February 5, 2018

Why It Matters When HBO Normalizes Sexual Violence and Exploitation

Unfortunately, to date HBO has consistently produced content which normalizes rape myths, sexual violence, and commercial sexual exploitation through sexually exploitive depictions of sex and sexual violence.

Why does sexually exploitive TV matter?

Media—whether in the form of the written word, movies, television, or the visual arts, etc.— is a powerful driver of social norms.

Cognitive script theory asserts that media provides a heuristic learning model that outlines: 1) what should or should not be happening in a given scenario, 2) how others will respond to certain actions, and 3) what the total outcome will be of a given scenario.[1]

Researchers further explain:

Heuristic processing describes the way in which information is processed quickly and without much deliberation and can be contrasted with systemic processing, which is about deliberation, weighing of facts, and conscious analysis. Media, in other words, create an easily accessible memory structure for real-world decision-making that circumvents critical analysis (emphasis added).[2]

In other words, the “fantasy” world of entertainment media is not constrained to the realm of whimsy or imagination, but has real world implications and impact. Because people learn by consuming media, and “because media can influence public opinion and help formulate the national culture and social consensus,”[3] the entertainment sector has long been recognized a significant social influencer.

This is especially true with respect to sexual objectification of women. Social scientists report that, “As a visual narrative medium, film is particularly apt at conveying images and storylines that depict sexual objectification and perpetuate social oppression and restriction by focusing on women’s bodies.”[4] Or, as one film critic put it, “the exploitation of female nudity is an axiom of modern cinema.”[5]

While the sexual objectification of women in cinema is indeed self-evident, findings from the Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative add weight to this accepted truth. The Initiative found that within the top 100 films of 2016, 25.9% of females versus 5.7% of males were shown in sexually revealing attire, 25.6% of females versus 9.2% of males were shown partially or fully naked, and females aged 13-20 were just as likely as those 21-39 to be shown in sexy attire or nude.[6]

Moreover, both movies and television programming routinely exploit plot lines demeaning women, and normalizing violence against them. For instance, Hollywood films about college have been shown to portray women in ways that reinforce rape myths and which advance anti-intellectual backlash against women’s advances in higher education and society (e.g. recycled plot lines depicting female characters as focused on romantic or sexual pursuits rather than academics; discounting personal traits and intellectual abilities of women and prioritizing their bodies for gazing, pleasure, or violence).[7]

Additionally, R-rated films with scenes that objectify or degrade women have been shown to alter the way men perceived acquaintance rape, resulting in men believing that the victim received pleasure and “got what she wanted.”[8]

Eroticized sexual violence and objectification have no place in mainstream entertainment. Click To Tweet

HBO has an opportunity to shape the public discourse regarding sexual harassment by refusing to foster the deeply-rooted culture of sexual abuse and exploitation that afflicts our country and measures to correct this corrosive influence. 

Take action below to ask HBO to change its policies!


[1] Chyng Sun, Ana Bridges, Jennifer Johnson, and Matt Ezzell, “Pornography and the Male Sexual Script: An Analysis of Consumption and Sexual Relations,” Archives of Sexual Behavior 45, no. 4 (2016): 983-994.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Chan Goo Lee, Jiyeon Sung, Jin Ki Kim, et al., “Corporate Social Responsibility of the Media: Instrument Development and Validation,” Information Development 32, no. 3 (2016): 554-565.

[4] Tamara Yakaboski and Saran Donahoo, “Titillation, Murder, and Romance: Hollywood’s Objectification of Women College Students,” in Anti-Intellectual Representations of American Colleges and Universities, eds. Barbara F. Tobolowsky and Pauline J. Reynolds (New York: Palgrace Macmillan, 2017), 101-120.

[5] A. O. Scott, “Tattooed Heroine Metes out Slick, Punitive Violence,” New York Times, December 19, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/20/movies/the-girl-with-dragon-tattoo-movie-review.html (accessed January 8, 2018).

[6] Stacy L. Smith, Marc Choueiti, and Katherine Peiper, “Inequality in 900 Popular Films: Examining Portrayals of Gender, Race/Ethnicity, LGBT, and Disability from 2007-2016,” (USC Annenberg; Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative, 2017).

[7] Yakaboski and Donahoo, ibid.

[8] Michael A. Milburn, Roxanne Mather, and Sheree D. Conrad, “The Effects of Viewing R-rated Movies Scenes that Objectify Women on Perceptions of Date Rape,” Sex Roles 43, no. 9/10 (2000): 645-664.

Haley Halverson

Vice President of Advocacy and Outreach

Haley Halverson is the Vice President of Advocacy and Outreach at the National Center on Sexual Exploitation where she develops and executes national campaigns to change policies and raise awareness. Haley regularly speaks and writes on topics including child sexual abuse, sex trafficking, prostitution, sexual objectification, the exploitation of males, and more. She has presented before officials at the United Nations, as well as at several national symposia before influencers from the Department of Justice, Department of Health and Human Services, and more. She is the host of the “Sexploitation?” podcast and is currently pursuing a Master of Arts at Johns Hopkins University.

Previously, Haley served for two years as Director of Communications for the National Center on Sexual Exploitation where she oversaw strategic messaging development, press outreach, email marketing, and social media marketing.

Prior to working at NCOSE, Haley wrote for Media Research Center. Haley graduated from Hillsdale College (summa cum laude) with a double major, and conducted a senior thesis on the abolitionist argument regarding prostitution. During her studies, she studied abroad at Oxford University and established a background in policy research through several internship experiences in the DC area.

Haley has appeared on, or been quoted in, several outlets including the New York Post, USA Today, BBC News, Fox News, the Washington Post, Voice of America, Dr. Drew Midday Live, The DeMaio Report, the New York Daily News, the Washington Examiner, USA Radio Network, the Washington Times, CBC News, The Rod Arquette Show, The Detroit News, The Christian Post, Lifeline with Neil Boron, EWTN News Nightly, KCBS San Francisco Radio, LifeSiteNews, The Drew Mariano Show on Relevant Radio, News Talk KGVO, and American Family News.

Further Reading

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