There is an apparent correlation between exposure to violence via the media and gaming, and anxiety, fear, aggression and desensitisation to violence.

My observations may be biased or unusual, but it doesn't seem to be a controversial statement to say that violence is far more prevalent, permissable and accepted in the mainstream media (including via the news) than depictions of explicit non-violent sexual activity.

It also seems reasonable to claim that (most) people (at least in contemporary western communities I've experienced) would deem sexual activity as a normal, healthy aspect of human existence, and would view violence as typically undesirable and unhealthy (if sometimes necessary, and clearly 'normal' to the extent it occurs in reality).

As Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin notes in 'Why Violence is More Acceptable than Sex and Nudity in TV and Movies:

"I can write a scene and describe in detail a p____ entering a v_____, and there will be a portion of the audience who get very upset about that. But I can write a scene about an axe entering a human skull and nobody will complain about that. Generally speaking I'm much more in favour of p_____s entering v_____s than of axes entering heads. People seem to accept the violence much easier than they accept the sex."

The same article also notes:

Where US premium TV is the place for sex and nudity to frolic, it’s the global dominance of the Hollywood film system that continues to encourage a puritan attitude towards movies, governed by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) ratings system. The MPAA has a history of giving harsher restrictions to films with sexual content over those with violence.


...it rings true with a 2015 survey of parents commissioned by the Classification and Rating Administration (CARA) finding the top concern about film content was graphic sex scenes (80 percent), followed by full male nudity (72 percent), hard drugs (70 percent), full female nudity (70 percent) and graphic violence (64 percent). Only 44 percent believed PG-13 rated movies have too much graphic violence.

The article does not arrive at any great insights as to why sex seems more taboo than violence.

The Australian Government's Institute for Family Studies publishes a webpage entitled Effects of Pornography on Children and Young People, in which the risks associated with viewing pornography are made clear.

In IndieWire's James Franco's Movie Column, Franco observes:

James: All I can think is that violence in movies still seems like fantasy. Most of us aren’t cops chasing criminals, or superheroes flying through the sky, so we are being taken on experiences that are completely foreign to our lives while watching those films. But sex is something that everyone can do, pretty easily. So, if that is seen in movies, it becomes less of a fantasy experience, and more of a guide for how things could actually go down. And if young people are seeing sexual things in movies, there are many adults who fear these young people will copy what they see.

The question of why violence seems more acceptable in the mainstream media than pornography is tackled by many forums and websites, but whilst it seems to be an obvious question to ask, my Google searches have yielded far less from academia (which admittedly may be more a reflection of my searching skills).

Is Franco's analysis reasonable? Is he missing anything?

EDIT: Comments on other forums (without citations) suggest a relationship with Christian values; a Bible in which violence is commonplace and at times advocated for, but in which sex is shunned.

I'm particularly interested in any philosophers and/or philosophical works who have tackled this issue, either directly or obliquely; whether it be from an analytical viewpoint or from an ethical/advocative perspective. Is this question rendered sufficiently philosophical by the apparent lack of rigorous examination by other realms?

Why do we seem so much more at ease with depictions of (real and actual) physical violence than by depictions of non-violent sex? Does violence, for example, play some kind of necessary role? Is the desensitisation it causes occasionally beneficial from an adaptive standpoint? Are we more insecure about our sexuality than our capacity for/aptitude/desire for violence and therefore rendered more vulnerable when watching it in the company of others? I suspect that for many, the taboo around sex dissolves in private environments. What does this tell us about the apparent discrepancy in any sex/violence taboos?

*Side note: I once called a philosopher on a talk-back radio show about the issue. He declined to delve into it on air, but made a comment akin to, "Violence and sex might not be as distinct as you first imagine". I was left to guess at what he might have been driving at and have not reached any satisfactory conclusions.


5 Answers 5


This does not look like a philosophical question, but one about cultural history.

Violence as an act drives a narrative. By committing an act of violence, a story character can significantly and cheaply (to a narrator) impact the world around them, shape a role they play, acquire significant identity traits. That goes both for villains and heroes. (This might be the closest relation to philosophy.)

By comparison, nonviolent sexual acts would not have immediate lasting impact (pregnancy is a lasting effect, but does not require an audience to learn about the details of the process. We don't know or care in which position the mother of Alexander the Great conceived, not whether she climaxed during the act).

In storytelling, most details about sex would be as important to a story plot as a sandwich eaten (unless the act of sex implied physical or psychological violence, like infidelity).

So while both acts may have various negative connotations in the entertaining arts, violence just had too many narrative benefits to be left out. Audiences are too easily captured.

