Public Standards of Acceptability

Part: 
Four
Chapter: 
3

The 1970 Commission survey examined standards of acceptance for various categories of explicitness in two types of media: movies and print. Table 4 shows that there was slightly greater tolerance for sexual explicitness in the print media than in movies (if one compares the percentages of persons advocating total bans on various categories). The print category presents a problem since it does not distinguish between textual and visual or photographic material, which might be found more often in books and magazines, respectively. Restrictiveness also progressively increases the more the behavior departs from what respondents might consider normative. A re-analysis of the 1970 survey data does confirm this observation of acceptability based on perceived normativeness and, in addition, shows that judgments were also related to community size and medium (Glass-man, 1978).

Table 4

Public Permissiveness, by Medium and Content: 1970

 

In Movies

In Books, Magazines

 

Total Ban

Some Rest.

No. Rest

Total Ban

Some Rest.

No. Rest.

Sex organs showing

45%

46%

5%

41%

47%

7%

Intercourse

50

42

4

48

44

4

Activities with same sex

62

31

3

58

33

4

Oral sex

62

30

3

58

33

4

Whips, belts

65

26

4

60

30

5

 

Question: On top of this card are descriptions of sexual material sometimes shown in movies in regular theaters (found in printed material). On the bottom of the card are some opinions about who it is all right to admit to movies showing such material. (These could be stories in books, magazines, paperback books, or on typewritten pages.) For each description on top, tell me which, if any, group on the bottom it is all right (to admit to these movies) (for the material to be available).

 

Key:

  1. None. There is no one it is all right to admit.
  2. It is all right to admit people like me but not others.
  3. It is all right to admit adults 21 and over but not persons under 21.
  4. It is all right to admit persons 16 or older but not persons under 16.
  5. It is all right to admit anyone who wishes to be admitted.

(Appropriate variations in Key made to Print version)

For categories used above:

 

A = Total Ban
B, C & D = Some Restrictions
E = No Restrictions

 

(Reconstructed from Tables 120 and 122, Abelson, et al., 1970, pp. 102-103)

In 1985, slightly different distinctions appear to be made (Table 5). Greater tolerance is shown for film (both theater and video tape cassettes) than for print, with the public more likely to suggest no restrictions for the former. While the survey does not use the wider range of distinctions of sexual activities provided 1970 respondents (a limitation imposed no doubt because of the telephone procedure), the three categories used-nudity, sexual relations, and sexual violence-provide a sufficiently diverse range of themes. The data clearly show greater tolerance for nudity, with a majority maintaining that restrictions should only apply to public display. There was least tolerance for sexual violence, with a majority advocating banning such material. What has been called the "VCR morality" is also very much in evidence here with more than a quarter of the respondents opting for no restrictions on X-rated video tape cassettes. Nearly one in four respondents did not object to the sale or rental of video cassettes featuring sexual violence as long as there is no public display.

Table 5

Public Permissiveness, by Medium and Content: 1985
Newsweek-Gallup Survey

 

Totally Banned

No Public Display

No Restrictions

Magazines that show nudity

21%

52%

26%

Magazines that show adults having sexual relations

47

40

12

Magazines that show sexual violence

73

20

6

Theatre showings of X-rated movies

40

37

20

Theatre showings of movies that depict sexual violence

68

21

9

Sale/rental of X-rated video cassettes for home viewing

32

39

27

Sale/rental of video cassettes featuring sexual violence

63

23

13

 

Question: For each item that I read, tell me if you feel it should be totally banned for sale to adults, sold to adults as long as there is no public display, or should be sold to adults with no restrictions?

Copyright 1985, by Newsweek, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted by Permission.

 

These differences are clarified further when one takes into account the respondent's age and gender (Table 6). The young are clearly less opposed than the old, and men more than women, these patterns appearing with fairly high consistency.

Table 6

Medium, Content Type, and Level of Restriction-Comparisons by Gender and Age:
1985 Newsweek-Gallup Poll

Materials Should be Totally Banned

 

Men

Women

 

18-29

30-49

50+

18-29

30-49

50+

Magazines-nudity

6.6%

9.1%

29.9%

14.8%

20.6%

41.2%

Magazines-adults having sexual relations

26.8

35.6

57.2

31.6

49.6

76.2

Magazines-sexual violence

57.7

73.1

71.7

61.9

81.3

87.2

Theaters-X-rated movies

28.7

22.2

46.7

27.0

39.0

69.0

Theaters-sexual violence

57.7

63.1

68.4

53.3

75.2

85.2

Sale/rental-X rated video cassettes

17.6

19.1

42.8

20.9

31.5

54.8

Sale/rental video cas. W/sexual violence

47.8

60.0

62.8

49.2

69.6

78.8

No Public Display of Materials

 

