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2 October 2023

The Darkness That We Live In

On 7 June 2023, BBC News published an article entitled “Catching the Men Who Sell Subway Groping Videos”. This article, along with a 50-minute documentary (“Catching a Pervert: Sexual Assault for Sale”), caused quite a stir both in China and Japan. The report and documentary were the result of a one-year investigation into a group of perpetrators who carried out sexual assaults on unwitting victims on public transport, recorded them and sold the videos on their websites as well as social media platforms.

These acts of molestation on public transport follows a genre of pornography called “chikan” (a Japanese term used to refer to any act of public molestations or sexual assaults against unsuspecting victims, or the perpetrator who commits such an act). The article describes such behaviour as an “epidemic” in Japan, where “chikan perpetrators typically take advantage of crowds, and the victims’ fear of causing a scene.”

Chikan has become so normalised in Japan’s adult entertainment industry that, at one part of the video, a BBC reporter related the existence of Japanese sex clubs which provide staged-scenarios of subway trains, where customers can act out their fantasy. One of these sex club owners believes that “it’s important for men to be able to pay to ‘vent’ in places like this so that they don’t commit rape.” However, is this line of argument true? Will the indulgence of a sexual fantasy act as a preventive measure against committing an actual crime?

Such indulgence of fantasy can also be seen in video games like “RapeLay” (an internet-based role-playing game), “Rape Day” (a virtual reality game) and many others. These games, in essence, propagate sexual violence towards women and young children. For example, “RapeLay” allows participants to follow a mother and her two young daughters into a subway station so that they can grope and rape them. Gamers are even allowed to have other participants join in so that together they can corner the women and rape them repeatedly.

When Fantasy Spills Over…

In view of this, we need to ask: Are sexually violent games merely harmless enjoyment of a fantasy?

Over the past few decades, myriads of longitudinal studies have shown evidence of a relationship between engagement in violent media (e.g., slasher films, sexually violent role-playing games and pornography) and displays of aggression.

The danger of engaging in role-playing video games, as compared to other violent media, is its immersive impact. Such impact is not as strong for the person who merely observes someone else play a game or who watches a film. The enticement of realistic characters and scenarios embolden gamers to identify with the characters, acquire the enacted behaviors and relish the perverse outcomes (including the exertion of dominance and the ability to get away scot-free). This immersion and internalization of a personified identity are often bolstered with a belief in the reality of what is fantasized. In other words, the mental images that one dwells on reflects the person’s wishes or belief that the fantasy realm can be extended to reality. Dill (in When Fantasy Becomes Reality, p.13) rightly argues that fantasy is hardly entertaining when it is completely implausible. It is only pleasurable when one sees the possibility of it happening in real-life situations.

Moreover, the immersive effect increases when the action is repeated over a long period of time. Ellison (in Navigating the Borderlands of Fantasy, p.4-8) points out that “repeated exposure to violent media imprints ‘cognitive scripts’ in the mind that influences interpretation of the world… when real-life situations mimic once-viewed fantasy (media) the preconceived mind may retrieved the cognitive scripts to govern behaviors and thoughts in aggressive ways.”

Even if the fantasized aggression does not manifest in actual physical aggression, prolonged exposure to sexually violent content normalizes violence and desensitizes the gamer. Shao and Wang (in The Relation of Violent Video Games to Adolescent Aggression, p.2) astutely point out that engagement with violent games not only rouses the possibly of imitating the observed aggressive behavior, but also changes “their understanding and acceptability about aggression”. Studies have shown that this change in the acceptability of aggression plays out in the dehumanization of actual sexualized persons, in that the victim is treated as an animal (i.e., animalistic dehumanization) or an object (i.e., mechanistic dehumanization).

Such dehumanization of sexualized victims is an absolute contradiction to God’s intention in His creation of humankind. Unlike animals and object, humankind is endowed with higher ontological status and this distinction is made when God declared humankind to be made in the likeness of His own image (i.e., imago Dei). To be made in the likeness of God’s own image signifies that all human persons have the intrinsic spiritual and moral qualities of human nature, including cognitive ability, emotionality and affability. These intrinsic qualities of human nature are possessed by all persons regardless of age, gender and social-economic background. Hence, it is both delusive and fallacious to say that violent media and the sexualized enactment of a staged-scenario are merely harmless entertainment, designed for crime-prevention.

Where Do We Go from Here?

The Christian faith does not separate Christian living from the happenings of the world. Christians are to engage with the complex issues in the public square in our time, so that the light of Christ shines forth.

Collectively, the church must take a firm stance against exploitative actions that demeans certain persons (i.e., women and young children) as mere objects. We must advocate stricter regulations and enforcement against the design and production of sexually violent media. The argument that this infringes a game designer’s rights and personal freedom of expression fails to understand that the wellbeing and safety of our fellow human beings outweigh personal egocentric interests.

Individually, we are to be our brother’s (and sister’s) keeper. We are not to commit violent acts against others nor allow others to do so, when we have the power to prevent it. Such action aligns with God’s command to “love your neighbor as yourself”, which is established on grounds of both love and justice.

Lai Wei Yen is a preacher at Geylang Chinese Methodist Church. She has a Master of Divinity from Trinity Theological College and a Master of Theology (Christian Ethics) and Master of Arts in Bioethics from Trinity International University (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School [TEDS]).