Considering Violence, Rape, and how we Interpret Media

When IO released their new Hitman: Absolution trailer last week it made a lot of people angry. Rhetorical guns blazing, they took to their respective forums and articulated their disgust.

For those who don’t know, Hitman is a videogame series self-evidently based on stealth and shooter gameplay. Players maneuver the main character, Agent 47, through different environments, taking out specific targets as well as any obstacles that arise in-between.

The new trailer and the ensuing condemnation raise several important questions, some of which are exclusive to the game itself and the marketing behind it, but also others that reach beyond videogames entirely and into broader issues of how society relates to the media it produces.

Sexism and rape are two things from a subset of issues upon which having an opinion is a delicate business. Like racism and abortion, they are infused with a highly personal and yet deeply systematic form of violence. Rape is an overt and highly sexualized type of violence, and while sexist and racist attitudes can escalate to that, they’re tyranny is institutionalized and often much more subversive, and thus not always as easily rallied against. In this way, arguing against racist and sexist attitudes is part of protesting them.

Here, difference of opinion can quickly lead to insensitivity, or at last appear to, and thus implicate the speaker in the very injustice upon which they are speaking. Disagreeing with someone about whether an action or claim is violent can become an act of violence itself. This makes nuanced, patient, or charitable discourse on these topics difficult. When it comes to videogames, it gets even harder because, while most people might play Farmville or Angry Birds, still relatively few play the blockbuster hits that most often embody or perpetrate discriminatory narratives.

The trailer depicts 47 patching himself up in a hotel room as a group of nuns walks towards his building. Only they’re not nuns. First the camera cuts to their stiletto heels. Then reveals their fish net stockings. And finally each women takes off her habit revealing curves and a bust to match any pornstar’s. Each of the women pulls out their respective weapons, including an RPG launcher. 47 turns up behind one of the women, and a bloody slaughter ensues.

Is this another case of videogame hyper violence? Is it sexist? Is it a part of “rape culture?”

The answers to these questions could run the gamut. The trailer isn’t real. It’s a piece of marketing that’s trying to sell us on a larger creative project. Our understanding of it is context dependent, and the context is hardly clear. There are quite a few interpretative possibilities. So how did the discussion of the trailer devolve so quickly into the enlightened vs. the narrow-minded and misogynistic?

Michael Thomsen wrote a short post on the event at Kill Screen. The pitchforks and torches came out shortly after. And the outlet that published his brief riff has since apologized for doing so. In it, Thomsen suggested the following,

“There are a number of problems with arguments like these, foremost of which is the presumption that the central intension of the Hitman trailer was titillation and arousal. It is possible to depict an act in art without endorsing it, and while the women in the trailer are certainly meant to evoke sexuality, they are not necessarily meant to be arousing to the viewer.”

He was reacting to this piece by fellow Kill Screen contributor, Brendan Keogh. At his blog, Critical Damage, Keogh wrote, “My problem with this trailer is precisely its sexuality, more specifically its conflation of sexuality with violence.”

More than that though, Keogh was shocked that anyone could conceive of the trailer as unproblematic. “Apparently,” he continued, “the videogame rape culture is so ingrained that this actually needs to be spelled out.”

Within a few sentences, and some links to other posts, Keogh moves from calling out the sexual overtones of the trailer’s violence, to labeling it as metaphoric rape and locating it within culture that seeks to normalize violence against women. What’s more, he moves from the critical state of mind that gives rise to this kind of nuanced interpretation, to a level of certainty and condemnation that is steeped in hostility, that doesn’t seek to rebut opposing opinions, but deny them any legitimacy at all.

Keogh outlines the definition of rape culture he works with throughout the piece as follows, “[T]he means by which our society keeps women subservient to men by constantly reminding them that if they step out of line, if they for a moment think that they have as much freedom or power as men, men will rape them and put them back in their place.”

There is no room for nuance here. A complex subject is forced into a series of absolutes. All issues of gender and sexual equality are reduced to rape. “Rape culture” isn’t just a problematic attitude that can lead to or trivialize sexual violence; it’s the basis for all such violence, whether physical or verbal, explicit or assumed. For Keogh it is the means through which men actively keep women subservient.

It is this definition and Keogh’s particular interpretation of the trailer that gives rise to his outrage,

“What I have a problem with…is that these aren’t just ‘women assassins dressed as nuns’. These are women designed and dressed by the trailer’s producer (probably a male) to look (a male version of) sexy while another male (Agent 47) bashes the shit out of them all while other males (the imagined gamer at home) watches on. It is pretty telling that the opening of the trailer is the manly man getting dressed for the encounter while the sexualised women get undressed for it. You, the viewer that the trailer’s creator assumes is male, are meant to think these women are sexy, that their naughty-nun costumes and their giant bosoms and stripper heels are sexually appealing while Agent 47 exerts his male dominance over them, while he puts them in their place. Oh? You think you are powerful assassins? No. You are foolish little girls. Here, see how a real man assassin puts you in your place. No, he doesn’t ‘literally’ rape them, but a male forced these (fictional) women to act in a way males would find them sexy while another male did violence to them. That is teaching women their place. That is fucked up. That is rape culture.”

Considering Violence, Rape, and how we Interpret Media

The problem comes with how many interpretative leaps this conclusion requires. Even granting an all male team behind the both the game and marketing, Keogh demands that we assume their reason for making the women look hypersexualized is specifically so 47 can “bash the shit” out of sexy women, and not for any other reason. Not for as Thomsen suggests, to hyperbolically show 47’s dehumanization through his indifference to their sexual appeal. Not even for the more basic reason that almost all females appearing in AAA console videogames are defacto hypersexualized, and though this has taken far too long to change, this trailer seems hardly unique in this respect.

