Sex and Violence

By Allison Brennan

Now that I have your attention . . .

When JT asked me to come up with a tagline for the Murderati site, I was at a loss. I simply couldn’t come up with something as witty as the pun comma sutra, or the cool double meaning of ghost writer. As the only romantic suspense writer here, I decided to simply tell it like it is: sex and violence.

My books have a little sex, a lot of violence, and bad stuff happens. My disclaimer is that they are “Rated R” whenever someone asks me about my books in a non-book related setting (for example, I’d never say this at RWA or Thrillerfest unless someone specifically asked.) But when I’m at my kids school, or at church, or even at the grocery store when my favorite checker tells everyone in line about my books (see why she’s my favorite?), I stick with my standard line.

This habit came about when a friend of mine, a woman a few years younger than my mom, was thrilled for me when I sold and wanted to read my book. She’s a huge fan of Nora Roberts, was so excited that I had written a romantic suspense novel, and told everyone about my books-she has a lot of friends. So of course I gave her an Advanced Reading Copy. She read it and emailed me a week later saying that while she enjoyed the book, but she had to skip the sex scenes which were more graphic than Nora wrote, and said “I think of you like a daughter. It made me uncomfortable.”

I appreciated that, but then I thought, wait-my mom reads ALL my books!

Mystery readers who like my books tell me they skip the sex scenes, too. I just smile and nod, but inside I’m scratching my head. The scenes are there for a reason-to show the emotional connection between two people, as well as to both resolve and create conflict in the story. Much like sex in real life. It’s not gratuitous, or there “just” to sell books, as I’ve been accused of (as if selling books is a bad thing!)

Then I get the emails from people who don’t like that bad things happen to good people. Sometimes, I want to say, “Bad stuff happens.” (Well, I really what to say sh*t happens but figure this is a PG blog.) Bad stuff happens because that’s the story. I’m really sorry that Lucy Kincaid was hurt in my book Fear No Evil. I’m thrilled that readers became so attached to her that they cared what happened to her and were worried about her. But if she didn’t get hurt, the story wouldn’t have been the same. It wasn’t the book I was writing.

And then the people who simply think I’m a closet psychopath because I can even conceive of such ideas in the first place. As if I have control over my imagination. If I actually had fantasies about killing people, I certainly wouldn’t put them in print first!

I try to maintain a balance. The sex scenes serve a purpose in the story to raise the stakes, add characterization, solve problems, and increase conflict. The violence . . . ditto. I show it because it happens and I want the reader to care about the resolution, to empathize with the victim. If I wanted to write a cozy mystery, then I’d write a cozy mystery. I’ve chosen to lay it all out there on the page because I like a solid dose of reality in my fiction. I like it when people email me and say that my characters feel like real people, that they come alive off the page. Well, sometimes these emails scare me, like those who ask me what my characters are like in REAL life. :/

There are some who feel that writing stories with sex and violence-and especially movies with sex and violence-spread said activities. That violent shows beget violent behavior. And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that romance novels are fantasies that distort a woman’s perception of relationships. Yes, they are a fantasy, but to have a man love you for who you are and be faithful is a distortion? Well, sorry, I’ll cling to that fantasy as being ideal, thank you very much.

Human beings are violent. We are sexual creatures. Obviously, both activities can go to the extreme and be dangerous to ourselves or to others. But I don’t buy into the philosophy that sex and violence in media-television, movies, or books-has increased sex and violence in our culture. There’s been plenty of both, long before commercial books and movies existed. Cain slew Abel, after all; hordes of people watched gladiators fight to the death; and men have paid prostitutes for sex before there was online pornography.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t a point where gratuitous sex and violence doesn’t have an impact on society. I do think that our acceptance threshold is higher-meaning, it takes a lot more to shock us. I believe strongly in keeping kids young and innocent for as long as possible . . . yet at the same time, to keep them safe we still have to warn them about bad people. In an episode of CSI that aired a few years ago, Catherine Willows young teenage daughter was making some bad choices in her life. A girl of the same age was murdered, and Catherine–who at first feared the victim was her own daughter–took Lindsay to the morgue to show her what could happen if she didn’t get her act together. Several characters on the show criticized Catherine for this action, but I applauded her. Damn straight–your kids start going down the wrong path, there’s nothing wrong with showing them what could happen. It’s the same philosophy as bringing a wrecked car to a high school before grad night–look kids, don’t drink and drive, you could have died in this car. Other kids did–kids who won’t be going on to college because of one stupid decision.

