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Sex-Crime Movies

Crime Films: A Monthly Column

By Nicole Rafter

For movie-makers and viewers alike, sex-crime movies offer opportunities to explore the meanings of sexual offenses and to reflect on the boundaries that societies trace between licit and illegal sexual behaviors. Even if we don’t all actually debate the fine points of such films with friends, merely by viewing sex-crime movies along with millions of other people across the globe we become participants in transnational conversations. These conversations are really discussions of such troublesome issues as what behaviors should be criminalized, whether sex offenders are criminally responsible or mentally ill, how we define who the victims are, and when we should give justice officials special latitude in the investigation and prosecution of hard-to-detect and difficult-to-prove offenses. The best sex-crime films–those that grapple with the thorniest issues and take positions on them–pose such questions and frame the debates on how they should be answered.

Recent years have seen the release of a number of thoughtful sex-crimes films, and the trend seems to be accelerating. It began with The Accused (1988), the Jodie Foster film about the real-life “Big Dan” poolhall-table rape case. The Accused focused on two problems: Is it fair to charge guys with rape when the victim entered the poolhall of her own free will and danced in a way they considered provocative? And should the on-lookers who cheered on the gang-bangers be tried as accomplices? In short, the film, like the actual case, debated the very definition of rape.

Another early sign of the trend was Dolores Claiborne (1995), starring Kathy Bates in a drama about incest. Dolores, a stony-faced woman, lives on a Maine island as a social outcast, shunned due to neighbors’ suspicions that years earlier, she had killed her husband. Exoneration comes when her sullen daughter (Jennifer Jason Lee) realizes that Dolores fought (and killed) the father to protect the her from sexual abuse. Dolores Claiborne, one of the first movies to explore the impact of incest, recognizes that a child’s caretaker, too, can be victimized by sexual abuse, even if she or he is not the offender’s target.

After these two harbingers, the pace picked up with the release of Happiness (1998) and L.I.E. (2001), both of which deal explicitly with pedophilia. In quick succession, they were followed by Pedro Almodovar’s Talk to Her (2001), a film that daringly paints a sympathetic portrait of a male nurse who impregnates a comatose patient. The year 2003 brought four more sex-crimes films: In the Cut, about a woman’s refusal to let threats of sexual violence in her neighborhood deter her quest for sexual authenticity; Monster, about Aileen Wuornos, the Florida prostitute who was sexually abused as a child and grew up to kill a number of customers, for which she received the death penalty; the documentary: Capturing the Friedmans about memory and the impact of pedophilia on a family; and Mystic River, about ways the fallout from pedhophilia can ripple across generations. Another two sex-crime films were released in 2004: The Woodsman, Kevin Bacon’s harrowing portrayal of a pedophile, recently released from prison and trying to go straight; and Bad Education, an Almodovar film concerned with a priest’s sexual abuse of young boys.

Although there were fewer sex-crime films in earlier years, such movies did exist, and in fact, they have a long and distinguished history. One of the first was Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger (1927), a silent movie about a serial killer who is attacking Hitchcock’s favorite type of victim: young, female, and blonde. A few years later, Fritz Lang released M (1931), one of the best sex-crime films of all time. (The initial stands for “murderer.”) M’s obsessive child stalker, a character based in part on the real-life “Dusseldorf vampire,” established an enduring stereotype of the sex psychopath, driven by impulses far beyond his control.

But then there was a long gap, perhaps a result of the relatively conventional, straightlaced temper of the 1940s and 1950s. Not until Psycho (1960) did the sex-crime film revive. The same year saw the release of Peeping Tom, another psychosexual study that implicates both the director and the viewers in sadomasochistic voyeurism. Equally chilling (if less psychologically intricate) was Cape Fear (1962), the story of an ex-con openly planning to rape the young daughter of the lawyer who testified against him years earlier in a rape trial. With The Boston Strangler (1968), a movie based on the actual criminal career of a man with a split personality, the sex-crime film returned to the mental illness interpretation suggested by M and Psycho, assuring viewers that such aberrant personalities belong in psychiatric wards, not prisons.

