Sexuality in the Mass Media:
How to View the Media Critically

The mass media has become an extremely pervasive and omnipresent institution, especially in American society. The Committee on Public Education reported last year that young people spend more time in front of the television than they do in school or with their parents, and by the time the average 18 year-old graduates from high school, he or she will have spent 15,000 hours watching television. It is no longer possible, considering the enormous degree of media-saturation in our culture, for the media to have zero effect on any aspect of human life, including human sexuality.

The changes in media representations of sex and sexuality over the last fifty years are astonishing. The media industries are no longer forced to portray husbands and wives occupying separate beds, and scenes of sexual activity are rarely avoided or quietly inferred. Sex in the mass media, especially on television, is becoming increasingly frequent and explicit, as many advertisers have come to the realization that "sex sells." Viewers can observe depictions of intimacy and affection, marriage and family life, and gender roles, as well as suggestive and erotic behavior, right in their living rooms.

On the one hand, the pervasive, accessible, and popular nature of television makes it an excellent instructor, offering an opportune way to learn about sex and sexuality without embarrassment. However, the images on TV can be harmfully limited, stereotypical and one-dimensional, depicting sex as an activity that is only acceptable for the young, single, beautiful. Also, sex encounters may be continuously and erroneously presented as spontaneous, romantic, and risk-free.

How much sexual content is shown on television?

How much sexual information do viewers utilize?

Who is having sex on TV?

How safe is sex on TV?

What are some possible effects of increased exposure to mass media sexuality?

None of these statistics or research findings indicate that watching sexual content on TV makes viewers take irresponsible steps in their own lives. The research does, however, point to the notion that television viewing may help shape viewers' attitudes and expectations about sexual relationships-- which, in turn, are some of the strongest predictors of their behavior. This hypothesis links sexual attitudes developed from the media with troubling sexual statistics, such as the fact that the United States has a higher rate of teen pregnancy than any other industrialized country in the world. Basically, many people are being exposed to massive and explicit sexual messages every day of their lives, probably beginning before they have the knowledge or sophistication to accurately deal with such complicated content.

The Good News´┐Ż

However, the media may help break down the cultural taboos associated with sensitive sexual topics and bridge gaps in our sexual knowledge. Daytime talk shows and TV movies reveal a wide range of human sexual expression and broach topics such as rape, incest and abortion. An organization called The Media Project works with the television industry to incorporate realistic information about human sexuality and responsibility into their programming. The Media Project even sponsors the annual SHINE Awards (Sexual Health IN Entertainment) to recognize mass media outlets that have constructively portrayed sexual issues to the public.

Because the media can be a double-edged sword, delivering both entertainment and harmful messages, it is important to view sexual media critically. The following are some tips and ideas to help you evaluate the media more carefully and critically.

Questions that will assist in critical viewing:

Tips on viewing sexualized advertisements, movies and television shows:

References and Further Readings

Bryant, J. & Rockwell, S.C. (1994). Effects of massive exposure to sexually-oriented prime-time television programming on adolescents moral judgment. Media, children, and the family: Social scientific, psychodynamic and clinical perspectives (pp. 183-195). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Chapin, J. R. (2000). Adolescent sex and mass media: A developmental approach. Adolescence, 35, 799-811.

Committee on Public Education (2001). Sexuality, contraception, and the media. Pediatrics, 107, 191-194.

Elvin, J. (2001). Culture watch: TV porn and planned parenthood. Insight on the News, 17, 34.

Greenberg, B. S., & Woods, M. G. (1999). The soaps: Their sex, gratifications, and outcomes. The Journal of Sex Research, 36, 250-257.

Kaiser Family Foundation, (2001). Virgin, schmirgin. US News & World Report, 130, 12.

Ward, L. M., & Rivadeneyra, R. (1999). Contributions of entertainment television to adolescents' sexual attitudes and expectations: The role of viewer amount versus viewer involvement. The Journal of Sex Research, 36, 237-249.