We must further assume that the only reason these assassins are women is so a predominantly male audience can watch a white male “put them in their place.” And that by virtue of these women being fictionalized creations of male designers, their very lack of agency as digital avatars is part of the violence being committed against them.

What I find troubling is that Keogh assumes that the people watching the trailer would enjoy watching a man kill hypersexualized women in such a way that is symbolic of rape, and thus that’s why the trailers creators made it the way they did.

Now I don’t discount Keogh’s interpretation, which I focus on here because it is emblematic of many other people’s. I don’t agree with his interpretation either, but do regard it as a legitimate one.

However, as Thomsen suggests it is possible that, “the point of the nun’s sexual depiction seems to me to be primarily a matter of contrast with the stark asexuality of 47.”

Whether or not that is the case, or is the best interpretation given the evidence available is up for debate. But it’s a possibility, one that I find compelling, and which isn’t on its face absurd. Thomsen and others have noted that to depict is not to endorse. However, in this case, the assumption seems to be that merely depicting euphemistic rape, if we accept that is what the trailer does, necessarily perpetuates a culture of rape that normalizes that kind of violence, and in doing so invites those of us who witness this piece of media to consciously or not become more accepting of it.

But what about in my case? I saw the trailer, and was visually disgusted. Not because I saw it as a metaphor for rape (though perhaps as many others would claim my subconscious did), but because it was violent for no ostensible reason. The assassins went to kill 47, and then he killed them instead, even if he was punched and stabbed in the process. The trailer is near context-less. We can’t locate a compelling reason for anyone’s actions, even if 47’s are presumed to be in self-defense.

How then do we adjudicate different interpretations of media? Because it’s clear that at least for the people who see the trailer as a metaphor for rape, it does not somehow normalize rape for them. In a way, what the community protesting this kind of content is actually concerned with are people who at once lack a critical stance when watching the trailer but will still, on a subconscious level, internalize its symbolic message. This seems to beg the question: if two people come away from a piece of media with two different understandings of what it conveys, whose is right?

What if two critically situated people, both well versed in media interpretation and cultural criticism, come away with different opinions on the matter? What if someone who is less “educated” on the matter has a third diverging view point. Or people from different racial or cultural backgrounds present even more variance? This isn’t an easy thing to figure out (which is why thoughtful censorship is always difficult in practice)

For me personally what the trailer conveys is pure violence; energetically unsettling and brutally revolting. This is something Dave Thier addressed at his Forbes blog.

“That violence is often committed against faceless men, and so one could suppose that the inclusion of women is some march towards a twisted version of ‘equality.’ It doesn’t feel that way. That’s because video games don’t just have a problem with depicting women. Video games have a problem with depicting humans.”

And this is the more central problem that I see. As Thier notes, sexism in videogames is a problem that’s being addressed, however slowly, but “violence is a core principle.” What surprised me most was the outrage leveled at the Hitman: Absolution trailer because its violence was perceived by some to be exclusively aimed at women.

Is this the same sub-culture that doesn’t take issue with Grand Theft Auto, Gears of War, or Max Payne? The first series in that list allows and encourages players to shoot cops, run over pedestrians, and make their way through the criminal underground. No, you don’t have to do those first two things, but they are more likely than not going to happen and the game mechanics even reward those behaviors; sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly.

Considering Violence, Rape, and how we Interpret MediaGears of War, another popular and fairly uncontroversial series (at least within the gaming community) is sold on the opportunity to chainsaw enemies in a blood splattering frenzy. What’s more, the game presents these enemies as faceless, unthinking goons bent only on trying to destroy humanity. By the end of the third game, the goal of Gears of War is not only to fight off the invasion by the “other,” but to successfully commit genocide against it.

Considering Violence, Rape, and how we Interpret MediaThen there’s Max Payne, a series in which the most recent installment finds its protagonist indiscriminately gunning down hundreds of people. The core gameplay mechanic, “gun time” is an ability wherein Max can slow down time while still aiming and firing his gun at regular speed, thus allowing him to deliver multiple headshots in a couple of seconds. The entire game is sculpted around this single conceit. Literally, the game is about presenting entertaining and challenging situations for players to slaughter other “fictional” human beings with grisly precision.

Tom Bissell noted this in his recent reaction to Max Payne 3,

“Let’s also not kid ourselves about what happens even to a sane, well-adjusted person after an entire day of watching faces get shredded by bullets. I played Max Payne 3 in two long sittings. After the end of my first sitting, which lasted around six hours, I went to a dinner party with my girlfriend. I was, she reports, “mouthy” and “agitated” during our dinner, and she wondered what had gotten into me. What had gotten into me was that I was shooting people in the face all afternoon. In this sense, Max Payne 3 is something of an anarchic throwback for Rockstar, especially after the more searching Red Dead Redemption and more accommodating L.A. Noire, which allowed casual players to skip the action parts. Max Payne 3 is a game for the hardest of the hardcore and the strongest of the strong-stomached. When it comes to blood and violence, my video-game stomach is strong indeed, but something about Max Payne 3 made me wonder what on earth had been added to the table creatively with its in extremis kill-cams. It’s not enough, I don’t think, if they’re there only because someone thought they looked cool.”

Is the glorification of slaughter, without any conceivable creative purpose for doing so, a problem? I lean toward yes, but remain far from certain. Either way, it’s pervasive in videogames.

Which is to say that to whatever degree Hitman: Absolution does contribute to a culture of rape, it appears to contribute much more forcefully to a culture of general violence. And not just in the abstract. One could interpret rape into the trailer, but no symbolic sensitivity is needed to find the violence. It’s essential. And not just in Hitman: Absolution, but in most popular videogames.

I can’t help but draw an analogy to film here. Pornography, while part of what the medium produces, is never considered when discussing the medium’s merit. Hyperviolent (less so now) and hypsexualized films are kept to the fringe.

