While content warnings for media are often considered a recent and controversial development, one type of content warning has existed for decades – parental ratings. Though these ratings systems have been criticized regarding their clarity and transparency, it is rarely argued that they should not exist at all. It is taken for granted that parents should be informed regarding the content of the media their children consume. In turn, there should be no reason for any consumer, regardless of age, to not have access to the same information for themselves. Providing information to a potential audience, particularly with their health and safety in mind, need not be controversial. But we can look to the problems with parental ratings as a guide for avoiding content warnings that are limited or confusing, particularly concerning sexual violence.
Parental ratings have largely been developed by media producers as an alternative to government-enforced censorship. MPAA ratings were instituted in 1968 as film studios abandoned the previous Hays Code restrictions. Ratings designed by the television, video game, and music industries were introduced in the 1990s in response to concerns over violent and sexual content. These ratings are generally not intended to pass judgment on the works themselves, but to provide information to media consumers. Over time these rating systems have added warning descriptors concerning specific content, in addition to the typical letter rating schemes (e.g., "PG", "TV-MA", etc.).
What these systems often lack is a consistent way of warning for sexual violence. Television parental guidelines do not include a sub-rating for sexual violence, only "Violence" and "Sexual situations." MPAA film ratings may include references to "sexual assault" or "rape" in rating descriptors, but these are inconsistently applied, and are not always included. While ESRB ratings for video games include a sub-rating for "sexual violence," it is very rarely used – a search of the ESRB's database returned only four instances where a video game was given this warning. All of these leave many instances where sexual violence is not differentiated from other depictions of violence or from sexual interaction.
Such ratings systems are not oblivious to the need for nuance in warning descriptors. TV guidelines include a sub-rating for "Fantasy Violence" and distinguish between "Suggestive" and "Course and Crude" language. ESRB ratings include descriptors separately for "Violence" and "Blood/Gore." While inconsistent, MPAA descriptors use terms such as "sci-fi" or "action violence" to differentiate from "graphic violence." Yet the "sexual content" descriptor often acts as a catch-all for any sexual expression, whether it's characters simply talking about sex, or engaging in sexual activity. And as media geared toward older audiences often contains both "violent" and "sexual" content, the lack of warnings specifically for sexual violence, or their inconsistent or under use, means there is no differentiation made between, for instance, an episode of television that includes both swordfights and sex scenes, and one that includes swordfights and depictions of sexual assault.
This lack seems strange, particularly in this moment of greater scrutiny concerning sexual assault in media, and of new attention being paid to sexual harassment and assault behind the camera. That these warnings either do not exist or are rarely used, often in favor of the much broader "sexual content" descriptor, is very suggestive of how we view parental warnings and depictions of sexual violence in media. The use of "sexual content" or "sexual situations" concerning depictions of sexual assault inherently conflates sexual violence with consensual sexual activity.
Parental warnings are largely developed for adults (though there is evidence that they also influence children). They are meant to reflect parental concerns, and some parents may not see much need to differentiate between depictions of consensual and nonconsensual sexual activity – it is, regardless, "sexual content," and may be considered inappropriate for children. This is unfortunate, particularly for more general content warnings but also for parental warnings. While some parents may not want their children to see any depictions of sex before adulthood, conflating sex and sexual assault deprives young people of positive, affirming depictions of sexuality. Even apart from sexual violence, there are also no warnings for depictions of sexual harassment, which are common across all forms of media. When it comes to parental ratings, such behavior can be easily engaged in by children. For content warnings, many who have experienced sexual harassment may not want to relive that experience in a video game or movie, or may just want to be forewarned. This is not about censoring all such depictions, but about acknowledging the behavior as damaging, as we do with violence, and allowing media consumers to make informed decisions concerning it.
Effectively conveying these issues in a nuanced but also clear and consistent manner is difficult. But making no distinction between "sexual content" and sexual violence in turn makes said violence part and parcel with sexuality. Though unfortunately sexual violence and harassment remains commonplace, it is not part of a healthy sexual experience and should not be considered inevitable. Specifically, consistently differentiating sexual violence from sexuality would be a way for parents and younger audiences to distinguish sexual violence and harassment as a breach of normal behavior, like other forms of violence, and not an inevitable aspect of sexuality.