The 1970s brought two more sex-crime films: 10 Rillington Place, based on the predations of a real-life serial killer; and Murmur of the Heart, a Louis Malle film that deals cheerfully with (among other themes) mother-son incest. (In fact, this film may not belong in the sex-crime film category at all, since the director does not view the incest as a crime.) Only one sex-crime film, Al Pacino’s controversial, gay-themed Cruising, appeared during the 1980s.

In Shots in the Mirror, I suggest reasons for the recent surge in sex-crime films. Earlier taboos against the depiction of sexual deviance have relaxed, and today’s audiences are more likely to find material of interest in stories that earlier seemed merely distasteful. The women’s movement of the 1970s and 1980s demonstrated that sexual violence is widespread, especially among intimates. Allegations of sexual abuse in daycare centers (false allegations, as it turned out) woke people up to the possibility of sex crime against children by trusted adults; those charges also stimulated debate over legal issues such as whether children should be allowed to testify in court. The unmasking of religious leaders as pedophiles pushed public awareness up another notch, as did infamous individual cases including that of the child victim Megan Kanka and the cannibalistic offender Jeffrey Dahmer. As issues of sex crime moved to fore of public consciousness, they inevitably became the focus of movies.

It’s not always easy to decide what to include in the sex-crime films category. I myself exclude teen terror flicks, even though many of them (such as Slumber Party Massacre [1982]) have a strong element of sexual victimization. I also exclude films whose main aim is pornographic. But there is a lot of room for debate. Should we include Crash (2004), with its prominent scene of groping by a police officer, or would it be better to categorize Crash as a movie about race and identity? What about Blue Velvet (1986), in which the emphasis falls more on perversity and voyeurism than sex-crime? And should we include comic sex-crime films such as Hitchcock’s Frenzy (1972) or Almodovar’s Matador (1986) in the category? I’d like to learn readers’ opinions on this matter.

I’d also like to hear from readers who know of feature-length sex-crime films that I’ve missed here.


Rafter_crimefilm_jacket Nicole Rafter is the author of Shots in the Mirror: Crime Films and Society, a sociocultural study of the crime film genre. She is currently a professor at Northeastern University in the Law, Policy, and Society program. Her column is published on the 4th Tuesday of every month. Check out past columns on Inside Man and Miami Vice and her intro.

Recent Comments

  1. jpkang

    What about Dead Man Walking (1995), which features a rape and murder which are muted by the nun-convict redemption plotline? A seminary classmate called it “rape as pastoral care,” because portions of the movie were shown in a pastoral care class ostensibly to hold up the model of Sister Prejean but the viewing only traumatized her due to the repeated slow-motion depictions of the crime.

  2. Neal King

    Nicole,
    I’d throw in the cop movies that feature sexually motivated serial killers, from Copycat and The Cell, to the Bruce Willis section of Sin City. Most of these are procedurals, in which plots hinge on discoveries of disturbing evidence of who the killer is (as opposed to buddy plots in which the relationships between cop partners take center stage). A lot of those procedurals are notable for keeping their heroes confused until near the ends of the stories. Detectives in sex-crime plots take a lot longer to identify the killers than do the heroes of other cop movies; and often they discover that they know them or are even sleeping with them. It’s almost as though the sexually motivated serial killer is so weird that it just throws good cops off. Examples of this plotting include Kiss the Girls, Tightrope, and Taking Lives. The most spectacular was probably Basic Instinct, in which the cop never did figure out that he was sleeping with the enemy.
    But then maybe it’s not that the sex crimes are too weird for cops to understand. Maybe it’s because cops have a little too easy a crime understanding the motivations. Sin City represents the trend toward framing cops for the sex crimes. You see this theme a lot, in such movies as Clint Eastwood’s Tightrope, the Ashley Judd thriller Twisted, and the old gay-bashing Pacino movie Cruising. In those films, sex crimes were contagious, and even the most heroic detectives could imagine doing them and wonder if they were capable of it. Other plots like Manhunter (remade with Edward Norton as Red Dragon) play on the theme of the cop empathizing with the killer’s desires, so much that they become mentally ill. Either way, these plots suggest that cops could be a lot like those sex offenders.
    I get the sense that people find violent sex offenses fascinating, and enjoy playing with the fantasy that ordinary people could do it, and that others would remain unaware that their friends, lovers, partners were so deeply twisted.
    And then there’s the way in which these movies linger over the mutilated corpses of murdered women. That always seemed to suggest something awful about how filmmakers and audiences feel about women and brutal crimes against them; but I’ll leave it to others comment on that aspect of our serial-killer obsessed pop culture. The previous post about Dead Man Walking and “rape as pastoral care” suggests the ease with which people digest and use images of women being brutalized, even in ostensibly helping environments. Yuck.

