We can also remind teenagers that they might want to avoid shows that depict sexual assault, just as many of them choose not to watch horror movies. “There are things you can’t unsee, so think about whether you want to put yourself in that position.” Further, we can add, “If you’ve already seen something that is bothering you, it may help to talk about it.”
Beyond this risk of hard-to-shake personal distress is another concern that is at least as troubling. Fictional rape scenes may help shape how viewers think about actual sexual violence in the real world. Even a single exposure to dramatized sexual assault — such as what many young people now see — has been found to influence attitudes and inclinations. In two different experiments, college students who watched a movie that included a rape scene were compared to peers who watched movies with content that was either violent or sexual, but not sexually violent.
The studies found that the young men, but not young women, who viewed rape scenes in commercial films (including the same-sex attack in “Deliverance”) were subsequently more at ease with violence against women and more attracted to sexual aggression than those who had not watched a rape scene. These findings held true regardless of the gender of the victim.
Dramas often take pains to portray rape as the traumatizing and destructive act that it is. Unfortunately, doing so may not guarantee it will have the hoped-for effect. Neil Malamuth, a professor of psychology and communication studies at U.C.L.A. who studies the effects of mass media violence, has found that, “exposure to sexual violence — even if it is intended to help people see the horror of it — will be sexually arousing to a small but significant percentage of young male viewers. And we do know that such sexual arousal to violence is one of the contributing predictors of actual aggression against women.”
And if some viewers are aroused by rape scenes, others may become numb to them. Research on undergraduate men found that repeated exposure to sexually violent movies led to dampened distress while watching them, a reduced concern for victims of sexual assault and an increased acceptance of degrading depictions of women. (Similar findings are amply reported in the research literature on violent and nonviolent pornography.)
Titillation and desensitization aren’t easy topics to address with young people, but it can be done. Consider saying, “Here’s the problem with rape scenes, and also with a lot of pornography. People sometimes find that they are turned on by things they know are wrong, and sometimes they start to see rape — and the general mistreatment of women — as one of those things that just happens. Either way, it’s not good.”
What about the “trigger warning” statements made at the beginning of shows, meant to let the viewer know of potentially upsetting content ahead? Do they help? While trigger warnings may reduce the surprise of seeing sexual violence, research finds that they neither buffer the psychological impact of disturbing scenes nor steer vulnerable viewers away from them.