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Computer games: Causing violence or a new scapegoat?

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Edited by Meg-John Barker, Sunday, 24 Jul 2011, 10:12

The third Psychology in the Pub event took place last Wednesday. To conclude our 'sex and violence' series, Simon Goodson, from the university of Huddersfield, presented his work on the impact of violent video games.

The previous month Clare Bale had raised important questions about the current idea that the 'sexualisation' of media is harming children. She argued that there is strong evidence that young people have never been more responsible or thoughtful in the decisions that they are making around sex, that their voices are often missing from debates and reports about this issue, and that we need to understand the complex and sophisticated ways in which people respond to media representations.

Simon Goodson highlighted many similar issues in relation to the popular belief that video games cause people to be violent. He started by presenting newspaper reports which have drawn links between playing computer games and acts of extreme violence. The following example is taken from his website:

On the evening of Sunday 21st October 2007 17 year old Daniel Petric walked into a room in his parents house and asked his mother and father to close their eyes because he had a ‘surprise’ for them. Daniel then shot his mother and father in the head, killing his mother and wounding his father. Daniel Petric planned and carried out the attack because his parents had taken away his ‘violent’ video game, Halo 3. The media referred to Petric as the ‘Halo 3 Shooter’ and ‘Halo 3 Killer’ amongst other titles and gave in depth accounts proposing that he was unable to distinguish between reality and fantasy and even suggested that Petric believed that his parents would not be dead forever but would ‘regenerate’ as in the game.

Some research, particularly in the US, has claimed to support this popular idea of a simple cause and effect relationship between violent video games and real life violence. However, Simon went on to point out that there are many problems with this research. For example:

* The measures used are questionable. Does a higher score on an aggression questionnaire mean that somebody would be violent in real life? Are these questionnaires validated with people who are extremely violent?

* The video games used are often many years out of date, and not the ones people are playing currently.

* There is a clear bias in publication. Research is much more likely to be published if it finds a link between violent games and agression than if it does not.

Simon's own research raises big questions about the assumed link between violent games and aggressive behaviour. Measuring people on questionnaires, and on levels of brain arousal, he has compared violent games (such as Gears of War), against football games, driving games and table tennis games. He found that people scored far higher on aggression and arousal when they were playing a game where the content was related to things that they would do in real life (such as driving or watching/playing football) than when the game was unrelated (such as games involving warfare or shooting monsters). Indeed, in the latter type of game people were often no more aggressive or aroused than if they were simply relaxing.

Clearly this research questions the idea that violence in society is related to this particular form of popular media. People in the discussion also pointed out that rates of violent crime have gone down during the years that the computer games of concern have become more popular.

I was left with the question of why, given such findings, news reporters - and some researchers - seem so keen to find a link between violent games and criminal behaviour. Clearly this is not a new thing. As Martin Barker has pointed out, links have been made between violent media and real life violence from the Victorian Penny Dreadfuls, through the 1950s horror comics, to the Video Nasties of the late 1970s and 80s (which look rather tame when compared to the Hostel or Saw series of movies).

Perhaps violent media is an easy scapegoat which prevents us from having to address more complex social problems which underpin violent crimes? Certainly this seemed to be the case when I studied the reporting of the Jamie Bulger murder some years ago. The horro video Childs Play 3 was blamed for this crime, despite no evidence that either of the boys who killed Jamie Bulger had seen the movie. What was rarely reported were the tough backgrounds which the boys came from, or the fact that one of them had already been violent towards himself, but that there were not enough resources to provide him with support.

What also went unremarked were the high levels of bullying from other children which are a taken for granted part of childhood for most kids and which lead to untold levels of misery throughout life. Perhaps we like to focus on these occasional extreme acts of violence, and to blame the handy scapegoat of violent media, because it stops us from having to look at the everday violence which is so much a part of life, and our part in allowing it to continue.

It seems that a strong linking theme in the panics around sexualistion and around video games is that it is children and adolescents that people are worried about being influenced. Clearly this is related to the current idea that children are innocent (by which we seem to mean non-sexual and non-violent). If children are sexual or aggressive at all it is put down to corrupting external forces. As one person at Psychology in The Pub pointed out. Perhaps we need the media to be this external force now that there is much less belief in demonic or supernatural forces.

