XXX-posed - How Much Sex and Violence Is Too Much?

Christopher Thurber, PhD
November 2015
boys watching tv

The boy had tears welling up in his eyes, and I didn’t know why. When he finally spoke, the explanation for his mounting anxiety surprised even me.

I say even me because I have heard my fair share of stories working for nearly two decades as a clinical psychologist. In set t i ngs t hat ra nge f rom hospit a ls to high schools, I’ve treated k ids w it h complicated histories of abuse, neglect, addiction, and self-harm. Kids whose parents have been incarcerated, killed, or addicted to affairs. Kids whose families have been broken apart by substance abuse, bankruptcy, war, and mental illness. Shocking as it may seem, my clinical experience is no different than any psychologist who sees a representative cross-section of adolescents.

Like every other health care provider, I feel gratified when I can be helpful — which is not always, but sometimes. And like every other provider, I feel most help-less in the face of circumstances beyond my control. When I do have the occasional nightmare, it ty pically revolves around my not being able to save someone from a psychosocial train wreck. I’m starting to feel that way about sexual and violent media. And I’m wide awake.

An Age-old Theme

I remember the day Elvis Presley died because my mom cried. She had tickets to what would have been his next performance at the Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland, Maine. One day before the concert, he imbibed enough prescription medication and alcohol to stop his heart right there in Graceland, where he sat on the toilet. My mother was understandably devastated.

Elvis meant nothing to me as an eight- year-old, but my mother’s explanation of his fame did. She explained that it wasn’t just his velvety voice and crooning lyrics that had her (and millions of other teens) swooning back in the late ’50s. It was the way he moved. My maternal grandfather was fond of reminding us all that “Elvis wasn’t dancing. Fred Astaire danced. Elvis Presley gyrated.” Behold Exhibit One: The generation gap in sexual mores, circa 1977.

Rewind 21 years. Elvis’s pelvic thrusts during his performance of “Hound Do” on June 5, 1956, on the Milton Berle Show incensed parents, earned him the nick name “Elvis the Pelvis,” and caused a media uproar portending the end of civilization. John Crosby of the New York Herald Tribune called Elvis “unspeakably untalented and vulgar.” Seven months later, on January y6, 1957, Elvis appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show for the third time. Producers at CBS famously required his lower half be excluded from the camera shots.

Now rewind 5,000 years or so. If the story of Noah and the flood has a kernel of truth, Elvis wasn’t the first person whose lechery stirred the ire of the tribal elders. (That one actually did result in the end of civilization, according to the Old Testament.) One should expect to find lessons about restraint and piety in a religious text, but they also appear in ancient secular literature. In about 50 BCE , the Greek playwright Aeschylus wrote in Agamemnon 

Wisdom comes through suffering.
Trouble, with its memories of pain,
Drips in our hearts as we try to sleep,
So men against their will 
Learn to practice moderation.

Apparently, restraint is both a challenge and a recipe for happiness. Passion risks pain, but moderation takes effort. As Shakespeare famously advised in Romeo and Juliet some 1,600 years after Aeschylus:

Love moderately. Long love doth so. 
Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow.

Love does have lethal consequences in many of the Bard’s works. And it can offstage as well, whether one is talking about sexual ly transmit ted infections (STIs) or star-crossed lovers. Which is perhaps why sexually promiscuous and gratuitously violent behaviors both intrigue and upset people, especially grown-ups who are worried about youngsters. Hester Prynne in Nathaniel

Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is an American symbol of the struggle against excess, as well as the timeless debate about how much sex and violence is too much. Novelist John Updike described Prynne as “a mythic version of every woman’s attempt to integrate her sexuality with societal demands” (Seabrook, 2008).

So why revisit such an ancient, hackneyed theme? Because the social solution is again saturated, and weird things are starting to precipitate out.

The Present Incarnation

“I’m nervous about my girlfriend,” the boy explained.

“A lot is on your mind,” I noted. “What specifically makes you nervous? ”

He smiled wanly. “It’s not what you think, Dr. T. Most guys might be worried about birth control. You know, buying condoms or whatever. It’s not that. It’s um . . . I don’t know. It’s kind of hard to say.”

“Becoming sexually active with another person is a big decision that has to be made thoughtfully. It’s normal to be nervous. Maybe you’re feeling some pressure.” I prepared to list the benefits of abstinence, but the boy spoke up.

“Look,” he said, “It’s just that I know I’ll need at least two condoms: one for vaginal sex and one for anal sex. But I’m not really into all of that. Who knows about my girlfriend? And if jerking off is any indicator, I don’t think I could last, like, half an hour or more.”