In stage acting, simulating violence is easy and fun, simulating sex is difficult without getting too close to the real thing.

Violence is also an inevitable part of other mass media channels like the news. If there is war, or a serial killer around, this has to be reported, leading to audiences becoming used to violence in media.

The other obvious issue is that an erotic narrative may cause arousal, which is frustrating if it does not find release. So in the classical venues for entertaining mass media (storytelling, theater, cinéma, daytime family television), where release is difficult, audiences do not crave such stimuli.

Modern mass media like porn and erotic novels do exist and have economic viability to show that where private consumption is possible, erotic content becomes desirable enough to gain some acceptance.


I think you are over-generalizing a feature of America to the entire world. Japanese media, particularly anime, is way more comfortable with sexuality than American media. For example, there is one infamous episode of Pokemon when a male character cross-dresses in a bikini, including inflatable breast. This was obviously cut from the American release, but apparently was considered acceptable in Japan. Similarly, many ancient Greek stories have women being impregnated by gods in animal form, something that is really weird in a modern American cultural context.

This of course goes the other way too, where things Americans find completely normal can be extremely offensive in other cultures. The best example I can think of is that undead creatures in American media tend to get very heavily censored in China. Most articles I could find attribute this China's governing party being secular and China associating all undead with spirituality, but I did find one by a Chinese horror fan who claims that ghost stories in China historically being forms of political protest.

If you want to know the origins of American culture's strong taboo with sexuality, I suggest heading over to the History site.


This strikes me as a psychoanalytic question more than a purely philosophical one. But if I may be coldly rational for a moment, I'll point out an important distinction: generally speaking, 'sex' is an end in itself (something with intrinsic value), while 'violence' is a means to achieve some other end. In capitalist societies (or really, any competitive context), we do not give things of intrinsic value away for free. Things of value are to be dangled coyly in front of others, just out of reach, to encourage them to perform and contribute. It is an interesting human trait that we like to earn things, and disrespect things we get too easily, and the entertainment industry knows this well.

With that in mind, the bias towards violence over sex in media is easy enough to understand. Sex is aspirational and motivational, something that is held just out of sight to pull the consumer forward; violence is a mechanism the consumer indulges in for chasing that goal. A game or media production wants (at best) to hint at sex because that produces a frustrated desire. People will then pay good money to express that frustrated desire through violent action.

To wit: Mulder talks to Jade Blue Afterglow

  • I wonder if a Lotto for sex would sell?
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Feb 3, 2023 at 18:33

I mean unless sex and violence share an underlying hidden variable such a direct "comparison" seems to be pointless as the reasons for the one might not apply to the other and vice versa. So in the worst case the answer is "because society decided it to be that way" or more sophisticated "it's cultural".

There is an apparent correlation between exposure to violence via the media and gaming, and anxiety, fear, aggression and desensitisation to violence.

Not really what the article is saying. They talk about a link between violent movies and their impact on 8 year olds and conjecture from there that similar media, which is consumed on a daily basis, such as games, would have a similar effect and cite an apparently controversial study from 2010, but mention also that there is criticism about that.

So not sure you can generalize that statement to such a degree. Like I could tell you from personal experience that jump scares videos and stuff that is PG-13 rated has had much more of a shocking effect on me when I was younger than it would have if I'd now pick up a slasher movie and watch it. There's a difference in how vivid you experience these things and how much experience you have to contextualize that, like over-the-top violence is likely to be seen as "unreal", "cartoonish" or "clearly fake", rather than incomprehensibly brutal and probably a whole lot of other effects that play into that. So it's not just what is depicted but the level of detail is important as it aids the ability of the consumer "to make it feel real". Something that is probably more present in children than adults as well.

Likewise you could argue that despite being shown on a screen, movies and games are actually distinctly different. In the sense that movies are a passive experience, things happening to you on a screen and you "feel" them to varying degrees without being able to react to that, while games also have an active component that gives you an agency to deal with that. So to a degree you can shift the focus of your gaming experience and decide what matters and how you approach things, whereas in movies the perspective is fixed.

Don't know if it ends up being better or worse than movies, as it might also further stress, frustration, competitiveness, humiliation and hostility as a result even if you'd play completely non-violent games, but I'd conjecture it's at least something different or that this angle would be important to consider.

In terms of sex in games, it's always passive. Like you're not interacting with a person but with a script that does what you want it to do if you press the right buttons (not exactly a great metaphor for consensual sex). If you make it an objective in a game it's literally objectifying...

