Sex vs. Violence

WARNING: This blog contains adult content.

Been seeing this quote going around, attributed to author George RR Martin (writer, Game of Thrones):

George RR Martin

“It’s a uniquely American prudishness. You can write the most detailed, vivid description of an ax entering a skull, and nobody will say a word in protest. But if you write a similarly detailed description of a penis entering a vagina, you get letters from people saying they’ll never read you again. What the hell? Penises entering vaginas bring a lot more joy into the world than axes entering skulls.”

Martin isn’t alone in his befuddlement. I’ve read or heard similar thoughts from friends, professors, other creators of modern media, critics and entertainers.

My take? Sex is something sacred and very, very special that can and has been perverted. Violence is bad. Sometimes necessary (in defense of freedom), but always bad.  Perverting that which is sacred is worse than bad. It’s evil.*

*Which isn’t to say violence can’t be evil. It absolutely can be. But at its base its a thing we understand to be not positive. Children are taught “don’t hit” and there’s no group of people out there arguing that hitting is, actually, pretty great. That would be ridiculous.

Sex is such a tricky topic. Sex, at its core, is a good thing. Sex is great. But I and a lot of other people (all Americans, I guess) think sex is something that’s best discussed and practiced by a man and his wife. That’s not prudishness, that’s putting a thing–a very important thing–in its proper place. Very important things should always go in their proper places.

But much of the world doesn’t really agree with that. Sex is everywhere and attached to everything. In that way and many others it’s been perverted into this other thing–into something it’s best that it not be. CS Lewis (writer, Mere Christianity) said it best:

CS Lewis

“Sex is not messed up because it was put in the closet; it was put in the closet because it was messed up.”

In other words, what some call prudishness I would call trying to fix what’s been broken.

Admittedly, when we’re talking about sex, we’re in that sticky zone of intersecting ideas where religion and morality start pulling at each other. I have some atheist/agnostic friends who couldn’t give two figs about my religion, but we find a lot of common ground on moral issues.* We both believe in helping out our fellow man, we both want to do right by our kids and treat our spouses well, etc. But, almost invariably, we have disagreement when it comes to the place sex should have in our lives and culture.

*I don’t think my morality deriving from my religious beliefs invalidates my sense of right and wrong. I would argue that all morality comes from either religion itself or from something only religion can explain. Of course, that’s a whole ‘nother discussion.

I think the essential problem is that, for those that believe sex fits into far more places than someone like myself thinks it should, it’s hard to understand how something that ostensibly should be about joy and happiness is somehow a bad thing. I mean, how can that be?

This is where taking religion out of morality becomes problematic. The idea of the sacred disappears when religion is removed. Suddenly, things skew towards the secular and are judged less by their longer lasting, deeper consequences, and more by the surface results that can be viewed immediately. Defining something as sacred is, itself, a leap of faith. I’m saying God has more claim to a thing than I do. A God I have never met.*

*Faith in God has always been about taking the longview. God is great about telling us points A and Z and not really giving us much to go on for B-Y. So the faithful can look like fools until they’re proven right. Hopefully, it happens during their lifetime, but such is not always (often) the case.

So, to those like George RR Martin who believe we’re better off witnessing a penis going into a vagina rather than an axe cleaving a head in two (and I’m in no way saying either one is something I think I should or want to see), I say I’d rather see something I can clearly define as evil and understand as such than see that which I consider precious rendered as puerile entertainment for the masses. I truly believe the latter is the greater of the two evils.

Or, to put it another way: I don’t want to have to explain it over and over again to my kid (or myself!) the confusing vagaries of sexual practices and combat the mixed up messages of the world by constantly redefining for her what about sex is good and what is bad. Far, far easier to say “See that guy hitting that guy? Yeah, that’s bad. Don’t do that. Unless we’re at war. I’ll tell you when we’re at war.”*

*Yes, that’s a bit reductive. So what? If your argument is that it’s easier to define what is evil about sex than it is about violence, then we may need to agree to disagree.

