Media's New Mood: Sexual Violence


This article originally appeared in Issue# 33

Interview with UCLA media researcher Neil Malamuth

Researchers are studying the fusion of aggression and eroticism in film and video. They're asking whether it's creating a climate in which sexual violence is more acceptable in real life.

For centuries, society has been concerned about the depiction of sex and sexuality in its popular media. Pornography has been banned and booed and society's standards of what is and is not acceptable have continually evolved.

In more recent years there has been an added concern about the growing problem of media violence, especially after television's home screen began to show scenes of murder and mayhem that few families would ever witness in real life.

Now parents, teachers and concerned individuals are noting a new trend – sexual violence. Increasingly a theme in music and music video, horror movies, especially "slasher" films, advertising and commercials, the use of physical force and violent imagery in a sexual context is disturbing to many. To find out more about this trend, Media&Values interviewed Neil Malamuth, associate professor and chairman of the Department of Communication Studies, University of California, Los Angeles. He co-edited (with Edward Donnerstein of the University of Wisconsin) the book, Pornography and Sexual Aggression.

Q: Dr. Malamuth, I understand you've been studying the impact of films and tapes of sexually oriented material and sexual violence on university students. Can you describe the nature of what you've been working with?

A: We've run a number of studies involving various kinds of media ranging from pornography to general media that can be found on television. Some of the material contained content that was just sexually explicit, other depictions involved a linkage of sexual content with violence. In some cases, portrayals involved what I call "the rape myth"– the idea that women enjoy sexual violence and that it leads to positive consequences, that is, that the woman victim is "turned on." The popular film Swept Away, which we studied, is a good example. It depicts a woman who falls in love with a man who rapes her.

Q: What did you find out?

A: For one thing, there were differences between the effects on men and women of this material. Men who watched two movies portraying positive consequences of violence against women seemed to develop an increased acceptance of interpersonal violence. Women who saw the same material tended to become less accepting, but for them the differences were not statistically significant.

Q: What else have you learned about the effects of sexually violent material on men? Do they find it sexually arousing?

A: In a another study we developed eight audio tapes that presented scenarios that involved sexual content but varied in important respects: in the degree of the woman's consent, in whether she expressed pain and suffering, and in whether the outcome of the contact was positive or negative. In general we found that if the rape depiction emphasized the victim's abhorrence our listeners were less sexually aroused than they were by either the mutually consenting depiction or by a portrayal in which the victim becomes aroused.

Q: Are some men more likely to be influenced by this kind of material than others?

A: Yes, I think so; in fact, this is an important distinction that we made. Prior to participating, we questioned our subjects about a number of their sexual attitudes, including their self-perceived likelihood of raping.

Q: How was this measured?

A: Participants were asked to rate themselves on a scale ranging from "not at all likely" to "very likely" as to whether they would commit rape it they could be assured that they would not be caught and punished. We found that the "high likelihood of raping" men– men who were more aggressively inclined to begin with– were most likely to be influenced by media stimuli. And they were also more likely to be accepting of violence in the real world.

What's important to remember is that our research supports the notion of a continuum. We tend to think of a "rapist" as being quite different from a "normal" individual, but that's not necessarily so. We're actually talking about aggressive tendencies that may exist to greater or lesser degree in many so-called "normal" men. That's why the kinds of attitudes that are created are so important.

Q: With this in mind, what kind of effect would you expect sexually violent material to have on the general population?

A: Sexually violent material can contribute to a social climate in which violence against women is more accepted and thus may be more likely to occur. The consumer of this material may never commit an aggressive act. But sexually violent material may affect other aspects of some individuals' relationships with women.

Q: What kind of material makes those connections?

A: Those media that fuse sexually explicit content with violent content. Such magazines as Penthouse and Hustler provide some good examples of this. So do "slasher" films, many of which are only R-rated. In fact, a lot of this material is quite readily available today.

"If you take a young man, and constantly and repeatedly expose him to material that portrays women responding positively to rape, should you be surprised if he begins to believe that women want to be forced in sexual relationships?"
– Edward Donnerstein

Q: Why do you think this material has become popular?

A: Well, as we've seen, it does have quite a bit of appeal for some members of the audience. You certainly find more violent sexually explicit material than you did 15 or 20 years ago. It may be that society has been breaking into previously taboo areas. Or it may be a partial reaction to the women's movement in which men who are threatened by societal changes express their anger.

Q: What's the lesson?

A: Our research does show that sexually violent material can affect the attitudes of sensitive individuals. And we're not talking about a small group. The percentage of men who showed some tendency to aggress against women were 25-30% of the group we studied to begin with. And attitude changes that contribute to acceptance of violence against women may increase the likelihood that individuals nay commit aggressive acts.

Media messages can also affect the social climate that could influence behavior. That doesn't mean these individuals are ever going to commit a rape. It's clear that rapists have sexually violent fantasies, but not everyone who has sexually violent fantasies is a rapist. But I think we do have to ask about the effects of repeated exposure to sexually violent material over a long period. For some people the distinction between fantasy and reality may not always be very clear.

Media portrayals can promote the view that women desire violence; they can transform sensitive individuals' view of rape to make it seem more acceptable and not such an abhorrent act. They may never commit an actual rape. But exposure to this kind of material can contribute to changes in their belief structure– and these can be changes for the worse.

Q: With this in mind, what effect do you think this kind of material has on young people?

A: I think the research is incomplete, but they may be the group that's most open to being affected because their sexual patterns aren't yet set. It's certainly a very poor learning experience for them.

Q: Do children have a great deal of access to this material?

A: They didn't in the past. But material that combines aggression with sexual content has become more popular, particularly since 1970. Supposedly, children still can't get into theatres showing R- and X-rated films. But more and more of it is coming into their homes– or is easily accessible, especially to unsupervised kids. For example, videocassettes of some of the goriest movies, and remember these are rated R, not X, are available for $1 or $2 rental at almost any videocassette store.

"See bloodthirsty butchers, killer drillers, crazed cannibals, zonked zombies, mutilating maniacs, hemoglobin horrors, plasmatic perverts and sadistic slayers slash, strangle, mangle and mutilate bare-breasted beauties in bondage."
–From an advertisement for The Best of Film Gore, a videocassette anthology.

Q: Can you tell us more about this kind of programming?

A: Well, my colleagues, Dr. Donnerstein and Dr. Linz, have studied reactions to the very violent mainly R-rated films like I Spit on Your Grave, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Toolbox Murders. A typical scene might show a beautiful woman taking a bubble bath in a luxurious setting. Suddenly she's interrupted by a psychotic killer with some brutal type of weapon who terrorizes her and, ultimately, kills her. They found that, initially, viewers are bothered and depressed by this content. But as they watch more and more of it they not only become desensitized, they begin to find the material enjoyable.

Q: In view of the increasing popularity of these films, what is the best way to deal with them?

A: We might hope that people would become aware of their possible effects and stop watching them. But we might also take a clue from the researchers' experience with subject populations. It's been shown that the kind of debriefing process we use– talking to viewers about these portrayals and discussing the myths behind the material, teaching them how to view violence, can reverse the desensitization and, in fact, help these young men come to a much healthier attitude about themselves, about women and about their sexual relationships.

Q: Do you think this would work in the context of the home or church or school? For example, if parents had these kinds of discussions with their kids or churches and schools had teen programs on this subject, would it help?

A: Based on what I've observed, it would probably go a long way toward helping young people deal with this material.