Well, I segued into a completely different topic! Back to commercial fiction. Sex and violence . . . there are lots of books out there-statistics vary depending on whether you include non-fiction or vanity press and others-but because of the marketplace, more publishers are trying to fill more niches. And I know not everyone wants to read books with sex and violence-I’m okay with that. In fact, when I need a break from writing and reading my favorite genre, I’ll pick up a romantic comedy, still one of my favorite genres to read . . . maybe because I can’t write it.

But my books are Rated R, and I have to forewarn people, at least in certain situations. My personal disclaimer so I don’t get any more emails from friends who were scared spitless at the violence or whose face turned scarlet during the sex.

I ask you: do you think that violence and sex in media (either books or movies) propagates violence and sex in society? Are we just so desensitized to it that to sell more books and tickets, writers and directors are upping the stakes to shock us?

26 thoughts on “Sex and Violence

  1. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Allison

    What a great post. I think we’re back to the whole graphic versus gratuitous thing. If it’s graphic, but required within the framework of the story, it’s not gratuitous. A much lower descriptive level of violence – or sex, for that matter – is utterly gratuitous if it’s put there solely because the writer thinks, ‘Well, I’ve reached page 160 and there hasn’t been any sex/violence yet, so I better put some in.’

    And no, I honestly don’t believe a work of fiction by itself can propagate violence. Some people are fruit loop to the point where the ingredients on the side of a cereal packet would flip them.

    But long-term selective reporting masquerading as fact, now that’s a different matter …

  2. R.J. Mangahas

    This is a great post Allison. I have to agree with you. There has been sex and violence LONG before the media.

    I think part of the reason many people are blaming the media (TV, books, movies, games etc.) is that they want to absolve themselves of responsibility and always find others to blame. Just look at what I like to call “parenting in a bottle.” If a kid has an over active imagination, or even a slightly active one for that matter, the parents will pump them full of ridilin (or some other pill) and hope that will take care of any “problem” instead of actively trying to help solve the problem.

    Okay, I’ll climb down from my soapbox now.

    By the way, I’m sorry I never got to meet you at Bouchercon this year, and I’m looking forward to reading PLAYING DEAD. (or do I have to read the Prison Break books in order?)

  3. toni mcgee causey

    Great post Allison–and yeah, I agree that fictional violence doesn’t propagate actual violence. We aren’t slaves to what we read, and we don’t act on every stimuli and impulse we have. I half joke around that if fictional violence could beget real violence, then why aren’t comedies begetting lots of humor on the streets, or romantic comedies lots of marriages? I think we’re more likely to know about violence with today’s 24/7 news cycle, and it can seem like a connection that because entertainment is on 24/7, and entertainment has violence, then the the latter causes the former, but it’s a fallacious argument.

    I think a problem here is too look at the other angle on what you’re saying–that people who weren’t expecting certain things read and then get offended or surprised. This may be due more to cross-marketing or blending of genres. What used to be the conventions of a specific genre has gotten blurred with the growth of genre blending–and the blurring of where something goes on the shelf at the bookstore–so that if a person wants something lighter, they may pick up something more R rated by mistake. (Probably without reading the back cover carefully.) There’s no real way to break down every genre blend into its own section at the bookstore, and genres are changing and crossing aisles–no sooner would a new category be up than we’d probably all mow it down. Probably the only real answer is just to make sure that back cover copy somehow reflects the type of story inside to give the buyer and adequate heads up.

  4. Catherine

    Sex and violence as you’ve mentioned aren’t new concepts. We’ve many years of processing through the arts how violence and sex are viewed throughout history. Joy, agony, and pathos are all old themes. Right now the access to raw or processed material is ever evolving through an inundation of new technological sources though.

    We have so many choices available to us through so many mediums… sometimes we passively expose ourselves to other people’s interpretation of society and other times we may actively engage in sifting through events and stories to see how they match or challenge our own values. I do think we have more choices of how we view sex and violence than at other times in history.