This blaming on the media is dangerous though because it prevents us from being aware of the inevitable sexuality and aggressiveness which children have (given that they are, after all, just young, small human beings). Avoiding this fact as a society can exacerbate the very problems which we are trying to alleviate, because it stops us from communicating about sexuality with young people (leaving them confused and unable to negotiate it themselves), and it means that we fail to address the bullying between children and teenagers which is so prevalent and destructive in their lives.

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Response to the Bailey Review

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Edited by Meg-John Barker, Tuesday, 7 Jun 2011, 14:44

Sexualisation and Gender stereotyping? One response to the Bailey review

On 6th June the UK government published 'Letting Children be Children', an 'independent review of the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood' put together by Reg Bailey, the Chief Executive of the Christian charity, the Mother's Union. The review aimed to bring together previous reports on this topic (notably: Buckingham et al., 2009; Papadopolous, 2010 and Byron, 2008 and 2010) to come up with a set of recommendations. These recommendations include, for example, making sure that magazine covers with sexualised images are not easily seen by children, bringing in an age rating for music videos, and making it easier for parents to block internet material.

The review definitely falls down on the 'anti' side of sexualisation debates (see my previous blog here for more about the different positions on this subject). It is not possible in such a brief post to point to all that is problematic about the Bailey review. For example, it does not define what it means by sexualisation (despite acknowledging that it is highly subjective), it prioritises 'common sense' over long-term research findings, and it is quite misleading in its use of statistics (if 40% of parents have seen something 'inappropriate' that means that the majority have not, and why recommend changes in relation to the watershed if 72% of parents feel that the current regulation of television is about right?)

Here I want to focus on something which jumped out at me from the review: namely the different treatment of parental concerns about the sexualisation of clothes aimed at children, and about the gender stereotyping in such products.

The review states that 'sexualised and gender-stereotyped clothing, products and services for children are the biggest areas of concern for parents'. Parents were concerned about sexualisation, particularly in relation to clothes sold to children which were felt to be inappropriate for their age (like 'bras (padded or not), bikinis, short skirts, high-heeled shoes, garments with suggestive slogans, or the use of fabrics and designs that have connotations of adult sexuality' such as lace and animal prints). Parents were also concerned about gender-stereotyped clothes (division into pink or blue clothing, ultra-feminine clothes for girls and army or sports clothes for boys, and make-up and accessories just aimed at girls).

What is very telling is the response which the review makes to these two issues. The concern about the sexualisation of clothes results in on of the key recommendations of the review: that retailers should come up with a code of good practice regarding retailing to children which they all adhere to, which – Bailey suggests – should involve avoiding selling 'scaled down' sexualised adult clothing and clothing with sexual slogans. One of the main themes at the start of the review argues that retail needs to be 'explicitly and systematically family friendly, from design and buying through to display and marketing.'

However, in relation to gender stereotyping, the review concludes that there is 'no strong evidence that gender stereotyping in marketing or products influences children’s behaviour'. It argues 'that the relationship between gender and consumer culture is more complex' and that the marketing of pink products for girls could have a positive impact (e.g. getting them interested in science if it was marketed in pink packaging and related to beauty/pampering). The review states that gender preferences are strongly biologically driven and part of 'normal, healthy development of gender identity'. There are no recommendations made regarding gender stereotyping of products, rather it is accepted that this will continue as long as there is consumer demand.

I think that this example reveals serious problems which run through this review. First, given that the review claims to prioritise the 'common sense' of parents over research, why does it take parent's 'common sense' about sexualisation seriously, whilst dismissing their 'common sense' about gender stereotyping?

Secondly, when I look at the research in these areas, I would conclude that there is – if anything – clearer evidence for the negative impact of gender stereotyping than there is for the negative impact of sexualisation. Cordelia Fine's recent book, Delusions of Gender, for example, summarises a wealth of evidence that gender stereotyping (suggesting that one gender is less good a particularly activity, for example, or that they are more likely to be interested in a certain field) impacts on our cognitive abilities, confidence and many other aspects, and that neurological differences between the genders often result from exposure to such stereotypes. Beyond that, there can be little question that the narrow definitions of femininity and masculinity expressed in stereotyped clothes and other products make life a misery for the many children who do not neatly fit in these boxes, who often suffer from bullying and alienation. On the other hand, much of the research on sexualisation of children has failed to find many of the kind of products which Bailey's review refers to, and there is no clear evidence yet that such products have a negative impact. In fact recent studies of suggest responsible and thoughtful sexual behaviour amongst young people. Particularly there is a dearth of evidence so far on how young people themselves make sense of these products.

