Out of all the films I have seen over the years, there is one particular cinema experience I keep casting my mind back to: Iron Man 3. Not because of the infamous plot twist but for something much more sinister. Stripped of his Iron Man suit, Tony Stark infiltrates an enemy hideout armed only with his wits and makeshift weaponry. It isn’t clear whether the takedowns executed by Stark are lethal or non-lethal, but either way, it feels like an aggressive departure from blasting CG robots and aliens in a flying suit.

I felt shook by the sudden realistic violence in a mainstream superhero movie but thought mostly about the intended audience who were sat around me: children and families. Do these people find it acceptable for heroes on the big screen to enact violence for two hours in front of star-struck kids? It made me think about what content the general public are actually concerned about the most and I had vivid recollections of myself watching certain shows and films with older family members: an uncle covering my eyes, my mum questioning what she could hear on the TV, my gran turning the film off in a fit of rage. The content being shown in those scenarios? Sex. Why are audiences more accepting of violence and death than they are of sex? It is a question that has been asked several times before in the past but in today’s world, where sex is becoming less of a taboo, why hasn’t anything changed in its on-screen representation?

To begin answering these questions, we need to look at what restrictions are in place and how these restrictions started in the first place; you may have heard of the infamous Hays Code from the golden days of Hollywood. Formally known as the Motion Picture Production Code, the Hays Code was a set of moral guidelines that American film studios applied to their films from the early 1930s right up to the late 60s. It was an attempt by Hollywood to avoid government censorship by self-regulating their features but the code itself, being devised primarily by catholic figures, was filled with traditional values. Some of the rules, created to uphold “correct standards of life”, meant that sexual behaviour between consenting adults couldn’t be shown, percieved sexual perversion, such as homosexuality and interracial relationships, were banned and women had to have at least one foot on the floor to prevent love scenes from playing out. Murder and brutal killings were allowed, and the American flag had to be respected as well as religious faith.

Whilst the US has the Motion Picture Association (MPA) nowadays, us Brits have the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC). We all recognise their work: seeing age ratings from the green U for Universal to the deep-red 18 rated stickers slapped onto DVD covers and beside film titles on Netflix. The BBFC has an extensive history on classification and content-restriction, even out-dating the Hays Code. Originally founded as the British Board of Film Censors in 1912, the BBFC was designed to give an official rating to each film released in the UK, as local councils at the time were the ones who rated films shown in their cinemas. It was in 1916, however, when the BBFC devised strict criteria for what was acceptable and what would be cut from the motion pictures. This was remarkably similar to the Hays Code, which wouldn’t be established for several years still.

This list was evidence for the Cinema Commission Inquiry, set up by the National Council of Public Morals (NCPM), to prove that the BBFC was protecting public morals at the time. The President of the BBFC back then, and the one whose task was to summarise the BBFC’s policy into the list, was none other than T. P. O’Connor: a famed MP of Liverpool, Irish Nationalist and journalist. This list contained 43 infractions that would be cut from films if necessary and covered everything from violence, sex and drugs, to religion and politics. Notably, violence wasn’t mentioned that much apart from “Gruesome murders…” and “…excessive cruelty and torture to adults…” but sex was censored quite heavily: “Men and women in bed together”, “Indelicate sexual situations”, “Situations accentuating delicate marital relations” and several other criteria. It is also worth noting that “References to controversial politics” would be cause to cut material from a film, as well as “Subjects dealing with India, in which British Officers are seen in an odious light…”. Was O’Connor and his small team of examiners in a position to dictate what was controversial and what was deemed moral viewing for the public? Probably not, but it’s possible that O’Connor was also trying to please the NCPM and the general public.

Throughout the BBFC’s history there has been plenty of changes to their guidelines and different controversies to deal with. In the 1950s, there was a rise in teenagers going to the movies and with it came a concern about films that promoted hooliganism and anti-social behaviour in the eyes of the BBFC; most notably Rebel Without A Cause. During this decade the BBFC introduced the X category (which excluded children under 16) and the H category (advising parents of horror in films). The Swinging 60s saw little change but with the growth of films focussing on homosexuality and with the release of the 1957 Wolfenden Report (where laws banning homosexuality were relaxed), the then BBFC secretary John Trevelyan made a statement on how homosexuality was never banned on screen by the BBFC but “the subject was one that would probably not be acceptable to the British audience”.

