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10 February 2023 | Podcasts | Article by Kathleen Hallisey

Sexual abuse in films to be given stricter ratings

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In this week’s episode, the abuse team discuss the recent comments made by Natasha Kaplinsky, president of the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) who has said that sexual abuse should be given stricter ratings in films.

Her comments come ahead of a planned BBFC consultation set to review public attitudes towards this issue, where they shall survey 100,000 people about its guidelines. Any changes will come into force early 2024.

Kaplinsky says that the public has become more sensitive to sexual abuse of women, as well as terrorist violence.
Speaking of the back of the #Metoo movement and recent events which have sparked an outcry over violence against women, Kaplinsky suggests “We were strict anyway in the guidelines, but actually things have moved on.”

Kaplinsky believes that society has got much more culturally sensitive to rape and tolerance to violence, coercive control and that border between 15 and 18 violence will be in amongst the key arguments for the change.

This new stricter approach will apply to sexual assault off screen too.

An example that the BBFC has mentioned is a Keira Knightley scene in The Duchess where viewers, although can’t see it, can hear her being raped. This film is rated a 12 but if it were to be released now would be a 15.

In contrast, scenes which display consensual sex could have lower age ratings as Kaplinsky believes attitudes towards this have “softened”.
It is indicated that light and unrealistic portrayals of violence would be more acceptable and afford a lower age rating in contrast to content to with gritty depictions. Kaplinsky comments: “There’s an acceptance of violence of kind of fantasy films – that Jason Bourne, kind of Marvel violence – but real-life terror threats have got people agitated. And so there is a desire that that would be a higher rating”.

What impact does sexual abuse on screen have on survivors?

Are scenes involving sexual violence actually necessary to the plot — is it worth triggering viewers and trivializing sexual violence simply for the plot or character development?

An article online at ‘Mental Health Today’ comments how the announcement of abuse focused productions on the television can to survivors feel as though “Suddenly the steady ground you walk on feels as if it’s doing the stereotypical disaster movie rendition of an earthquake.” Adding that “Coverage of abuse and traumatic events in the media tends to creep up on you like your first winter cold. First you have a scratchy throat, then a dribbly nose and suddenly, you’re in the throes of a full-on head cold.”

The Mental Health Today further spoke to the Survivors Trust and Survivors Network, namely Jay Breslaw, CEO of Survivors Network in Brighton.
In their discussion, three main talking points were outlaid, which were clearly important to Survivors Network when it comes to depicting sexual violence of any kind in media or even covering stories around sexual violence as a journalist: dispelling myths, centring the right person in the story and treating survivors and survivor organisations who advise on productions like expert consultants:

Dispelling myths

“…things that we hold true are often about our socialisation that we’ve had in our lives growing up.”

Frustration was expressed by the Survivors Network at how often film and TV makers uphold myths around sexual violence, in this instance using rape myths as a very prominent example.

The notion that women, girls and those of marginalised genders can do things to ‘prevent’ sexual violence being committed against them is toxic to the cultural change necessary to actually keep those people safe, “If people who are filmmakers or upcoming holding those rape myths, or having not fully understood them, then all they’re doing is reinforcing the messaging that actually leads to people, women and other people being more unsafe in society.”

Centring the right person in the story

“Is our trauma entertainment?”

Speaking on who should be the focus in a drama or documentary about the topic of sexual abuse Jay said: “It’s just really important to think about who we’re centring in these stories. Who is the story about and, and how are they involved?” Thinking back to an example she felt was handled with survivors in mind, Jay mentioned ‘Leaving Neverland’, the documentary about two men who, as children, were groomed by Michael Jackson.

“It was a hard watch, and it got a lot of media attention…but it was done so sensitively and really centred the survivors and their stories and their narratives…There was a lot of time spent really unpicking some of their feelings. And I certainly didn’t watch it as sensationalistic.”

So, the question is, ‘if I am going to create something that involves commentary on sexual abuse of any kind, what is my motive?’ That motive needs to be based on how that film or TV drama might impact survivors through due consideration about the relative formats. This then also needs to be informed by the motivation behind what the focus of that piece of media is.