This suggests, to me, that the Bailey review is more concerned with bolstering current cultural norms than it is with either what the evidence has to say, or even what parents and young people think themselves. The current norms are that sexual behaviour amongst young people is inherently problematic (hence the desire to clamp down on anything that might encourage it), and that people should adhere to rigid gender roles (hence the lack of any problem with gender stereotyped products). I think that we need to think critically about both of these conclusions.

 

Find out more:

The Bailey review itself can be found here

Clips of Bailey summarising the review can be found here and here

The Radio 4 report on the topic is towards the end of this news segment

A very helpful overview here

There are other articles on these issues here, here, here and here

For more on these topics in general see the Onscenity Network website which includes a collection of blog posts on sexualisation

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Porn: Giving people ideas?

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Edited by Meg-John Barker, Friday, 20 May 2011, 12:49

Porn: Giving people ideas?

Also posted on Society Matters

This month I attended the Sex, Health, Media event in London where a bunch of academics, health-workers, educators and activists met to discuss ways of improving education about sexual health, particularly in relation to media portrayals of sex.

There were many excellent presentations during the day, but here I will focus on one which particularly caught my imagination: Alan McKee's talk about the potentials of pornography.

Analysing the concerns that are frequently raised about the dangers of pornography, Alan reported that academics, politicians, parents and professionals frequently voice the anxiety that porn will 'give people ideas', particularly young people. His provocative question was whether this is necessarily such a bad thing.

For a start, when you look at the kinds of ideas that these groups are most worried about porn giving to young people, they are often the ideas which are outside of the 'norm' of heterosexual sex: sexual practices which are most commonly linked to lesbian, gay and bisexual people (such as oral and anal sex) and those associated with kink or SM, or having more than one partner. When thinking about porn it is important to make sure that we are really considering what is best for young people and not just repeating normative notions about what makes normal or abnormal sex, and assuming that normal equals good and abnormal equals bad. We know that such notions serve to marginalise groups as well as leading to sexual anxieties and problems as people become obsessed with being normal over having enjoyable sex.

Also, Alan pointed out that 'giving people ideas' is a pretty good definition of education. Could it be that porn might actually be valuable as a form of sex education? Certainly, when we study people who consume pornography, something they all say is that they use it to educate themselves about sex (in addition to sexual entertainment).

In a very innovative project, Alan and his colleagues got together a big group of experts on sexual health to come up with an agreed definition of 'healthy sexual development'. This resulted in a list of fifteen attitudes about sex which would be good to develop over the course of a lifetime. The full list can be found here.

When examining the list it is clear that pornography promotes around half of these attitudes. For example, porn consumers report that porn helps them to learn about what they might enjoy, to communicate openly with partners ('I saw this and thought I'd like to try it...'), and to feel that sex can be pleasurable and should be joyful rather than aggressive and coercive (depictions of joyless sex are not popular amongst most porn consumers). Porn can also help with self-acceptance, given that there are niche markets for every sexual taste.

Of course, as critics have pointed out, pornography is also bad at many of the attitudes on the list of healthy sexual development. There is no negotiation of sex in porn, so it doesn't foster ethical conduct or consent. There are very poor depictions of safer sex, and very little representation of public/private boundaries or the relationship skills necessary for ethical sex.

However, there is no argument that pornography should be the only form of sex education, merely that it be recognised as one possible form, and a form which often provides the very things which are extremely hard for conventional forms of sex education, from parents and teachers, to do, such as depicting specific acts or emphasising joy and pleasure.

People are often concerned that the activities depicted in porn will result in young men pressuring young women to do these things. Clearly this is where other forms of education are needed to help people with how to go about negotiating sexual practices together (whoever is doing the suggesting). Over the rest of the sex, health, media day we heard about several great projects providing such forms of sex education focused on consent, enjoyment and diversity, including Sex & Ethics, Scarleteen, Petra Boynton's blog, Charles Moser's book on Sex Disasters, and the upcoming CoDeX project, which many of the onscenity network are involved with.

If readers want to contribute to knowledge about consumers of pornography, there is currently a big study on this very topic looking for participants. Follow the link and get involved.