A big change in the age ratings was seen in the 1970s with the inclusion of the AA rating where under 14’s were not allowed admission. The big controversy during this decade was around sexual violence, thanks to Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and other films containing graphic rape scenes. In the 1980s, there were the Video Nasties that came from the development of video cassettes. The new technology made way for low-budget horror films to be produced and distributed without the official approval from the BBFC, since they had not created any guidelines for this new format. Sexual violence seemed to still be the biggest source of controversy and the BBFC changed the age rating system before the end of the decade: featuring the more recognisable U, PG, 12, 15, 18 and R18 ratings.
Rather unsurprisingly, violence and sex were still at the forefront of the biggest controversies in the 1990’s. In the Jamie Bulger case, where two ten-year old boys tortured and murdered a two-year old boy, the trial judge suggested that video nasties, specifically Child’s Play 3, influenced the boys to commit the crime even though there was no conclusive evidence to support this. The tabloids pushed for harsher regulations on videos and the campaign was successful: the BBFC was now required to consider the potential for harm when it came to rating a film. Midway through the 90s, Kids caused a massive stir as the film featured adolescents in graphic sexual activity. The majority of the cast were over 18 and only minor cuts were made eventually. Up to this point, it seems that it was the BBFC and the media alone who were dictating what was acceptable and not on screen.

It was at the dawn of the new millennium where the BBFC saw a huge shift in their approach to developing their guidelines. In 1999, the BBFC sent out postal surveys and organised citizen juries to gain opinions from the public to help shape their guidelines going forward. There were some interesting insights. 54% of those surveyed thought that the BBFC’s guidelines for sex were “about right”, 32% thought they were not strict enough, and 12% thought they were too strict. With violence however, 51% of those surveyed thought that the current guidelines were fine but 46% of the surveys agreed with the statement that “watching violence in films generally makes people more likely to be violent in real life”. A conflicting result, for sure. The BBFC also asked people about the offensiveness of different elements in film across all the age ratings. It is clear from the graphs presented in the report that sex was more of a concern for people in U, PG and 12 rated films compared to violence, but violence was more of a concern than sex in 15 and 18 rated films. It is safe to assume that this is because violence tends to be slapstick for younger audiences, but more brutal and realistic in the older ratings categories; and sex is something parents generally don’t want younger children watching or seeing references to until they’re in their teenage years.

However, there were some disagreements between the public when it came to sex. Roughly a third of those who took part in the postal survey believed there was too much sex in films rated U to 15 but the juries believed that the guidelines for sex could actually be relaxed in 15 and 18 rated films. A juror even commented on the fact that people could legally have sex at the age of sixteen but weren’t allowed to see it on screen: “There is an anomaly about not being able to watch sex but being able to have sex”. The public in 1999 recognised the absurdity surrounding restrictions on sex but didn’t seem to recognise the absurdity of violence being featured in some capacity in all age ratings.These reports were conducted also in 2005, 2009, 2014 and most recently, in 2019.

What is the current public opinion and what has changed? “We found that attitudes towards sexual threat and sexual violence have moved on since 2013/14. Although the BBFC already classifies such content restrictively, people told us that certain depictions of rape in particular should receive a higher rating.”, a BBFC Spokesperson told FilmHounds. “People also told us that they expect the strongest sex references, in particular those that use the language of pornography, to be classified at 18. However, people were more accepting of strong nudity at 15.” It seems sex still is at the forefront of concerns for the public, but what about violence?