    Allison, I think there is a point of saturation; an overload of sensory input for many things where we numb down. The amount of tragedy we’re exposed to now is so immediate, and vast through news media, that I think we need other forms of media; Books, Film, and Music even more so than in the past to reflect, to avoid societal anesthesia.

    In reality or fiction, sex and violence can pretty much run the gamut from casual to extreme; it’s all in the handling.

  5. PK the Bookeemonster

    In the visual media, I think the stakes are being upped and a result of that is creating a generation of desensitivation working its way from the bottom younger group on up. I think of the horror movies that my niece and nephew have grown up with (now 20 and 18) and how these movies up the grossness ante, trying to out do the last one. Definitely news and tv shows push the envelope not only in graphic-ness but even shows that aren’t prone to that, say a comedy, push the envelope there as well in language and the gross factor. This then in turn gets reflected in our real world and in younger people who don’t know better because they’ve not really been exposed to better and then again take it up another level and demand to be “entertained” more because they’ve grown bored. I don’t have a solution to this. To turn this back to books, I don’t think books can compete with the visual media in this respect therefore you’re not building an audience for reading (there are exceptions, yes) from this age group.

  6. Allison Brennan

    Hi Zoe (And I’ve tried, but I can’t figure out how to put that little accent over the e . . . ) . . . you’re absolutely right, if someone is going to snap they’re going to snap and anything can set them off. Our instant information network is wonderful in many ways, but there are pitfalls (as there are in anything good) . . . we tend to see more, hear more, and know more . . . and the more we know, the more ignorant we sometimes become because we don’t learn to discern what is important and what is hype. And bias in the media, on all sides of the political line and issues, is nothing new. What we say is as important as what we DON’T say . . . .

    Hi R.J., if I posted something about Ritalin I’d probably be kicked off the blog . . . there are some kids who honestly need help, but the over-prescribing of this “wonder” drug drives me crazy. But you’re right, parents need to take control of their parenting. I’m not a perfect parent, far from it. Fortunately, I recognize this flaw. I rarely limited television, but I limited access to shows. Essentially, they can watch however much they want, but only the shows I approved (which were predominately tapes and disks.) But even thinking about movies for kids, they’re violent as well–I mean, all the townspeople coming with pitchforks to kill the Beast because he was different? Gaston falling to his death? And that was my oldest daughter’s favorite movie for years, followed by 101 Dalmations and we all know what Cruella de Vil wanted to do to those poor puppies!! My favorite shows were the Warner Bros cartoons–Bugs Bunny in particular, though I loved Road Runner too. My boys, 4 and 7, LOVE these cartoons.

    As for my book, thank you! All my books are loosely connected, so you don’t have to read them in order though there may be some characters who come in from other books in secondary roles. But the story stands alone, and I don’t reveal any details about the first two books in the prison break trilogy. My editor taught me that when I wrote SPEAK NO EVIL which had a whole scene about Nick’s backstory with the Butcher in THE HUNT; I cut the whole thing when she wrote in the margin, “No one will want to read THE HUNT if they know what happened.” So I condensed it and only revealed what was absolutely pertinent to the current story.

    But I don’t put on the news around the kids. I think that little people can compartmentalize violence in cartoons into a “not real” category of their imagination, while seeing real people and hearing about violence has a far more devastating effect.

    Toni, excellent point that I’ve talked about before, how to market blended genres. Maybe that’s why I’m sensitive about it, because I probably get more email on this point than most romance and/or mystery writers. (Ironically, emails about bad language usually come from people reading my books for the suspense, not the romance.) I want to make sure that people know what they get. Truth in advertising and all that. I absolutely hate picking up a book and thinking it’s one thing based on the cover and/or back cover copy, and find it something completely different.

  7. Terri Molina

    “do you think that violence and sex in media (either books or movies) propagates violence and sex in society?”