I can’t possibly imagine what the response to this blog will be. Many I consider friends will likely find much to disagree with here. That’s okay. I invite discussion, but I do ask that we keep it civil. Thanks.

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32 comments

  1. Great post, Brocko. Always love hearing your point of view on these things. You have a way of explaining yourself that’s always approachable and non-judgmental, which is no mean feat in these days of the internet.

    I agree with you on many points. I don’t bring God into it as I have my serious doubts about whether or not He’s around…or if He is, if he’s really paying much attention. 🙂 I do feel that sex SHOULD be a sacred thing, best between two people who love one another. (I’m not as much a stickler for them being married…or of opposite sexes. A whole OTHER issue.) And that it’s utterly overused in our society to sell things. (Like beer, soap, or souls.) There certainly are people (*coughKimKardashian*) who use it to make millions of dollars, and we, the public seem to allow it for some reason.

    In the case of what George RR is saying (mimicking something the late, great George Carlin once said), given the choice, I’d rather have my children see two people making love than two people killing one another. If you have to choose one extreme or the other, I’d go with the sex. Of course, we don’t have to make that choice much, other than in hypothetical blog posts. 🙂

    As a storyteller, sex and violence both have their place in novels and movies. I know you and I have different tolerances for how MUCH we should see…although I definitely think more should be left to the imagination in both cases. Much more effective when sex and violence happens off-screen.

    As the father of two little girls, I think about this more as I get older from their perspective. I mean, I want them to be aware of the human body, aware of what sex is, aware of what they’re in for. But at the same time, they’re children…and when I see utterly overt ads or the like, I tend to shudder a little. It’s the ever-complex battle between the conservative in me and the hippie liberal. 🙂

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    1. As usual, you’re right about our common ground. We quite nearly meet in the middle and, except for a few points, it really is about degrees.

      I do think having kids changes things for us. Watching TV with your nine-year-old daughter when a Victoria’s Secret commercial comes puts things in perspective.

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      1. Whether the rules apply equally to everyone or differently to some people who are not as good is not a minor point. I wasn’t sure that’s what you were really saying, but when TOMRACINE said it and you did not object…

        That’s not “a few points,” that’s bigotry, which is both the greatest evil in the world and UTTERLY incompatible with the core of any religion I’m familiar with.

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        1. Since you invoked my name, I’m just wondering what point you’re trying to make here, Pat…I’m a little confused. Either you’re saying I’m guilty of bigotry, or Brock is, and I assure you, neither is true.

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        2. I must confess I’m also a bit confused. I don’t consider myself a bigot and I’m not sure why you are suggesting I am one. Or Tom for that matter. Which passages are you referring to?

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  2. I think a truly skilled storyteller lets the audience fill in the blank the most sexy (or horrific, depending on which scenario) way it can. Why must such encounters be described down to the last detail? Though my guilty pleasure can be sneaking off with a cheap novel or watching a hack-n-slash movie, that’s when I don’t want to enjoy anything deep or meaningful.

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  3. I initially wrote a long post about some of my experiences with violence and sex in media, but instead I’ll just say this.

    I don’t want to see either or read either. I’m not interested. Call me a prude, call me sensitive, whatever, and I’ll just agree with you. And because I’m not interested in seeing or watching either, it’s frustrating to me that I have to tiptoe around all the time trying to find out if I’m going to be bothered by a book I’m interested in reading. Or a movie I’m going to go see. I know a lot of people aren’t bothered by those things, but would they really miss excessive violence or explicit sex if either suddenly disappeared and better storytelling was put in place? My guess is no. In fact, I’d say that lots of media would be vastly improved with a little cleaning up.

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    1. I basically agree. If you love art and you love storytelling, trying to find something to feed your appetite can be a bit like wading through a minefield.

