Why is sex more shocking than violence?

In a desperate attempt to revise for French, I thought a good way to access the language and learn crucial conjugations might be to binge on Netflix’s French selection.

I was naturally unsurprised to find that the predominant genre of French film would be romantic, and often fairly erotic. I was not, however, expecting to see full-frontal pornographic sex on my innocent eduroam connection, such as I discovered in Blue is the Warmest Colour.

I had accidentally stumbled upon this issue in the past. At the time I was blissfully unaware that the title of the French film Baise-moi meant ‘fuck me’, and I carried on with the film regardless. I quickly became acquainted with the fact that some normal, full-length films – usually more French than others – contained these particularly unrestrained scenes of sex, and in this case, rape.

There has been a recent rise of explicitly erotic films becoming accessible on Netflix, such as those aforementioned, but most unreserved of all being Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, volumes one and especially two. In the case of most of these films, genital prosthetics are said to have been used – uncannily realistic ones at that – and body doubles in place for some of the more intimate close ups.

In the case of Baise-moi, what shocked me the most was that I actually wasn’t shocked by the film’s violent scenes of rape, but by the actual visual penetration in the scene. Although, in many ways, our society has become frighteningly immune to seeing pornography frequenting our newsfeeds and generally all over the internet, I can’t believe that nipples and penetrative sex raises my eyebrows higher and faster than a scene of very realistic rape and violence.

I’m not suggesting our televisions become riddled with images of sexual organs flying about all over the place, but it does strike me as odd that seeing a vagina from a certain angle or even just a female nipple is enough to surprise and catch people off-guard in many a normal household. And in this very same household, one child might be driving over a sex worker’s already beaten up carcass in GTA, and the other might be watching the hideous butchery of The Red Wedding in Game of Thrones.

Interestingly, if we look at the reception of E.L. James’ 50 Shades of Gray, the ground shook beneath the feet of people across the world after reading about whips and butt plugs…but somehow the axes and daggers of most horror or crime genres seem less shocking. Why is it more taboo to see a penis thrust into someone than a knife?

When English actor James Purefoy, from violent TV drama The Following, spoke about American film and television, he said “I’m sure we could show somebody having their nipple cut off but you couldn’t watch somebody kiss one…an odd thing to be able to say about a culture.” This pretty much sums up the current issues being raised around sex in the media, largely regarding the female body – which has been further illuminated by the recent ‘Free The Nipple’ campaign.

Sex is perceived with such a shocked reception because we’re told it’s meant to be private, we should regard it prudishly – and if we don’t, we’re vulgar. In horror films, however, the axe-murderer or chainsaw-wielder doesn’t usually take the victim off to a quiet, romantic setting and gently murder them in private. Murder and rape happens in plain sight and we’re becoming desensitized to it.

So it’s appropriate to ask ourselves why we are more shocked by sex than violence, when one should be enjoyable, and the other definitely should not.

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