Men

Women

 

18-29

30-49

50+

18-29

30-49

50+

Magazines-nudity

50.7%

59.1%

43.8%

63.9%

54.0%

41.2%

Magazines-adults having sexual relations

52.6

49.7

32.6

53.3

37.9

18.6

Magazines-sexual violence

32.4

17.5

21.1

30.7

13.4

10.1

Theaters-X-rated movies

40.4

48.4

30.3

46.3

40.7

17.7

Theaters-sexual violence

27.9

23.1

18.4

35.7

16.7

8.7

Sale/rental-X-rated video cassettes

39.7

43.8

29.9

50.4

43.2

28.7

Sale/rental video cas. W/ sexual violence

33.1

24.1

18.8

35.7

17.5

13.0

No Restrictions on Materials

 

Men

Women

 

18-29

30-49

50+

18-29

30-49

50+

Magazines-nudity

41.5%

30.0%

25.0%

21.3%

24.0%

16.2%

Magazines-adults having sexual relations

19.1

14.7

9.9

14.3

11.7

4.3

Magazines-sexual violence

7.7

9.1

5.6

7.4

5.6

2.6

Theaters-X-rated movies

25.0

27.8

19.7

23.8

16.2

9.6

Sale/rental X-rated video cassettes

40.1

36.6

25.0

28.3

24.5

12.8

Sale/rental video cas. W/ sexual violence

18.4

15.6

15.1

14.3

12.3

6.7

Copyright 1985, by Newsweek, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted by Permission.

 

There also appears to be some interaction between these demographic characteristics. Greater numbers of older men tend to be more permissive than older women, with about twice as many men over fifty suggesting no restrictions on materials across the board. The gap between men and women narrows significantly among younger respondents (those between eighteen and twenty-nine), with women just as likely as men to favor no restrictions on all materials except magazines with nudity and the sale or rental of videocassettes. Men were more likely to favor no restrictions on these materials than women.

Has there been an increase in permissiveness in the last fifteen years? Again, while some of the categories between 1970 and 1985 are not directly comparable, a reasonable comparison can be made for the category describing depictions of sexual intercourse. For the 1970 sample, only four percent advocated no restrictions on depicting intercourse in books and magazines and the same percentage advocated no restrictions for movies as well. In 1985, twelve percent advocated no restrictions on "magazines that show adults having sexual relations." Twenty percent favored no restrictions on "theater showings of X-rated movies." The assumption we make here, of course, is that most respondents associate X-rated movies with depictions of sexual intercourse but these comparisons are made with this caveat in mind. With the exception of sexual violence in magazines, the percentages opting for no restrictions on various categories of materials are also higher in 1985 than in 1970.

Finally, the 1985 sample was asked whether there should be a single nationwide standard or whether local community standards should be applied. Comparable data collected by the Gallup poll in 1977 provides another data point. As Table 7 shows, respondents in 1985 were almost evenly divided on whether a national or community standard should be used (forty-seven percent versus forty-three percent). The numbers who prefer to see local community standards applied have remained about even in 1977 and 1985-about four in ten respondents. There were as many who indicated standards should be stricter in 1977 as in 1985-fortyfive percent versus forty-three percent. Additional analysis shows that those who indicated standards should be stricter were more likely than those who said standards should be less strict to favor application of a national standard (55% to 41%). Six in ten women were also likely to favor a stricter standard compared to four in ten men.

Table 7

Application of Standards to Obscenity/Pornography

National Versus Local Standards:

 

1977 Gallup Poll

1985 Gallup Poll

A national standard

45%

47%

Community set own standard

39

43

Shouldn't be any (volunteered)

9

5

Don't know

7

5

     

Question: In determining whether a book, magazine or movie is obscene, do you think there should be a single, nationwide standard or do you think each community should have its own standard?

Change in Standards:

 

1977 Poll

1985 Poll

Should be stricter

45%

43%

Should be less strict

6

4

Kept as they are

35

48

Don't' know

14

5

Question: Do you think the standards in your community regarding the sale of sexually explicit material should be stricter than they are now, not as strict or kept as they are now?

In the last year, this gap between men and women appears to have increased even more on the issue of restrictiveness. A Washington Post-ABC News survey in February, 1986[1120] asked the question: "Do you think laws against pornography in this country are too strict, not strict enough, or just about right?" Among men, ten percent said they were about right, forty-one percent said they were not strict enough, and forty-seven percent said they were about right. Among women, on the other hand, only two percent said the laws were too strict, while seventy-two percent-seven in ten women-maintained they were not strict enough. Almost a quarter (23%) said they were just about right.

Notes

  1. The Washington Post-ABC News poll was conducted February 6-12, 1986 by telephone among 1,504 men and women nationwide. The margin of error is plus or minus three percentage points.