Effects of Sex in the Media
Richard Jackson Harris, Kansas State University, and Christopher P. Barlett, Iowa State University
Where do men and women, boys and girls, learn about sex? What is the impact of those influences? Throughout childhood, adolescence, and into adulthood people learn about sex from many sources, including parents, schools, friends, siblings, and media outlets such as movies, television, magazines, song lyrics, videos, and the Internet. For example, we may learn about French kissing from an older brother’s stories, orgasms from a pornographic movie, oral sex from an erotic web site, and rape from a television movie.
Sexual themes in entertainment have been around as long as fiction itself. Many classics were often highly sexual in content, such as Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales or Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, all of which are filled with overtly sexuality and covert double entendres, some of which may be missed today due to the archaic language and the “classic” aura of these works. More broadly, sex has long been a part of popular culture. Roman gladiatorial contests sometime featured scantily clad women as combatants, and sex scandals, sexual entertainment, and young adults pushing the limits on acceptable dress and behavior have long diverted, and on occasion troubled, society.
According to a Time/CNN poll (Stodghill, 1998), 29% of U.S. teens identified television as their most important source of information about sex, up from 11% in 1986. Although the most-mentioned source (45%) was “friends,” only 7% cited parents and 3% cited sex education. In one study, 90% of Toronto adolescent boys and 60% of the girls (mean age =14) reported having seen at least one pornographic movie (Check & Maxwell, 1992, in Russell, 1998). Also, 29% of boys rated pornography as their most significant source of sex education, higher than schools, parents, books, peers or magazines (Check, 1995). Surveys of college men have shown that 35-55% report having consumed violent pornography in some form (Demare, Briere, & Lips, 1988; Garcia, 1986).
Throughout adolescence and early adulthood we continually learn about sex, and media are a major source of that information (Chia, 2006; Dorr & Kunkel, 1990; Sutton, Brown, Wilson, & Klein. 2002). Moreover, relative to other sources, media are becoming increasingly important (Check, 1995; Greenberg et al., 1993), especially women’s magazines and television (Kallipolitis, et al., 2004). The effects of this heavy consumption of sexually oriented media are the topic of this chapter. We begin by examining the nature of sex in the media, focusing on content analysis studies. The rest of the chapter presents a review of the research on how consuming sexually explicit media impacts sexual arousal, attitudes, and behavior.
THE NATURE OF SEX IN THE MEDIA
Types of Sexual Content
Sexually oriented media may encompass a wide variety of sources. Some materials in magazines, videos, films, and Internet web sites have labels like “erotic,” “pornographic,” “X-rated,” or “sexually explicit.” Pornography is big business, generating $13 billion just in the U.S. in 2006 (IT Facts, 2007). Although sex magazines have greatly declined in circulation since the mid-1990s, that drop has been more than compensated for by video sales and rentals, cable and pay-per-view TV, and especially the explosive growth of Internet pornography, producing over 20% of the total revenue in 2006.
Most scholars distinguish between violent sexual material, which portrays rape, bondage, torture, sadomasochism, hitting, spanking, hair pulling, and genital mutilation, and nonviolent sexual material. Further classifying the nonviolent sexual material is more difficult. Some nonviolent sexual material is entirely...