That’s not the case in videogames though: the pornography of videogames is the mainstream. Things that wouldn’t be considered kosher, like taking pleasure in senseless slaughter of realistic looking, sounding, and dying people, are the basis for the medium. That is becoming much less so. Even while large companies try to pour millions into gun-slinging power fantasies, the indie scene is doing several interesting, imaginative, and diverse things. But Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty remain industry defining franchises.

Yes, some games take the violence and put it through a narrative meat grinder that helps justify it by putting it in the service of some moral cause or goal. But most of the best selling games are extremely light when it comes to ethical complexity or establishing purpose: the violence is the thing, and it’s loud and bloody and god damn it gets your heart pounding.

Thomsen is of the opinion that,

“This scene is only teaching women their place if we assume that the purpose of art is to teach. Art should not be a teacher but instead it should provoke. It has been and will be a place for subverting moral ideals, transgressing taboos, and exploiting the superficial mandates of good taste, from John Waters to Dennis Cooper to Shakespeare at his cannibalistic best”

I wouldn’t say that the purpose of art is to teach, but it does seem that art necessarily has a point. That point can be as basic and sublime (or primal in the case of pornography) as bringing aesthetic pleasure to the audience. It can also be more complex and make an argument. Provocation and subversion are two ways of doing this, but provocation and subversion for their own sake don’t really make sense. Should artists seek to offend in the blind hope that simply challenging norms and established values will yield some sort of new wisdom?

I’m not sure, especially in a world where even if I trust myself to view media with a critical and thoughtful eye, I can’t always trust others to do the same. Perhaps I can interpret the Hitman trailer in such a way that it actually proves enlightening in some capacity (in which case media criticism starts to function rhetorically as well). But what if that’s not the one that most other people go with, or the one that ends up informing their conscious and subconscious views on women and violence?

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157 thoughts on “Considering Violence, Rape, and how we Interpret Media

  1. Not to condone the use of Freud’s model of the psyche in general, but it’s a useful enough tool here…

    Anyway, the majority of video games out there appeal primarily to the id. I mean, look at that trailer. It’s images of sexuality and violence and you can feel STIMULUS RESPONSE STIMULUS RESPONSE STIMULUS RESPONSE throbbing underneath everything.

    The video games that are out there that tend to be called “artistic” are the ones that tend to not indulge the id anywhere near as much (or even ignore it completely to get into ego vs. ego, ego vs. Superego, or Superego vs. Superego clashes).

    I see that trailer and my irritation takes the form “we need a higher class of id”.

    The other half is asking “Who told?”

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  2. I’m probably the wrong person to comment about this. I don’t play video games. I find graphic violence of any type viscerally unpleasant. I cannot comment about the trailer as it fits into the genre as a whole with any authority at all.

    But here’s the question I cannot settle after having watched that trailer (which literally put me off my lunch) — why were those women dressed as sexy nuns? Why with the fetish outfits and the heels, which (if we’re talking about the work of stealthily killing someone) seem highly impractical to me? What other explanation is even possible, much less plausible, beyond the desire to titillate the audience? And why is the combination of sex and violence so very titillating? It need not devolve into a discussion of rape, when the violence as depicted seems sufficiently disturbing in and of itself.

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    • This, of course, is the grand tradition, though, right? I know you don’t like horror movies either, and those are sort of the original mass media version of this. There’s a reason all those slasher flicks center around tits and gore: they engage the least self-conscious parts of our brains. They are pure, instant gratification all the way through.

      At the very least, whether we choose to engage these parts of our brains or not, we should understand what we’re doing, and why the fact that it’s always tits and gore (and never, for lack of a better word, dicks and gore) is at least somewhat problematic.

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      • speak for yourself. some of us are quite capable of writing better horror than gore flicks.

        The best horror is an intimate understanding of exactly how horrible the person who is undergoing it feels.

        This is markedly different from the best scare, which often centers on the unknown.

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    • This is a great point. Gamers I know often talk about “realism”. What is realistic about the depiction of the women there? Does their depiction bother the gamers as much as a male character’s equally anachronistic depiction would? If not, why?

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      • Nothing is realistic about them. Which IS a real problem. Not that one specific game trailer does it so much as that it’s everywhere in modern games.

        Even as heterosexual male who likes pornography (even, occasionally fetish nun pornography), it’s annoying. Made even more irritating because, at the same time, they’re so coy about actual sex.

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    • Because humans are really weird fuckers, with their brains wired really poorly.
      Vore, the fetishization of people being eaten — as something that makes people want to have sex, is Innate to the human condition (though obviously expressed more in some people than others).

      That said, this is probably about a particular miswiring about power and the dislike of women having power. And about using a man’s “golden gun” to eliminate that power of sexy women to tell him no.

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  3. What surprised me most was the outrage leveled at the Hitman: Absolution trailer because its violence was perceived by some to be exclusively aimed at women.

    I think this is missing a vital point. If the trailer depicted a hit man fighting women, or fighting a group of both men and women, who are typically dressed the way men are in shoot-em-ups rather than being hypersexualized, it wouldn’t have provoked remotely as much anger. It’s the combination of presenting women purely as sexual objects for the enjoyment of the gamer (who is presumed to be male) and then having the male character kill the sexualized women (thus indicating men are just better/tougher than women) that makes this even more screwed up than your typical violence-based game. There’s no reason besides titillation for the women to be dressed like that.

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    • There’s no reason besides titillation for the women to be dressed like that.

      Is titillation something that ought to be avoided? Would we be better off repressing the parts of our selves that say “whoa cool” to the trailer and uplifting the parts of our selves that sneer at how adolescent it is, wince at how violent it is, and apologize for the members of our species that don’t sneer or wince or otherwise disapprove?

      These aren’t intended to be trick questions. They’re, instead, very very old questions.