    I’m sure I’ll be of the unpopular vote, but I have to answer *yes* to this. Maybe not so much in books (although some YA is pushing the limit) but certainly in movies and television. As a mom of three young teenagers it distubs me that TV shows like Friday Night Lights or 90210 portray sex as the norm for high school kids; even the movie Juno had teenagers wanting to have babies (a big problem at one school on the east coast–can’t remember where)

    Yes, as parents, it’s our job to raise our children to make the right choices regarding sex or violence, but more and more outlets seem to be fighting against us and making it all look like rainbows and roses, so of course chilren/teens are going to believe it and react to it. And I make it a point to “lecture” my children about TV’s portrayal of certain things as opposed to ‘real life’…in fact, when my daughter was 13 she was speaking with some friends who knew absolutely nothing about “sex”. When the girls admitted their mom had never given them the “sex” talk (absintaion and consequences), my daughter’s eyes got wide and she said, “oh my God, my mom tells it to me ALL THE TIME!” haha

    Anyway, just my thoughts. Off to baseball practice.

    Great Post, Allison.


  8. Allison Brennan

    Catherine, outstanding points. I’ve always read books to be entertained, but also maybe to understand the world around me or my small place in it. I write about violence in many ways because I want to understand, as if the understanding would somehow help stop it. We do have sensory overload in many areas, and sometimes we seek it out. I listen to my music very loud when I’m writing, but I don’t really “hear” it because it becomes part of my setting. My husband walks into my office and doesn’t understand how I can write with the noise; not a problem, it’s the interruptions, the quiet, “mommy, mommy, mommy” that is more distracting than the Dropkick Murphys Shipping off to Boston.

    PK, it’s that whole chicken and egg argument–does popular culture reflect Hollywood or does Hollywood reflect popular culture? I have no idea, but for my kids I’ve definitely limited exposure to a lot of programming. And, I don’t let them read my books. I have made an exception with my supernatural novella and gave it to my oldest daughter, who is almost 15, because she loves anything supernatural. (The show with Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki is our favorite right now!)

    I was actually thinking of this point recently when my oldest and I were having a conversation about boys. She knows a lot more about the “tricks” boys use. I’ve been shocked at some of her knowledge, coming from other kids, but at the same time she’s very aware of what’s going on around her and doesn’t get sucked into things. She isn’t going to be sweet talked into doing something she doesn’t want to do. But maybe my influence has gone a little too far . . . we were driving down the country road to our house and there was a large black garbage bag by the side of the road. The way it was laying and its shape and that it was dusk, we both said at the same time, “It looks like there’s a body in that bag.”

  9. Allison Brennan

    Great points, Terri, and in some ways you’re right, but as you’ve found out with your daughter, ignorance is sometimes worse than giving it to them straight. I’ve had “the talk” with my oldest two and continue to talk about it, maybe because I want them to know that I KNOW about these things and they’re not going to be able to pull the wool over my eyes (I hope.) This subset in culture where young girls want babies is extremely sad, but there is certainly more than one reason for it. Parents who either don’t talk about the consequences of sex, or are too busy to talk, or put a blind eye to what their kids are doing, or ignore them, or have so much drama in their own lives . . . there’s so much going into this tragedy. Ultimately, these girls want to be loved because they’re not getting it from their parents and they have developed a warped sense of love and what it means and how to get it. Hmmm, maybe romance novels would help them!

  10. J.D. Rhoades

    Seems like all we hear about these days is how fewer and fewer people are reading and yet society’s getting more violent. So how can you say books are having that effect?

  11. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Terri

    Children are a whole different ball game. What we choose to expose children to from an early age cannot help but influence their attitudes and behaviour. What was done to the kidnapped British toddler, Jamie Bulger, by two boys who were children themselves is absolutely terrifying.

    But I don’t write books aimed at children. Surely this is when we start getting into the issue of good parenting. I know it’s hard, but nobody ever said the job was going to be easy.

    I once visited some friends to find their seven-year-old son sitting happily in front of ‘Terminator II’. When I commented on this, the boy’s mother said they were happy for him to watch it because there wasn’t much bad language in the film. (Yeah, lady, but what about the poly-metal morphing death-robot from the future who spikes people’s heads to the refrigerator door!)

    Oh, and Allison, to get ‘ë’, put the keyboard number lock on, hold down the Alt key and type 137 on the numeric keypad, then let go of the Alt key. Just about all accented characters are available this way ;-]

  12. Tammy Cravit

    Do I think our society is desensitized to sex and violence *because* of the media? No, I think we’re more desensitized in general because a lot of things that used to be taboo (rape being one example I can think of offhand) are now talked about more openly. Is that a bad thing? I have no idea — I suspect that 50 years from now, we’ll have the data to make a judgment on that one. But I have to think that discussing the things that live in the darkness is better than tripping over them unawares. Knowledge is power, and all that.

