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Why Can Kids See Violence But Not Porn?

Under the amusing headline “Bush v. Gore,” Slate‘s Brian Palmer attempts to answer the question, “Is it worse for a child to see pornography or graphic violence?

It’s a perennial subject for debate, raised again after Monday’s Supreme Court ruling that government can’t ban sale of violent video games to children, citing the First Amendment’s guarantee of free expression, notwithstanding that no such protections are given to those seeking to market pornography to children.

Writing for the majority, Justice Scalia noted that, unlike sexual content, which can be regulated, violence has been part of children’s entertainment for centuries. History aside, do we know whether exposure to sex or violence is worse for children?

No, but the studies on violence are almost uniformly better constructed and controlled. Researchers have repeatedly shown (PDF) in blind experiments that children are more aggressive in the moments after playing violent video games, and long-term studies suggest that the effects may be lasting among habitual gamers. As for pornography, there is some research showing that increased consumption of sexually explicit material leads to earlier sexual experiences, higher teen pregnancy rates, and undesirable views about gender roles. But these studies are problematic. Most of them involve questionnaires—because university ethics committees won’t allow researchers to expose minors to sexual material (even though they’re OK with violence). And it’s not clear whether viewing pornography causes negative outcomes, or if children who view pornography have some underlying issue that both causes the negative outcome and leads them to seek out porn. (The long-term research on gaming has the same shortcoming, but at least it’s paired with short-term evidence that indicates causation.) There are also some surprises in the sex research. Despite the rarity of condoms in pornography, researchers have found no evidence that young porn consumers are less likely to use contraception or more likely to contract a sexually transmitted disease than their peers who have never seen a dirty movie.

The remainder of the essay delves into the particulars of the research designs and doesn’t get any closer to answering the question. The bottom line, though, is that American society simply places much stronger taboos on sexual content than violent content. Indeed, the fact that researchers have no compunctions about showing violent movies to kids or allowing them to playing video games where they pretend to kill and maim while at the same time they’re not only absolutely unwilling to show kids soft core porn and are extremely careful even about the questions they’ll ask on a bland survey demonstrates that rather clearly. For that matter, we allow kids to act in violent movies, even allowing them to commit acts of violence. But a 17-year-old sending a risque photo to his friends can be charged with a crime.

UPDATE: It occurs to me that both Palmer’s phrasing and my title take the discussion off track. It’s not really a question of hard core pornography versus graphic violence; we’re squeamish about even simple nudity and soft core sexuality–even a shot of naked breasts creates consternation in a way that all but the most gory violence does not.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Mr. Prosser says:

    Is it possible that one reason society wants to limit young adult exposure to porn is that any kid can participate in sex activity but very few, as a percentage of population, become violent, shotgun wielding psycopaths? Soft core stuff is seen all the time by my middle school students either on after hours cable at home or in some of the video games featuring the sexy warrior babes and they comment on it. Their only comment on the gore fest games is how high they scored.

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  2. hey norm says:

    C’mon this is obvious.
    The right of people to keep and bear violent video games is protected by the 2nd Amendment. The founding fathers were in fact gamers and understood the importance of virtual militia training.
    Porn on the other hand must be tightly regulated (preferably by an extremely small – almost non-existent goverment that preserves our liberties) because life begins the very instant someone even thinks about thinking about sex.

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  3. Ben Wolf says:

    It’s a result of cultural religious indoctrination. Christianity as practiced places far greater prohibition on sex than on violence. The bible itself is overflowing with violence, cruelty and genocide authorized and approved by god. Yet when sex is mentioned it is almost invariably to warn against it.

    In the civil sense this is most certainly not a Christian nation; in a cultural sense it is impossible to separate religion out.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 1

  4. DMan says:

    Is it possible that one reason society wants to limit young adult exposure to porn is that any kid can participate in sex activity but very few, as a percentage of population, become violent, shotgun wielding psycopaths?

    The same can be said of the adult population as well, sexual activity is more prevalent than violent activity. But it’s still worth asking questions about the effects of childhood exposure to violence, being that they are, on average, developmentally immature compared to most adults. Their immaturity is used as an excuse to protect them from sexually explicit materials, yet we brush that off in regards to violent material. Is this consistent? If early sexual exposure causes more problems than early exposure to violence, than yes. But this hasn’t been proven as of yet.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  5. Franklin says:

    Writing for the majority, Justice Scalia noted that, unlike sexual content, which can be regulated, violence has been part of children’s entertainment for centuries.

    Scalia the strict constructionalist said this? Where in the Constitution does it differentiate the two?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  6. Laurie says:

    Whichever people think is more detrimental to children sex or violence, if exposure to sexual content can be limited then exposure to violent content should be fair game for restrictions as well. Bottom line is that ultimately parents should make decisions regarding this. Laws restricting access give parents more control (and guidance.)

    As a mother of two teenage boys I object to violence more than sex but eventually gave in and allow them to play war games. Where I completely draw the line is violence mixed with sex.

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  7. DMan says:

    I’d also like to add that I think the constitutionality of age restriction laws seems to be, like most things, completely arbitrary.

    Are age restrictions on purchasing guns constitutional?

    Should we be taking steps towards making all age restriction laws unconstitutional? Or should we just leave age restriction laws in the hands of democratically elected legislators?

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  8. michael reynolds says:

    It’s not about the kids, it almost never is, it’s about the parents.

    I once had my daughter ask me — in the crowded dairy aisle — what an orgasm was. I’m the least prudish person I know, and not easily thrown, but there were several very long seconds of elapsed time before I pulled the time-honored punt: ask mommy. And ask her at home.

    It’s easy to explain people killing each other, not easy to explain blowjobs etc… James is right, it’s just a social taboo, an odd feature of our society. Like any society, we have our weirdness.

