Sexual Intercourse on Television: Do Safe Sex Messages Matter?

Article excerpt

The establishment of sexual relationships and a sexual identity is a central developmental task for late adolescents and emerging adults (Arnett, 2000). In fact, research indicates that sexually risky behavior peaks not during adolescence but during the ages of 18 to 25 (Arnett, 1992). Many young people have multiple sexual partners (Page, Hammermeister, & Scanlan, 2000; Siegel, Klein, & Roghmann, 1999) and use condoms inconsistently if at all (Parsons, Halkitis, Bimbi, & Borkowski, 2000); half of all new HIV diagnoses attributable to sexual activity occur among young people ages 15 to 24 (Weinstock, Berman, & Cates, 2004). Instances of sexually transmitted diseases are alarmingly high in this age group, suggesting a population that is extremely vulnerable to HIV infection (Collins, Elliott, Berry, Kanouse, & Hunter, 2003). This makes emerging adults, perhaps even more so than adolescents, very important to study with regard to possible influences on their risky sexual behavior.

Although there are numerous factors that influence sexual risk taking (e.g., developmental drives, gender, self-esteem, a personality high in sensation seeking), televised portrayals of sexuality have also been implicated. Empirical research suggests that televised sexual messages affect sexual socialization not only among younger adolescents (e.g., Bryant & Rockwell, 1994; Buerkel-Rothfuss, & Strouse, 1993) but among college-age emerging adults as well (e.g., Carveth & Alexander, 1985; Ward, 2002; Ward & Rivadeneyra, 1999), suggesting that undergraduates are still forming their sexual scripts and thus are still vulnerable to media influence. Sexual socialization effects seem especially likely given the sheer amount of sexual content found on television. A recent study of more than 1,000 programs from the 2000-2001 television season found that 64% of shows contain sexual messages with an average of just over four scenes per hour (Kunkel et al., 2003). Although talk about sex and more modest sexual behaviors such as kissing predominate on mainstream television (Kunkel, Cope, & Colvin, 1996; Kunkel et al., 2003), sexual intercourse also occurs in more than 1 out of every 8 (14%) programs. Unfortunately, important public health concerns such as safe sex or abstinence are rarely addressed (Greenberg & Busselle, 1994; Kunkel et al., 2003).

College students still watch a fair amount of television, although less than older and younger audiences (Pingree et al., 2001). Specifically, they tend to watch a good deal of programming during prime time, particularly young adult dramas. In fact, Pingree et al. found that their student audience was far more concentrated on those programs than the general Nielsen sample of 18- to 34- year-olds. According to Kunkel et al. (2003), more than 70% of television dramas contain sexual content, so it is very likely that even though college students watch less television overall when compared to other age groups they are still exposed to a good deal of sexual content. This fact, when combined with the alarming incidence of sexual risk taking and a developmental focus on sexuality within this age group, makes college students an important group to study with regard to media influences on their sexual behavior.

Clearly, television portrays a great deal of sexual content without much attention to sexual responsibility. Emerging adults are exposed to a great deal of this content on a regular basis. It remains unclear what effect, if any, these portrayals of unprotected sex have on young people. Would more sexually responsible portrayals in the media have a positive impact on young people's attitudes toward safe sex? The study presented here uses a 2 x 3 experimental design to ask, What impact do portrayals of sexual risk and responsibility on television have on the safe sex attitudes of emerging adults? Several other demographic and personality variables known to be linked to sexual attitudes and behavior are also explored, including gender, age, religiosity, self-esteem, and peer attitudes (Irwin, 1993), and sensation seeking (Arnett, 1992). …