  3. Matt Travis

    Nicole,

    I’m not sure if the recent popularity of sex-crime film themes is related to the debate of whether certain aspects of sex crimes are moral or if it is just Hollywood remixing old themes to draw in larger audiences. For instance, Samuel L. Jackson plays Carl Lee Hailey, the father of a girl who is raped, in A Time to Kill (1996). The movie’s plot revolves not only around the rape itself, but racial issues, the fairness of the legal system, and revenge. In Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003), we see the makings of comatose patient rape in hospitals; however, the movie is full of other plot types. In Gothika (2003), we find that otherwise respectable citizens are harboring deadly secrets about creating snuff films. All of these present very serious problems in the world today.

    Should we focus on the more direct mainstream movies like 8mm (1999) where the issue consumes the majority of the plot (which you may have left out because it is borderline pornographic) or integrate movies where sex crimes play a smaller role as well such as the ones mentioned above? Additionally, how is Hollywood genre melding affecting the general populace’s perception on the topic?

    I personally like to believe in the buildup effect. We watch scenes in movies that are horrible to us at first, but eventually, our emotions go numb, and we are more willing to watch the more graphic material. I think this is why we are seeing an increase in movies like this. As people watch more and more movies, they are looking for larger and larger deviances from the norm. How else can we explain the widespread popularity of movies like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre(s) and Hostel? Additionally, does the violence in our news (reports of rape and others) lead to the popularity of the sex-crime genre?

    I apologize about having more questions than answers, and I wish you luck with your book.

  4. Lauren Smagin

    I think that the recent increase in these films is because people aren’t as ashamed to talk about these issues as they used to be. Before I know that my grandparents would never have watched a movie about this topic or would have talked about this stuff it was actually happening in the news. It is definitely not normal to behave in a sexually deviant way and this is partially why people didn’t make movies about this before. People werent going to be caught watching a movie that had sexual assault in it because they didn’t want to be seen as not normal. But now there is an understanding that just because we watch these movies doesn’t mean that we think the bad or evil behavior involved in the movie is correct or should be socially accepted by any means.

    I definitely agree that people like to watch people get hurt in movies, we like the characters taking the risk or them getting hurt and then fighting their way back to becoming the hero of the story. Which in most movies where sexual crime is involved the victim or a relative to the vicitim rights the offense and gets revenge. We like to see the person that hurt them get caught or killed. A movie is more interesting to the audience when there is more violence and more action and that is also why more movies include this topic of sexual crime.

    As a woman it upsets me that only women are seen as the victim in these movies. I don’t understand why people like to see women get hurt or terrorized. You never see men involved in these movies unless they are the ones doing the terrorizing.

  5. Suzanne Watkins

    I think an interest in sex crime movies lies in the idea of the ritual aspect of criminal justice. Sex crimes are certainly taboo, but by talking about them openly, we condemn those who perform them. By making a spectacle of their punishment, we create solidarity among ourselves (the viewers/punishers) by affirming that we, ourselves, do not commit these horrible acts, that we are innocent and good.

  6. nicole rafter

    Let me respond to these comments on my sex-crime films column–all of them useful and stimulating–in the order in which they arrived.

