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LANALLAH __Islamic BlogZine__
Saturday, October 09, 2004

Onscreen, In Life: The Psychological Effects of Viewing Sexual Violence

By Zeba Khan

In the United States, a woman is raped every two minutes. In Gujarat from Feb 28th to March 3rd, thousands of women were raped, some as young as 13, and were then tortured or burnt to death. In Bosnia, Serbian soldiers set up rape camps to serve the dual purpose of torturing Muslim women and satisfying their animal instincts at their own convenience. And yet, despite its pervasiveness, rape is not an acceptable part of life. It is shocking, appalling, infuriating. We, as Muslims, should be especially appalled by rape because religiously, the integrity and honor of women is of inestimable importance. Their abuse is simply not acceptable.

And yet, as Muslims, we find the following acceptable: on screen, the heroine cries, tears streaming down her face, her hands trembling and her words flowing quickly and franticly as she pleads with her would-be rapists and murderers to spare her. They laugh cruelly, strike her face and begin one of thousands of movie rape scenes that are welcomed into the homes and minds of movie and TV viewers every day. Why? Why do we Muslims condemn rape in all its forms, but take pleasure in watching it portrayed on screen? How can we justify this contradiction?


“It’s just acting,” some people say, “It’s not like the actress is being raped for real…” The use of force may be fake, but the nudity (forbidden to Muslim eyes) is authentic, and the effect of watching is undeniably real as well.

Watching scenes of sexual violence affects men the most. Male viewers tend to be more aggressive toward women, less responsive to pain and suffering of rape victims, and more willing to accept various myths about rape. This is a direct effect of seeing rape in the glamorous way it is portrayed on screen, attractively packaged and streamlined to be pleasurable to the viewer, and it’s our children that are those most affected by what they see onscreen. “…Their perceptions and attitudes and values about violence change."

Studies involving onscreen sex and violence from main-stream movies and television have shown that children, easily taught by the ‘examples’ shown onscreen, begin engaging in sexual activities at earlier and earlier ages. In the United States, where the average child watches several movies a week and 6-7 hours of television a day, instances of 12-year old girls giving birth to the children of 13 and 14 year old fathers is far from unheard of.

In countries all over the world, wherever there is a high incidence of sexual violence in the media, there is a high incidence of sexual violence in the community. This is because watching scenes of sexual violence, however brief, has a long list of psychological side-effects on the viewer.

“A study by Belson (1978) has substantiated other long-term effects and has helped pin down which types of programs have the most influence. Belson interviewed 1565 youths who were a representative sample of thirteen to seventeen-year-old boys living in London. These boys were interviewed on several occasions concerning the extent of their exposure to a selection of violent television programs broadcast during the period 1959-71. The level and type of violence in these programs were rated by members of the BBC viewing panel. It was thus possible to obtain, for each boy, a measure of both the magnitude and type of exposure to televised violence (e.g. realistic, fictional, etc.). Furthermore, each boy's level of violent behavior was determined by his own report of how often he had been involved in any of 53 categories of violence over the previous six months. The degree of seriousness of the acts reported by the boys ranged from only slightly violent aggravation such as taunting, to more serious and very violent behavior such as: 'I tried to force a girl to have sexual intercourse with me; I bashed a boy's head against a wall; I threatened to kill my father; I burned a boy on the chest with a cigarette while my mates held him down'…When Belson compared the behavior of boys who had higher exposure to televised violence to those who had lower exposure (and had been matched on a wide variety of possible contributing factors), he found that the high- violence viewers were more involved in serious violent behavior..”


Like a free sample given by manufacturers to lure customers into purchasing their products, scenes of sexual violence leave the viewer wanting more. Studies have shown that there is an inevitable progression of the desire for more and more sexually explicit material, which also leads the viewer down the path of sadomasochism and other deviant sexual acts.

Sexual violence on screen and in print is directly connected to actual incidents of sexual violence. Research has found that such exposure can lead to increased use of coercion or rape, increased fantasies about rape, and desensitization to sexual violence and trivialization, or downplay of the seriousness of rape. Being so well acquainted with rape, the viewer becomes desensitized to it and no longer finds it appalling or infuriating, but arousing.

It is interesting to note that as the lines between pornography and mainstream sexual violence become blurred, there are few indicators left to determine which separates the two categories. Many research cases used a mixture of both of what is considered ‘pornographic’ and ‘mainstream’ in their studies because they found the content and nature to be the same. Aside from instances of child pornography, one of the few distinguishing factors left between pornography and mainstream movies is plot or the lack thereof. In his introduction to a reprint of the Final Report of the Attorney General's Commission on Pornography, columnist Michael McManus noted that:

“The FBI interviewed two dozen sex murderers in prison who had killed multiple numbers of times. Some eighty-one percent said their biggest sexual interest was in reading pornography. They acted out sex fantasies on real people.”

The same applies to non-sexual violence in the media as well. Recent incidents in the US show that children, and even young adults who watch TV wrestling, tend to imitate what they see; this results in increased aggression, increased violence against women, and even deaths directly resulting from children imitating the wrestling moves they see on TV.

As Muslims, as parents of young children, as brothers who wish to protect our sisters and as sisters who wish to protect our honor, it is of utmost importance that we remove all scenes of sexual violence out of our viewing, regardless of whether they are in Bollywood films, Hollywood films, in any films, or on TV. Onscreen rape should be as shocking to us as rape in real life because the end results of both are the same: women get violated.

The task of removing this influence rests mostly on the shoulders of our Muslim fathers and brothers. Our fathers can take responsibility for the healthy mental development of their children, and our brothers can stand up and refuse to tolerate the rape of women in whatever form they find; authentic or staged, criminal or ‘artisitic’.

May Allah guide us and grant us all the strength to stand up for the dignity of woman and the sanctity of her honor. May Allah forgive us for the sins we have already committed against our own eyes and ears and hearts and save us from repeating them. Ameen.

[National Crime Victimization Survey. Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice, 1997.]
Edward Donnerstein, "Pornography and Violence Against Women," Annals of the New York Academy of Science, 347 (1980), 277-88.
Edward Donnerstein, "What the Experts Say," a forum at the Industry-wide Leadership Conference on Violence in Television Programming, 2 August 1993, in National Council for Families and Television Report, 9.
W. Marshall, "Pornography and Sex Offenders," in Dolf Zillman and Jennings Bryant, eds.,Pornography: Research Advances and Policy Considerations (New York: Academic Press, 1989).
Belson, W. (1978). Television Violence and the Adolescent Boy. Franborough: Teakfield.
Zillman, Bryant, Carveth, "The Effect of Erotica Featuring Sadomasochism and Beastiality of Motivated Inter-Male Aggression," Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 7 (1981): 153-59.
Edward Donnerstein, "Pornography: Its Effects on Violence Against Women," in Malamuth and Donnerstein, eds., Pornography and Sexual Aggression (New York: Academic Press, 1984).
Neil Malamuth, "Rape Fantasies as a Function of Repeated Exposure to Sexual Violence," Archives of Sexual Behavior, 10 (1981): 33-47.
Linz, Donnerstein, and Penrod, "The Effects of Multiple Exposures to Filmed Violence Against Women," Journal of Communication, 34 (1984): 130-47.
Final Report, ed. McManus, xvii.
Katy Abel, “Kids Get Slammed By Wrestling,” www.familyeducation.com

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