The Effects of Sex in Television Drama Shows on Emerging Adults' Sexual Attitudes and Moral Judgments

By Eyal, Keren; Kunkel, Dale | Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, June 2008 | Go to article overview

The Effects of Sex in Television Drama Shows on Emerging Adults' Sexual Attitudes and Moral Judgments


Eyal, Keren, Kunkel, Dale, Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media


Sexual behavior implicates important public health concerns in the United States. Youth between the ages of 15 and 24 have the highest rates of STDs (Fox, 2004) and represent about half of the estimated 19 million new STD infections each year (CDC, 2006b). Moreover, the proportion of youth between the ages of 13 and 24 diagnosed with AIDS continues to increase (CDC, 2006a). Seventy percent of sexually active young adults report having taken a pregnancy test or had a partner who did so. Likely contributing to these alarming data are risky sexual behaviors in which emerging adults have been found to engage. More than half of college students have reported engaging in casual sex--that is, sex outside of established romantic relationships--which is often spontaneous and involves drugs and alcohol (Grello, Welsh, & Harper, 2006). In one study, nearly one-third of 18-19 year olds reported having engaged in sexual behaviors with two or more partners in the past 12 months (Mosher, Chandra, & Jones, 2005). Despite the risks associated with these encounters, which generally involve little to no familiarity with a partner's sexual health history, less than half of young adults who engage in sexual activity report using contraception either regularly or at all when engaging in sex (Hoff, Greene, & Davis, 2003). These data highlight the importance of examining the factors that play a role in sexual socialization, among these the mass media and particularly television, which is recognized as a key socializing agent with regard to sex for young people (Huston, Wartella, & Donnerstein, 1998).

A growing body of studies documents a relationship between exposure to televised sexual content and perceptions of peer norms, expectations about sex, permissive sexual attitudes, and engagement in premarital sexual intercourse (Aubrey, Harrison, Kramer, & Yellin, 2003; Brown & Newcomer, 1991; Collins et al., 2004; Ward, 2003; Ward & Rivadeneyra, 1999). Most of the evidence to date about the effects of sexual portrayals in mainstream entertainment television has emerged from cross-sectional, correlational research.

Only a small handful of studies have experimentally examined the media's influence on sexual outcomes. Bryant and Rockwell (1994) found that young adolescents exposed to 15 hours of sexual television content that "focused on pre, extra, and nonmarital sexual relations" (p. 188) subsequently judged such situations as less morally wrong than adolescents exposed to content depicting intercourse between married individuals and those exposed to shows that did not depict sexual relationships. Farrar (2006) found that exposure to portrayals of safe sex on television drama shows impacted female college students' attitudes toward condom use. And Taylor (2005) found that exposure to verbal televised sexual content perceived to be realistic led female college students to overestimate the level of sexual activity among their peer group. This modest base of experimental evidence is consistent with the findings from correlational studies, but more work is needed to afford confidence in drawing causal conclusions. Moreover, experimental studies are needed for the identification and control of specific processes that operate in the exposure-outcome relationship (Huston et al., 1998).

The current study extends previous research by examining the effects of exposure to a specific contextual variable associated with the portrayal of sex on television on sexual attitudes and moral judgments. Specifically, the study tests the effects of exposure to differentially valenced consequences of premarital sexual intercourse. It tests effects immediately after exposure to two episodes of 1-hour dramas and the persistence of effects 2 weeks later. The study examines sexual media effects during the important development period of emerging adulthood, between the ages of 18 and 25 (Arnett & Tanner, 2006).

Researchers have established that important developmental progressions continue to take place even at the end of the traditional "late-adolescence" period (Arnett, 2000). …

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