    As far as fiction goes, I think there’s a qualitative difference between sex and violence for the sake of gratuitous salaciousness, versus sex and violence that advances the plot of the story. To steal an example from one of your own books, Allison, I would be less than honest if I didn’t admit that, when I read “Tempting Evil”, I cried at what happened to Trixie. But at the same time, I recognized that, within the arc of your story, that was the right thing to happen at that point, and that I’d have felt like you were pulling punches if you brought your reader to that spot and then didn’t do it.

    Sex and violence are part of what drives us, as human beings. As writers in general, and mystery/suspense novelists in particular, I feel we have an obligation to our readers to be emotionally honest in our work. Personally, I feel we don’t do that if we pretend sex and violence don’t exist. (Not to disparage cozy writers, of course — I think the cozies I’ve read *do* acknowledge the dark side of human nature, too, albeit perhaps a bit more subtly.)

  13. Fran

    Sex and violence? Romeo and Juliet. Oedipus Rex. It’s nothing new, and it’s been available to the masses forever.

    And as a former high school teacher, I heard kids talking about things their parents couldn’t even imagine they knew. And parents were shocked to the bone when situations arose where they had to confront the truth of what kids learn when parents aren’t around. And what they do.

    Do I think media inflames these things? Not so much. What I think it *does* do is give kids new ideas on how to approach the stuff they’ve known for ages.

    As for me, well yeah, I tend to skim past the sexy parts of books, just getting a feel for why they’re there and moving on, but then I know they’re not aimed at me. In all fairness though, if the violence is too horribly graphic and in-your-face, I’ll skip that too.

    But when it’s deftly and subtly done, oh my is it effective. Louise, you had an act of violence in “Forcing Amaryllis” that slipped up on me, caught me completely unaware — had me re-reading it, eyes wide because it was both graphic and understated — and I’ve used it as the benchmark for brillianly handled violence ever since.

    It’s all in the writing. Heavy handed on most things just doesn’t work. Letting the reader use his/her imagination? That’s the best.

  14. MF Makichen

    I’ve often questioned myself regarding the morality of writing about violence as a form of entertaintment, i.e. for books. Even the most benign traditional mystery always involves a murder, right?

    However, I’ve come to the conclusion that what mystery, thillers and suspense books really explore isn’t violence but the idea of good vs. evil or of justice vs. injustice. Ultimately, I believe this is what intrigues us. In the end will what we regard as good prevail.

    In real life good doesn’t always triumph– murders remain unsolved and the guily are not always punished. In books writers have the ability to create the outcome they prefer.

    I don’t think violence in books begets violence in our society. After all many of these same books are published in other countries that have less violence than the USA. As far as I know they have not raised the violence in those countries.

  15. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I’m with Terri – I do think that exploitive violence and violent pornography fuel the fantasies of bad guys. I’ve just read too much from the FBI and other law enforcement experts like Robert Ressler and John Douglas – they certainly believe that violent porn and violent movies feed rapists and serial killers’ fantasies. Anyone writing violence needs to read those two.

    And yes, I think we as authors have a responsibility to understand that and write and act accordingly.

    I won’t buy or read books that detail rape or torture unless the author is writing in a way that negates any possibility of titillation. If an editor pressed me to write otherwise, I’d refuse. But I can’t imagine my editor or publishing house insisting.

  16. Allison Brennan

    R.J. I didn’t know they had edited the Warner Bros. cartoons. That’s like removing smoking from the old movies because it’s bad for you. I don’t smoke, and I never had the urge to because Lauren Bacall smoked. It was a sign of the times then.

    I didn’t say books had that effect JD! But the thing about fewer people reading . . . I’m not 100% sure of that. I think that fewer KIDS are reading because the demands on their time and the wide variety of media gives them options that we didn’t have. And that is bad for the long-term, because if they don’t get used to reading now for pleasure, they won’t read as adults. I also think that avid readers are avid readers, but there are far more books being published, so each book is selling fewer units because of the quantity. I’d love to see some statistics on book sales, though. I’m sure there’s a drop off somewhere, but I don’t know exactly where it is.

