Tough to Watch - Sexual Violence | British Board of Film Classification
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Tough to Watch - Sexual Violence

How the BBFC deals with sexual violence on screen.

Date 20/08/2007

Sexual violence is usually taken to mean rape, sexual assault or violence depicted with sexually stimulating imagery. The BBFC defines sexual violence thus:

'Sexual violence' is the conflation of sexual images together with violent images in such a way as to create a connection between the two.

The BBFC recognises that sexual violence is a legitimate subject for film makers to explore. We balance the right of film makers to express and discuss difficult ideas against the possible harm that may be caused by irresponsible depictions. (The BBFC is required by the Video Recordings Act (1984) to consider any harm that 'may' be caused to viewers, or to society through their subsequent behaviour, specifically in terms of the manner in which the work deals with violent behaviour ... or human sexual activity.) In this case, the portrayals and approach considered irresponsible or possibly harmful are set out in the BBFC Guidelines:

The BBFC has a strict policy on rape and sexual violence. With portrayals of sexual violence which might eg eroticise or endorse sexual assault the Board may require cuts at any classification level. This is more likely with DVD or video than film because DVD and video scenes can be replayed repeatedly. Any association of sex with non-consensual restraint, pain or humiliation may be cut.
(BBFC Guidelines - Main Issues)

The majority of sexual violence and media effects research was carried out in the US in the 1980s. Research in these areas is considered controversial, partly because proving direct causal links between the viewing of any media item and subsequent specific undesirable actions is almost impossible.

Specific research was carried out on rape prevalence, attitudes associated with rape and attitude changes in response to various media (moving image, stills, text stories and news reportage). Some of these more carefully designed studies do show small but statistically significant attitude shifts (or other indicators of emotional/mental change) in response to viewing sexually violent media. Comprehensive reviews of the relevant research literature prove there is sufficiently strong evidence to support the position that the BBFC takes.

That position is also broadly supported by public opinion. A commissioned study in 2002 by Dr Guy Cumberbatch (Where Do You Draw The Line?) showed that while audiences feel adults ‘have a right to watch’ graphic violence (74% of those polled) and graphic sex (67% of those polled) only 38% think that same, ‘right to view’ extends to depictions of graphic sexual violence.

Sexual Violence and media research suggests a number of different types of harmful effect from certain depictions of sexual violence including: the stimulation of aggressive sexual thoughts and fantasies; the cultivation of anti-female attitudes; and effects on subsequent behaviour.

The BBFC uses the range of categories to ensure sexual violence, when it occurs, is shown in a manner appropriate for different ages. At U and PG, there is no direct mention of ‘sexual violence’. At U treatment of problematic themes must be sensitive and appropriate for a younger audience and for PG Where more serious issues are featured……. nothing in their treatment should condone the behaviour define the position. At 12/12A - Sexual violence may only be implied or briefly and discreetly indicated; at 15 - Scenes of sexual violence must be discreet or brief, and at 18 – recognising the view that ‘adults wish to be free to choose their own viewing within the law’, the BBFC balances this with the Board may also intervene with portrayals of sexual violence which might eroticise or endorse sexual assault.

In other words, a scene of rape or assault in which the attack is portrayed as, or appears to be pleasurable, desired or desirable and in some cases inconsequential is likely to be cut. A scene of violence or sexual violence in which sex or sexualized nudity is used in an arousing or titillating way may also be cut.

When considering whether to cut, examiners will assess the entire work, weighing the portrayal with the context and treatment afforded by the film (or DVD) as a whole. Examiners also assess whether the film or portrayal is credible and if there are other factors which lessen or worsen the impact, or make the scene more or less likely to have a harmful effect on viewers.

At R18 – the category set aside for explicit depiction of sexual activity for sexual arousal ie ‘hardcore pornography’ – there are more specific restrictions on the conflation of sex and violence: in the areas of infliction of pain and harm (whether real or simulated), lack of consent, humiliation and abuse, or encouraging an interest in abusive activities. This does not mean that BDSM sex works are automatically banned.

The BBFC occasionally consults or carries out research involving experts in psychology, psychiatry, law and pornography into the probable harmful effects of more extreme genres or problematic works. These consultations have contributed to the final decisions on the classification of a number of films, including A Ma Soeur!, Baise-Moi and Straw Dogs, as well as the formation of policy.

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