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  9. PD Shaw says:

    Easy questions. Violence is part of the world that children are immediately thrust into. They learn to keep themselves safe from violence through fairytales and storytelling. Many stories have implicit morals that are intended to control their own violence. Why can’t I hit my younger brother? The word “compassion” comes from the latin for sharing suffering. It suggests that in order to exhibit higher external morality, one must somehow know about pain and suffering. I’m not a pacifist, and they might disagree, but stories about the West, war and swords convey information about the proper and improper use of violence, in all but the most nihilistic of them.

    Children don’t need to know about sex until much later, and what they need to know is typically not provided by porn. Pornography is intended to elicit sexual excitement; it may not at all inform one about what sex is really like. It may in fact do the opposite.

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  10. Franklin says:

    @PD Shaw: Heh, but my brother-in-law used to call them “training films”!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  11. DMan says:

    Easy questions.@PD Shaw:

    Not sure what questions you are referring to, but aren’t you playing a little obtuse in regards to the violence question? The violent images you bring up aren’t exactly being debated, it’s not like there’s a demand to prevent children’s exposure to Mario Bros jumping on Koopas due to it’s violent imagery. Trying to compare fairy tale violence to porn is like trying to compare Quentin Tarantino movies to a woman wearing a long skirt.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  12. mattb says:

    Actually, you should add *foul* language to the list of things that make us more uncomfortable than violence. The “unwritten/written” rule is that a 1 to 4 f-bomb’s — provided they are explicative and not contextually sexual — is enough to guarantee a film receives a Pg-13 rating.

    I wonder if the concerns have more to do with imagined possibilities for behavior — i.e. that it’s theoretically far easier for a child to start having sex than to go on a shooting spree.

    Additionally, the thing about violence is that you need to diferentiate between sanctions on “righteous” violence and “evil” violence (the later being far more controlled). For years (into the early 60’s for the US and beyond in other countries), it was an MPAA requirement that criminals always had to be punished for violent actions. In the same way, the real worries came to a head with Grand Theft Auto — one of the great examples of “criminal violence.”

    Again, I suspect that violence in games would be far more regulated by the industry if games had emerged at the same time as movies. The MPAA system was a response to fears of regulation, and its become enough of a “tradition” that it’s near impossible for an unrated film (and you have to pay to be rated) to ever make it into wide theatrical distribution. And while the rules have laxed, they still are far more restrictive than videogames.

    Granted the Industry did develop the ESRB, but right off the bat, the baseline was set at a far higher level of violence at a lower age level than anything comparable in motion pictures.

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  13. Dave Schuler says:

    I once had my daughter ask me — in the crowded dairy aisle — what an orgasm was.

    My parents realized, somewhat to their surprise, that I could read when, after emerging from a puiblic restroom, I asked my father “Daddy, what’s a prophylactic?” Quick-witted, he responded “Something to keep you clean, son.”

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  14. michael reynolds says:

    I find the weirdness associated with swearing particularly asinine because it is just philosophically dumb. It’s not the word, it’s the intention behind the word. You can hurt someone with the word “ugly” or “fat,” and you can show affection for someone with the word “asshole.”

    For almost all of human history children were regularly exposed to sex. They lived in tribes, in camps, in villages where a peasant hut would contain the animals as well as the parents and all in a small room or two. So the concern about kids being exposed to sex is recent.

    In practice in my home I do nothing to stop my 14 year old son from seeing whatever he wants online, but do put controls on my 11 year old daughter. Because I’m a huge sexist hypocrite, that’s why.

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  15. Davebo says:

    In practice in my home I do nothing to stop my 14 year old son from seeing whatever he wants online, but do put controls on my 11 year old daughter. Because I’m a huge sexist hypocrite, that’s why.

    Awesome!

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  16. PD Shaw says:

    DMan, I was giving my answer to the question at the top of the post why the difference btw/ treatment of violence and porn. Your right that there is a wide range of violence from Punch & Judy to TorturePorn, but pornography is a smaller, defined class.

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  17. Jason says:

    That IS a funny headline.

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  18. Peter says:

    Tragically, unless you go to various niche sites you aren’t going to see much “bush” in porn anymore.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  19. mattb says:

    @MR – I think you nailed it (no pun intended). We can easily separate good violence from bad violence — clearly marking morality lessons in the process.

    Good sex vs. Bad sex — I mean as categories of behavior versus the actual practice — is entirely different. The easiest answer always drives us back to procreation. Otherwise if “good sex” can be had for other reasons, then why prohibit it just to marriage?

    And of course there is still the issue of “bad touch.”

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  20. DMan says:

    @mattb:

    I think you’re half-right. I think intuitively we make decisions about what’s good violence and what’s bad violence based on who we view as good guys and who we view as bad guys. The bright line between good and bad guys is much easier to establish in fairy tales of course, but in reality the lines become more blurred and confused (after all, humans are very egocentric and always view themselves and their associates as the good guys).

    I would agree with you on the difficulty of differentiating between ‘Good sex vs. Bad sex’. Beyond strict procreationists (different from pro-creationists, though perhaps considerable overlap), most people might substantially differ on what’s considered good and bad.

    I don’t have any insights that bring this back to the topic of the developmental influence of these materials, but I’d prefer a society that gave a little more control to parents in determining where to draw the line for their children. Which is why I have no problem with the sale of overtly violent and overtly sexual material to children being controlled. If the parents want to purchase these materials for their children that’s completely within their rights in my mind. But I see no harm in some minor nanny-stating designed to help parents control what their kids are purchasing and consuming. In my mind this gives parents greater freedom to instill values in their children and explain blurry topics to them while not spending large percentages of their time stalking their children’s activities.

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