Sex on American Television: An Analysis across Program Genres and Network Types

By Fisher, Deborah A.; Hill, Douglas L. et al. | Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, December 2004 | Go to article overview

Sex on American Television: An Analysis across Program Genres and Network Types


Fisher, Deborah A., Hill, Douglas L., Grube, Joel W., Gruber, Enid L., Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media


Among the sociocultural factors posited to influence young people's sexuality, the media have received significant attention--especially television, as it continues to be the medium used most by youth (Roberts, Foehr, Rideout, & Brodie, 1999). During adolescence, most teens are becoming involved in dating relationships (Kaiser Family Foundation & YM Magazine, 1998), and media portrayals of sexual issues may play a key role in their sexual socialization through the social norms and sexual scripts presented/Brown, Walsh-Childers, & Waszak, 1990). As many as one in five teens reports that entertainment is their most important source of sexual information (Gibbs, 1993, as cited in Brown & Steele, 1995). Additionally, survey evidence suggests that substantial numbers of teens--more than 40% in one survey--find television portrayals of sexual matters to be accurate reflections of real world experiences and outcomes (Louis Harris & Associates, 1988). Thus, it is important to know what types of messages about sex, its consequences, and sexual responsibility are presented on television shows watched by teens.

This article addresses this issue by using data from 1,276 television programs to analyze the amount and kinds of sexual behaviors and sexual talk in programming from the 2001-2002 season. It expands on previous content analyses by sampling extensively from several networks targeted to youth rather than evaluating a small number of individual programs popular among teens (Cope-Farrar & Kunkel, 2002; Greenberg et al., 1993; Ward, 1995) and by examining sexual content across a wider array of program genres. We also assess differences between major commercial broadcast networks and two categories of cable networks popular among teens.

Media exposure has been posited to affect viewers' attitudes and behavior in several ways. Cultivation theory (Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, Signorielli, & Shanahan, 2002) proposes that television exposure, especially heavy viewing, creates shared beliefs and perceptions as viewers adopt the messages and images presented in the symbolic world of television as accurate depictions of social reality. Another theoretical approach, social learning theory (Bandura, 1977), later recast as social cognitive theory (Bandura, 2001), predicts that individuals will imitate the behavior of others when those models are rewarded or not punished, especially when viewers perceive them as attractive and similar to themselves. According to Bandura, individuals model their behavior on vicarious experiences such as media because their real life experiences are usually more limited. This may be particularly true for adolescents who may not have much first-hand experience with sexuality yet are starting to enter into dating relationships and thus are eager to learn about issues such as how to behave with a romantic partner or how to perform various sexual behaviors. A closely related concept is that sexual scenarios portrayed by the media provide scripts that may be used by youth to fill in gaps in their understanding of sexual situations (Brown & Steele, 1995). According to these theories, to the extent that television portrays sex frequently and in an unrealistically positive manner--with a preponderance of benefits and little attention to risks and negative outcomes--viewers will be more apt to make misinformed and potentially dangerous decisions about sex (e.g., engage in sex "because everyone's doing it" according to the normative messages pervading television shows; not use condoms because television characters who serve as models do not use them and nothing bad happens).

Although heavy viewers of all ages may be influenced by their exposure to television, teenagers may be particularly vulnerable to media messages regarding sex because of developmental limitations in their critical thinking skills (Gordon, 1990; Gruber & Thau, 2003). Thus, adolescence represents a sensitive period when interest in sexual matters is heightened and gender roles and sexual attitudes are being shaped, yet analytic skills are often far from fully developed. …

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