      We each have to make our own decisions about what sort of entertainment we’d like to take in, but options are increasingly limited for those of us that discriminate a bit more. I find that incredibly frustrating, but at the same time I understand why and how things have gotten to this point. Popular culture in particular is only as society permits.

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  4. “Sex is great. But I and a lot of other people (all Americans, I guess) think sex is something that’s best discussed and practiced by a man and his wife. That’s not prudishness, that’s putting a thing–a very important thing–in its proper place. Very important things should always go in their proper places.”

    I am quoting you as I absolutely agree with you on this. There was a time in my life where my beliefs were gray, but not anymore.

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    1. Thanks, Tracy. I’m someone who doesn’t believe in the existence of the gray. I do believe that things can APPEAR gray, but at the base everything is black and white. If I can’t see it as such, that means I’m just not smart enough yet.

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  5. There is a lot here to agree to disagree with. Basically, the things I disagree with you here seem to come from trying to force religion into morality, two things that do not naturally fit together (and more often than not are historically mutually exclusive). But I am impressed by the way you express your opinions here. Very well put – not many can approach such a topic this calmly or respectfully. It was an interesting read, and I hope all the responses you get remain rational.

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    1. Thanks, Sean. And I of course appreciate your measured response.

      As someone who grew up with morality inextricably linked to religion, I find your assertion that they do not naturally fit together puzzling. Any elaboration you’d like to make is welcome.

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      1. I’m baffled as well. Morality originates from religion; humanists have historically held a rather libertarian morality, and most prominent Atheists are outspokenly anti-morals. People who feel that someone’s religion ‘taints’ their morals need only to realize that since religion is the source of morals, it also defines them. If I’m an 18th-century Quaker, I’m going to believe that violence in any capacity is immoral, but if I’m a 12th-century Roman Catholic, I’m going to believe that restraining from torturing heretics is immoral. It all just depends on your religion.
        Just my two cents.

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  6. Brock, going to have to disagree with you. You make a good argument and the idea of something being sacred is important. The problem is that the argument fails. The graphic depiction is a glorification, and even in a religious context the violence is worse. You speak of defilement, and the violence is a defilement of life, body, and God’s love for humanity. That’s a lot worse than a graphic depiction of sex, which maybe defiles one element.

    Perspective here: the most critical elements of religion teach us to treat each other right. Killing someone does harm to the victim, the victim’s family and friends, and this damage can’t be reversed. It’s always worse, because we’re supposed to hold life as sacred. Sex can’t be undone either, but at least it’s not always wrong.

    So that defeats the sex-is-sacred argument. I’m not trying to change your mind since we’re entering an area of faith, but I am saying your argument isn’t sufficient and I find it works against you.

    As to the idea that violence is easier to explain making it the lesser of two evils… that just sounds wrong on so many levels. Consider that the guy hitting the other guy is often depicted as the GOOD GUY. Kids are perfectly capable of understanding who’s supposed to be the hero in the story, and you’re not helping saying “don’t do that unless we’re at war”, as if it explains it. The kid KNOWS he’s being depicted as the good guy, so you can say “only at war” as much as you’d like but the kid will still leave with the message of “Good guys hit bad guys”. People hit each other a lot, and not just at war, and your approach won’t fool any kid.

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    1. Okay, good thoughts, Scott. Lots to unpack here so I’m gonna do my best to keep it brief.

      I’ve actually, consciously, not made any argument in my post as to why sex is sacred. I present it as a given that it is and ask that you follow my reasoning accordingly. Of course, if you don’t believe sex is a sacred then you’re going to disagree with everything I’ve said, but I’m not really arguing the point. My only purpose was to promote understanding of why someone would object to depictions of sex over violence. To combat befuddlement.

      (That said, my (super brief) argument for sex being sacred is that, at its core, it is an act of creation. Violence is an act of destruction. One of those things is Godly.)

