The Necessary False Equivalence: Sex, Violence and Censorship

April 20, 2019

So it finally happened. Sony’s censorship agenda that started about a year ago and that all the big gaming websites kept silence over for unbekown reasons, has been made public by recent reports of WSJ (Wall Street Journal), asking many Japanese developers about the consequences of Sony’s agenda and how it bothers them and stifles their work. Once again, many gamers rightfully put in question: Why is it necessary to censor sexual content in video games, all the while hyper violence in utmost graphic detail is given free reign?

This valid question was met with the usual counter by authoritarian puritans: „Fuck you, that’s a false equivalence!“ Ignoring the profanity that was choosen in this example to represent the intense hostility anyone who even dares questioning sexual censorship is met with by the aforementioned group of people, it begs the follow-up question: What is a „false equivalence“? And is the comparison between fictional violence and ficitional sexual content really a „false equivalence“? I decided to gather all the popular arguments that some people use to try and convince everyone of the validity of this „false equivalence“ and look at how it holds up to scrutiny. This article is supposed to both educate those who refuse to accept comparisons between fictional violence and fictional sexual content, as well as help those who simply shake with their heads in annoyance and disbelief to understand why these other people need to keep up the pretense. This article will be updated in case new arguments pop up and need to be adressed.

As I surprisingly found out quickly, „false equivalence“ apparently isn’t an officially documented term. The Oxford dictionary only mentions it swiftly as part of the general entry for the term „fallacy“. Using the Wikipedia-entry at least offers a somewhat agreeable source to draw a definition from. According to them, a „false equivalence“ occurs when two things are being compared to each other that share a minor, insignificant trait, but because of that weak link (that might either be meaningless to the core topic or differ in importance by orders of magnitude) everything is being put on the same level, such as if these two things are the same. For example, both you and Hitler ate bread, so you’d be as bad as Hitler. Authoritarian puritans want us to believe that the censorship of sexual content in video games cannot be compared to violence in video games and that the notion itself is ridiculous. But is it?

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(Intermezzo – For clarification purposes: At no point in this article or the wider discussion is the comparison between violence and PORN. Porn is forbidden on all video game consoles. When talking about „sexual content“, we’re talking about sexy designs, outfits, scenes, positions, etc.. While there’s nothing wrong with full-on porn games, it’d be dishonest to derail the argument made in this article by throwing around accusations along the lines of wishing for games where you can have sex with children and similar shit. I’m explicitely mentioning this here, as it’s a popular method of eroding an otherwise sound, calm argument. It is violence and sexual contents, not porn.)

The morality of it all
When all is said and done, the people calling it a „false equivalence“ do so, because it makes sense according to their own morality. This group of people has gained power in recent years due to the long distorted #metoo-movement and companies bowing to their every demand in fear of harassment and outrage. Following these people’s mentality, sexualizing any fictional female character is bad. They demand context, they demand balance, they demand respect – for video game characters. If pressed further, they’ll give more reasons (that we’ll take a look at below), but the gist of it really is „I don’t like this. Therefore nobody should!“ If you follow certain internet discussion boards, that’s the primary argument. Someone finds some sexy design „gross“ or „problematic“ or „pandering“ or „icky“ or „creepy“ and off the outrage goes. Yes, most people would react with „I don’t like this. On to the next game“, but not them. It is very much a real-life version of the Simpson’s reverend Lovejoy’s wife „won’t somebody think of the children?!“ rhetoric. Something needs to be censored, because some people don’t like it. I recently watched the old Kevin Bacon-movie „Footloose“ where a town bans modern music, because the religious adults believe rock’n roll music corrupts their children. It becomes obvious quickly that the driving force behind the ban, the pastor, simply prefers classic music himself. He claims that rock’n roll is at fault for his son’s death, but that’s never believable when it’s evident that he simply never had any interest in rock’n roll music himself. Had his son died while listening to classic music, no doubt he would NOT have called for a ban on classic music. It’s the same with authoritarian puritans: They have no interest in games like Senran Kagura, Dead or Alive Xtreme 3 or sexy designs in bigger games – and thus NOBODY must enjoy these. Their own morality is more important than everybody else’s. At least so they believe.