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      • I would say yes, men should be repressing the parts of themselves that are inclined to view women as objects for their own gratification rather than as persons. Excessively indulging those attitudes/traits can lead to undesirable behaviour.

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        • “men should be repressing the parts of themselves that are inclined to view women as objects for their own gratification rather than as persons.”

          So when a pretty girl wears nice clothes and makeup, she’s perpetuating the patriarchy and is a collaborator in the War On Women.

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            • So, wait, under what circumstances is it not “treating a woman as an object” to consider a woman attractive?

              Furthermore, why do you deny the agency of a woman who chooses to present herself in a way that’s attractive to men?

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              • I’m trying to figure out, using only the definitions of the words, how finding a woman (or any other person) sexually attractive solely because of physical attributes could ever be anything other than objectification.

                The second question is more interesting, because we do have to deal with that fact that sometimes women want to be objectified. But, of course, the kicker is that it is their choice, not yours.

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                  • I think being physically attracted to a woman (or anyone else) is unavoidably a base urge. Whether it’s ultimately negative has a lot to do with what you do with the urge. And I don’t merely rape/don’t rape, which for many of us is a fairly easy decision point.

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            • Bordering? Duck’s an international troll, he knows no borders. Pay his troll ass no mind at all.

              What’s needed in the world o’ gaming is for women to start writing games women might like. If men objectify women, women have their own modes of objectifying the world: it’s just abstraction. Yet consider, though I wouldn’t generalise or enter into the minds of women (though I do write a lot of pornography for women and get paid pretty well for it), it’s been my observation such objectification might result in far more intricate character construction. I mean, in my world, writing porn for women is hard work. Women are far more demanding. With men, it’s just a picture. With women, it’s far more.

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            • to the point where I’m surprised the question needs to be asked

              This is why I think that looking at the numbers from the last decade or two decades or three decades is interesting. I think that we have pretty steadily been on a vector running away from repression of sexualized imagery, and violent imagery, and sexualized violent imagery. The fifties to the sixties to the seventies to the eighties to the nineties to where we are now where pornography and ultra-V is, pretty much “On Demand”.

              If you want to watch two people engage in some weird thing like dressing up like animals and spanking each other’s feet while one yells about how disappointed the other’s father would be… there’s a website for that. Probably. If not today, tomorrow. If you’re interested in something a little less niche, it’s on the web for free.

              There is very, very much a part of me that says that this is likely to result in the world going to hell in a handbasket… except if you look at the crime numbers for crimes related to sex and related to ultra-V, they’re going *DOWN* (and staying down) and the only places where these numbers remain disturbing are in the parts of town that don’t have ubiquitous high-speed internet with ubiquitous computers in rooms that have lockable doors.

              Is there causation between these two things? It certainly hasn’t been demonstrated.

              But I’ve seen less counter-intuitive conclusions than ubiquitous id fodder in a controlled environment results in less id acting out.

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      • Except, to me, it’s not “whoa, cool.” It’s “Oh look, another depiction of women going into a combat situation wearing stiletto heels.” You want to make a porn game? Great, porn can be fun. If it was JUST the Hitman trailer, this wouldn’t be a huge deal. But this is EVERYWHERE.

        I’ve got a story of an indie developer who, looking for premade character models to purchase, actually has difficulty finding reasonably attired female models. The only option is to make females sexualized: http://www.eldergame.com/2011/07/alpha-art-woes-sex-crazed-elves/

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    • I said something very similar to this concerning the trailer on another board. The question posed was “Are people overreacting to the trailer?”.

      ——————————————————————————————————————-

      The violence by itself: Yes, they are overreacting.

      The fact that it was violence against women: Yes, they are overreacting.

      The sexualizing violence: well…..

      http://www.gametrailers.com/video/e3-2011-hitman-absolution/715542

      http://www.gametrailers.com/video/vga-2011-hitman-absolution/724812

      http://www.gametrailers.com/video/e3-2012-hitman-absolution/730638

      Ignoring the “Diana in the shower” part from the first two, did you notice a distinct difference in how 47’s opponents are dressed?

      The complaint that the “Naughty Nuns” trailer is sexualizing violence is a little harder to dismiss.

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    • But is that something the trailer is actually conveying?

      After all, even the Catwoman in upcoming Batman movie fights in heels, and Black Widow was unnecessarily sexified. That’s not to say that I’m alright with this kind of sexism, I’m not, but it seems promienent enough to make the idea that the trailer depicted the women that way specifically so viewers could get off on watching sexy women be killed, is a hard sell.

      And what do we say to the person that doesn’t see that in the trailer? Does it remain dangerous still? Or simply offensive?

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    • Just because we can do something, or (perhaps more accurately) because we shouldn’t be prohibited from doing something, it doesn’t necessarily follow that we should go ahead and do it.

      The aged, spinster librarian who lives in my soul wonders if perhaps that’s a dying distinction.

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        • Well, you have the legal answer, which is that the First Amendment probably prohibits such a law. Or you can go with the moral answer, which is what gave us the First Amendment in the first place.

          Or, if you prefer, the state is not just the codification of a norm.

          Or, even if we assume the state is a codification of a norm, it does not in any way follow that we should use force to prohibit people from violating norms.

          A minority aesthetic, even if defended by a single person (or no one at all), deserves protection. There are a handful of things that seem like just plain baseline things the state should never be allowed to do. Censoring art is right near the top of that list.

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          • But why? What I’m getting at is if we’re not willing to outlaw something, clearly we don’t think it’s bad enough to warrent trying to stop people from doing it.

            Being anti-censorship just for the sake of it is silly. And clearly the Supreme Court does prohibit certain kinds of obscene speech. So the question is, why or why aren’t certain thoughts and statements, artistically rendered or not, so bad that we would outlaw them?

