Why Conservatives Are More Terrified of Sex Than Violence
Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos in Blue is the Warmest Colour.
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If you bothered to listen to the Parents Television Council, you would think that New York's tiny IFC Center was evil incarnate when the theatre decided not to enforce the NC-17 rating for the film Blue Is the Warmest Color. The Parents Television Council called the move "shocking" and fretted that this meant "minor children" would be allowed to view graphic sex scenes (because they'll no doubt be camping on the street to see a three-hour French drama). Though its "stern warning" was not widely reported, it may very well have contributed to the film's strong box office results thus far.
Everyone is entitled to their beliefs, but here's where the fury of the Parents Television Council breaks down: these conservatives are so obsessed with sex, but seemingly care far less about violence.
While the Council was wailing about the possibility of a teenager seeing a lesbian film, agunman opened fire at Los Angeles airport, resulting in one death and a number of injuries. That might have been a moment for the PTC, which ranks violence after sex in its list of evils it seeks to regulate on the airwaves, to deplore the shooting and, perhaps, note that there is some credence to the calls for stricter gun control laws (or, at least, less violence on screen and in video games). Real-world violence, however, tends to have little resonance with cultural scolds. It is certainly not worth mentioning when there is cinematic sex to condemn.
The fact that Blue Is the Warmest Color is even rated NC-17 in the first place makes it yet another entry in the discussion, most recently illuminated by Kirby Dick in his documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated, about the hypocrisy and arbitrariness of film ratings, particularly where sex is concerned.
Sex, female nudity, female enjoyment of sex, and especially female enjoyment of lesbian sex, tend to draw the strictest ratings. Violence, however, is given much more of a pass. Even gory violence will be rated R, whereas a women's sexual pleasure is NC-17.
What's so scary about sex and the female body? And why is it so much scarier than violence – including violence committed upon the female body?
Concerns regarding sex over violence are nothing new in western society. Sex was, of course, right up there with forbidden fruit. Perceived as instigated by a woman, it then cast women in later religious thought as particularly carnal, a danger that could invite the devil into society. In the Speculum Maius, an encyclopedia used during the Middle Ages, friar Vincent de Beauvais wrote of women's frivolity, with their "monstrous headdresses" and particularly of the "lascivious and carnal provocation" of their clothing. Women were the "devil's decoy", capable of preventing men from achieving holiness.
One of the most famous sexual women in the Middle Ages is Chaucer's Wife of Bath, who laments "Alas, alas, that ever love was sin". While she is considered an example of healthy sexuality, her tale begins with a violent rape and ends with the rapist escaping punishment to instead enjoy a sexually fulfilling marriage. We never hear what happens to the rape victim, who likely ends up cast out of society.
Violence was, in fact, justified when aimed at women if they were said to be disobedient. That is, if they asserted some form of independence. While the bulk of victims of the early modern witch burnings were likely women past child-bearing age and thus no longer considered sexual, they were also living alone, ungoverned by male dominance. The witch hunts hinted that women who lived outside the social order deserved violent treatment.
Women's sexuality has been the target of male study, suspicion, and regulation throughout millennia. Aristotelian philosophy classed women more as property, not individuals, and the idea of their having agency was anathema to a healthy society.
Violence, on the other hand, is a male purview. Men conducted war, carried weapons, meted out punishment. Duels were sanctioned as a means of effecting justice. It's a historical "boys will be boys" mentality, justified for its ends. Through violence, one can create empires. Sex just replaces those who were lost along the way.
Bad enough that women's lustfulness could lean men astray. Far worse when that lustfulness is shared with another woman.
The first TV show to depict a serious and erotic lesbian relationship, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, used the specter of witchcraft as a conduit of their romantic connection. The censors cracked down on their relationship – whereas Buffy featured frightening, intense violence, and a fair bit of heterosexual sex, the network was quick to tell creator Joss Whedon that it didn't want to see any kissing between the lesbians. Terrifying violence was solid entertainment, an expression of romantic love between two young women might damage the children.
If conservative American adults would stop focusing on sex for a moment, they might see that what is really damaging children in the US is an excess of gun violence. The obsession with depictions of cinematic sexuality is a smokescreen for a real discussion of how to protect the most innocent among us.