Audiences and Receptions of Sexual Violence in Contemporary Cinema

Jamie Sexton, Ernest Mathijs, Kate Egan, Russell Hunter, Melanie Selfe, Martin Barker

Research output: Book/ReportCommissioned report


In performing its duties as a regulator of the moving image, the BBFC is obliged to balance the right of freedom of expression with the need to protect the public from harm. In the case of ‘video works’, including DVDs, the BBFC has a particular obligation under the Video Recordings Act 1984 (VRA) to have special regard, among other factors, to any harm that may be caused (to viewers or to society) by the manner in which a video work deals with sex, violence, horror, drugs or criminal activity. Scenes of sexual violence inevitably combine two, and sometimes all five, of the potentially harmful elements identified by the VRA and therefore raise particularly difficult issues for the BBFC. Despite a vast amount of media effects research, absolute ‘proof’ of harm, or of the extent of harm, is elusive, not least because of the ethical and practical difficulties involved. The responsible media regulator must therefore exercise judgement in a manner which takes account of the concerns raised by some research studies, but which also acknowledges the limitations of the research and the rights enshrined in UK law by the Human Rights Acts 1998. The BBFC’s own large scale public opinion research1 has consistently shown that a majority of the public believe that adults should be able to choose their own entertainment, within the law. However, this general view often comes with a caveat when sexual violence is considered. In light of this, in 2002, the BBFC commissioned a detailed study2 of public reaction to six films featuring sexual violence. The results revealed a degree of public concern about adults viewing graphic depictions of sexual violence which contrasted sharply with the attitude to adults viewing graphic depictions of consensual sex or graphic depictions of violence with no sexual context. The 2002 research focussed on the views of a demographically balanced sample in relation to what adults in general should be allowed to view. Respondents were asked to view films which, in normal circumstances, they might never have chosen to view. As such, it revealed the extent of public concern over what impact certain films might have on other people, and relied upon assumptions about how these ‘other people’ might experience or respond to the films. The research did not reveal, or seek to reveal, the actual responses of the people who actively choose to watch such films. To explore the issue further, the BBFC therefore commissioned qualitative research designed to investigate the ways in which naturally-occurring audiences understand and respond to five films – À Ma Soeur, Baise-Moi, The House on the Edge of the Park, Ichi the Killer, and Irreversible – chosen because the BBFC had been exercised over their inclusion of scenes of sexual violence. The central issues for the project were to find ways to explore: how audiences’ understanding and response to the films were affected by the existence of different versions of the films, and the impact of the cuts required for four of the films; how audiences use the idea of ‘context’ as they make sense of the scenes of sexual violence; and how in particular audiences who respond positively to the films are understanding these scenes. The report published today makes extremely interesting reading and underlines the complexity of the issue. The research was not designed to offer simple policy solutions to the BBFC and has, quite rightly, studiously avoided doing so. Nevertheless, the research offers some clear and valuable insights into the ways in which real audiences understand and respond to scenes of sexual violence in contemporary cinema and the BBFC is currently considering the implications of its findings for future classification decisions.
Original languageEnglish
PublisherBritish Board of Film Classification
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2007


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