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Sex Crime Films: A Response

Once a month, on the fourth Tuesday, Nicole Rafter writes a column for about crime films for OUP. Last month she wrote about sex crime films and there has been a pretty interesting conversation going on in the comments section. Since it is sort of hard to find, you have to be at the column
and scroll all the way to the bottom, we thought we would respost it here. First up is Nicole’s response, after this we reposted the original comments.

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.


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.
Posted by: jpkang | October 24, 2006 at 01:29 PM


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.

Posted by: Neal King | November 02, 2006 at 07:19 AM


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.

Posted by: Matt Travis | November 02, 2006 at 04:33 PM


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.

Posted by: Lauren Smagin | November 06, 2006 at 12:24 AM


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.

Posted by: Suzanne Watkins | November 08, 2006 at 07:23 PM

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  1. Anouska Wilkinson

    Hi,

    I wonder if you can help. I am currently in my third and final year at The University of Plymouth, and am currently writing my dissertation. My dissertation concentrates on how sexual offences – mainly rape – are portrayed in literature and film. I am looking at whether or not films and literature portray the reality of such things as conviction rates, and whether or not film and literature effects the feelings of the public (the people who might be called to do jury service)? I will also be looking at whether or not there is a need to reform the present jury system, because of such things as film and literature – and also the media.

    I wonder if you would be able to give your viem?

    Many thanks

    Miss A L Wilkinson

  2. sinema film izle

    I am looking at whether or not films and literature portray the reality of such things as conviction rates, and whether or not film and literature effects the feelings of the public (the people who might be called to do jury service)? I will also be looking at whether or not there is a need to reform the present jury system, because of such things as film and literature – and also the media.

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