The Effects of Television Sexuality

provocative.jpg Portrayals of hypersexual behavior, casual sexual encounters without apparent consequence, shallow exploitative programs like ABC's Are You Hot? and exploitation of sex in advertising have just the effect that parents fear. They turn up the pressure on teens to have sexual relations earlier, normalizing casual sexual encounters, and confusing younger kids who may be somewhat traumatized by too-early exposure to sexual issues.

Kaiser Family Foundation reports:

Children watch a great deal of adult programming, and there has been a steady increase in the frequency and explicitness of sexual content on broadcast television. Young people have access to a much wider range of video content as well as to other entertainment media than they did in the early 1980s. Many of these portrayals show glamorous, young individuals with whom many children and adolescents are likely to identify. Young people in this age range often name media figures as the people whom they would like to emulate. Finally, the United States has not moved very far toward providing sex education or other sources of sexual information for young people, leaving them to get sexual information largely from peers and mass media.

Read the Kaiser Family Foundation Report:
Measuring the Effects of Sexual Content in the Media 

Even very highly-rated programs with excellent dramatic content will often include gratuitous sexual content that is almost unconnected to the program's story line in an attempt to boost ratings an extra point or two.

 A particular example of this was ABC's otherwise excellent series NYPD Blue.  Producer Steven Bochco has a long history of trying to "push the envelope" in an almost adolescent fashion, even though his gratuitous content rarely adds value to the program.  He began this on NYPD Blue with the "Jimmy Smits' bottom" sexual scenes, shown at the end of the program at 10:55 EST and 9:55 CST.  However, in later programs he moved the "as much nudity as he can get away with" scenes to the beginning of the show, at 9:05 PM CST when many children would still be up.

By contrast, Dick Wolf's series Law and Order has maintained even higher ratings for over a decade without such gratuitous content.

  The Major Studies: An Overview

Here is a brief overview of some of the major studies on the effects of television sexuality:
Several studies have linked increased exposure to the mass media with dissatisfaction with virginity among teenagers (Brown & Newcomer, 1991; Peterson, et al, 1991; Kunkel, et al, 1999)
The students who think television accurately portrays sex were more likely to be dissatisfied with their first experience with intercourse (Brown & Newcomer, 1991:80).
Teens that had been exposed to a highly sexual TV drama rated descriptions of casual sex encounters less negatively than teens that had received no sexual content exposure (Bryant & Rockwell, 1994:230).
A study of black women aged 14 to 18 revealed that adolescents who see X-rated movies have less-favorable attitudes toward condom use than other teens (Wingood, et al., 2001:1116).

Just as with media violence, it is not true that exposure to media sexuality will automatically make young people behave irresponsibly. However, the research indicates that the material erodes behavioral barriers, shapes attitudes and expectations about sexual relationships, and thus influences later behavior.

Sex is usually used for specifically commercial purposes on television, because it is an easy and cheap way to get the undivided attention of most viewers. "Sex sells!" However, this purely commercial speech is generally undertaken without any moral compass, and without consideration of social, psychological or emotional impact. The programming barriers that once kept suggestive television away from children have largely crumbled, and young children are exposed to material that is far too mature for them.

Report from University of California - Santa Barbara:
Sexuality in the Mass Media: How to View the Media Critically

Sex Doesn't Sell?

It appears now that Madison Avenue's mantra about sex may be coming into question. Agencies have been using sex to sell products for a long, long time; but as the sexuality has become more graphic, it appears that it becomes less effective at selling products. In fact, in a recent study released by the American Psychological Association, subjects found it more difficult to remember commercials placed during violent or sexually explicit programs. Not a good deal for the advertisers, who have often paid a premium to advertise during such programming!

Read more about the study:
Televised Sex Impairs Memory For TV Ads

But this also means that in the mad rush to the bottom, commercial interests are sacrificing the sexual health of teens and young adults to sell product -- and now we find that it doesn't even work very well!

Other helpful links:
Parents Concerned About Kids' Exposure to Sex and Violence on TV

Impact on Self-Image >