Culture is a recursive phenomenon – we are products of our environment as much as we mold our surroundings. But how does our culture really affect us? Could casual exposure to violence against women, or the regular portrayal of rape as having positive consequences affect the way people think?
Research indicates that the answer yes. Over the decades, psychological research has consistently shown that positive portrayals of violence against women can increase the acceptance such interpersonal violence, and especially sexual violence can increase beliefs in rape myths (like the idea that “she was asking for it” or that women regularly make false claims of rape).
Please note that I am not arguing that viewing violent media makes a person violent – there is not a direct causal relationship. However, humans are affected by their surroundings, and media is one of the ways that society expresses its norms and expectations, and thus, it is one of the ways that we are enculturated. If violence against women is indicated to be normal, or even having positive outcomes as a social norm, it then perpetuates that violence – whether this is presented as factual or not.
Clearly this is not meant to be a review of all the research out there, but I have a semi-random sample of what appears to be much of the current research and a few older (but important) examples of psychology research done since the 1980’s on the effects of violence (primarily against women) in media has on people. Because this isn’t a psych blog, I won’t get into the nuances, but I would like to point out that many of these findings have be repeated in multiple experiments, done by different researchers with different populations.
There are basic factors that affect the base level of a person’s acceptance of violence against women. The two strongest indicators are gender and cultural norms. Across cultures men are more likely than women to “agree with myths and beliefs supportive of violence against women, perceive a narrower range of behaviors as violent, blame and show less empathy for the victim, minimize the harms associated with physical and sexual assault, and see behaviors constituting violence against women as less serious, inappropriate, or damaging” (Flood and Pease 2009). Cultural beliefs that include rigid gender norms have also been linked to a tolerance of violence against women. However, women in communities with conservative gender ideals tend to be less accepting than their male counterparts (Flood and Pease 2009).
Generally speaking it has been shown that exposure to violence results in desensitization to that violence (Krahé et al. 2011) and in some cases may even cause an increase in enjoyment in viewing violence (Fanti et al. 2009). Again, this is not arguing that it causes violence, just that people will have a reduced negative physiological response to perceived violence.
Likewise, a portrayal of violence against women tends to increase men’s acceptance of interpersonal violence, and especially in the case of sexual violence, may increase their acceptance of rape myths. This has been shown for multiple media types, including video games (Beck et al. 2012), TV (Kahlor and Eastin 2011), and movies (Linz, Donnerstein, and Penrod 1984; Malamuth and Briere 1986). Generally, this is not the case for women, and they may even reject such beliefs (Malamuth and Briere). Viewing violence against women, however, may increase a woman’s feelings of disempowerment (Reid and Finchilescu 1995).
Luckily, there are mitigating effects: it all depends on how the violence is portrayed. If it is shown to have negative consequences such as in crimes shows where rape and violence are punished, there is less acceptance of rape myths (Lee et al. 2010). Furthermore, if the female characters are strong rather than subordinate, the effects of women’s disempowerment and men’s acceptance of violence will be reduced or negated entirely (Ferguson 2012). Likewise, empathetic news coverage of violence against women, and increased media coverage of issues such as domestic violence have been shown to increase awareness about these problems, and can counter act myths. Formal education programs that produce lasting changes need to be “intensive, lengthy, and use a variety of pedagogical approaches,” otherwise they are counteracted by other media exposure (Flood and Pease 2009).
Given that culture is a recursive process, as much as it affects us, we can change it. It seems that people enjoy violent media, so it is a pointless goal to eradicate it entirely. What we can change is how violence is portrayed. You can do this by supporting movies and shows that show good interpersonal relationships and the negative effects of violence. Likewise, you can avoid movies that do things like show rape in a positive light, and explain to friends why you won’t watch certain shows. You can also join one of many feminist groups that oppose violence against women, and participate in events like Take Back the Night.
Beck, Victoria Simpson, Stephanie Boys, Christopher Rose, and Eric Beck. 2012. “Violence Against Women in Video Games: a Prequel or Sequel to Rape Myth Acceptance?” Journal of Interpersonal Violence 27 (15) (October 1): 3016–31. doi:10.1177/0886260512441078.
Fanti, Kostas a, Eric Vanman, Christopher C Henrich, and Marios N Avraamides. 2009. “Desensitization to Media Violence over a Short Period of Time.” Aggressive Behavior 35 (2): 179–87. doi:10.1002/ab.20295.
Ferguson, Christopher J. 2012. “Positive Female Role-Models Eliminate Negative Effects of Sexually Violent Media.” Journal of Communication 62 (5) (October 27): 888–899. doi:10.1111/j.1460-2466.2012.01666.x.
Flood, Michael, and Bob Pease. 2009. “Factors Influencing Attitudes to Violence Against Women.” Trauma, Violence & Abuse 10 (2) (April): 125–42. doi:10.1177/1524838009334131.
Kahlor, LeeAnn, and Matthew S. Eastin. 2011. “Television’s Role in the Culture of Violence Toward Women: A Study of Television Viewing and the Cultivation of Rape Myth Acceptance in the United States.” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 55 (2) (May 25): 215–231. doi:10.1080/08838151.2011.566085.
Krahé, Barbara, Ingrid Möller, L Rowell Huesmann, Lucyna Kirwil, Juliane Felber, and Anja Berger. 2011. “Desensitization to Media Violence: Links with Habitual Media Violence Exposure, Aggressive Cognitions, and Aggressive Behavior.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 100 (4) (April): 630–46. doi:10.1037/a0021711.
Lee, MJ, Stacey Hust, Lingling Zhang, and Y Zhang. 2010. “Effects of Violence Against Women in Popular Crime Dramas on Viewers’ Attitudes Related to Sexual Violence.” Mass Communication and Society (June 2013): 25–44.
Linz, Daniel, Edward Donnerstein, and Steven Penrod. 1984. “The Effects of Multiple Exposures to Filmed Violence Against Women.” Journal of Communication.
Malamuth, NM, and J Briere. 1986. “Sexual Violence in the Media: Indirect Effects on Aggression Against Women.” Journal of Social Issues.
Reid, Penny, and Gillian Finchilescu. 1995. “THE DISEMPOWERING EFFECTS OF MEDIA VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN ON COLLEGE WOMEN.” Psychology of Women Quarterly 19 (3) (September): 397–411. doi:10.1111/j.1471-6402.1995.tb00082.x.