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Research Blog: Does exposure to sexual media impact attitudes and beliefs about sex?

By Laura Hooberman

At a recent family event, I was talking to a twelve-year old relative, who asked me, unprompted, if I had seen the most recent episode of Game of Thrones. I said that I hadn’t, and he proceeded, of course, to immediately and gleefully spoil the episode for me. I was less concerned about the spoiler (as a weirdo, I actively enjoy spoilers and sometimes even seek them out) than I was about the fact that a child in his early adolescence had just casually disclosed to me the fact that he routinely watches a television program perhaps most widely known for pushing the parameters of just how ‘adult’ adult content on cable television can be. Indeed, I’ve heard the term “gratuitous sex and violence” in relation to Game of Thrones so often since the show first went on air that the program’s title is, in my mind, indelibly linked to this expression.

I wondered, however, if my concern was unfounded, or, for lack of a better term, prudish. Given the fact that participation in popular culture so often is participation in overly sexualized media, I wondered if attempts to shield adolescents from popular televised content could be seen as either overkill or fruitless (or both). Moreover, the debate surrounding the extent to which sexualized media impacts beliefs about sexuality has been going on for about as long as I can remember, and it seemed, at least to me, that little evidence had pointed to any definitive answers.

But as it turns out, I was wrong about this. Research has examined the impact of consuming sexual media on sexual attitudes and behaviors. In 2018, a group of researchers published a meta-analysis (that is, an analysis of many studies focused on one particular topic) examining patterns of results across research on the impact of non-explicit sexual media (in other words, media which features scenes of sexual acts and behaviors but which is not overtly pornographic) on sexual attitudes and behaviors, particularly during adolescence[1].

The researchers analyzed results from 59 studies, representing in sum the experiences of 48,471(!) participants. Based on this huge amount of data, they drew a striking conclusion: evidence suggests that exposure to sexual media has a small but significant impact on both sexual attitudes and behaviors, and this effect is more pronounced for adolescents (interestingly, they also found the effect to be more significant for boys than girls, and for white participants compared to Black participants). Specifically, using sexual media was shown to be linked to permissive sexual attitudes (i.e., the belief that sex or expressions of sexuality are ‘no big deal’), peer sexual norms (i.e., the belief that ‘everyone’ in an adolescent’s class is already having sex) and acceptance of rape myths (e.g., the belief that a person ‘deserves’ to be assaulted if they are dressed in a particular way). They also found that exposure to sexual media corresponded to sexual behavior broadly, as well as risky sexual behavior, specifically. In other words, those who were exposed to sexual media engaged in sexual behaviors, including risky sexual behaviors, to a greater extent than those who did not.

What are the takeaways here? To my mind, these results do not suggest that we, as a society, should shield adolescents entirely from sexual media. In the age of YouTube, how would this even be possible? Rather, these results seem to highlight the importance of being mindful of the role the media plays in shaping adolescents’ understandings of sexuality and sexual behavior. As the author notes, depictions of sexuality across mainstream media platforms tend to be, at best, misleading (suggesting that sexual behavior is “highly prevalent, recreational, and relatively risk-free”) and at worst, damaging (suggesting, for instance, that female sexuality is “passive, appearance-based, and partner-pleasing.”

But it’s not all bad news. Televised media in the wake of #MeToo has, in certain instances, appeared to take more seriously the significance of its messaging. So maybe one day soon conversations about sex in the media will be less dominated by Game of Thrones and more centered on, say, The Bold Type.

 

[1] Coyne, S. M., Ward, L. M., Kroff, S. L., Davis, E. J., Holmgren, H. G., Jensen, A. C., … & Essig, L. W. (2019). Contributions of mainstream sexual media exposure to sexual attitudes, perceived peer norms, and sexual behavior: a meta-analysis. Journal of Adolescent Health.

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