Discerning Your Threshold for Violence and Sexuality in Media

Screenshot from Game of Thrones.
I thought I would love Game of Thrones because I’m all about high fantasy with serious themes. When Ned Stark died in Season One, I realized just how serious the show was going to be. The stories of vengeance, frustration, hopefulness, and ruthlessness all captured my attention. But by the end of Season Three, I noticed something troubling me after I watched each episode.

I’ve always taken sexual abuse very seriously. The rape scene in Show Girls left me shaking and furious. I could not finish watching A Clockwork Orange because the scenes of rape filled me with so much rage that I was ready to destroy something. This fury is partly why I stopped watching Game of Thrones, but has also extended to all media that I participate in. I watched The Magicians until the end of Season One, where a graphic rape scene is played out. I don’t like feeling that angry and media that continually returns to scenes of sexual violence leaves me in a state of constant agitation, which bleeds into my life and causes discord in all my relationships.

The more I pack into my mind, the harder it is on me and the more I suffer.

To add to that, I have friends who have been sexually assaulted. I’ve spent time with them listening to their pain and anguish. As an empathetic person, I feel their stress, fear, and suffering when they talk about it. My wife has experienced significant sexual trauma and a big part of our relationship has been filled with sorting that out and trying to find peace amidst that sorrow. The specter of sexual abuse haunts the victim for many years, sometimes never fully leaving and manifesting in all sorts of ways at inconvenient times and places. Having intimately engaged with someone in that struggle, seeing it play out on screen hits hard.

I also have a very good memory, particularly for images. When studying for exams I would spend a portion of the time staring at my notes because I could picture the pages again and re-read things written. If lose my keys or wallet I can imagine my day like a movie in reverse and figure out where I left them. If strong emotions are tied to an event, it leaves an even more vivid imprint on my mind. So scenes of sexual violence that produce strong anger responses stay with me. I can still picture that scene from Show Girls as if I saw it yesterday. I remember the shower scene in American History X in full colour. Sansa’s story of violent abuse is easy to recollect. Even Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth books have burned images of sexual exploitation and rape into my mind that I cannot shake. Combined with the true stories I’ve endured from friends and loved ones, I feel overwhelmed with disgust, anger, sorrow, fear and pain.

I’ve come to see that the more I pack into my mind, the harder it is on me and the more I suffer. I’ve hit a capacity for seeing these graphic images and now every new one adds a scar on my heart. While I am willing to endure the pain to help real people overcome their suffering and share in their burdens, I am no longer willing to take those blows for entertainment.

I recently watched the first season if Westworld, and though there is one moment of implied forced sex, it happens off screen and  it left little impact on me. The sex and nudity in that show don’t impact me the way violence within the same framework does, though the same images might be a problem for someone else.

Media impacts us all differently. There are some reasonable assumptions we can make (for example, watching pornography will likely induce lust and extreme graphic violence will turn people’s stomachs), but my threshold for certain imagery is not the same as the next person’s. The images of rape and abuse in Game of Thrones may not be as problematic for someone else, while nudity and sexuality in Westworld may be a big issue. Still others may find the violence in Mortal Kombat X nightmare-inducing.

It’s easy to condemn media for being too racy or too violent or inappropriate, but in doing so we only teach people how to form laws without reasons.

As a parent, there are shows I avoid watching with my kids, but as they get older I talk with them about how media affects our minds and hearts rather than drawing lines in the sand.

It’s easy to condemn media for being too racy or too violent or inappropriate, but in doing so we only teach people how to form laws without reasons, forcing them to conform to a set of standards without the freedom to talk about it. This hurts our society and makes it impossible to actually deal with the problems we have. But if we talk about why media harms us or how we’re impacted by it, we teach people how to censor themselves. So we maintain freedom in our society, but create places to talk about how things make us feel and the impact they have on an individual. I think doing this creates a society that loves and respects individuals rather than condemns or belittles people.

This focusing on the individual nature of sin instead of rules for rules’ sake is actually explained in a few different places in the Bible (Jeremiah 17:10, Romans 7:7-24, James 4:11-12, Romans 14), and yet often it is Christians who attempt to force morality and censorship on society based on unrealistic expectations. Instead, I hope to create a climate in my home and my social circles where we can talk about what bothers us and why. Where we can support each other even if we don’t agree. Where I can watch or play what I like, but have the sensitivity to turn it off when you’re around, if it bothers you, because I love you. And where we can talk about the rich characters and story of Game of Thrones together, but without the deep sexual violence that so graphically covers the screen and leaves me with more scars.

Dustin Schellenberg

Dustin Schellenberg

Contributing Writer at Area of Effect
Dustin spends his time exploring the far reaches of space, understand the ancient ways of might and magic, and wandering the post-apocalyptic wastes. If it has a reasonably open world, a crafting system and some way to sneak around, he'll be there. When not gaming, he's probably planning his next D&D character (because his DM keeps killing off the old ones). He is a competent bass player and guitarist, mediocre mid laner and outright awful FPS player. He is father of two, husband of one, a sometimes theologian, and all-times pastor of Crestview Park Free Methodist Church in Winnipeg, MB.
Dustin Schellenberg