CW: Mentions of sexual assault appear throughout this article.

Graphic depictions of sexual assault in entertainment media can be triggering to some audiences and may desensitize viewers.

Many examples of media, such as movies and TV shows, show fictional sexual violence. For example, “Game of Thrones” is the most-watched show of all time, and it contains several occurrences of sexual assault. It is often used for shock value or to further a female character’s development. While hardship can be a motivator for someone to make a change in their lives, it is unnecessary to have sexual assault be the catalyst so many times.

SA in media game of thrones

Photo of the character Daenerys Targaryen from the show "Game of Thrones"

One clear negative consequence of these graphic scenes is that they can trigger viewers. Regardless of one’s experience with sexual assault, that sort of violence is discomfiting. Additionally, the normalization of sexual violence can make people numb to seeing it. As audiences get used to seeing fictional sexual assault, they may lose some comprehension of the issue’s severity. Even if most viewers still understand the seriousness of the violence, these scenes should not be common.

Some viewers argue that since it happens in real life, it is understandable for it to be shown in media. That being said, something occurring in reality is not enough reasoning for it to be portrayed so frequently in fiction. The occurrence’s inclusion should still provide some sort of meaning or message. Alternatively, other viewers believe that sexual assault scenes show how that violence can impact people. However, it is unnecessary to depict the violence transpiring to show how it affects survivors.

It is possible to portray a character struggling with a negative experience and later healing from it without explicitly showing the experience. This can be done by characters displaying signs of trauma, discussing how they feel afterward, or using mental health resources.

“The Handmaid’s Tale” is an example of media claiming to depict sexual violence to provide some feminist insight. However, normalizing domestic or sexual violence is no form of advocacy. Seeing women fight back against discrimination can be empowering, but regardless, these violent scenes do not have to be included. If anything, it is more powerful to see a strong female character who does not need to experience every tragedy imaginable to display resilience.

Overall, explicit depictions of sexual violence in media can trigger some viewers and desensitize others. Showing these assaults on screen is unnecessary to show how survivors process their experiences. It is more constructive to show characters healing from their experiences and advocating for other survivors. If you need support, the National Sexual Assault Hotline is (800) 656-4673.