    First, as ipkang writes, Dead Man Walking should definitely be included in the sex-crime film category. Ipkang observes that some viewers feel raped by the film itself, through its “repeated slow-motion depictions of the crime.” This observation ties in with other comments pointing to the unusually close identification of viewers with victims or offenders of this type of movie. That these films can really engulf us no doubt reflects the power of sex itself. It also reflects the overwhelmingly dire effects of sexual victimization.

    Neal King points out that the sex-crime film category should include sexually-motivated serial-killer films such as Copycat and The Cell. These are “procedurals” in which the detective has some sort of sexual relationship to the killer. Maybe the detective is literally having sex with the killer, as in Basic Instinct (which also should be added to my list of sex-crime films). In other cases, the detectives themselves identify with the killer and end up discovering their own inner serial killer, as Al Pacino’s character does in Cruising.

    In Shots in the Mirror, I discuss the sexual implications of several of these films–The Offence, Tightrope, Manhunter–but I’ve grouped them as serial-killer films, not sex-crime films. Clearly, as Neal points out, there is a lot of overlap. As Neal also points out, some of them skirt the edges of pornography.

    Matt Travis raises big questions about sex-crime films’s effects on audiences. He also asks about the impact of “the buildup effect,” whereby we become progressively numbed by Hollywood violence, leading film-makers to create increasingly violent movies for audiences in search of new thrills. This is an excellent example of the feedback loop between crime films and their social context.

    I don’t have full answers to Matt’s questions about audience effects, but in Shots in the Mirror I argue against the view that movies cause crime. Instead, I argue that movies contribute to the creation of interpretive frameworks or mind sets that we carry around in our heads and use to make sense of the world. Through a series of internal dialogues that we conduct all the time, but with special intensity when watching a good film, we build up and modify these frameworks, some of which help us interpret violence in the world and in film itself. This is how I understand the interactions between self and film. But Matt’s comments drive home the fact that for some people, the self-film interaction encourages sadomasochistic fantasies.

    Matt, to finish my reactions to your comments: I don’t think newspaper reports of violence have much effect on Hollywood except to suggest topics. What is driving the new spate of sex-crime films, in my opinion, is the fact that news media now talk openly about, for example, pedophilia. (The posting by Lauren makes this point.) Hollywood has responded with films about pedophiles.

    Suzanne has come up with what sociologists would call a Durkheimian account of the effects of crime films: we watch them, condemn the offenders, and thus achieve a sense of solidarity with other non-offenders. I think this process does occur for many viewers; to use the terms outlined above, the films give us information which we use to create and modify our mental frameworks for understanding sex offenses, and those frameworks help some people define such offenses as bad and themselves as good. But something else may be going on, too, for as some of the commentators have observed, sex-crime films also reveal to some viewers a taste for watching violence and, particularly, sadomasochistic violence. That is, sometimes the films contribute to mental frames or constructs that allow viewers to secretly revel in depictions of such acts. They don’t go out and commit sex-offenses as a result of viewing the movies, but they do derive sexual sadomasochistic pleasure from the viewing.

  7. Alex Glancy

    You mention the fact that the women’s movements and the Catholic Church scandal brought sex crimes into the main stream and may have found the answer for why society has taken interest in this topic.

    You mentioned that us engaging in movies has become a form of societal conversation. This surge of movies may be society’s reaction to human actions they did not know proliferated society on so many levels and so frequently.

    Movies are a way to attempt to understand those who commit actions considered to be the most egregious. Movies on the topic help us decide how society should deal with these individuals who pose such a threat to it.

    There is a natural reaction towards curiosity when society discovered that anyone they knew could harbor such violence. Coupled with the fact that they desire violence towards children, whom which society natural attempts to protect at all costs. We see these movies in an attempt to understand the nature of those who pose a threat to our children and loved ones.

    It is then that mental illness becomes something of a secret disease and less a matter of these individuals being evil. We desire to know why people have these impulses and what caused them. If discovered, we may have the chance to stop it.

