.

Researchers agree that the most widespread and dangerous factor in criminal behavior is the violence permeating modern culture and impinging upon young minds in acceptable contexts (contact sports, $500 billion a year spent on armaments, the evening news). Dr. Robert McCaldon, a psychiatrist working at Kingston Penitentiary, states in the recently published book Why Men Rape, “In our whole culture, whether it’s in television or magazines or other media, violence both as a way to achieve some kind of domination and

as a means of problem-solving has been portrayed as laudable.” Violence against women in particular is built into Western civilization and to a large extent approved. Says Clark: “Men are misogynists because they see women as the hoarders of an attractive commodity which they desperately desire.” Citing his rape attitude survey, Malamuth comments, “Rape is really an extension of normal socialization.” Many rapists are surprised when convicted because they genuinely believe they have done no wrong—after all, the “art of seduction” assumes that the woman initially always says no but really means yes and that the man applies pressure until she yields. Only physical pressure is illegal, and Clark believes that in punishing rapists the law is in effect only penalizing those male seducers with a limited repertoire.

Despite the scientists’ findings, censorship in Canada is still far more concerned with defining unacceptable erotica than it is with violence. Recent controversy in Ontario over the deletion of scenes from films such as The Tin Drum, Coming Home and Doña Flor and Her Two Husbands centred on whether the film’s “redeeming” artistic value justified the inclusion of purportedly objectionable material (intercourse with women in a dominant position, for example, is frowned on). But, given their mandate, the censors are correct in largely ignoring the distinctions between “good” and “bad” erotic movies. The researchers themselves are equally unconcerned and, significantly, the aggressive-erotic films in the Manitoba study were the work of highly acclaimed directors Lina Wertmuller and Sam Peckinpah. Arousal is arousal and

violence is violence; if a rapist were actually spurred to commit a crime by viewing violent erotica, Swept Away would do as well as a super-8 stag flick.

But with all this evidence exonerating sex and condemning violence, why aren’t North Americans denying their children the Force too? Possibly because the Danish experiment hasn’t been around long enough—when the children now undergoing comprehensive sex education and violence deprivation mature in the ’80s, there will be more statistics and much more analysis. Research is needed in every aspect

of the problem, and the subject is so volatile that objective evaluation is at a premium. But most important is the fact that what a society allows its members, especially its children, to experience expresses that society’s values. Changes grow from within, not without. In Denmark, an MP recently suggested that the country’s defence ministry should consist solely of a recorded telephone message both in English and Russian saying “We surrender.” In Ontario and other Canadian jurisdictions, the man stays on top—you pays your money and you gets no choice,