GRAFENWÖHR, Germany — The audience members at the Tower Theater on a recent evening sat in awkward silence as they watched a scene from "The Last House on the Left" that showed an escaped criminal raping a teenage girl in a secluded forest.

Things got a little more uncomfortable when a small voice in the audience piped up: "What’s happening, Mommy?"

"She had a boo-boo," replied his mother, hurriedly attempting to cover her young son’s eyes.

The boy wasn’t the only child watching the rape scene and other graphic content in the Wes Craven film, which also depicts teenage drug use, nudity, profanity and numerous grisly murders.

On a typical evening at any AAFES theater, mothers and fathers can be found viewing R-rated movies with their young children chomping on popcorn right next to them.

While others may question the suitability of R-rated movies for children, some military parents say the choices of English-language films overseas are few. Often, going to movies on base is the only convenient activity for a parent who has a deployed spouse but wants to get out of the house with the kids.

And, while research suggests such movies could be harmful to young children, Army and Air Force Exchange Service officials and Army family advocates say parents are the only real arbiters of what activities are suitable for their children.

Shannon Linville, a military spouse who brought children to see the R-rated film that night, said she doesn’t check film ratings and didn’t realize how much more graphic today’s horror movies have become. Linville, a gym instructor on base, said she was horrified that AAFES would even consider screening such a movie to military personnel.

"When I was young, R-rated meant something like ‘Jaws,’" she said.

A few nights later, another military spouse, Sunna Rebolledo, walked out of the theater during a much tamer PG-13 movie, "Duplicity."

The family thought another movie was showing that night, Rebolledo said, adding that she never takes her kids to see R-rated movies, although she often sees other parents doing so.

"I think probably the major reason is deployments," she said. "People are bored. They don’t have anything to do and they don’t have support, so they make bad choices."

Other military parents cited the narrow selection of English language movies at overseas duty stations, which often have only one AAFES theater, and the lack of child care options.

So should AAFES prevent parents from taking their young children into R-rated movies?

"Only parents are qualified to make personal family judgments about their children’s viewing habits," said AAFES spokesman Lt. Col. David Konop.

AAFES’ policy mirrors the movie industry standard voluntary rating system, he said.

The voluntary industry standards, produced by the Motion Picture Association of America, include the "R" rating for films that require patrons under 17 to be accompanied by a parent or guardian.

"An R-rated motion picture may include adult themes, adult activity, hard language, intense or persistent violence, sexually-oriented nudity, drug abuse or other elements," the MPAA Web site states.

"The rating system is not a surrogate parent, nor should it be," Konop said. "It cannot insert itself in family decisions that only parents can make."

The objective of the rating system is to give prescreening information and cautionary warnings so parents can make their own decisions about the movies their children watch, he said.

However, University of New Mexico pediatrics professor Dr. Vic Strasburger, the author of 12 books and several textbooks on children and the media, said the MPAA ratings system suffers from a number of flaws.

"It’s not content-based but age-based, which is a major problem," Strasburger said. "There has been ‘ratings creep’ in the past decade (what used to be R is now PG-13, etc.), and the board (which determines the ratings) is secret. There needs to be a pediatrician and child psychologist on the ratings board."

In a telephone interview Wednesday, Strasburger said parents should be most concerned about the impact of violence in movies on their children.

"Kids learn the notion of justified violence and get desensitized to violence. There’s a lot of violence in PG-rated movies, and in R-rated movies the violence is quite graphic," he said.

Studies show that kids who view sexual conduct in movies at a young age are more likely to begin having sex at a young age, he said.

"We now think that kids seeing repeated use of alcohol and cigarettes in movies may be a leading cause of their using these drugs as teenagers," he added.

But watching a single R-rated movie is unlikely to scar a child for life, he said.

Furthermore, parents might choose to take their children to certain R-rated movies. He said he watched "Whale Rider," which was rated "R" for a drug reference and a small amount of offensive language, with his children.

The Army, which seldom hesitates to tell soldiers how to act and dress in and out of uniform, takes a hands-off approach when it comes to soldiers’ parental responsibilities.

Tammy Rickets, family advocacy program manager for U.S. Army Garrison Grafenwöhr, said it’s up to military parents to decide what their kids watch. The family advocacy program does not tell them not to take children to R-rated movies, she said.

When asked if parents should be taking their children to a film that depicts rape, nudity and graphic murder, Rickets said, "We will say, ‘Is that a good choice for your children?’

"It is not our role to condemn parents. There are possibly lots of reasons why that could happen and why they would take their children to the movies. They (parents) are able to make the choices that they have in mind for their children. That’s something we don’t get into."

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Seth Robson is a Tokyo-based reporter who has been with Stars and Stripes since 2003. He has been stationed in Japan, South Korea and Germany, with frequent assignments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Australia and the Philippines.

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