  8. Stephanie Savre

    I read the article regarding sex-crime movies and I found it to be a very
    interesting read; while also creating a lot of room for debate. I strongly
    believe that our culture is so much different than our past cultures throughout
    history. Things that would never have been considered the norm or appropriate in
    previous cultures are now seen as ok. I also believe that we see more and more
    of these types of movies being made because they do attract the largest
    audience. People thrive to see this type of deviance in movies; it’s what
    ultimately sells. Are our emotions becoming so numb to these types of actions?
    I believe that our emotions do adapt to these types of actions because they are
    thrown at us so often. These types of movies are going to continually be made
    and watched because they have become a large part of our society. People
    nowadays don’t want to see movies that are boring, happy and crimeless; they
    want to see things out of the ordinary. Yet, they don’t realize that these
    events that are being shown in these movies really do happen in real life. I
    also feel like we have allowed these types of movies to be considered ok for so
    long that how would we ever be able to pull them off the shelves. I just hope
    that these types of movies don’t take it to that next level. Yet, in a sense I
    feel like they already have with movies like Hostel, Texas Cain Saw Massacre,
    The Hills Have Eyes, etc. I do feel like these movies make people in society
    numb to reality. The only question that I have regarding this issue is: When is
    enough going to be enough?

  9. Ryan Hill

    I think there has been an increase in sex crime movies in order to bring awareness to the public and create a since of solidarity against such actions. When people watch these movies they form opinions and become more willing to express their views on sex crimes. Sex crimes are very real and occur more often than many people would think. Gaining solidarity against sex criminals can only help in the future.

  10. Chris Lewis

    I believe Hollywood is taking a cue from the modern news media, not only in a ripped-from-the-headlines subject matter, but also in the degree to which the crimes themselves are portrayed on screen. As more nasty details are featured on the evening news, I think the numbing effect that Matt Travis spoke of forces Hollywood to new graphic heights (or depths in this case). Also, these movies allow us as a group to vicariously punish the offenders that have made victims of our women. Usually we are able to sacrifice these deviants in the most satisfying fashion as slugs from the protagonists pistol put the offender down for good. I think sex-crime movies in the procedural category that Neal King spoke of can offer us valuable insights into what people want to see in their films. But the most powerful or helpful sex crime movies are not the ones that offer up a gross characterization of a rapist from whom the audience can easily and safely distance themselves. The good ones are the ones that ask the audience the big questions about their subject matter. Films like Happiness that ask if we can ever really know whose house our children are sleeping at, or films like The Accused or A History of Violence (here I’m thinking of the staircase scene) that ask where we draw the line on what actually constitutes a sex crime.

  11. Rani McMillan

    Agreeing with previous comments, the question is: when is enough really enough? Our culture is constantly being desenstitized to sex crimes via popular action films and also more and more comedies which are aimed at the younger population. When it is seen as okay to harrass a woman and males laugh and walk away (in such scenes from the show Entourage) our generation is being exposed to these crimes in a manner that is seen as almost accepted in Hollywood. When all types of harrassment are made to be comedic and are laughed at and constantly seen as minor things, a mind set is created that sex crimes are not serious. As the kids in middle school begin to grow older and see more sex crimes being accepted in their favorite films, who knows how they will act in a certain situation involving such harrassment.

  12. Jenny Ferdetta

    I think a large reason for the rise in sex crime films in today’s generation is that such crimes are highly publicized in the media, making people very aware of their existence and threat. Movies love to play off our own fears and therefore, sex-crime films fit right in because it is something we believe/fear happens a lot. While at the same time, we judge those that commit sex crimes, i would agree that we are in a phase of blaming mental instability on the offenders. In many cases I feel that we would say that mental illness is to blame, but not in a way that excuses the offenders. Instead, we feel that their mental illnesses are just further reason to keep them locked up, not cause for lighter sentences.
    Also, to agree with the author, I feel that movies outside the genre that deal with sex-crimes can’t really be counted because they give them a very different focus. While it can be a very interesting an informative light, it isn’t really examining sex crimes the way the thriller/crime drama are.

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