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Virtually Attack Women, But No Nudity

A gamer creates an avatar resembling himself and plots to kill a three-dimensional, lifelike woman. The avatar grasps an axe and raises it to strike. He hears the thud as the axe slices her head. He hears her cry out in pain. He sees her split skull and feels the sensation of blood on his hands and face.

I’ve just paraphrased one part of Supreme Court Justice, Samuel Alito’s opinion on whether video games of this sort should be protected as free speech in sales to minors. Yes, he uncomfortably concludes.

In dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer wonders why Playboy is off-limits to thirteen-year-olds, yet interactive games that allow those same boys to actively, if virtually, bind, torture and kill a woman are perfectly fine – so long as she’s not topless.

Justice Antonin Scalia counters that violent scenes have long been part of the American tradition.

True enough. One Super Bowl Sunday America went ballistic over Janet Jackson’s exposed nipple. Justin Timberlake’s choreographed battering beforehand went unremarked. No nudity on the national networks, but Law & Order: Special Victims Unit weekly dwells on the rape, battering and torture of sex victims.

Developmental psychologist James Prescott looks to America’s preference for sexual violence over sexual pleasure with wonder. “Apparently, sex with pleasure is immoral and unacceptable, but sex with violence and pain is moral and acceptable,” he reflects.

But why?

New York Times columnist, Timothy Egan sees prudery at base. “Ultimately, the back-and-forth by the high court reinforced the notion of a nation that will always be a little skittish about sex, while viewing violence as American as apple pie,” he writes.

Naomi Wolfe’s The Beauty Myth adds insight. In the 1960s pornography portrayed beautiful women playfully and joyfully enjoying sex. By the 70s this sort of imagery suggestively seeped into popular culture.

As Wolf described it, mainstream beauty pornography looked like this:

The woman lies prone, pressing down her pelvis. Her back arches, her mouth is open, her eyes shut, her nipples erect. The state of arousal, the plateau phase just preceding orgasm… for Triton showers, a naked woman, back arched, flings her arms upward… for Opium perfume, a naked woman, back and buttocks bare, falls face down from the edge of the bed… The reader understands that she will have to look like that if she wants to feel like that.

But later, something shifted as beauty pornography was replaced by a glorification of violence against women. Again Wolf highlights the imagery in advertisements, which sound very much like those we see today:

In an ad for Obsession perfume a well-muscled man drapes the naked, lifeless body of a woman over his shoulder… In an ad for Hermès perfume, a blonde woman trussed in black leather is hanging upside down, screaming, her wrists looped in chains, mouth bound.

By the 80s violent sexual imagery centering on abused females had surged. Film titles like Dressed to Kill, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! and 9½ Weeks filled movie theaters while female corpses, in sexy bras and panties, piled up in thrillers. By ‘89 The New York Times was discussing sadomasochism in kids’ comics.

Why the shift? Wolf maintains that sexual imagery follows politics. As women gained power as a result of the feminist movement, male anger and female guilt about taking power created a backlash. Something “needed” to be done, like socialize and eroticize male dominance.

On the one hand, depictions of women’s freely given and enjoyed sexuality was restrained. On the other, men were reassured that women weren’t so powerful. And everyone got the message that women were most attractive when they were dominated and powerless.

Wolf points out that court rulings have enforced these values from the top-down. Women taking pleasure in sex has been named obscene, while sexualized violence against them has not – so long as they are clothed.

Wolf makes an interesting argument.

Oddly, even as more and more women and men today have taken on values that support women’s equality, this way of seeing has become such a taken-for-granted part of American life that it has come to seem natural and normal to most of us, including many feminists.

Something to think about.

Related Posts on BroadBlogs
Anything Good About Being A Sex Object?
Men Have Higher Sex Drive. Why?
Is Sexism Men’s Fault?

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