Jay did think there are a lot of “questions to be asked” about how much access Jimmy Savile was given to hospitals, children’s homes etc. and wondered if addressing that, and addressing the wider cultural neglect that enabled Savile to do what he did, might be a motivator behind centring him instead of the survivors, but was left without a sure conclusion in our conversation, as was I.

Give back to survivors and survivor organisations

“Try thinking about it, like they’re an expert consultant.”

One of the most pertinent points Jay raised in our conversation ̶ and one that I was almost astonished I hadn’t previously thought to flag before ̶ was the idea of treating survivors who advise on any kind of production/news story as ‘expert lived experience consultants’, and who are paid as such.

Where there is an absence of individual survivors and their specific stories being utilised, Jay mentioned the idea of giving a donation to a survivor organisation such as Survivors Network or Survivors Trust, organising a fundraiser to support and promote them, or at the very least ensuring people are signposted to those organisations as the production goes to air etc.

Most vehemently though, Jay emphasised the need for “due consideration” from production companies, when asking a survivor to take part in their safeguarding processes, for what actually “has a huge potential of harm to that person.”

Is there a way to create dramas and films involving sexual abuse responsibly?

Kate Hardy from Survivors Trust suggest that creating television and film comes with many complex inherent sensitivities:

“If you are considering making any form of TV show, or film, with content of rape or sexual violence and sexual abuse, especially if it’s based on true events, there should be a regular protocol in place for having conversations with survivors and how then you’re supporting not only survivors, but the people in the in the workforce, who are then dealing with having this secondary trauma as well.”

Further, there is a suggestion that “Ultimately, the survivors should be at the heart of the story, not the perpetrator.”

Being mindful of how crimes are portrayed on screen:

Is the content included needed for the story? Or are you using it to elicit drama or purely for entertainment purposes?
There is a need for producers to be mindful of how these storylines are portrayed, especially if there are any explicit scenes. The question should be asked: Are they necessary? Because a lot of the times, they’re not necessary, and they’re purely there for impact, shock.


It should be ensured that there is adequate signposting and support around the project in general.
E.g. signposting at the end of the programme, on websites which is being shown and generally a clear and open conversation around that topic.

Does sexual violence in films promote sexual violence in real life?

A recent report by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention from 2020 explored how portrayals of sexual abuse can lead to lasting, serious consequences for real-life female victims. The study found that common media depictions of sexual assault and rape tend to increase victim blaming, and often influence the way criminal systems and the public perceive female victims. It may also lead viewers to view rape as an act of sex rather than an act of violence.
This type of media sends the message that sexual violence is normal or enjoyable for victims causes both abusers to believe that mimicking this behaviour is OK.

The best way to put a stop to the popularization of rape culture in media is by stopping harmful depictions in mainstream media as a whole. Boycotting films for sexist and degrading depictions of women or censoring certain themes of pornography could help halt the spread of glamorizing rape culture.
With the ability to recognize the direct impact that media romanticisation of sexual assault has on real-life rape culture, more people will be more aware as to what is considered normal or respectful, which will hopefully result in more people believing and not undermining victims.

We encourage anyone who has concerns about sexual abuse to get in touch. You can contact Alan Collins at [email protected] or Danielle Vincent at [email protected].

Author bio

Kathleen Hallisey

Senior Associate

Kathleen Hallisey is a Senior Associate in the Abuse Team at Hugh James.

Originally from the US, she began her legal career in New York before moving to the UK and becoming a solicitor. Throughout her career, she has exclusively acted on behalf of claimants, including those who suffered catastrophic injuries on the road or at work, were dismissed from their jobs as a result of discrimination, or sexually assaulted on university campuses.

Disclaimer: The information on the Hugh James website is for general information only and reflects the position at the date of publication. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be treated as such. If you would like to ensure the commentary reflects current legislation, case law or best practice, please contact the blog author.


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