Friday, July 22, 2011

Sex and Violence: A Double Standard?

This last week I was listening to a commentator discuss a recent Supreme Court Ruling regarding the sale of video games containing violence to minors. In a nutshell, the Court ruled against the California law stating that video games are a form of free speech akin to movies or books and that there is a long tradition of violence being a part of our collective story telling. The decision intimated that if the question at hand had dealt with the sale of sexually oriented media to minors, then the approach might be different. The commentator took this as an opportunity to opine about what he considers to be a double standard for sex versus violence in our culture. A co-host chimed in to decry the sexual repression that he believes exists in America and to humorously suggest that we’re okay with killing people, but not with people having sex.

I found myself pondering their comments and tentatively disagreeing that there is necessarily a double standard. We live in a society that has many Judeo-Christian ideas underlying its culture and thought. While many, maybe even most within the culture have rejected these values, there is at least an echo of these principles still rebounding within the fabric of our country. I think we see these echoes of morality in how we respond to violence and sex in the media. From a biblical world view we could even go a step further and say that because each of us bears the imago dei, each of us has at least some residual innate sense of right and wrong, albeit suppressed and fallen. I think it’s possible that there is not so much a double standard in how we view sex and violence as there is a single standard that is highly dependent on context, even if subconsciously.

Let’s be up front about something, the Bible is full of sex and violence. If you don’t believe that, do what I’ve been doing and read through the Old Testament with your kids. There’s some hardcore stuff in there folks. About the time you get to Judges you find yourself tempted to begin editing the Good Book to more of a PG standard, or at least maybe PG-13. I’ve long said that if anyone ever made a faithful cinematic adaptation of Judges, or much of the rest of the Old Testament for that matter, that Christians would boycott it in droves. While I say this at least partially in jest, I sometimes wonder if I’m very far off. It’s quite clear that the Bible uses sex and violence in its story telling so we can’t very well make a blanket statement that all sex and violence in our story telling is wrong. It’s all about context and what is being conveyed  and taught by the story.

Let’s take violence. If a movie depicts war in such a way that we are able to more fully appreciate the devastation of armed conflict than the depiction of violence may serve a positive purpose. If we are convicted that war should only be employed as an absolute last resort and are inspired to work tirelessly to avoid war, then a good and correct principle has been taught. If a book depicts the ruination of the soul who commits violence, such as Crime and Punishment, then we have a cautionary morality tale. If media presents the use of force so that it is understood that sometimes it is the only remaining means by which evil in a fallen world may be restrained, then we are able to see an echo of the biblical principle set forth in Romans 13. So there are some legitimate uses for violence in our storytelling.

Here’s where I’m going to get really controversial and make a lot of people angry. I would argue that, when it comes to violence, our modern media doesn’t always get this wrong. Oh sure, there are tons of egregious examples of glorification of violence for violence sake and increasingly a blurred line between what is good and what is evil. Still, a surprising number of books, TV shows, movies, and even video games portray police officers and soldiers doing their duty in restraining evil, evil individuals reaping the just rewards of their violent acts, protagonists scarred by their exposure to violence, and good over coming evil. Perhaps the media gets this right a little more often than we give them credit for. After all, very few in the media would say they think that violence is a good thing, quite the contrary. Certainly there are many exceptions, but media types are more likely to portray violence in a negative light than to blatantly condone violence in any and all context. Even in the media, most content creators do attempt to draw some lines and hold on to a morale sense regarding violence. In fact, it’s quite popular in Hollywood to associate with various causes to stop war or eliminate various forms of violence, so it shouldn’t surprise us that quite a bit of the content produced reflects this aesthetic.

Now compare this to sex in the media. I am straining to think of any examples where the media gets this right, except perhaps for stories where cheating on one’s spouse has a negative impact as in Fatal Attraction. From a biblical viewpoint, all sexual relations outside of a covenant marriage between one man and one women are offensive to God. I think I can come very close to using an absolute word in saying that the mainstream media “never” communicates such a viewpoint. In fact, the media only rarely presents sex in a monogamous marital context at all. As Christians we can rightly reject nearly every message that the media sends on sex. Nearly every message is counter to a Christian world view and is offensive to God.

So are Christians exercising a double standard when they decry most sex in the media, but seem less concerned about at least some violent content? I would suggest that the answer is, “Not necessarily”. Rather I think that in many cases there is a somewhat more consistent standard at work which is evaluating content in context and making judgments about what is consistent with a biblical world view. Now I realize that I am being idealistic here and that many Christians are not as intentional in exercising discernment as they should be, myself included. However, I do believe the Holy Spirit is at work in every believer renewing their mind and causing them to be conformed to Christ. This process of sanctification will inevitably affect our media consumption and how we parse and contextualize the stories we are exposed to. If our culture still has a dim collective memory of biblical ideals and if each individual retains the imago dei, however tarnished, then it stands to reason that their perception of media content is somewhat affected at least subconsciously. So I submit to you that it’s not so much that Americans parse violence one way and sex another, but that the media is capable of sometimes portraying violence in a moral way, but is rarely if ever capable of doing the same for sex.

Just a few thoughts bouncing around my head today. I may be way off and may completely rethink this tomorrow, but would like to hear your thoughts.