            On a side note, am I the only person that thinks it sounds silly to say, hey, I think you shoudn’t do these things, but hey, do them if you want! That makes sense for personal choices, but if the implicit argument is that play acting rape, or encouraging rape is just bad, always and forever, because it leads to negative externalities for the rest of us, then why wouldn’t we outlaw it?

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            • Who said it leads to negative externalities? You’re making a leap here. And, moreover, as others point out in this thread somewhere, the evidence (to the extent there is any) points toward rape in videogames having positive externalities.

              I don’t think being anti-censorship for the sake of it is silly at all. Speech has inherent value, which I would tie to the dignity of the speaker but others might locate somewhere else. Restricting it is inherently a violation of the personhood of the speaker. Before we do that, we had better be damn sure that it’s justified. Short of causing physical harm to someone, I’m not sure how you get to that justification.

              As for the rest, do you really believe that? I’m not going to outlaw going to work drunk, but I still think people shouldn’t do it. I also think your boss should be allowed to fire you for doing it, but I’m not going to put it into the U.S. Code that he/she has to fire you. That would sure be weird.

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            • And clearly the Supreme Court does prohibit certain kinds of obscene speech.

              They do? Are you sure about that? It was within the past 1-2 years that the SCOTUS, in an 8-1 decision, protected the right of people to make horrible porn depicting the gruesome killing of small animals. (I wish I were making that up, or that the only person whose opinion on the matter I respected was Sam Alito.)

              And I don’t think we should try to stop people from making videos like this one. I think the best answer is to say, collectively, that we think it’s horrible and people should be ashamed for making it, but if they’re willing to have the mass of society think they’re horrible and shameful, then that’s their right.

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          • Chris,

            Would you be interested in writing a post on “What (if anything) is wrong with inequality” for our soon-to-be-upcoming League Inequality Symposium? You come from a fairly different perspective than most of us here, so I’d be interested in your contribution.

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          • Yes, but I’m talking about activities that people actually think are harmful to society at large.

            Legalizing drugs doesn’t just affect the people who then decide to use them, and in this case, if you accept the logic of rape/violence normalized through media, we either have to decide that the tradeoffs are worth it, or they aren’t.

            Taking the line that this thing is really dangerous, and we should shame people about it, BUT it’s not dangerous enough to actually really do something about it (legally) seems a weird disconnect.

            I understand there are practical reasons against these kinds of things (prohibition) but the logic of, “If you think alcohol ruins lives, don’t support legalizing it” seems sound, no?

            Unlike, “I think alcohol ruins lives, and leads to violence/broken homes, and shame on you if you drink, but hey I support you doing it if you want to do it.”

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            • “Harmful to society at large” is a very nebulous concept upon which to base an ethic, much less a legal system. I recognize that we do, but even in its current incaration it leads to all sorts of absurdities. And in the end, there’s always another principle doing all of the work anyway.

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              • Yes it’s nebulous. But that’s not the issue at here (is it?).

                It’s if you DO believe that there are harmful affects, you can’t reasonably say there’s no interest in regulating them. And while that interest needs to be compelling because of our other stated goal of maximizing liberty (because, I assume, of the benefits of doing so rather than some first principle), I can’t imagine the point of shaming someone into not doing something if we don’t think that doing it is really that much of a problem (i.e. it takes more energy to shame someone than to pass a law and pay for the government to enforce it).

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                • I don’t think your logic is sound here, E.C. That the downside of regulating a particular activity may outweigh the benefits of the regulation does not mean the downside of shaming outweigh the benefits. Regulation and shaming have different costs (using that term broadly, not just in dollar terms), so one may have net positive effects while the other does not. For your logic to work, regulation and shaming must have the same costs/downsides, or nearly enough so that the cost/benefit calculation of using them always comes out the same.

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                • I’m a little unsure why the state is our first-line mechanism for conveying to people that they should stop doing something. It seems to me that force is precisely the last thing you want to use, when all other options have failed. Given the growing antipathy toward certain images of women, it’s far from clear to me that the other options have actually failed.

                  Now, on the more basic ethical questions, the first thing to note is that not all of us are utilitarians (sorry, Hanley). For me, questions of when to violate or not violate basic liberties simply don’t resolve to cost-benefit calculations. This is what I meant above when I suggested the “moral answer” that got us the First Amendment in the first place. We have a firm protection for speech, I would argue, for reasons that have nothing to do with cost-benefit analysis, so using cost-benefit analysis to vitiate the First Amendment involves a category error.

                  The second thing to note on the ethical issue is that, even if we assume utilitarianism, there are a lot of moving parts in a good cost-benefit analysis. We’re going to need to demonstrate exactly how big the harm is in whatever we’re trying to regulate. I don’t think we’ve really done that here.

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                  • Ryan,

                    I think most people make implicit cost/benefit calculation, even if they’re not libertarians. There are very few people who apply their moral/ethical rules absolutely–they almost always recognize certain situations where the cost of applying the rule outweighs the value. I don’t think that makes them utilitarians per se, but I do think c/b calculation is what’s actually going on.

                    And, yes, there are lots of moving parts in a good c/b analysis. It’s an open question how good implicit calculations are at taking account of those things.

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                • My stated goal is not “maximizing liberty.” Maybe maximizing freedom and equality, but not “liberty,” as “liberty” has come, in our American political vernacular, to mean something I’m not particularly interested in. However, even if we were “maximizing liberty,” it seems quite clear to me that shame would be a more ethical method than the threat of physical coercion, which is what we’re talking about when we talk about laws. Plus, “shame” is much more open to revision so that it can evolve as society’s mores evolve.

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                  • Maybe maximizing freedom and equality,

                    You can’t simultaneously maximize two variables. ;)

                    In your distinction between liberty and freedom, does your freedom include positive as well as negative liberty, or do you mean something else entirely?

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                    • You can’t simultaneously maximize two variables.

                      That depends, of course, on how those variables are related.