There’s no graduate coursework, internship, or postdoctoral fellowship that prepares a psychologist to respond to debilitating anxiety created by fantasy depictions of sexuality. But I had only to pause for a minute to realize that this young man’s expectations and self-image had been shaped almost entirely by the pornography he was watching. It’s none of my business what consenting adults do together — in the bedroom or any where else, for that matter. But treating anx iet y and mood disorders is my business. And I’m seeing more and more of it created — or at least exacerbated — by the content to which young people have constant access.

If you think I’m going to wag a wrinkled finger at the media, think again. That genie is not just out of the bottle, it’s crawled into the very same devices that loving parents are giving their kids for birthdays, graduations, and holidays. I’m also not going to preach or fear monger about the Internet, which I see as a value-neutral tool. I have just one point : The k ids attending our camps, along with the college students who serve as their leaders, are saturated with sexual and violent content that is radically decontextualized. The fantasies they see as reality are, for the most part, presented for free, rapid-fire, in an incredibly immersive, high-definition way, without any real-world anchoring. That’s a new crosshatch on our cultural timeline.

To wit: Picking on the video game Grand Theft Auto is like shooting fish in a barrel, but I’ll take a crack. Not only is the premise of the game carjacking, but players can drop F-bombs, use the N-word, go to strip clubs, and earn “health” points by having sex with prostitutes. You can then kill that prostitute to get your money back. In the fifth version of the game, both the sex and the killing are depicted three-dimensionally, from a first-person perspective, with enough lurid audio to leave little to the imagination. The problem is that most players would never imagine such an abhorrent escapade in the first place. Unless they were playing Grand Theft Auto 5. The game inserts ideas, even if it doesn’t inspire imitation.

The original Grand Theft Auto (1997) has spawned eleven stand-alone sequels and four expansion packs, which together have sold more than 150 million legal copies (Tharakan & Sachin, 2015). It’s clearly as alluring as it is offensive, just not to the same two groups of people. But my point is not to use some violent, oversexualized game as a punching bag. That’s been done. My point is that the two groups of people in the sex and violence equation are not discussing with each other what’s going on. If abusive, racist, sexist, and criminal behaviors are not only normalized but also rewarded in video games, then a need exists to talk about conflict resolution, relationships, and education.

I sound even older than I am when I read that last sentence out loud, but my argument is more nuanced than some cranky culture critic. I really don’t want to censor literature, games, theater, or the Internet (though I’m pleased that YouTube and Twitter take down ISIL beheadings). What I want is contextualization — balanced discussions between people of different backgrounds and generations that can put alternate frames around the pictures we see.

Camps could provide health education, including accurate content about sex, drugs, relationships, and mental health. Maybe some will someday. For now, most camp directors understand that most parents would feel a little squirrely about such a program option, and most kids are already getting decent health education in school. Even if they weren’t, no front-line camp staff hold degrees in health education, so talking with campers about puberty, addiction, and sexuality is moot. Parents don’t expect their kids to learn calculus at summer camp either, so we’re off the academic hook.

But we’re not off the social hook. Camps do have a moral obligation — in the most literal sense — to offset the interpersonal exposure youngsters get when they are not at camp. That includes virtual exposure. It’s time to put some backbone in our values education. It’s no longer enough to design a nice website and invite campers to interact with positive adult role models. We must directly address the pernicious models that are held out for them to con- sume and emulate.

As youth development professionals, we are supposed to be ambassadors for a wholesome subculture. That’s the founding principle of organized camping. High- quality camps have always led with a kind, fair, generous, considerate example. In so doing, they deliver a stark and healthy contrast to other subcultures, such as violent video games and pornography. I’ll say again that I believe in freedom of speech, as well as freedom of press, expression, and religion. Rather than censor in the name of reducing exposure to pernicious content, I’d encourage more exposure to wholesome content. I also think it’s time to train our staff to have conversations with campers about the other role models they witness.

The world is no more or less violent or sexualized than it ever was, but young peo- ple’s exposure to this content is certainly greater than it ever was. Rape, racism, and murder are not a war away, they are a click away. Caring adults can and do set limits such as drinking ages, ratings systems for movies and games, and even Internet filters. But ultimately, we need to be with our children and teens as they emerge into adulthood. We need to read, watch, and play with them.

Appropriate Discussions

Here are some open-ended questions that properly trained camp staff could use to beg in age-appropriate discussions that contextualize youngsters’ exposure.

