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?
- About 66% of prime time shows contain some sexual content.
- In one study, a solid majority (62%) of scenes in television shows were coded as including some sexual behavior, and 28% of these scenes placed the primary emphasis on sex.
- Each new season television programs contain more sexual content than the previous year.
- Two thirds of the 1999-2000 television season contained some sexual content (up from one half the previous season).
- The sexual content of sitcom scenes shot up from 56% in 1999 to 84% in 2000.
- The Kaiser Family Foundation (2001) has reported that 80% of the content presented on soap operas is sexual in nature, and Greenberg and Woods (1999:253) reported an average of 6.6 sex acts in each soap hour.
- The television programs that are most popular with adolescents have been found to be the most sexual in nature.
How much sexual information do viewers utilize?
- Nearly 50% of adolescents report getting information about birth control from the mass media.
- Four out of ten teens (40%) report that they have gained ideas for how to talk to a boyfriend or girlfriend about sex directly from media portrayals.
- The mass media was the source of information about sexuality and relationships that was most frequently mentioned in a survey of youth ages ten to fifteen.
Who is having sex on TV?
- Almost 23% of the sexual portrayals that were shown in the 2000 season involve characters from the ages of 18-24, and 9% (almost one in ten) involve characters under the age of 18.
- The bulk of the sexual action and language occurs between unmarried characters. One study found that unmarried heterosexual characters engage in sexual intercourse four to eight times as much as married characters.
- In one study of soap operas, there was only one representation of a married couple engaging in sex for every 24 portrayals of unmarried characters performing sexual acts.
How safe is sex on TV?
- The use of contraceptives and the contraction of sexually transmitted diseases on TV are relatively rare. In one study, STDs were only mentioned an average of once every ten program hours. In this study, even when a reference was made to the risk of sexual behavior, it was very rarely the primary emphasis of the scene.
- Nearly 14,000 sexual references bombard the average American adolescent each year, yet only "165 of these will deal with birth control, self-control, abstinence, or the risk of pregnancy or STDs" (Committee on Public Education, 2001:192).
What are some possible effects of increased exposure to mass media 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).
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�
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:
- Who has created the sexual images?
- Who is engaging in the sexual behavior?
- Whose viewpoint is not heard?
- From whose perspective does the camera frame the events?
- How would your parents, girlfriend or boyfriend talk about the story you just saw?
- What is our role as spectators in identifying with, or questioning what we see and hear?
- Who owns the medium? How much do the owners profit from showing sexual content?
Tips on viewing sexualized advertisements, movies and television shows:
- Watch together. You not only learn about the content, but how others are reacting to it.
- Dialogue and listen to what others say about sexual content on television.
- Learn to read sexualized advertisements. What's the message? Who is the ad targeting? What are they using to make the ad appeal to their target audience? How much are they spending to convince their target audience to buy that product?
- Test an ad's claims (does a certain perfume actually make the wearer more sexy or attractive?). Be creative.
- Develop rules for watching and guidelines for choosing sexual movies and videos.
- Dialogue and listen to what others are saying about sexual images in movies and videos.
- Learn about and utilize the Motion Picture Rating System.
- Learn about and utilize the TV Rating System.
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.