      However, there can be no doubt that graphic violence is a defilement of a body. I wholeheartedly agree. I don’t get why people like gore and zombies and all of that. I think we, as humans, have a tendency towards fascination with carnage, but to actually ENJOY seeing it? I don’t get that at all. That seems twisted to me. But even those who enjoy seeing hacked limbs and dislodged eyeballs understand (for the most part) that such things are wrong.

      Not so with sex. Lots of disagreement about what is okay about sex.

      And you’re right, it is wrong on so many levels to say that violence is the lesser of the two evils. Thankfully, that’s not what I was arguing at all. The ultimate sin is to take another’s life unjustly. Period. The second? To take another’s virtue outside of the bonds of matrimony. There are degrees on both counts, but you get my meaning.

      The distinction I’m making isn’t between the acts of sex and violence themselves, but with the way they are depicted, whether they should be depicted, and the ultimate message behind those depictions. If violence is glorified, that’s wrong. But is it completely wrong to show violence? No, I don’t think so. Violence is bad, but there are good reasons to do violence.

      Sex is soooo much trickier than that. There are only a few good reasons for sex and many, many bad ones. And the bad ones get the most play. And even if only the good ones got play, we’re still talking about something sacred and that should be reserved for the bedroom, not for the screen. Not for entertainment.

      I don’t think my argument defeats itself, but I respect the fact that you see things differently.

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    2. I agree with your point about violence not necessarily being easier to explain…

      Even if your kid comes away with the message that “Good guys hit bad guys,” is that what you really want? A world in black and white? People are good or they are bad. And the good people hit the bad people.

      I have a vivid childhood memory of my parents trying to explain violence in the media in such simple terms to me. I wound up being distraught almost to the point of hysterics because I had hit my brother the week before and was convinced someone was going to come kill me. My mother dealt out spankings (and had somewhat of a rage problem) when I was little. I then took all that misplaced rage she directed at me and absorbed it. I was being hit because I was bad. Because I deserved to die. These are literally thoughts I had about myself as a child. Violence is not as far removed from the life of every child or person in America as one would hope…if it was, your point would be spot on, Brock. But it’s not. And because there are small children seeing and experiencing violence, it matters how it is portrayed and how it is explained.

      I think sometimes good people make bad choices and that not everyone agrees on what is good or bad. And that the oversimplification of both sex and violence can cause a lot of damage to a child, or even an adult.

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      1. I agree with much of what you’re saying here, Heidi.

        I’m in no way arguing that violence or seeing violence is a good thing. The role of violence is obviously much more nuanced than that.

        My only argument is that the role of sex is more nuanced still.

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  7. I kind of the think tying morality inextricably with religion is a little limiting. There are atheists that are some of the most moral people I know, and a lot of religious people that are pretty amoral. I know personally that I get a lot more embarrassed to be watching sex scenes with other people than I do scenes of violence, and what Samantha says makes a lot of sense to me, but there are stories that just wouldn’t work as well without either being stated plainly. Would I watch those things with my kids? Heck no, but that doesn’t invalidate them.

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    1. “There are atheists that are some of the most moral people I know, and a lot of religious people that are pretty amoral.”

      Totally agreed. But I don’t blame the religion for the bad practitioners. Moral foundation comes from somewhere (thought, I agree, it doesn’t HAVE to be from religion), but people are always free to go their own way.

      I’m curious to know which stories you feel would not work as well without sex and violence being depicted plainly. I’ll agree that there are very likely many that wouldn’t work otherwise, but I don’t think all stories and entertainments have equal value.

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  8. I think there are some defining terms missing from the conversation here. Are we talking about portrayals of ALL sex? Or just sex out of wedlock? And when speaking of sex and violence in movies, are we really speaking of ALL sex and ALL violence? Or just those instances where sex and violence are depicted with a lack of consequence (as they frequently are)?

