Sex or Violence: Which Is The Lesser Evil?


I’ve been working in gaming retail for some time now. I see all that there is to see, from hardcore, passionate gamers to the sports-game-only crowd. One of the most interesting things about the job is this all-too-famliar scenario: a kid getting a parent to buy a M-rated game. Sometimes, my explanation of why the game is 17+ is met with thanks (and the loss of a sale, but that’s preferred to the loss of my conscience). Other times, it’s pre-empted with "He/she can play whatever he/she wants." Most parents, though, wait to hear exactly what is in the game before making a decision. It is these parents that are the most interesting of all, though, because it raises an interesting question: what is the make-or-break point of a parent’s decision? What is it that has parents wary of what their children play?

Well, that’s simple: sex and violence.

However, here’s where the conundrum lies: what is the lesser of those two evils? Is a parent willing to let his or her child chop up everyone they see so long as there aren’t any female parts? Will a mother allow her young son to view a portrayal of the sacred act, even if it’s ABC-esque with no parts viewable, if it means he won’t be shooting a gun?

Of course, before getting into a topic like this, there are a lot of different factors: age and maturity of the child, nature of the content in question, and how far that content will go. San Andreas’s Hot Coffee is obviously worse than any of Mass Effects scenes, same as how falling over from a grenade in Modern Warfare 2 is better than getting chopped in half by a Gears of War chainsaw-bayonet. A five-year-old might go try to punch his dad the same way Little Mac punches Bald Bull, just as 13-year-old Billy might try to pick up a schoolmate the same way ol’ Leisure Suit Larry does. Also, this doesn’t apply to just games, but media as a whole, but because of the nature of my job (as well as the nature of the site hosting this article), games will be my primary focus.

The question posed to parents in the store was simple: Which, to you, is the lesser evil: Sexual content or violence?

This is a subject that is quite the opposite of "black and white," and I’ve heard a lot of different opinions, all of which are merited. Some are rather direct: "I’m okay with the violence, as long as there’s no sex" and vice versa. Others, though, have given a more profound and thought-out reason for their choice, the best of which will follow.

FIRST: The Case For Violence Over Sex ——–>

Resident Evil 4

What Makes Violence More Preferable to Sex?

It seems that here in the US, parents would rather their children be shooting a gun in their games than seeing naked bodies. If you went to Japan, it’d be a whole different story. Of course, there’s more to this topic than just Puritan-influnced thought processes. I got a lot of different responses in favor of violence, but these are some of the more prevalent ones:

1. Potential Re-Creation of What Is Seen

A handful of people I spoke to said that they would take violence over sex any time, if only because of the ramifications of re-creating the circumstances. Basically, their stance was as follows:

If the child were to go and punch a classmate like he or she saw in Street Fighter, there would be consequences… but not nearly as bad as if he or she tried to slap another child’s rear end or touch a sensitive area as some games show.

While not re-living the games at all is preferred, this thought certainly makes sense. In a school setting, especially for the 12-16 crowd, violence is considered a less serious offense than any kind of sexual misconduct. News media stories prove this day after day; for example, "sexting" has become a common story at 11:00, but you hear more about schoolyard fights on Facebook than Fox News. With this reasoning, though, violence should still be monitored; I’m sure no parent would be fine with a child bashing another with a stick while pretending to be Frank West in Willamette Mall.

2. Parental Responsibility of Sex Ed

Another group based the decision on their responsibility as parents. The idea was simple:

Parents have to have the ‘birds-and-bees’ talk with the kids in order for them to truly understand sex. It’s not something that should be taught in a game.

This is quite the admirable stance, though it becomes a bit of a catch-22. Yes, it is good to want to teach your child about sex yourself, but do you do that at the risk of desensitizing him or her to extreme violence? Of course, the people in this group might not let their child play the really violent games either, but the stance against sex was much stronger than its counterpart.

3. The Idea Of Violence As Fiction

I know that I said that these ideas would be "the more prevalent responses." There was one person in particular, though, who I thought gave me a great example of why violence would be preferred. It was not an instant response, the question was mulled over for about a minute, but the answer was worth the wait:

It’s a lot easier to pass off violence as fiction than it is sex. Not everyone is going to rip out someone’s heart, but most people, if not everyone, are going to be involved with someone physically eventually.