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Your own morality is your’s and your’s only. It should go without saying, but everybody has his/her own set of moral values. Our society shares many of those. Finding sexy designs in video games icky, however, is most definitely not one of them.

They aren’t alike
As we defined the term „false equivalence“ earlier, another popular argument is that fictional violence and fictional sexual content are not alike in the face of censorship. Little reason is given as to why that’s supposed to be the case. However, let’s just look at the definition of the term and then hold it against the two subjects we’d like to compare. If it was a „false equivalence“, fictional violence and fictional sexual content needed to be comparable only in peripheral points or one of the two is more important than the other by orders of magnitude.

People usually compare the two, because both offend certain people. Both are subject to censorship depending on where in the world you live. Both are subject to morality. Both are prominent elements in modern entertainment media. Both CAN be censored without much impact on the gameplay (rare exceptions withstanding, for both). And last, but not least, people naturally find themselves drawn to compare the two. These are all rather strong similarities to call them peripheral. I’d say it’s even clearer when looking at both subjects’ magnitude: No matter how hard I try, I cannot understand how anybody could keep a straight face while claiming that sexual content in video games is worse than violent content – one is about the sex-positive appreciation of the human body, the other promotes the destruction of life. Quite the opposite, so the result of this comparison is parity at best, in favor of the people who want sexual content banned.

Fictional violence and fictional sexual content are very much alike in most relevant areas that pertain to the topic of censorship. It isn’t outrageous to compare the two, only because you might add some personal sub-topics.

Fictional sexual content leads to the real thing
I’ll try to keep this point short: There is no conclusive scientific study that proves this either way. If you search for studies relating to the topic, you can find articles flimsily supporting either point of view. The common denominator is: There is no conclusive result. And while violent games can cause a heightened aggressive mood, this is neither permanent nor can it be attributed to violent games with 100% certainty. The same goes for sexual contents. Sexy content in games doesn’t turn people into sexists, misogynists or any such thing. That’s because the vast majority of gamers recognizes video games as a place of fantasies – and sane people won’t mix up fantasy and reality.

But let’s stay with that point for a bit longer: If your argument actually was that people can’t tell the difference between fiction and reality, wouldn’t that be even more of a reason to focus on the censorship of fictional violence of fictional sexy contents? A popular response to that is „but sex is part of people’s life, violence is not“. To which I will firmly reply: In what world have you been living?! The world is full of everyday violence, small scale, big scale. The USA especially are drowning in gun-related crimes, but other parts in the world are little, if any, better. A simple glance at Arabic/muslim-governed countries and their stoning of women and lgbt people ought to suffice. Then you have gruesome shit like Yemen persisting. And let’s not forget ISIS. And that’s just the big stuff. Violence is happening every day, all around us. If your argument for the ‘false equivalence’ is that only one of the two topics leads to the real thing, you’re basically semantically self-destructing.

Fictional content doesn’t lead to „the real thing“. People who commit crimes, because of what they saw in a video game, movie or else, are mentally ill and would misbehave either way. Games shouldn’t be creatively crippled for fear of boogiemen.

The feminism point of view
There are a couple of arguments that all pertain to feministic viewpoints, so let’s put them together here and answer them in one go:

  • ‘Sexual content is the objectification of women’ – And men being cannonfodder meat bags is the objectification of men.
  • ‘Sexual content needs context“ – No, it actually doesn’t need context at all. A video game needs to entertain, that is all. Games aren’t educational tools, unless a developer wants his game to be.
  • ‘Women are being exploited’ – For one, so are men as pointed out above. For seconds, NO REAL woman is being exploited in a video game. It’s still all fictional.

Another bizarre opinion I keep encountering in certain discussion boards is that apparently it is bad when, pardon my explicit usage of words, games manage to give male gamers a boner. As a man I want to say: A game that manages to give me a boner is something to be praised! We all want our fictional entertainment to hit us on an emotional basis, but somehow reaching a male gamer’s most feel-good emotion is supposed to be bad? No. No matter how you try to spin this, getting a boner is something good. The only people criticizing this must be sex-negative individuals with little interest in sex or severely jealous women. Get over yourself. Our dicks aren’t evil.