    I, personally, think that there has been a terrific desensitization to violence in America and that this is due in part to the lack of consequences as a result of violence that is portrayed in many different types of media.

    As for sex, I think that sex should first and foremost be a choice. Your body, your choice. And your partners’. When and where and how I think sex is appropriate applies to me, myself, and whoever else is there. That being said, I think this most basic concept is not one held by most Americans. 1 in 4 American females have been sexually abused, which does not speak well of our respect for the body, personal boundaries, and choice.

    Like violence, I think that sex should be portrayed more realistically in media. There are consequences to sex, just as there are to violence. I would bet my life there is a huge disparity between the percentage of Americans that have been affected by STDs versus the percentage of characters portrayed in the media who have been affected by STDs (and that’s not even bringing up reality TV). Sex can be a complicated thing that is often oversimplified in the media.

    This post reminds me of the season finale of The Office that recently aired on NBC. I was HORRIBLY offended and absolutely aghast at the interaction they showed between Dwight and Angela at the end. *SPOILER ALERT* When Dwight kissed Angela and she said “no” and he did not stop immediately, I was mortified. And then, when she kissed back, I wanted to throw something at the TV. Way to reinforce the “no means yes” date rape mentality, NBC! If I was Angela and someone did not stop kissing me the second I asked them to, that someone’s face is getting slapped and he will never be kissing me again. End of discussion.

    I think clearly this topic is vast and any of us could go on for days…in summation, I wish the media did a better job 1) portraying consequences and 2) portraying respect for personal boundaries when it comes to both sex and violence.

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    1. Yeah, I was pretty shocked by that Office scene as well. Couldn’t believe that made it to air and I’ve heard almost no discussion of it. Thank you for calling it out.

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  9. Wow, seriously? That blog should be rated NC-17! The descriptions of sex and violence you quoted was quite intense. Yikes! I had to cover my eyes and ears for a few lines. Great post and great debate. As an artist myself, I must admit the female body is the crown of Gods creation and can be more beautiful than a sunset or snow covered mountain top. Put all three of those together and you just blew my mind. Most secular artists have been graded at one point or another on their depiction of the human body. As a result it becomes the pinnacle of most artistic works because of the emotions it invokes. Even though depicting the human body is diffferent than depicting a sex scene, the secular artists don’t see that fine line so the cross it willy-nilly hoping for the strongest reaction to their work, stepping on the toes of the “sacred”. Its ignorance, plain and simple. A quick study of the Renaissance masters would help fix that. Now onto the subject at hand. I think the question of sex vs violence is decided by the eye of the beholder. (Sorry, I guess I’m a gray area kind of guy.) For a sexual deviant or rapist, sex scenes are more detrimental, however for a twisted mind of a murderer, a violent murder scene could incite more violence. For the general public, I think there are more sexual deviants roaming the earth than potential murders so therefore the sex scenes can harm our society more.
    This is the Polar Bear: Over and out.

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    1. ‘preciate the perspective! I think you’re right that on an individual level one thing could be more harmful over another.

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  10. I can’t leave a definitive response to your original post, Brock, or any of the replies, but I can only say a few things from my own perspective.
    I am not particularly religious, considering myself a relaxed agnostic “recovering Catholic”… but the moral foundation I received growing up was almost inextricably linked to the Roman Catholic Church. It took a great deal of time for me to separate the useful bits from the unnecessary religious guilt machine.
    Guilt is, it seems to me, the primary motivator of a religion to enforce its dictates. (This excludes such episodes as the Holy Inquisition, of course.) Guilt and fear are probably the least productive emotions we experience, and the chaos they cause pains me. (And others too.)
    Your views are understandable, and I do not denigrate anything you’ve said… I just can’t agree with you in good conscience.

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    1. I can respect disagreement, but I have to say that your description of religion is completely unfamiliar to me. But then, I didn’t grow up Catholic. I’ve heard of “Catholic guilt,” so I figure that must be what you’re describing.