Out of all the responses I received, this was certainly the best. It’s a fantastic point: it’s a whole lot easier to tell a kid that ripping someone’s head off isn’t something that happens all the time. Of course, the child doesn’t know what’s going to be in the game to begin with, so using this thought process, a parent could separate sex from games completely until the child was already familiar. Sex is a natural part of life, extreme bloody violence isn’t, so why not use that as a parental advantage? Brilliant.

Next: The Case For Sex Over Violence —–>

Indigo Prophecy

What Makes Sex More Preferable To Violence?

I will admit, the amount of responses in favor of sex were less frequent than the pro-violence ones. Perhaps this may have something to do with the cultural influence that I spoke about earlier, but that’s a different story. The fewer numbers, however, does not mean that there were no responses worth sharing.

1. Violence Is Just Plain Disgusting

This seemed to be one of the most common answers I was given. Many parents have a very simple stance:

Violent games, with all of the blood, gore, and dismemberment, is gross. Why would anyone enjoy them?

I can’t say I can disagree with this idea. It is rather unsettling to see the Predator in the newest Alien vs Predator game casually rip the head off of an unsuspecting Marine. One parent even referenced the many gruesome deaths of Dead Space. A lot of those who responded with this, however, were more worried about the next point…

2. Violent Games Are Desensitizers

This idea was a major concern for some parents, saying that they didn’t want their kids to not feel horror or disgust when violence was shown. In a more direct sense:

Violent games can desensitize children into thinking violence is commonplace, when it isn’t. Violence should be horrifying and undesirable.

This is a stance that anti-violent videogame soldiers have been holding for years. While it is true that repeated exposure to violence could make a child more immune to it, there are parts of this argument that I don’t completely agree with. As long as the person playing the game knows the difference between reality and fantasy, this point could be considered moot. I know plenty of people who play Call of Duty almost every night who would be sick to their stomachs if they ever found a person shot dead. Not only that, but sexual themes can be desensitized just as much through constant exposure. Watching the sex scene in Heavy Rain or seeing the strippers in Grand Theft Auto could skew the idea of sex just as easily as constant violence in games can desensitize.

3. Sex Is Natural, While Violence Isn’t

This is the direct opposite to one of the points made in favor of violence. I had a couple of people answer like this:

Sex is a natural thing, and as such, it’s something that should be made more familiar. Violence, while seeming commonplace on the news, is not nearly as prevalent.

There’s a lot in this argument that makes sense as well. Since sex is something most people will experience, why not make the child familiar instead of sheltering him or her from it? It’s not exactly replacing the "birds-and-bees" talk that was mentioned earlier, but more of a learn-through-example approach. Of course, there’s just as much of a downside to this kind of stance too: leaning too much toward the act could cause a young teen to want to try it, and we all know where that could lead.

Heavy Rain

Sex, Violence, Both, or Neither?

With a question like this, a middle-ground response is also allowed, which some parents were quick to give. I had a hand ful of people simply tell me neither for many reasons. One parent went so far as to only let her children play games rated Everyone or Everyone 10+, taking sex and (for the most part) violence right out of the equation. Others didn’t care either way what was in the game, thinking their child was mature enough to play whatever he or she wanted. Some I agreed with (15-year-old wanting Battlefield: Bad Company 2 on Tuesday), others…not so much (6-year-old buying Grand Theft Auto III). 

So which is worse? Really, it depends on the specific case. To each his own, as it were. I’m not even sure where I stand on the whole thing… there are too many factors to count. Also, I don’t have any children yet, so I can’t exactly say it as a parent….

Any parents out there? Where do you stand? For those without children, where do you think you’ll stand when the time comes?

Now, to get back to Heavy Rain, which…well, has both. Oops.


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Author: Jason Fanelli View all posts by
Jason lives and breathes gaming. Legend tells that he taught himself to read using Wheel of Fortune Family Edition on the NES. He's been covering this industry for three years, all with the Node, and you can see his ugly mug once a week on Hot Off The Grill.

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