Violence gets objectified in games as well, but is already objectified in the real world if you abstract it to something like "forceful, non-consensual interaction with your environment". So by breaking things and interjecting yourself in processes, up to the destruction of things, you can to a degree be violent, but you can't translate sex to games, the active part is outside the narrative.

While violence in movies has no active part to it but is rather endured. So that the analogue to arousal would be fear, anger and hatred, with a catharsis in on-screen violence, which is thereby downplayed and justified because of the emotions felt by the consumer.

In terms of the reason for the cultural taboos in terms of violence and sex. Well the Christian Church not being too fond of sex is probably a major influence. Which one would need to research but again guesses could be that it's due to competition. Like reproduction and the creation of life is somewhat of a miracle and quite often central to various religions. Yet the Christian religion has put it's focus on eternal life after death not on eternal life through a never ending cycle of reproduction, so there's some kind of conflict of interest there.

Another approach would be that for those in power, sex, in particular the sex of their subordinates is a nuisance. Like think about it, they get distracted from work because their mind revolves around the other person, lack of discipline, they do stupid things to impress the other person, they take time off work to make out, their performance decreases with pregnancy or the fact that they have to take up more of the homework because of it. And afterwards they have to care for a child that is a non-productive member of society that makes other members less productive as well and worst of all they might even ask for more money because of all of that.

In the end it's necessary to produce new soldiers and workers, but there's not much to gain from them doing it often, in public or for pleasure. It's their private business, in their off hours and they should only do it at scarcely as possible and just to produce more human resources. So once every 9 month is fine or not even that if they consider "high born offspring" to be superior. So on the other end of that, that would encourage making it a secrecy if it's done outside of those constraints. So if you do it don't be seen doing it or give hints that you've done it (nudity etc).

Not to mention that the real reason for the celibacy apparently was that priest shouldn't have heirs so that the assets remains with the church. And if it's evil for the people who tell you what is evil... guess what it's also evil for you.

And "destroying phanatsies" by seeing it, is probably having it backwards. Like yes it's a phantasy because it's forced into secrecy but that isn't necessary a good thing. Like unrealistic expectations are not really all that useful. Also copying it and looking at it as guides is less of a problem in general and relates more to how accurate the act is portrayed. Like pornography has some fundamental problems, like how do you realistically portrait an active interaction with means that are completely passive. Like watching people have sex is not the same as having sex and what feels good in reality might not translate into great visuals and vice versa. Not to mention that all the lead up and warm up to each other or what comes after that would exceed the runtime and kill the mood. The fixation of a certain market share further distorts the perspective and so on.

However that still doesn't cover why nudity is already a problem. Sure it might arouse people, but that as well is only a problem because it's made a problem.

Another guess might be that this originated from the problems surrounding pregnancy. So idk before contraception and abortion, sex would more likely lead to pregnancy which would lead to having a child and a woman in need of food and without income with little incentive to be married and cared for. So in order to avoid having pregnancies before marriage (i.e. financial security) there might have been a stigma placed on sex by the parents on their daughters to not have sex to avoid having to care for them indefinitely as they couldn't get married. And as they, as mothers, would have cared for the children this would be passed on to the next generation. Or where "hard to get"-sex would incentivize monogamy over jumping through all the hoops ... again.

Violence on the other hand has an entirely different problem. Like given how frequently countries went to war, a certain level of violence was a) a given and b) desired by the superiors. Like you wouldn't have wanted your soldiers to contemplate pacifism and there wasn't really the option for veganism either and a lot of the jobs required manual brutish strength. Education and parenting incorporated corporal punishment, violence was used in judgments to assert dominance and as a deterrent or just for revenge or immediate "justice" when the juridical system might not have been as good or reliable as desired. And the more frequent violence is the more you get the "I also endured that and it didn't harm me" when often enough it actually did and leads to a continuation of the circle of violence.

Likewise in terms of narratives the important news are unfortunately always those that center around harm, like where it is coming from, how to avert it, how it was averted or how it couldn't be averted. So it's part of the stories that are written down and passed on already and future ones take notice from that.

So in terms of reports of details tkruse is correct. Violence is a data point that immediately requires your full attention and tells a story of its own. That being said sex and intimacy can be a powerful tools to portray a close relation and to give motivation for the actions of a character much more intensely than a "and then they did X because they really loved Y". But that's a different story telling style than the historic reports that are preserved or that you'd see in the news much more often.

That being said, in practical terms it makes little to no sense why sex should be more taboo than violence. One is clearly causing harm and the other often causes more harm because of the taboo then because of itself.

