Sex and the Media

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Most young people are in contact with some kind of media during most of their waking hours. Much of the media content they are exposed to contains messages, images, and ideas about sex and sexuality. This content is especially salient for adolescents and young adults who are developing their own sexual beliefs and behaviors.

The Media As Sex Educators

Research suggests that adolescents do learn about sexuality from the media, and some young people deliberately turn to the media for information that is difficult to obtain elsewhere. Mike Sutton, Jane Brown, Karen Wilson, and Jon Klein (2001) analyzed a national sample of high school students and found that more than half of the respondents said they had learned about birth control, contraception, or preventing pregnancy from magazines or television. School health classes, parents, and friends were the only other sources that were cited more frequently. However, parents often broach sexual topics awkwardly, if at all, and schools tend to address sexuality in clinical terms rather than in the context of relationships, emotions, and desire. Television, movies, music, music videos, magazines, and websites, in contrast, capitalize on topics that are considered taboo in other social situations, thus often making sexual media fare especially attractive for younger consumers.

Sexual Media Content and Attitudes, Beliefs, and Behaviors
MediumSexual ContentEffects
Television• Women are most likely to be young and thin.• Ideal body image programming and commercials affect the perceptions that girls have of their own bodies.
• Sexual talk is frequent; sexual behavior less frequent but common.• Gender-role stereotypes are accepted by some viewers.
• Negative consequences of sex are infrequently shown.• Heavy viewers are more likely to believe that single mothers have an easy life.
• Contraception and planning for sex are also rare.• Intercourse is initiated earlier by heavy viewers.
Magazines• One-third of the articles concern dating; one-third focus on appearance.• Exposure to thin models in magazines can produce depression, stress, shame, and body dissatisfaction.
• One to six articles per issue focus on sexual health.• Girls report that images in women's magazines make them feel bad about themselves.
• Women's magazines encourage females to put men's interests before their own.
Movies• Romantic and sexual relations are present in almost all top-grossing movies.
• More sexual talk than behavior is represented.
• Women are more likely than men to talk about romantic relationships.
• Women are the only characters seen " promising" sex.
• Sexual relations tend to occur with little reference to characters' attraction for each other or relationship expectations.
• Older people rarely are shown expressing tenderness or love for each other.
Music and Music• Videos emphasize physical appearance of women musicians over musical ability.• Exposure to music videos results in more permissive attitudes about premarital sex.
Videos• Frequent references are made to relationships and sexual behavior.• Exposure to stereotypical images of gender and sexuality in videos has been linked to greater acceptance of interper sonal violence.
• Less gender-role stereotyping occurs in videos than earlier, but females are still more often affectionate, nurturing, and sexually pursued than males.

Sexual Content

The perceived sensitivity of sex as a research topic and a focus on television to the exclusion of other media has restricted the kind of research that has been done. Much of the work has been analyses of content, rather than assessments of effects on audiences. However, the few studies that go beyond content to address how audiences respond to and incorporate sexual content in their lives suggest that the media may indeed play a role in the sexual lives of young people. (See Table 1 for a summary.)


Television has received the bulk of attention from researchers who are interested in portrayals of sexuality and the effects of these portrayals. After all, according to a national study conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation (1999), the television is turned on about seven hours per day in the average home, and children spend about three to four hours per day watching television.

Content analyses of various television dayparts and genres reveal that sexuality, broadly defined, is a frequent ingredient across the television landscape. In a study by Dale Kunkel and his associates (2001), more than two-thirds of 1,114 television programs on 10 popular broadcast and cable television channels contained sexual content (either talk or behavior). Prime-time television shows (8:00 P.M. TO 11:00 P.M. eastern standard time) were full of talk about and depictions of sexual activity.

Kirstie Cope and Kunkel (2001) analyzed forty-five episodes of the prime-time television shows that teenagers watched most frequently in 1996 (including Friends, Seinfeld, and Married with Children) and found that the primarily late teenage and young adult characters talked about sex and engaged in sexual behavior in two-thirds of the shows. However, most of the sexual content on television still is talk—characters discussing their own or others' current or future sexual activity.

Sexual behaviors on prime-time television, although frequent, are relatively modest—mostly flirting and kissing. Sexual intercourse rarely is depicted on these shows, but it is sometimes implied (e.g., the scene fades as a couple is kissing in a bed and the next scene shows the couple waking up in each other's arms). In the forty-five episodes of top shows viewed by teenagers, Cope and Kunkel found that sexual intercourse was depicted once (although no genitals were displayed) and implied five times.

Talk shows that frequently feature dysfunctional couples publicly disclosing their troubles and infidelities are another favorite television genre of older children and teenagers. These shows also talk about, rather than explicitly depict, sexual behavior, but the discussions often are detailed and racy. Some studies have found that parent-child relations, marital relations and infidelity, other sexual relations, and sexual orientation are common topics. Sexual themes are more frequent on the shows that teenagers most prefer (e.g., Geraldo Rivera, Jenny Jones, Rolonda Watts, and Jerry Springer) rather than on others that attract older audiences (e.g., Oprah Winfrey). Bradley Greenberg and Sandi Smith (2001) found that a number of talk shows include professional therapists who are supposed to comment on how the problems might be solved, but these "experts" get less airtime than anyone else on the set, including the audience.