 

Find out more:

There is an interview with Alan McKee about his work here

And one with Feona Attwood, who organised the Sex, Health, Media day, here

There is an upcoming conference on porn and sexuality which I am co-organising, and you can read another blog entry on this topic here.

 

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Making sense of the sexualisation debates

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Edited by Meg-John Barker, Wednesday, 17 Aug 2011, 16:52

This blog entry is one of many collected together over on The Onscenity Network.

Making sense of the sexualisation debates

I've been getting involved with events and projects about sexualisation for some time now. I thought it was important for someone, like me, who writes about sexuality and who works with clients who are struggling with issues around sex, to be informed about what seems to be the big story about sex at the moment.

I've read lots of book chapters and papers, and watched many presentations, on the topic, and what is most striking to me are the complexities of the debate, and the feelings which run so high whenever we are talking about it. This is my attempt to give a simple overview of how I understand it, and to say where I've got to with it at this point.

The Simple Form of the Debate

The simple form of the debate, as it is played out on TV programmes, in policy documents, and in the huge number of popular books on the subject of sexualisation, goes something like this:

One side says that our society has become hyper-sexualised: wherever we go we are blasted with messages about sex. Boys are watching hardcore online porn from an early age and this is warping their sexualities and turning them into sexual predators. Girls are sexualised before they are out of toddlerhood with high-heeled baby shoes, playboy style mini T-shirts, and Bratz dolls. By the time they are teenagers they have bought the message that being sexy is all-important, putting them at risk of everything from eating disorders to STIs to sexual violence.

The other side of the popular debate emphasises choice and fun and power. We live in a time of equality, it says. People get to choose who they want to be. And if women want to go pole-dancing for leisure and feel empowered by dressing up sexy that is great. Lads magazines and sexy dancing on the X-Factor aren't bad for women – they celebrate women – and anyone who disagrees needs to lighten up and get the joke.

The More Complex Form of the Debate

When the topic is debated in more academic circles, a somewhat more sophisticated version of these two sides tends to be put forward, which it would definitely be useful to get out there more widely:

The side that is concerned about sexualisation says that all this emphasis on choice, fun and power makes it really difficult for people to resist messages about sexiness. To be a lad means always being up for it, and to be an empowered woman means choosing to pamper yourself so you look gorgeous and have all eyes on you. There's no room for all the many, many men who feel anxious about sex, or all the women who don't fit the very rigid standards of youth and beauty. And those that do fit live in fear of losing that.

The side that is more sceptical about sexualisation points out that the whole thing seems like a moral panic: the kind of thing people get worked about every decade or so. Weren't people panicking about mini-skirts and rock & roll in the same ways back in the 1950s and 60s? Talking with young people directly suggests that their sexual behaviour hasn't changed that radically. They're not all constantly sexting, watching porn, or trying every sexual practice that they see online. And lots of people find easier access to porn and other sexual information to be helpful in figuring out their own sexualities. People on this side of the debate ask questions like: Why are we so worried about sex instead of all the violent imagery that is out there unchallenged? Or whether all the concern that girls and women are in danger and need protecting from men reinforces divisions of gender, leading to more problems than it solves.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Holding the tension: My main thought is that we need to move away from these either/or debates, not towards some resolution that is probably impossible, but more towards recognising the inevitable tensions and contradictions in the complex world we live in. We are massively shaped by the world around us, so current bombardment of sexual imagery is unlikely to leave any of us untouched, but we also all filter this through our own experiences and histories in unique ways so the same messages won't have the same impact on everybody. We should be mindful of how these debates have played out in the past, and of who is included and excluded in them.

Recognising what we bring to it: Emotions run high whenever these debates occur, and yet we all pretend that we don't have a personal stake in it in order to make our points sound reasonable. It would be useful if we could acknowledge that being someone who watches porn, or a parent, or a person who does – or doesn't – fit the current ideals of sexiness, influences how we come to these debates. And that the person we are arguing with will have similar, deeply personal, investments in it.

Talking to people: A lot gets said on both sides of this debate based on assumptions, like looking at a music video and assuming it will make young people want to copy it, or assuming that because you feel able to resist some of these messages it will be just as easy for other people. We need to talk to people a lot more to find out how they are really being affected, and to help us remember that it is not the same for everyone.


For more information see The Onscenity Network and The Pornified Seminar Series.

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