Sex on TV: Do All Kids See the Same Show?


This article originally appeared in Issue# 46

Using interviews and diaries, researchers learn how young girls evaluate media sexuality.

On sex in soap operas compared to real life: "They don't ever seem to think ahead. They just decide that [sex] is what they want to do, and in a soap opera it's not really going to hurt them anyway."
- 15 year-old girl

Media sex has come a long way from the days of Ozzie and Harriett's twin beds.

Although the taboo against simulated sex on television still holds, couples are frequently seen in bed during daytime dramas and on late evening shows. And sex is talked about a lot; at least one or two references to sexual intercourse occur in an average hour of programming, according to a recent study by Planned Parenthood.

That's a lot of sex for adolescents who watch, on average, five-and-a-half to eight hours of television every day. And teenagers and pre-teens also are constantly bombarded with sexual messages from a variety of other sources, from magazine ads to movies to music videos.

But the statistics don't tell us what most parents really want to know: What effect is seeing all that sex having on their kids?

Since surprisingly little research has been done on adolescent reactions to media, evidence is sparse. But most parents and youth workers have guessed that much of media sex provides, at the very least, a bad example.

After completing an in-depth 1987 study of interpretations of media sexuality by nineteen 11- to 15-year-old girls, we think the short answer is that the effect depends on the kids. More specifically, it depends on the way they look at media and on what they've learned from their families about media and sexuality.

The girls we talked with - all white, suburban preteens and teenagers from modest-sized urban areas in Michigan and North Carolina - were superficially very similar. Yet their responses to media and media sexuality varied widely. The differences seemed to depend not on age or geographic location but on personal values and media sophistication.

Each girl completed a questionnaire describing her media use, her attitudes about sexuality and her relationship with her parents. In addition, for one month, participants kept journal/scrapbooks in which they recorded their reactions to what they saw, heard and read in the media. At the end of the month, we conducted lengthy, open-ended interviews in each girl's bedroom. Thanks to the intimacy of the situation, the girls were quite candid about their media use, their sexual attitudes and media's effect on their lives.

Hierarchy of Values

Although the girls' media preferences varied widely, the differences weren't random. We were able to place each girl into three media groups. The media use groups differed not only in their reactions to media but also in the amounts and types of media they preferred. The higher groups represented more active and critical degrees of media use, as well as a more realistic view of media sexuality. Even more significantly, media sophistication seemed to be correlated not with age, but with family media habits and the sexual values conveyed by parents and other role models.

A Blank Slate?

While none of the girls wanted to admit that television was an important part of her life, many of them spent a great deal of time with it - especially those in the first or least aware group. Although intrigued by some aspects of sexuality in the media, these girls were less likely to compare these portrayals with their own lives.

Parents who encouraged their daughters to think for themselves were most apt to initiate the kind of independent thinking needed for media criticism. Girls whose families stressed conformity and familial harmony were more likely to accept media messages at face value.

When asked about shows they particularly liked or disliked, for instance, they often described the shows' plots, but rarely critiqued the content. They were the heaviest TV viewers, but had given the least thought to why they liked particular shows; they expressed their reactions in terms of simple feelings. One girl wrote that douche ads should not be shown on TV because they're "pretty gross."

Participants in the other two groups, however, were interested in all aspects of sexuality and often compared TV portrayals with their own (relatively limited) sexual experiences or those of their friends. Group Two girls used all media more selectively than those in Group One, turning away from TV to some extent and preferring music and magazines. They favored media content concerning their own age group and were especially interested in sexual content. As one girl put it, "I like stories that have kissing."

These young women often spoke of identifying with specific characters and the situations in which they found themselves. One said she admired Scarlett O'Hara "for the same reasons I admire Cybill Shepherd (of Moonlighting). She's strong, and everything goes her way."

For Group Two girls, the mass media also provided suggestions for solving personal problems. They were interested especially in male/female relationships portrayed in the media. One girl said she liked an episode of Who's the Boss? because it "showed how someone should make a decision about letting a boy do something that you don't want."

The messages Group Two girls found in the media were sometimes ambiguous, however. One girl wrote in her scrapbook about the different ways popular music presents sexuality: "One song really caught my attention. [It said] 'Come over to my house so we can do it!' This represents sex as begin OK. Later I heard 'Let's Wait Awhile' by Janet Jackson which basically says 'Let's not rush into it.' It's kind of hard as a teenager to decide which is right. The guy who was talking about [sex] as being good seemed happy. Janet sounded sad and depressed. I really know which is the right way, but sometimes, the way the media talks about it, you really begin to wonder."

Do All Kids See the Same TV?
Even within the same age groups there can be different levels of media awareness. In their research, Kim Walsh Childers and Jane Brown found three distinct categories of young viewers.
Group I
  • heavy but relatively unselective television viewers
  • watch "because it's fun"
  • evaluate content in terms of feelings and externals
  • somewhat confused about sex and its consequences

Group II
  • more selective and critical, they tended to emulate their parents' media use patterns
  • interested in music and magazines
  • chose content to enhance preferred feelings
  • more critical, but evaluations centered on narrative and specific attributes of characters and settings
  • interested in male images, sexual content and stories related to their own age group

Group III
  • combined highest level of selectivity with the ability to critique theme, chracters and narrative
  • most inclined to examine content in the context of their own values and reject media content that conflicts with their interests
  • aware of more subtle aspects of personality and motivation
  • strong preference for media they control, such as tapes, records, magazines, books

Becoming Aware

Of all the girls, those in the third group were most selective and aware of how and why they chose specific media. They watched less TV and preferred media they could control, including taped music or records or magazines. They also were least likely to use TV as a guide to personal decision-making. Group Three girls were highly critical of mass media content, consistently comparing media messages to their own values and experiences. One specifically objected to the movie Top Gun because she thought its characters were using each other.

Other comments demonstrated these girls' ability to apply feminist or moral perspectives to media portrayals. For example, one Group Three feminist complained that a perfume ad depicted what she interpreted as a rape scene, which she thought was "degrading."

Another Group Three girl applied her strong religious beliefs to the decision to actively avoid sexy movies. As she wrote in her journal in response to a sex scandal reported in the media: "Having sex (outside of marriage) is something you do when you misuse the systems God gave you. In making love you must be with the person you should live with for the rest of your life."

Learning in Layers

No one who visits adolescent girls can fail to be struck by the influence of media on their lives. Photographs of rock stars and actors, clippings from magazines, the transition from stuffed animals to advertising photos of men, all bear witness both to their emerging sexuality and the media's role as a sexual model.

After talking with these girls at length and reading the thoughts they had recorded in their journal/scrapbooks, we were reminded of something many teachers and parents already know: The cycle of adolescent learning may be similar, but each individuals' response to it will be different.

Ultimately, our research reveals what may seem to some parents to be a paradox: Parents who encouraged their daughters to think for themselves were most apt to initiate the kind of independent thinking needed for media criticism. Girls whose families stressed conformity and familial harmony were more likely to accept media messages at face value. Clearly, we should encourage teenagers to compare what they see and hear in the mass media to their own personal and family values.

Adolescents certainly are not passive blank slates that the media write on at will. That's good news for parents and youth workers. But teens do need guidance on both sexual values and critical thinking. And the less media aware they are, the more guidance they may need.

Author Bio: 

Jane Brown is a professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina/Chapel Hill. Kim Walsh-Childers is a professor at the University of Florida.