    I read a lot, always have. Of my four reading-age kids, two devour books and two don’t. I promote reading, buy tons of books, encourage them to read, but you can’t force them to enjoy it.

    I agree, Louise.

    Zoe, my mac is not cooperating. I don’t see to have a num lock key . . . but I’ll figure it out. There must be a trick.

    Tammy, thanks for understanding about Trixie! Your example about rape is very interesting, because we know that many women for decades never reported attacks on them. Now that society understands that rape is a violent act committed because of rage and hatred, and not because a women “did something” to be hurt, we have become to address it as a serious crime that deserves harsh penalties (which, IMO, are rarely harsh enough.) Maybe we become desensitized because we KNOW more. Hmm. Something for me to ponder. I also think that some people can compartmentalize a lot better than others. I’ll cry at a drop of the hat in movies–even Disney movies–and I was crying last night watching the father-daughter dance at a wedding of a friend’s daughter–and I’m not even a relative! But it was picturing my own daughter dancing at her wedding with her dad–way, way, way, WAY down the road–that had me teary-eyed. Yet, I can view an autopsy or observe a crime scene or talk about crime details analytically and put the emotionally element away.

    Fran, I heard a speaker once (I think it was Stephanie Laurens) who said that the reader is a partner in the author’s story, and your comment at the end made me think of that. The reader is a participant, the author is laying out a world for us, but we also bring our own experiences, ideas, and images to that world. We participate in the story, and therefore are partly responsible for the final “vision”–which is why two people can read the exact same book and one love it and one hate it.

    Hi Mary-Frances! I agree–in fiction, especially commercial fiction, it’s always a struggle of good vs evil, right vs wrong, and our own fears and weaknesses and internal battles and how they impact doing the right thing, or making a sacrifice for someone else. That’s one reason I like romantic suspense, because it gives me a platform to always have a happy ending, in more ways than one.

    Alex, I agree with you and have read both Ressler and Douglas. I probably push the boundaries, but I never write with the idea to titillate my reader with violence. Violent predators will find titillation where they look for it, and as I said to Fran, the reader is a participant in the story–you can show one image to ten people and ten people will describe what they see differently. One of the biggest problems today is that violent pornography is everyone on-line. When I was researching one of my books, some of the sites that popped up terrified me. Unfortunately, most our out of the bounds of the united states, and we can’t do much to shut them down. And many of them don’t “cross the line” even though the glorify violence to women. Then you have the free speech issues–and then the dilemma highlighted in the movie Minority Report. We KNOW that violent pornography leads to actual violence by those who watch it (and these guys often watch it for hours and hours a day. I went to a talk at the FBI where the head of the cyber-child pornography unit explained how a guy who started out just looking at naked adult women degraded into soliciting a young teen girl into meeting with him, and how fast it happens. But can we then say if you have legal pornography on your computer we can arrest you? Pull you in for psych counseling? Make sure you don’t have the potential to turn into a pedophile? It’s a true dilemma. Tougher penalties may deter guys from starting down the wrong path, but they’re not going to stop the guys who are already over the edge. I certainly don’t have solutions to the problem, and it is so big, wide-spread and far-reaching that when I think about it on a macro-level I get severely depressed. So I think about it on a micro-level: teach my kids about online safety, monitor where they go and what they say online; teach their friends the same thing (they come to my house, they get to listen to my lectures!); hope they learn something and spread the word.

  17. Tammy Cravit

    The thing I wonder about with Alex’s comment (and yes, I’ve read both Ressler and Douglas’s stuff as well, and I’ve seen interviews with violent offenders in my off-line capacity as a volunteer rape crisis advocate) is this: It is clearly true that a high proportion of violent predators watch pornography, and it is likely true that an appetite for increasingly violent pornography tracks with an appetite for increasing violence in their offenses. But which side of that equation is the causative one?

    In other words, is it the case that offenders’ fantasies develop and escalate because of their exposure to pornography? Or rather, is it the case that violent offenders seek out violent pornography, and as their internal fantasy landscape evolves, they seek out increasingly violent pornography which tracks with their own evolving internal sense of violence? Intuition suggests that pornography is a symptom rather than a cause, since offenders who are incarcerated and have no access to pornography nevertheless tend to show an escalation in the violence of their fantasies, but I suspect the relationship is more complex than that.