What kinds of books, movies, sports, and video games do you like most and why? How have these books, movies, sports, and video games influenced you?

  •  How are people at camp different from people you see on T V, in movies and games?
  • How does camp make you feel compared to how you feel when you’re online?
  • What have you learned about solving problems with other people here at camp? How is that different from how people solve problems in video games?
  • How would you describe your idea l friend? What kind of a friend do you try to be?
  • What bonds do players in videos games make? How are t hose bonds dif ferent t ha n rea l-world bond s bet ween two friends or two players on the same sports team?
  • What are some difficulties you encounter outside of camp? What have you learned at camp that might help you cope with some of those difficulties?
  • If you were a camp counselor or cabin leader, what would you want your campers to learn at camp? How is that different from what kids learn at school? How is it different from what kids learn in video games or in movies?
  • Who do you look up to and why? How do you try to be more like your role models?
  •  What could make camp an even more fun break from the rest of the year?
  • When friends ask you to do things you know are not healthy, how do you say “no thanks”?  What makes that hard sometimes? What makes it easy other times?
  • What makes it hard to be the person you are at camp when you are back at school, at home, or in the neighborhood?
  • What is most important to you in a relationship with another person?

Conversations that beg in like this ca n get complicated quickly, which is why all camp staff should have specific training in the best ways to facilitate such dialogues. Alternatively, we can continue to let real and virtual people interact with our youth without meaningful context. If we choose to take a back seat, we will be allowing producers of games and films to re-norm our children’s expectations for the world: how people interact, how problems are solved, and what matters. As a parent, psychologist, and youth leader, I’d rather be in the driver’s seat.

The boy I spoke with that afternoon felt better after I contextualized his experiences. For example, I explained that while views differ on the morality of porn, most people agree that it often depicts an amplification of sexual performance, just as watching professional sports depicts an amplification of athletic performance. If you want to enjoy swimming, don’t expect to complete 100 meters of butterfly in under 50 seconds. If you did expect that kind of performance, then you’d begin anxious and end disappointed. (Of course, most parents would be proud to have their child compete in pro sports, so the analogy breaks down beyond the performance comparison.)

I also explained that communication was essential for healthy romance, regard- less of the level of physical intimacy. By con- trast, pornography typically limits human contact to that which involves the genitals, seldom other body parts, and almost no conversation, collaborative problem-solving, flirtation, or — heaven forbid — intellectual discourse. Not that the goal of porn is to depict two people debating political philosophy, but if 90 percent of the online interactions a young person witnesses are pornographic, it can easily distort his or her interpersonal expectations and the concepts of love and love-making. Such was the case with this boy.

So before assuming how best to proceed physically, we discussed possible outcomes of his media choices. I also suggested it would benefit both his girlfriend and him to slow down and get to know each other better; to talk about what they wanted; to decide what would be emotionally healthy for both of them; to spend nonsexual time together to create a relationship foundation. Such recommendations are not any more old-fashioned than Aeschylus’s quote. They are timeless precisely because they are tried and true.

Camp professionals have spent more t ha n 150 years successfully cultivating strong examples of leadership. Competing examples have always existed, but now they risk saturating and distorting our campers’ worlds during the 45 to 51 weeks each year they are away from camp. Remember that during each day of each of those weeks, eight- to ten-year-olds spend an average of eight hours in front of a screen; teens nearly 11 hours (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2013).

Starting today, let’s do more than show- case healthy role models. Let’s teach those role models how to contextualize the com- petition. If camp can teach boys and girls to make healthy choices on their own, then it has truly succeeded in its original mission.

References

American Academy of Pediatrics. (2013, October 28). Children, adolescents, and the media. Retrieved from www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/pages/Managing-Media-We-N...

Seabrook, A. (2008, March 2). Hester Prynne: Sinner, victim, object, winner. NPR. Retrieved from www.npr.org/2008/03/02/87805369/hester-prynne-sinner-victim-object-winner

Tharakan, A.G. & Sachin, S. (2015, May 18). Grand theft auto publisher Take-Two’s profit sails past street. Retrieved from www.reuters.com Investor Relations. (2015). In Corporate Profile. Retrieved from http://ir.take2games.com

Christopher Thurber, PhD, ABPP, is a board- certified clinical psychologist who enjoys creating and delivering original content to professional educators and youth leaders worldwide. 

He co-founded ExpertOnlineTraining.com, co-wrote The Summer Camp Handbook, and crafted the ACA’s homesickness prevention DVD for new camper families. Contact him through his website, CampSpirit.com.