  • I guess the point of comparison which led me to ask the question is merely that both are controlled by censors at least partly as a means of minimising potential harms to consumers. At first glance (admittedly a glance these answers - including yours - reveal as inadequate), the nature of violence and its relative proliferation in comparison to sex in mainstream media is potentially more unhealthy, yet is typically deemed far more acceptable. Commented Feb 4, 2023 at 4:49

I see this as having philosophical import. Consider the question of 'human nature', whether like in Hobbes' view we are intrinsically violent, or like Rousseau's view we are sponteneously peaceful 'noble savages' only corrupted by urban living.

It is a topic that allows us to examine the interface of personal and social, animal and rational.

I make the case here that a core building block of human sociality, is the hijacking of the evolved responses of shame and disgust, and repurposing of them to serve social behaviour enforcement, or limits to behaviour: How do ethicists tackle the question "Is it immoral to have sex in public places?" Is it possible to use rational and empirical ideas to answer? We find different societies settle on different sets of taboos, discussed here: Is artificially generating images of minors in sexual positions unethical?

On violence we can draw from the Dunbar Number, which indicates our neocortex evolved for solving social challenges with only secondary benefits for wider problem solving. The neocortex only fully finishes being wired around age 25, with very substantial development in teen years. We know it's linked to impulse control, and this is why we don't consider teens fully mature.

Yet we need the potential for violence, a willingness to die for others who we are not closely related to has been critical to the developments of political systems to better serve their members, such that people will fight and risk dying to preserve them. The cultural mechanism of rationing symbolic immortality in relation to this discussed here: What are some philosophical works that explore constructing meaning in life from an agnostic or atheist view? It's important to recognise that although we consider ourselves rational agents, we are also animals, and our behaviours have been shaped by genes. Game Theory can help us understand that dying for systems that do not serve us risks creating free-rider problems that destabilise, and risking dying for systems that do serve us can be understood to lead to Social Contract theories. Discussed here: Is the tyrannicide perpetrated by William Tell morally legitimate? Also the subjective experience of this tension here: Exploring philosophy behind "Catch-22" novel: individual in war

'Queensbury Rules' in boxing were invented to stop fighters bleeding in the ring, and boxing being a 'bloodsport'. Bear & badger & bull baiting, and cock fighting, were banned because they were felt to make people worse and more violent. The end of slavery was motivated at least as much or more, by the moral impact enforcing it was felt to have on the slavers, as the benefit of slaves (see the end of Jamaican slavery after the brutal suppression of a revolt with crucifiction of rebels, that ended any defence of slavery based on the slaves accepting it). The Great Cat Massacre in pre-revolutionary Paris, gives an example of the mindset that may have led to The Terror of Robespierre, discussed here: Why is it okay to eat meat but not to be cruel to animals?

"As long as Man continues to be the ruthless destroyer of lower living beings, he will never know health or peace. For as long as men massacre animals, they will kill each other. Indeed, he who sows the seed of murder and pain cannot reap joy and love." -Pythagoras

The evidence of violence in computer games or cartoons affecting behaviour is minimal, despite extensive investigation, eg whenever a US school child commits a school shooting and it leads to a surge in research funding into why. I would argue this is the case because of play-violence, for instance that we harness into sports. Many children's games simulate violence, like say playing 'cops and robbers', but like lion cubs playing it is training to be capable, it is not being violent.

Sex is a funny topic. Since at least the early Holy Roman Empire there has been a statute making 'sodomy' illegal. But it was recorded with such limited information we have almost no idea what behaviours were actually prosecuted. See Reconciling an aversion to bestiality with being a carnivore We don't talk honestly and openly about sex. We rely on largely unexamined intuitions of shame and disgust to guide us. The philosophical tool of 'moral dumbfounding' is a great way to investigate this, discussed here: Why do we prohibit consensual incestuous relationships? As discussed in the 'sex in private' answer, that's an incredibly unusual behaviour, with only one other species choosing that, and even then for different reasons. It seems that keeping sexual behaviour almost completely out of public, has been key to enabling human cooperation by avoiding challenges to impulse control that would lead to conflicts. Given we are closer to bonobos than chimpanzees, and the relics humans have of penile spines, it seems likely that orgies and group sex have been an evolutionarily significant part of human history. I'd suggest that past, in conflict with increasing pressures to cooperate, led to an increasing push to keep sexual behaviours in private. Basically seeing sexy things is a bigger challenge to our impulse control than violence, because we have the play response/queues that takes the threat out of the violence.

A comparable example to play-violence is how queues of humour as verbal play, allow sensitive and difficult topics to be broached, in ways that support social intelligence and exploration and adjustments of taboos: What are some arguments against insulting being illegal

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