Central Park attacks on women - is MTV to blame?

In wake of the New York rampage, psychologists take a closer look at mass media that link sex and violence.

As police in New York continue to round up young men suspected of harassing and groping almost 50 women near Central Park, Carl Taylor is horrified, but not surprised by the base and indecent mob assaults.

Professor Taylor, who has studied everything from the street drug culture in Detroit to female gangs, believes the attacks were the inevitable result of a commercial culture that has normalized ignorance and violence. And one of the greatest victims, he says, is respect for women.

"There are no rules anymore," he says. "You constantly see it through the media. Women are routinely cast as sex symbols with men doing sometimes vulgar things to them - and it's the norm on things like MTV."

Taylor's confident assessment remains controversial, particularly among supporters of the entertainment industry. And many people who witnessed the melee after the Puerto Rican Day parade also blame alcohol, marijuana, hot weather, and police indifference.

But an increasing number of psychologists, sociologists, media experts, and parents have come to agree with Taylor about the effects of mass media - fueling a growing movement determined to find a way to rein in video violence.

So far, however, such concerns are running into the same obstacle - the First Amendment and freedom of expression.

Industry representatives insist they're doing more than many others to address the problem, such as instituting rating systems and calling for voluntary restraints on the part of producers.

"We are the first industry to voluntarily institute any kind of a parental guidance system of ratings and the only industry that voluntarily turns away revenues by labeling some movies inaccessible to younger children," says Rich Taylor of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). "I don't think it's incorrect to put a good deal of the onus on parents - I don't think that's out of place."

Professor Taylor, who is a parent, agrees that parents and the community have a role to play in setting healthy standards of behavior. But he and many others are not willing to let the media off the hook, particularly in the wake of the Central Park attacks.

"Boys from a young age are surrounded by violent entertainment, a lot of it filled with scantily clad young women," says Myriam Miedzian, author of "Boys Will Be Boys: Breaking the Link between Masculinity and Violence." "Unfortunately, it's not surprising what happened in New York. We've created a machinery for desensitizing boys and men."

For years, Hollywood honchos dismissed such notions and the studies which tied increases in aggression to watching violence. They insisted there was no direct scientific evidence linking brutality on the silver screen to individual acts of mayhem.

Then came the spate of school shootings that culminated in the tragedy at Columbine. Suddenly, movies like "The Basketball Diaries," where an angry student walks into a classroom and unloads an automatic weapon on other students, caused pause even at the gated studios in Los Angeles.

Jack Valenti, president of the MPAA, held a series of meetings with producers asking them to restrain from "gratuitous" use of violence.

But critics say it's not simply a matter of censoring the most objectionable films or albums. Rather, they blame the cumulative effect of a mass media that objectifies women. They point out that in the Central Park attacks, when the men got caught up in a mob mentality, their victims were not other men or even property, but women. Many were groped or molested; several were doused with beer and stripped naked.

Brad Bushman, a psychology professor at Iowa State University in Ames, says it's impossible to say in each individual case whether violent and sexually explicit media are to blame. But he says they can certainly play a role, particularly when looked at from the perspective of classic conditioning. Media link alluring women and scenes of violence over and over again, he says, which can eventually make violence itself seem erotic.

Some critics, like Michigan State University's Taylor, believe music videos are among the worst offenders. Executives at both MTV and Black Entertainment Television did not return phone calls asking for comment.

But the MPAA's Taylor notes that the entertainment industry has set up a Web site called parentalguide.org, which puts all the rating systems in one spot so parents can find information on music advisory labels, as well as video-game, film, and television ratings.

"This is done voluntarily and happily," he says. "We hope it's a tool that parents will use."

He also argues that complex problems like the erosion of morality and standards don't have simple solutions. Dr. Miedzian doesn't disagree with that. But she finds the industry's insistence that the primary onus should be on parents "almost absurd."

"By the time a boy is 11 or 12 years old, he can go to the video store by himself and rent a movie. He can go to the movies in the afternoon with friends," she says. "You'd have to hire a detective to follow your kid around after a certain age to make sure he doesn't go to a video arcade and play the wrong game. I mean, with 70 percent of mothers of young children working out of the home, how can parents monitor everything?"

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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