                      And yes, I would include some “positive liberty,” though I find the distinction between positive and negative liberty to be somewhat dubious.

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            • Taking the line that this thing is really dangerous, and we should shame people about it, BUT it’s not dangerous enough to actually really do something about it (legally) seems a weird disconnect.

              If your default setting is to maximize liberty, then the amount of danger related to the activity or speech you wish to ban must pass a very high bar before that ban is justifiable. This kind of speech (which is what we understand it to be) is, to me, repellant and shameful, but it does not even begin to approach the bar I would set for infringing upon our freedom to express ourselves without fear of government reprisal.

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              • Taking the line that this thing is really dangerous, and we should shame people about it, BUT it’s not dangerous enough to actually really do something about it (legally) seems a weird disconnect.

                Among the biggest killers in society are obesity and cars. Obesity can be handled by strict control of what foods we are allowed to eat and mandatory exercise regimes.

                Cars and driving are, of course, already highly regulated, but this has not stopped the mayhem (every year, a small town’s worth of people is completely obliterated by the automobile). I suggest we ban autos, thus saving tens of thousands of lives per year.*

                If that’s ridiculous, and you think it goes too far, then you’ve already violated your own maxim, and we’re just quibbling over where the reasonable place to draw the lines is.

                ___________________________________________
                *Fortunately, this may soon be unnecessary, due to rapid advances in self-driving cars. But if it takes ten years for those to become the norm (a highly optimistic guess), the equivalent of the city of Honolulu will be wiped out. If it takes twenty years, cars will kill the equivalent of the city of Seattle.

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                • Right, because there’s another principle at work here. In the case of cars, almost everyone would say the benefit of more efficient transportation over longer distances outweighs the negatives of, you know, a bunch of people dying, particularly in a society that is now built around our ability to travel relatively long distances efficiently for work, food, etc. So clearly there’s a principle above this “societal harm” abstraction that’s doing the real work, and allows you to keep cars even though they’re clearly harmful (in addition to killing people directly, they also fuck up the air, so man, they’re really harmful to society, if anything is).

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                  • Oooh, I didn’t even think of the air quality issue. And autonomous cars won’t solve that one. Ban ’em! Ban ’em now! Unless, as you say, there’s another principle at work beyond just “societal harm.” It’s almost like we’re making implicit cost-benefit calculations…

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                • The big difference here is that I can choose not to take part in the car culture. If rape culture persists though it will pressumably find its victims whether or not they’re fine with it.

                  In the same way that if a hypothetical drug made people super violent, and led to a demonstratable increase in violenct assualts in areas of use, we wouldn’t think that it was ridiculous to regulate it, no?

                  Now I’m not claiming that is the case in this instance (far from it). Rather, I’m trying to impose some kind of moral outrage consistancy which says if you think rape is a problem AND the above trailer (and things like it) contribute to a culture that normalizes and thus sustains rape, you can’t stop short of censorship (unless, as I mentioned before, you rely completely on arguments of practicality as to why such censorship would be impossible to appropriately implement).

                  I think you guys are misreading me as endorsing these positions when really I’m just trying to understand why or why not they are internally inconsistant.

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                    • Dude, obviously you can! You could hike out into the Alaskan wilderness, to a place miles from any road, and miles from anywhere a road is likely to be in the foreseeable future, and live in a hut, never leaving your little area. Then you’ve opted out of car culture. It’s so easy.

                      I drive twice a month, as I have to head out of Austin into the scary Texas hinterland where there is little or no public transportation. The rest of the time I walk, ride my bike, or take the bus. I have been, to this point, in one car acccident while in a car, in my entire lifetime. I have, in the last 8 years, been hit by cars 2 times on foot and 4 times on a bike. Apparently when I opted out of the car culture, I actually opted into it even more fully.

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                    • True, which is why I’m all for heavily regulating cars.

                      Your analogy to the cars is a good one.

                      Side note, as someone who walks to the subway, takes it to the train, takes the train to the bus, and then walks from the bus to work, I would love a tax on driving estimated via some combination of fuel usage and number of axles (my option would obviously be offset by the number of other people on the bus with me, though electric ones like some other major cities would really bring this home).

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                  • I think you guys are misreading me as endorsing these positions when really I’m just trying to understand why or why not they are internally inconsistant.

                    From my perspective, the answer is simply that sometimes the cost of regulation outweighs the benefit.

                    If you can show that the sexualized violence of the video game has a causal relationship with rape, then you’ll have an argument. But I suspect it’s really like the old claims about pornography and rape, which ran along the lines of “almost all rapists use porn, so clearly porn causes rape.” Well, no, correlation does not equal causation, and it’s likely that all people inclined to rape would do so with or without porn, but given their proclivities they also will use porn.

                    So enjoying virtual rape is vile and worthy of shaming, but does not necessarily rise to the level of being worthy of regulating. This is where the “nebulous” aspect comes in–the more nebulous the claimed effect, the more dubious the expectations of a net benefit from regulation are. The more certain the effect–like PCP causing people to be violent (at least as my limited understanding goes)–the more reasonable the expectation of a net benefit from regulation.

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                    • how would you maintain that these things are vile?

                      My basic principles are about consent and not doing harm to others against their will. Enjoying the thought of violating that basic principle is not admirable.

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                    • What’s the definition of “vile” here? If the question is, would I be disgusted by a psychopath (psychopath is a colloquial term, so I don’t think it’s the wrong term unless you’re trying to describe someone clinically) who doesn’t commit violence, but expresses violent desires (visually, verbally, however), the answer is probably yes. I assume that would be true for James and just about anyone who’s not him or herself a bit lacking in the empathy department.