Frank discussions about sex—ranging from Dr. Joy Browne's on-air psychological counseling to the sexual banter of disc jockeys such as Howard Stern who were hired to capture the teenager/young adult audiences as they drive to school or work—are common on radio as well.

Soap operas, another popular genre, also have a prominent focus on sex. Katherine Heintz-Knowles (1996) analyzed one hundred hours of daytime soap operas and found that they depict more sexual talk than sexual behaviors, although sexual behaviors (ranging from kissing to sexual intercourse) are not infrequent. Although planning for sexual activity (e.g., visiting a health clinic, purchasing contraceptives) as well as negative consequences of sexual activity (e.g., the transmission of a sexually transmitted disease, an unplanned pregnancy) are shown more frequently than in the past, such precautions and consequences still are rarely portrayed.

Despite their prolific portrayal of sexuality, most television programs do not provide realistic depictions of the risks that accompany sexual activity. Indeed, the American Academy of Pediatrics concluded in 1995 that only 165 of the nearly 14,000 sexual references, innuendoes, and jokes that the average teenager views on television per year deal with topics such as birth control, self-control, abstinence, or sexually transmitted diseases.

Across all television depictions, most sexual intercourse takes place between adults, but although more than half of the couples are in established relationships, a majority are not married to each other, and about one in ten have only just met. Kunkel and his colleagues (2001) found that in almost two-thirds of the programs in which characters have sex, no clear consequences are shown. When consequences are portrayed, they are almost four times more likely to be positive than negative. Only about one-tenth of programs include anything to do with sexual patience, sexual precaution, and/or the depiction of risks and negative consequences of unprotected sex.

Monique Ward (1995) found that one in four of the speaking interactions between characters of the top shows for children and adolescents (1992-1993 broadcast year) contained some sort of sexual message. The most frequently occurring types of messages equated masculinity with being sexual or commented on women as sexual objects. The picture of sexuality presented was one of sex as recreation, where competition and game playing are anticipated and the prize is a physically attractive person.

Women on television, as in most other media, are unnaturally physically attractive and slim. The standard of attractiveness on television and in magazines is slimmer for women than for men, and the standard is slimmer than it was in the past.

Studies of media content can tell only so much, however. The big question remains: How do viewers apply what they see about sex on television to their own sexual lives? Only a few studies have investigated the link between exposure to sexual media content and sexual attitudes and behaviors. These few studies suggest that television depictions of sexuality do have an influence on beliefs, which may in turn influence behavior.

Surveys have found relationships between viewing daytime soap operas and beliefs about single parenthood. In a study by Mary Larson (1996), junior and senior high school students who frequently viewed daytime soap operas were more likely than those who watched less often to believe that single mothers have relatively easy lives, have good jobs, and do not live in poverty. The soap viewers also thought that the babies of single mothers would be as healthy as most babies and would get love and attention from adult men who are friends of the mothers.

The perception that frequent viewers of television have about marriage is not as pleasant as the perception of single motherhood. Nancy Signorielli (1991) found that college students who watched large amounts of television were more likely than viewers who watched less frequently to be ambivalent about the possibility that marriage is a happy way of life.

Two studies suggest that more frequent exposure to sexual content on television is related to earlier initiation of sexual intercourse. In surveys of high school students, Jane D. Brown and Susan Newcomer (1991) and James Peterson, Kristin Moore, and Frank Furstenberg (1991) found that those students who watched more "sexy" television shows were more likely than those who watched fewer such shows to have had sexual intercourse. However, because neither study assessed television viewing and sexual behavior at more than one time, it is not possible to say whether the television viewing or the sexual behavior came first. It may be that sexually experienced youths seek out sexually relevant media content because it is now salient in their lives. It may also be that sexual content encourages youths to engage in sexual behavior sooner than they might otherwise, but studies that follow young people over time are needed to sort out the causal sequence.


Sexuality portrayed in magazines is especially salient for teenage girls. Kate Peirce (1995) analyzed magazines directed at teenage girls and concluded that these magazines are designed primarily to tell girls that their most important function in life is to become sexually attractive enough to catch a desirable male. The message (e.g., "What's your lovemaking profile?" "Perfect pickup lines: Never again let a guy get away because you can't think of anything to say") is repeated even more explicitly in women's magazines, such as Cosmopolitan, Glamour, and Made-moiselle, which many adolescents read.

Kim Walsh-Childers, Alyse Gotthoffer, and Carolyn Lepre (2001) found that magazines for girls and magazines for women have both increased their coverage of sexual topics since the mid-1980s. Magazines for teenage girls may be doing a better job than the magazines for women in educating their readers about such sexual health topics as contraception, pregnancy, abortion, emergency contraception, and sexually transmitted diseases.

