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Sex and Violence: an Unbalanced Indictment : Values: Why do we exalt on-screen torture and reject the depiction of sexual pleasure?

June 04, 1995|DOUGLAS ABRAMS ARAVA | Douglas Abrams Arava is the religion editor at the University of California Press and the author of a book on male sexuality to be published by Harper San Francisco in 1996

It is very difficult to say anything critical about "sex and violence" without sounding like a Republican candidate (most recently, Bob Dole) attempting to court the religious right. People across the political spectrum from Dole to card-carrying liberals like myself have a tendency to lump the portrayal of "sex" and of "violence" together. But the two are not synonymous signs of "depravity" (as Dole suggests) and our tendency to conflate the two terms is a sign of our society's own depraved relationship to the human body.

Take Mel Gibson's new film, "Braveheart," which he directed and starred in. While it was not on Dole's lists of movies that are "friendly to family values" or "nightmares of depravity," this film is a telling reflection of our society's views toward sex and violence. In the battle scenes that make up much of this three-hour movie, heads, hands and all other body parts are severed and mutilated on screen, in close-up.

Such scenes of unrestrained and gratuitous violence are all the more disturbing when juxtaposed, as they are in the film, with scenes of extremely restrained and (what Dole would probably call) "tasteful" sexuality. The film cuts away so quickly from the "sex scenes" that the viewer is left only to imagine what Gibson must be like as a lover. We do, however, get abundant confirmation of his prowess as a bloodthirsty fighter.

I am not advocating the portrayal of graphic sex scenes--Hollywood generally doesn't do a very good job of presenting realistic ones--but why, I wonder, is graphic sexuality "indecent," while graphic violence is not? For all of Dole's and other moral conservatives' ranting about "loveless sex," there are seldom more than a few seconds of panting and moaning in even the most explicit un-X-rated movies. Why is our tolerance for watching the human body in pain (violence) so much higher than our tolerance for watching the human body in pleasure (sex)?

One answer may come from "Braveheart," in a scene in which Gibson is being tortured. He is tied down to a cross-shaped torture table where he endures unspeakable pain. (Thankfully, we are spared most of the details.) The symbolism of the cross and the Christ-like hero is pretty obvious, but it may suggest something deeper about our culture's tolerance for pain.

The Crucifixion, which this scene is clearly meant to evoke, is one of the central events and artistic symbols of pain and suffering in Western culture. Much mortification of the flesh has taken place in emulating and valorizing this suffering. It would not be surprising if this was partly the cause for the ennobling of pain in what is, even with our separation of church and state, still in many ways a Christian nation.

I do not mean to suggest that America's blood lust is exclusively the fault of the church, although our ambivalence toward sexuality certainly finds its roots there. Britain is as much a part of Christendom, and there, the media are far less tolerant of violence and far more tolerant of sexuality. The joy and abandon with which the Brits recently celebrated V-E Day may suggest how vivid mass suffering is in their national memory, and it may be our own distance from recent battlefields that allows us to romanticize them in movies like "Braveheart."

Whatever the reason for our high pain threshold, we must demand more restraint in depictions of violence, for there is some truth in conservative claims that the media do inculcate values in our society. However, unlike Dole's broadside against Hollywood's depiction of "sex and violence," our critique should recognize that sex and violence are not the same. We can tell Hollywood and the networks that our crime-ridden, violence-prone society is tired of seeing cruelty glorified on screen without also indicting sexuality. Violence has never been "friendly to families" or anyone else, but sex is, after all, the way we get "family values."

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