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                    • E.C.,

                      I think that would be right. The example I was thinking of was someone who gets aroused at the thought of raping a child. Even if they never act on it, I doubt many people would disagree that the fantasy itself is vile. E.g., if you locked that person in a prison cell so that they never had access to a child, would we still consider their enjoyment of the fantasy vile (however we’re defining that term, and I’m comfortable leaving it vague)?

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                    • I’m not sure. I’m picturing it here as an uncontrollable phenomonon. Something that through some combination of socialization and biology necessarily manifests itself (for instance in dreams).

                      Certainly, because we couldn’t be sure in real life that this person would not act locking them up would be the right course.

                      I suppose I would locate the vileness in the urge, rather than the person. But that goes deep down the neuro-ethical hole.

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                    • As a big vector fan, I look back and note that this conversation, or one very much like it, has been taking place for centuries with the precise perversions swapped out.

                      There’s a letter from Charles Dickens where he’s arguing in favor of Punch and Judy shows, for example.

                      While I’m sure that this is completely different from when we were arguing about homosexuality or pulpy men’s magazines or interracial marriage or women’s fashions showing ankle because the people who were arguing over those things were completely repressed and whatnot, I can’t help but hear echoes anyway.

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                    • I suppose I would locate the vileness in the urge, rather than the person. But that goes deep down the neuro-ethical hole.

                      I twice wrote, then deleted, a comment along those lines. While we would, in casual conversation, call a psychopath vile, because they don’t choose a lack of empathy, but in fact cannot feel empathy (as I understand, and subject to correction by Chris, who knows far more about these things), I see them as a sort of victim, too. So better to focus on the thought/urge/desire, rather than the person himself.

                      Certainly, because we couldn’t be sure in real life that this person would not act locking them up would be the right course.

                      Well, I wouldn’t lock up everyone who had that fantasy, because that gets into some tricky areas. But what I really meant was a sort of thought experiment. Take someone who fantasizes about raping a child but never has committed the act, and put them in a position where they never could possibly commit the act but can still have the fantasy. Even though the fantasy then cannot possibly lead to the act, would we still consider the fantasy vile? I think the answer is yes.

                      (And damned if that isn’t very un-utilitarian of me, going against my official line. But I think at the bottom of a lot of our ethics/morality is a fair degree of instinct or folk ethics or something like that that is pretty much irreducible to more sophisticated moral/ethical reasoning.

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                    • When we start talking about imprisoning people (and institutionalization is a form of imprisonment, obviously) because of the things they think about doing, we’re standing on the edge of a very deep and dangerous cliff, looking in, and we’ve got a tail wind. I have all sorts of fantasies that I would never act out even if the opportunity to do so presented itself, in large part because most of them I prefer as fantasies. That is, there may be non-ethical reasons for not acting out my fantasies even if it is possible to do so. I don’t think any of my fantasies involve activities that are currently illegal, but what if they did, things which might harm someone even, but they were still fantasies that I would never act out even should the opportunity to do so present itself?

                      Does simply exhibiting the symptoms of antisocial personality disorder in one’s thoughts and fantasies, and expressions of those thoughts and fantasies (not including actually acting out them out on other people) constitute a reason for imprisonment, then? Again, steep, steep cliff with the wind blowing us towards the drop.

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                    • James,
                      The pedophile who works with children, constantly fantasizes about them when not on the clock, and never touches a one of them?
                      Man’s a hero, and a rare duck to boot. Not many people have that strength of will.

                      It’s like putting a kid in a candy store — except this kid ain’t got the money, and doesn’t steal.

                      We’re all allowed to be a bit twisted inside. It’s part of what makes us human.

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    • I do find it interesting that, in video games and often movies as well, murder, even mass murder, is OK, but rape is not. I don’t mean this as an endorsement of either, but I find it interesting to think about why this is the case.

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      • I have a bit of an explanation. I’ll pretend to be an old guy giving a speech to a younger guy in order to best give the feel of what I’m talking about. (This isn’t a speech to *YOU*, mind. It’s just a style of writing that I find useful.)

        Some things are compartmentalized easily compared to other things. You will never, ever, find yourself in a situation where you will need to take a chainsaw to a zombie. You will never, ever, find yourself in a situation where you will have to modify a lawnmower to become a weapon that will help you take out a dozen killer hillbillies. It’s vanishingly unlikely that you will find yourself staying at one of those Motels in Psycho or Vacancy or one of those Motel splat films.

        You will, however, find yourself with another person in your arms someday. There will be things that you have seen often enough that you may be mistaken to think that they are matter of course when they are absolutely not.

        You might be tempted to forgo foreplay. Don’t.

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        • Which I totally agree with, and get, except that we also have lots of violence, and perpetual war. A lot of that violence, and those wars, are also prosecuted against the “other” (drones in Yeme, Drug Wars in the slums, etc.)

          So while it’s doubtful that I will be in a situation where the violence of a videogame leaves me doing soemthing like that in real life, we are surrounded by violent circumstances and yet I think that, in part, we aren’t as outraged or disgusted by it because violence is normalized, has been for a long time, much of our media perpetuates that.

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        • I too agree with Jaybird,

          I think normal people are fine partitioning fake and real violence. I have no confidence on their ability to separate fake from real rape. Not that there were any hints of rape in the video.

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          • I’m of the opposite opinion. That is, pornographic depictions of rape are necessarily set up in a fantasy context, and they are entirely up-front about what the experience is. It’s far easier to compartmentalize that than more subtle conflations of violence and sexiness, like the Hitman trailer.

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        • I think it’s more that, as a culture, we’re more uptight about sex than violence to the point that violence has been normalized in our media. We may not find ourselves taking a chainsaw to a zombie but we certainly have heard of people getting drunk and plowing over people or shooting each other in the face. Yet, that stuff isn’t really commented on anymore and is, in fact, something that we giggle about when playing GTA. Certainly, the first two Hitman trailers didn’t conjure any indignation (other than the perceived loss of the stealth mechanics).