These magazines are the standard bearers of unattainable beauty ideals. A study by Children Now (1997) found that 33 percent of the articles in leading magazines for teenage girls include a focus on appearance, and 50 percent of the advertisements appeal to beauty to sell their products. Approximately 33 percent of the articles focused on dating, compared to only 12 percent that discussed either school or careers.

Ana Garner, Helen Sterk, and Shawn Adams (1998) analyzed 175 articles and columns about health, sex, and relationships appearing in Glamour, Seventeen, Teen, Mademoiselle, and YM magazines during the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Garner and her colleagues argued that the magazines were urging girls to be enthusiastic consumers in pursuit of perfection—perfect hair, perfect complexions, and perfect wardrobes. They concluded that the magazines were serving as "field guides" for sexual indulgence.


Teenagers are one of the primary audiences for Hollywood movies in theaters or at home on television or videocassettes. More than two-thirds of the movies produced and rated each year in the United States are R-rated movies, frequently because of the sexual content. Although, technically, only people older than sixteen are allowed to see R-rated movies unless they are accompanied by an adult, most children see R-rated movies much earlier than that age.

Bradley Greenberg and his colleagues (1993) conducted an analysis of the R-rated movies that were popular with teenagers in the early 1980s. They found an average of 17.5 sexual portrayals per movie. Carol Pardun (2001) found that in the top-grossing movies of 1995, romantic and sexual relationships were present even in action-adventure movies such as Apollo 13. In these 1995 movies, there was more talk than action, and women tended to talk about sex more than men.

Although more thorough character and story development might be expected in movies than on television, sexual relations tend to occur in movies with little reference to why the characters are attracted to each other or what they might expect from each other in the future. Older people in long-term relationships are rarely shown expressing tenderness or love for each other, and precautions against unwanted outcomes are as rare in movies as they are on television.

Music and Music Videos

Even before the gyrating hips of Elvis were censored on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956, popular music had been linked with sex. Especially appealing to young people, popular music and music videos contain frequent references to relationships, romance, and sexual behavior.

Music videos may be especially influential sources of sexual information for adolescents because they combine visuals of adolescents' favorite musicians with the music, and many of the visual elements are sexual. Although adolescent girls watch videos as frequently as their male peers, popular music videos underrepresent women, with men outnumbering women in lead roles by almost a five to one margin. Joe Gow (1996) found that when women do appear in music videos, their physical appearance rather than musical ability is emphasized. Steven Seidman (1999) documented that the women in music videos are more affectionate and nurturing, wear the most revealing clothing, and are more often sexually pursued than the males in the videos.

Music lyrics have drawn criticism from groups such as the Parents Music Resource Center, leading to some voluntary labeling of recorded music. For some teenagers, however, such warnings may represent a stamp of approval rather than a deterrent to buying the recording. Keith Roe (1995) proposed a theory of "media delinquency" that suggests that some teenagers may gravitate toward socially devalued or outlawed media content because it reflects their anger or estrangement and helps signal to others that they are not a part of the mainstream culture.

Some variants of rap music (e.g., gangsta rap) are particularly explicit about both sex and violence. Although some observers are critical of the sometimes misogynistic and violent imagery and lyrics, Imani Perry (1995) argues that the explicit "sexual speak" of black women rappers follows in the liberating tradition of the "blues," which gave voice to black women's sexual and cultural politics during the black migration to northern states in the early twentieth century. This striving for empowerment may explain why some rap musicians have responded to concerns about unsafe sex and sexually related behavior and have included alternative messages in their songs. Some rap music includes talk of "jimmy hats," or condoms. An album by the female rap group Salt 'n' Peppa, for example, was about the responsibilities as well as pleasures of sex.

Only a few studies have investigated how exposure to the sexual content of music and music videos is related to the sexual beliefs and behaviors of adolescents. An experiment by Larry Greeson and Rose Ann Williams (1986) found that adolescents who were exposed to a few music videos had more permissive attitudes about sex than did those who were not exposed. Another experiment by Linda Kalof (1999) found that exposure to the stereotypical images of gender and sexuality in music videos had an influence on college women's sexual beliefs, especially greater acceptance of interpersonal violence.


In short, it is clear that the media are an important part of how young people learn about sexual norms and expectations in the culture. From music to magazines, to television and movies, sex is a staple of young people's media diets. Although relatively little is known about how this ubiquitous sexual content is used by and affects children and adolescents, existing research suggests that such media content can have powerful effects, especially when other sources of information are difficult to access or are less compelling. Most of the media that young people attend to provide alluring and relatively risk-free opportunities to learn more about sex than their parents, teachers, or even friends are willing to provide. These portrayals rarely, however, include accurate depictions of the emotional and physical risks that may be involved in sexual activity. In the media world, women still are engaged primarily in seducing men, but the costs of doing so regardless of love, commitment, or protection against pregnancy or disease are rarely addressed.

See also:Advertising Effects; Body Image, Media Effect on; Gays and Lesbians In the Media;Gender and the Media; Music, Popular; Pornography; Ratings for Movies; Ratings for Television Programs; Soap Operas; Talk Shows on Television; Television Broadcasting, Programming and.


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Jane D. Brown

Susannah R. Stern