Won’t somebody think of the children!
Supporters of Sony’s censorship agenda like to invoke that the censorship only goes against content that sexualizes children. That’s long been proven wrong, but it’s besides the point: You’re already fine with murdering fictional people! This leads back to a previous point, but how can you take offense at a sexy underage anime girl, while being fine with the murder of other fictional people? What kind of screwed up morality do you think you’re displaying here? „Murder is okay, sexy underage anime girls are not“? It makes you sound like a complete crazy person.

No matter what arbitrary age an anime girl has, the girls being sexualized in anime-styled games for the most part feature mature looking bodies. Big boobs, curves in all the right places. They also tend to behave nothing like actual children. If you actually knew about anime, you’d know what actual anime child-characters look like. No video game sexualizes a character like Pocco.

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Actual anime children aren’t being sexualized

Then there’s the sentiment that children need to be protected from sexual content. Once again, the very valid equivalence strikes back, because: What’s more damaging to a child: Seeing attractive anime girls OR watching the gruesome, realistic murder of people, all the while listening to their death screams?

The public finds sexual content gross!
Ignoring how it was porn that decided past data mediums’ winner: Go show your parents what you can do in Read Dead Redemption 2 or Resident Evil 2. Maybe it’s different in the USA, but the public in Germany would find the hyperrealistic violence infinitely more gross than any sexy anime girl. Because reveling in gore, blood and death isn’t seen as something positive. But what do we Germans know about violence and death, huh …

Parallel Worlds (added on April 21st)
As I was reminded just recently, there’s even one more important reason why it ought to be fair to compare fictional violence and fictional sexual content: It just so happens that in Japan, the country who’s games get attacked by authoritarian puritans in the west, fictional violence IS being censored. Famous example are the lack of headshots in the Japanese version of Resident Evil 4 and the lack of blood in No More Heroes. For all the ‘false equivalence!’ screaming, reality itself puts the two topics against each other – sexual censorship in the West, censorship of violence in Japan. Whether you agree with one or the other or both or neither, you need to realize that just like you oppose sexual content, some people in Japan oppose violent content in the exact same manner.

Why authoritarian puritans have to keep up the pretense: Necessity
Given all of the above counter arguments, one would like to believe that the ‘false equivalence’ pretense would finally come to a stop, right? But it won’t and there’s an important reason for it: Insisting on the ‘false equivalence’ between fictional violence and fictional sexual content is the pro-censorship crowd’s ONLY way to keep their argument and the subsequent agenda alive. Because they are very aware of one simple fact: If they conceded that it is fair to compare fictional violence to fictional sexual content, that would mean that their call for censorship against fictional sexual content would also be a call for censorship against fictional violence – and they know they could never win that fight. Denying these two topics to be compared is the only way to bring some validity to their censorship demands. If you actually think about everything written in this article, however, you’re forced to realize that it is impossible to demand censorship against one, but not the other. Demanding to ban fictional violence, however, is an impossible to win argument, therefore authoritarian puritans won’t even go near that dilemma and simply label the entire thing as a ‘false equivalence’ – and anybody who dares comparing the two is being met with ridicule, insults and bans. On that occasion: I’d like to challenge pro-censorship communities to actually discuss why one ought to be censored, but not the other, without falling back to the ‘false equivalence!’ screeching. Post a link to any such discussion in the comments below, I’ll be sure to give it a read.

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If you choose to ignore facts, they aren’t valid … right?

By the way, let’s ask ourselves the following for a moment: What would happen if fictional sexual content wasn’t censored? I think I know that answer: Everybody would be able to enjoy the games he/she likes and we all could continue life without being forced into these mind-numbingly dumb debates that game publishers unfortunately nurture by feeling pressured into giving in to the ever absurd demands of a vocal minority. Remember the Simpsons-episode where it’s asked what a world without lawyers would be like? Yeah, this whole pro-censorship agenda is the video game equivalent to that. Sigh.

To summarize: If looked into it, the so-called ‘false equivalence’ doesn’t hold up. All and any arguments made in favor of it are easily dispelled by applying facts, honesty and common sense. However, the more I kept thinking about it, the more I began to wonder if there isn’t a ‘false equivalence’ after all. Because yes: Fictional murder is vastly worse morally than fictional sexual content. But rest assured, I won’t initiate a censorship campaign against fictional violence, because, and call me crazy, fiction isn’t reality.

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by @diracmeer