    On the other side of the coin, it is true that a majority of violent offenders lust after violent pornography, but is it also true that a majority of those who have been exposed to violent pornography become violent offenders? Did the pornography *cause* the problem, or was it simply a trigger for (or one piece in the evolution of) something latent that already existed in the psyches of some people?

    I don’t know the answers, of course, but the questions are what fascinates me about writing (and reading) mystery fiction. (As a side note, the nonfiction works of Dr. Anna Salter,, are interesting for their coverage of this subject.)

  18. JT Ellison

    Allison, it’s a sad world we live in. At signings I insist that the person I’m signing the book for is at least 15. Any younger than that and the themes are just too much. Those are my rules.

    I had a woman who got very pissed off at me because I wouldn’t let her 11-year-old daughter buy the book. I told her three times, “Really, this is much too old for her. Maybe you should read it first and make sure she’s mature enough to deal, won’t have horrid nightmares.” She told me to mind my own business and bought the book anyway. For her 11-year-old. Broke my heart.

    I can’t control who reads it, but I can certainly hope that parents would be a little sensitive to the fact that these kids aren’t allowed to be innocent anymore. They’re thrust into the adult world before they have the tools to process it, and many think it’s cool. I just find it sad.

  19. pari

    Allison,Great post.I don’t think fictional sex/violence perpetuates their counterparts in life.

    However, I do think they can desensitize us; just as the nightly news can.

    I’ll never forget when I was in my last term of college. I’d decided to take a freshman class and at the end of the semester, the professor showed a documentary about the Vietnam War. I was sitting in the front row crying because of the scenes of people being killed. The teens behind me were laughing and talking about what they were going to have for lunch . . .

    I finally turned around and said, “It’s not TV; it’s real. These people are dead and you’re watching them die.”

    The kids shut up but I knew my outburst was futile. They just had seen too many similar shots to feel the power of these images.

  20. Catherine

    It’s one of life’s small pleasures that I can wake up to an interesting, thought provoking stream of comments on Murderati. Today is a particularly good example. Thanks for raising such a thought provoking topic Allison.

    Also Allison, an alternate way of getting Zoe, to look like Zoë is to type a comment in a Word Doc (Spellcheck will correct the e to ë) and then cut and paste into the comment box.I’m a bit Word dependant.Can you tell?

  21. R.J. Mangahas

    Allison, it’s not too noticeable in the Warner Bros Cartoons. Tom and Jerry is another story all together.

    Alex I agree with you about writing violence. And I have read John Douglas. Some of it is REALLY disturbing.

  22. Dana King

    I don’t think fictional violence inspires or incites people to violent deeds; it may well desensitize us to the effects of violence. Zoe mentioned the “graphic vs. gratuitous” thing. I think the consequences of violence need to be included as well; how graphic it needs to be can be determined by the violent act’s placement in the story. It’s too easy for some to just see the cool special effect and not think of what would happen afterward.

    Sex, I don’t know. Kids know people aren;t routinely settling disputes with the levels of violence shown on TV and in the movies, or they’d be all over the news. There aren’t a lot of shootouts in abandoned warehouses or busy shopping malls. Sex is a more surreptitious activity, so there’s a lot of room for assumption, especially when your hormones as telling you there SHOULD be a lot of sex going on. It always comes back to good parenting.

    I think the real problem is, people who are most likely to be adversely affected by fictional sex and violence are those least likely to be reading a discussion like this. Most people aren’t paying attention to the world around them; not very closely, at least. Those are the ones most likely to accept fictional sex and violence at face value, and, unfortunately, may act accordingly.

  23. Allison Brennan

    Had to run out last night! GREAT comments, thank you so much for contributing to the discussion.

    Pari, I’m so saddened by your story. I was affected the same way when I saw the news coverage on Somalia and what happened to the American pilot. Shock, rage, and tears. I know I can be a bit unemotional when I confront crime issues from a research standpoint, and either it’s because I’m pre-wired to be a cop (never have been, but considered it) and can compartmentalize well, or maybe simply because I have been desensitized. Still, there are some things that get to me instantly. Listening to the testimony of parents of murdered children while working in the legislature always had me on emotional pins and needles for the rest of the day–because it hits on my greatest fear. Their pain is so tangible.


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