In order to help protect the physical and mental health of teens, Netflix recently announced that it would stop including depictions of smoking in any upcoming Netflix original productions aimed at teens, and also remove the graphic suicide scene in season one of its hit teen drama, “13 Reasons Why.”
The big change of disallowing smoking depictions happened after a report by the anti-smoking group, Truth Initiative. They concluded that “exposure [to smoking in TV programs] is a significant public health concern, because viewing tobacco use in on-screen entertainment media is a critical factor associated with young people starting to smoke.”
It’s awesome to see that Netflix is acting on the advice of medical experts to the benefit of young people, right? But just like research shows that showing fictional depictions of smoking and suicide to kids can be harmful, research is also showing that rape scenes can do harm.
If watching people smoke in shows normalizes smoking and makes it seem acceptable, doesn’t it follow that watching scenes of sexual violence also have somewhat of a normalizing and distressing desensitizing effect?
And if fictional depictions of rape can be harmful, how much more harmful is it—for kids, especially—to see the much more real rape and sexual violence scenes on porn sites?
Images are powerful teachers
According to Jill Murphy, editor in chief at Common Sense Media, a nonprofit group that rates and reviews media consumed by children and teenagers, “Imagery is really strong.” Essentially, what Murphy is saying is that watching a rape scene in a movie is significantly more harmful than simply understanding the concept of rape.
A professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who researches the effects of viewing violent media on children and adolescents, Karyn Riddle, expressed similar concerns to Murphy when she explained, “Watching sexual violence could be traumatizing…and that fear could stay with you for many years.”
Both Murphy and Riddle have the data on their side, too: one particularly troubling study found that over a quarter of college students continued to experience persistent anxiety of a distressing scene in a television show or movie they had watched, on average, at age 14.
When considering the huge selection of popular programs aired on subscription channels that portray graphic sexual violence, it’s easy to imagine the number of college students experiencing psychological distress ballooning. And when considering the average age of first exposure to today’s hardcore porn is between 9 and 12 years old, imagine the toxic messages adolescents are learning, compounded with movies and tv shows.
But the potential harm caused by depictions of sexual violence does not stop at personal distress alone.
Let’s get the facts.
Sexually violent imagery and desensitization
Think of the first time you ever rode a roller coaster. What was that like?
We’d guess the numerous drops, loops, and speed changes led you to experience a sort of adrenaline-infused elation. But now, imagine riding that roller coaster a second time. A third time. A one-hundredth time. What was the experience like as you rode the roller coaster each successive time?
We’d now guess that your elation would fade and the roller coaster might begin to feel normal. To achieve the same feeling you felt the first time riding, you’d probably need higher drops, more loops, and more frequent and faster speed changes. Needing “more” and “better” of the roller coaster experience because of the number of times you’ve had that experience exemplifies the principle of desensitization.
And guess what? The same can be said for viewing sexually violent imagery.
When someone seeks out and consumes this kind of content, the consumer’s brain begins to tolerate the images they’re watching, which leads them to require greater amounts of and more extreme imagery to feel the same way they felt the first time they viewed it.
It is for this reason that the research not only points to the risk of personal distress as a result of viewing dramatized rape scenes, but it also points to such scenes’ ability to fundamentally change the way one thinks about sexual violence in the real world.
Data on undergraduate men exhibited that repeated exposure to sexually violent movies led to dampened distress while watching them, reduced concern for victims of sexual assault, and an increased acceptance of degrading depictions of women.
Sexually violent imagery and arousal
In some cases, though, repeated exposure (“riding the roller coaster 100 times”) isn’t even necessary to see change in one’s attitudes and inclinations toward sexual violence. Even a single exposure to one fictional rape scene has been found to have that power.
Take for example two different experiments where college students who watched movies that included a rape scene were compared to their peers who watched movies with either violent or sexual content, but not sexually violent content. Both studies found that young men who viewed rape scenes were more attracted to sexual aggression and more accepting of violence against women.
Of course, correlation is not causation—yet, even still, these experiments confront us with some ugly realities that need to be addressed and explored.
Because while some are numbed to images of sexual violence, others may become aroused when viewing them.
Surprised? You don’t have to take it from us. take it from U.C.L.A. professor Neil Malamuth, an expert in psychology and communication studies who has been studying the effects of mass media violence for a long time.
“…Exposure to sexual violence—even if it is intended to help people see the horror of it—will be sexually arousing to a small but significant percentage of young male viewers,” Malamuth explains, “And we do know that such sexual arousal to violence is one of the contributing predictors of actual aggression against women.”
Why this matters
We’re glad to see Netflix is taking action because of what studies show about fictional smoking depictions. But how much research will be enough before our society understands that readily accessible porn, often with sexually violent themes, is also doing untold harm to consumers?
Think about it: if a single scripted and dramatized scene in a movie can do the damage described above, how much more so could that be true for content that normalizes real violent sexuality—when the rape scene isn’t a highly-produced synthetic production, but actual real sexual violence captured in video form?
Sadly, a quick porn search will bring up thousands upon thousands of rape scenes, not all of which are actually scripted, and there’s no way to tell the difference between what’s fake and what’s all too real. And—you guessed it—the research on the effect of violent porn to the consumer is no different than what a single Netflix scene can do to a person.
Study after study and expert after expert make this truth clear: violent sexual imagery is harmful to viewers everywhere, whether you’re consuming a Netflix show or scrolling through a porn site.
The possibility of personal distress and changes in attitudes and inclinations toward sexual violence just aren’t worth it. Join us in refusing to click porn and saying “no” to normalizing sexual violence.