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        • Maybe that’s it, but I suspect it’s deeper. I suspect it has to do with the role of power and the gender specificity, along with the fact that depictions of sex and violence are treated very differently, to the point that depictions of violence and sex usually leave the sex implied or merely suggested (as in, say, the Hitman trailer). But I do think it would be really interesting to flesh all this out. I suspect someone has somewhere recently in the context of video games. I know the Freudian approach, but there must be a more contemporary one.

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    • There is so much in this tweet, I hardly know where to begin…

      No-one is taking rape fantasies away. I know of at least three places where rape fantasies can SAFELY be explored. These are not THAT hard to find.

      Violence against women is a real and terrible problem. If you want to be taken seriously, your fantasies should take that into account.

      In light of the above, anything which downplays violence against women, as the trailer seems to (I’m at work and won’t watch it until later), should be castigated.

      I think that by lumping so many disparate things into “rape” culture, Shakesville diminishes the word “rape”. There are many forms of violence against women that are not rape.

      I think that’s all.

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    • I’m sad I somehow missed this post yesterday.

      Alyssa’s post on the Hitman trailer yesterday was great.
      http://thinkprogress.org/alyssa/2012/06/04/493882/hitman-absolution-and-violence-involving-women-v-violence-against-women
      “This scene isn’t sexist because the target gets sexual satisfaction out of murdering women. It’s sexist because it creates a setup where we aren’t supposed to take the women in question seriously, and expect to see them killed. The costuming reduces them to meat before a man ever gets his hands on them.”

      I think her tweet kind of requires the context of being a regular reader of the comments at her blog. Every time an issue like this comes up, there are a few dedicated trolls who insist that any criticism of the kind of gender/violence issues in games is just an excuse for censorship and she pushes hard back against that notion that somehow freedom of expression means freedom from criticism.

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  4. I wrote a sentence: “Remember Aristotle’s talk on catharsis in the Poetics?” before I realized that this was the Superego prodding my ego to write something in defense of the id.

    As I hate my Superego, I’m loathe to indulge it.

    That said, there are a lot of emotions that could do with regular purification and/or purgation. Sadly, not all are as pretty as Oedipus ripping out his own eyes.

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  5. I’m normally not one to say this, thinking it is employed towards way too many things these days to our detriment, but…There is such thing as over-thinking. Sub-context isn’t always useful. Sometimes things turn out to be stupid when rigorously analyzed because the point is being stupid and shutting off that part of your brain, if only for moments.

    Y’know you can drive drunk in Grand Theft Auto 4? I’d never do so in real life & find it horrible that people do. In the game though, I stumble out of the bar, hit the gas, and laugh my ass off. Because those people aren’t real, they and that entire world only exist for my amusement. I push a button and it all goes away.

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  6. On the one hand, I always look askance at the people who say “I like to play violent video games because it helps me deal with the stress and frustration that builds up during the day”. Um. Dude. If the only manner you can think of to deal with stress and frustration is to engage in a realistic simulation of violently murdering dozens of people than, um, maybe you need a life that builds up less stress in the first place.

    On the other hand, why can’t we just agree that this is a crass video that panders to base instincts and is terrible for that reason alone? People do not look at Jersey Shore or Attack Of The Show and say “this stuff is sending a message that America is a Rape Culture!”

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  7. Okay, in my first post, I wasn’t going to post where I originally posted as posting on Gamefaqs is something that I don’t do much anymore.

    However, I do think it is relevant to both the original post as well as to the conversation that followed to give a look at how members of the Hitman community are seeing the reaction over the said trailer. They are the targets of the advertisement after all.

    http://www.gamefaqs.com/boards/943495-hitman-absolution/62962913

    (Plus, I feel like I should have an answer to the last post other than “bragging.” but, for the life of me, I can’t seem to think of a good counter as to how the trailer sexualizing violence is different from the bedroom preferences of the last poster.)

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  8. I am wondering,…
    Are saying the trailer deserves no special outrage, so please stop the outrage? Or are you saying the trailer deserves no special outrage, so please expand your outrage to other games as well?

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      • Exc and provocative post, Mr. Gach, and thank you. This sent me to my friend Aquinas, who could not bring himself to endorse prostitution of course because of its other harms, but compared it to the sewers in a palace: shutting them down would fill the place with filth. So there’s a safety valve for society in all this, the fantasy aspect.

        So there’s that. Commenter Georgias writes:

        {P]ornographic depictions of rape are necessarily set up in a fantasy context, and they are entirely up-front about what the experience is. It’s far easier to compartmentalize that than more subtle conflations of violence and sexiness, like the Hitman trailer.

        This seems accurate. And there’s evidence that indulging these fantasies in the abstract—as pornography—has resulted in less actual sex crime.

        Aesthetically, as a feminist [I’m being playful but I’m entirely serious with that], I can’t say this sort of thing is intrinsically good on any level—or admit it’s art anymore than I could allow the “crush videos” are

        http://pamshouseblend.firedoglake.com/2010/04/21/supreme-court-crushes-law-against-animal-cruelty-videos-and-photos/

        Justice Alito was outvoted 8-1 on First Amendment grounds, but I’m with him.

        Still, I’m more with Aquinas when it comes to this “Hitman” thing. Honestly, I had to look away from even the relatively tame graphic from the game you posted here. I can’t handle it. Cruelty makes me weep.

        But as best as I understand the latest research, “Hitman” and such fantasy violence on women belongs to the sewer, and it is more wise to accept the need for the sewer than to choke it off.

        Thx again, Ethan. Exc work.

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      • All right. I really like your analysis here.
        I think the spectrum of ways to read the trailer you presented here, should be on the table and that the imagery of the trailer is indicative of the larger language problems the game worlds has. Still, I’m kinda glad that people start picking fights with individual presentations.

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