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  11. After some more thought, I feel the need to weigh in on a thing you alluded to peripherally in your post.
    I met George R. R. Martin at a science fiction convention here in Detroit a bit over twenty years ago; he’s a jovial, friendly (for the most part) person, and he has made a living in one of the tougher industries around. (They don’t call it “show art”, after all.)
    George points out something in the quote attributed to him that I’ve wondered about myself… it seems a bit of a cognitive disconnect that violence and sex are treated differently – especially by the Code and Ratings Administration of the Motion Picture Association of America.
    An “R” (restricted) rating, which tells theater owners that anyone under the age of 17 should not be admitted to the motion picture without being accompanied by a parent or guardian, is awarded for a great deal of violent behavior, spouting gore, dismemberment, or that sort of thing, but it only takes full frontal female nudity or full frontal male nudity (without showing the flag at full mast, so to speak) to earn one. The “NC-17” is automatically awarded for “flying the flag”, depictions of sexual acts that are not (or not easily) simulated, or “deviant” behavior. (The definition of deviance is done by the ratings panel, who remain anonymous.)
    I got this information a while back from the MPAA’s website, and my memory may be faulty; you can look it up for yourself at http://www.mpaa.org.

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    1. I agree that the MPAA is not perfect, but I’m glad they do what they do. I think they could certainly be a bit stricter and more consistent on a great many things, but overall I feel like they do a pretty decent job of placing the proper warnings on sex. Violence… yeah, they could do better. Can’t disagree with that. But I don’t think allowing more sexual content to equalize the two and make things for fair is the answer (which is the solution George RR Martin and others like him often advocate). If fairness is the issue, then it makes more sense to me to award the higher rating to violence with less provocation.

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  12. I can’t possibly begin to weigh in on this topic, but the fact that I came across it the very night my father asked me “Which is worse: sex or violence?” strikes me as somewhat amusing. (Same discussion, essentially. Unfortunately that was not explained to me before the question was posed. >>)

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  13. I’m going to go against the grain here and say, sex/nudity is infinitely worse. Here’s why:

    Kids
    Young kids are more ready to see violence in the media than sex. Yes, that’s right. I just said I’d rather my three-year old son see someone getting their head blown off than to see two people having sex. Why? Because while neither image is necessarily good for a child to see, violence in general is a very simple lesson for kids. “You don’t hit”, sometimes “You don’t hurt people”. This is not only simple but consistent with his understanding of the world as he grows up. Telling him “Sex is bad” is not only untrue but a very literally Puritan way of addressing the topic; yet it’s the only way of addressing it to a toddler who needs to somehow know what they’re doing on screen he’s not supposed to do.

    Adults
    There are a great many societal and legal deterrents of violence. It is almost always frowned upon if not punished in a big way. People understand (again from a very early age) that if they are violent, they almost certainly will be made to regret it. Sometimes even self-defense is punished, which is a testament of many things but one being our general intolerance of violence. Compare this to our general acceptance of sexual activity, including activity we can almost guarantee we’ll regret! The media is chock-full of promotions of sexual promiscuity, or at least the promotion that it is normal, and so it is closer to being normal in the “real world” today than violence ever will be. This is why among both kids and adults, sexual misadventures are more common than acts of serious violence. Violence in the media stands to have far less influence on its viewers than sex/nudity. Because the former is consistently given less opportunity to be influential, seeming promotions of something horrible is actually better than seeming promotions of something merely bad.

    Sometimes the first set of priorities is in fact the right one.

    P.S. – The whole “I’d rather watch two people making love than trying to kill each other” argument reveals a bias by first changing “having sex” into “making love” and then not acknowledging the sex/nudity is often real and the violence is not. People should use more honest language if they really want the truth.

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    1. Bravo, sir. I tried to present the religious perspective in my blog, but you’ve given a solid secular/humanist view here and I think it holds much water. Thank you for that.

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