“Our last guidelines research, in 2019, showed that people were equally concerned with depictions of sex and violence, but felt that we were getting the classifications of these issues correct, especially when considering the context in which such scenes occurred. But, they wanted depictions of sexual violence to be rated higher. They also felt it should have its own section in the guidelines, rather than being rolled into ‘violence’.” The 2019 report found that people reacted strongly when seeing sexual violence, regardless of the context. Most people felt sexual violence had no reason to be shown unless it was brief or lacked detail. Violence in fantastical or historical contexts was almost of no concern at all: “My line of thought, and it goes the same with Deadpool, is that these are films which are about superheroes… It’s not real-world violence, that’s the thing”, claimed one father in the latest report. Suicide Squad was a reference point in the BBFC’s research on violence and people seemed to agree with the 15 rating – but not for its violence. Parents were mostly concerned about the sexualisation of Harley Quinn, which seems logical, but almost completely dismissed the violence because it was fantastical and not realistic in their eyes, even though the film features a character having their head blown up.

Cartoonish violence was fine, but cartoon sex was another sticking point for parents according to the report. “It doesn’t make a difference at all that it was fruit”, complained one parent about the graphic sex in Sausage Party. Several sixteen- to seventeen-year-olds also commented saying the sexual content was too strong. When it came to realistic, simulated sex (consensual, not rape) from the Netflix show Easy, parents found it too much for a 15 rating and deserving of an 18 rating. “It’s not a 15, it’s more pornographic, it’s like watching somebody else having sex” mentioned one parent. “I just thought it was very, very graphic and that’s very strong sex, not a 15”, stated another. If 16-year-olds are legally allowed to have sex, why are classification boards and parents not wanting them to see it replicated on screen? is a show where adolescent students navigate every aspect of sex and sexuality, and the show has been universally praised for portraying those topics in a positive, yet realistic light. The show is funny and engaging but also has real value for teenagers facing the same issues as the characters.

The first season of Sex Education was given an 18 rating. The BBFC Spokesperson explained that “While nearly all of the episodes of Sex Education are rated 15, one episode in the first season is rated 18, meaning that the whole series received an 18 rating overall. Since both seasons are displayed together as a boxset on Netflix, the highest category is shown, so parents and teenagers are aware of the strongest content.” This episode in question simply features Lily and Eric talking about two particular sexual activities and we see the start of a pornographic video, but no genitals or sexual activity is shown. A season as a whole receiving the highest, strictest rating makes complete sense but gatekeeping a whole series from audiences who could benefit from viewing it due to a realistic and relatable scene exploring sexual fantasies, seems nonsensical.

After all this, are we finally able to answer the burning question of why is violence still more acceptable than sex on screen? Frustratingly, no. The issue seems to be so deeply rooted in our society that for most people it isn’t an issue at all, it’s simply how things are. The BBFC have done some terrific work over the last two decades in creating guidelines for concerned audiences and in continuing to gain the trust of the general public, but has the BBFC’s past of determining themselves what is and isn’t acceptable been etched into the societal conscious? The BBFC will always have the issue of trying to set a good moral standard without censoring art in general. This issue of how we see and react to sex and violence is much bigger than film and art: both subjects are a part of the human condition and always have been. Even though on the surface we can universally say that violence is bad and sex is good, someone decided a long time ago that sex was a taboo topic that needed to be heavily restricted, at least on screen. Education about this taboo topic here in the UK has an absurd approach still today: it is compulsory to teach Relationships Education and Sex Education in all schools, but the criteria on what exactly they teach in these classes are mere suggestions on “what schools should do”. I asked some parents the question of why they are more concerned about sex over violence and the answers were varied. “Sex is far more uncomfortable for us as parents”, “… it’s easier to explain why you shouldn’t be violent than explain sex”, “…they could also get traumatised by a sex related scene… if they don’t know what’s going on and haven’t been educated on the subject properly.” Even educating people on sex and everything around sexual health is rooted in fear caused by traditional values.

I don’t believe violence should be completely censored: I love a cheesy, gore-filled horror or action flick and I believe, in the right context, issues of violence can be explored to get audiences thinking about the subject. However, there is something that seems strange about how violence is introduced to audiences so early, no matter the context, but the topic of sex still creates heated debates even for children who can legally have sex. Parents surely wouldn’t want their children to see real violence enacted right before their eyes? And parents would surely want their children to be knowledgable of what healthy and unhealthy sexual relationships looks like? Moving image has the power to teach children and adults alike on these topics in an entertaining way, but somewhere along the way in human history our perceptions of what is acceptable and what is offensive were skewed, and that will take generations to undo.