Magazine Reading and Involvement and Young Adults' Sexual Health Knowledge, Efficacy, and Behaviors
Walsh, Jennifer L., Ward, L. Monique, The Journal of Sex Research
Data indicate that young adulthood is a time of prime susceptibility to the risks of unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Rates of STDs have increased among adolescents and young adults in recent years (Brown & Walsh-Childers, 2002), with nearly one half of all new STDs occurring in 15- to 24-year-olds (Centers for Disease Control [CDC], 2004). Fifteen- to 19-year-old women and 20- to 24-year-old men have the highest rates of gonorrhea. In addition, at least one half of all new HIV infections occur in people under the age of 25 (CDC, 2003). Behaviors associated with high HIV and AIDS risk, such as binge drinking, sexual intercourse with multiple partners, and low frequencies of condom use, are prevalent in college populations (Brigham et al., 2002). For example, 34% of college students report binge drinking, and only 30% report having used a condom during their last intercourse (Brigham et al., 2002).
Alarmed by these trends, researchers have often focused on understanding factors that affect the sexual decision making of young adults. Much attention has focused on the role of formative socialization experiences, with particular emphasis on communication about sexuality and sexual health provided by parents (for a review, see DiIorio, Pluhar, & Belcher, 2003) and on models provided by peers (e.g., Ballard & Morris, 1998). Emerging as an equally important force are the mass media, which have been identified as playing a key role in the socialization process (for a review, see Ward, 2003). Findings indicate that sexual information and models of sexual decision making are prominent in the media. Previous research has estimated that young people will encounter between 10,000 and 15,000 sexual references per year in the media (Strasburger & Donnerstein, 1999). Moreover, adolescents and emerging adults may be especially attentive to this content because sexual relationships are both new and important to them (Jeffres, 1997).
Previous research has framed the media primarily as a negative influence on sexual risk-taking among young people, observing that media may encourage stereotypical sexual attitudes and push youth to engage in sexual behavior before they are ready. Indeed, there is much evidence that mainstream media, and television, especially, do affect sexual attitudes, perceptions, and behaviors in these ways. For example, greater regular exposure to sexually oriented genres is related to more stereotypical and liberal sexual attitudes and to a greater acceptance of sexual harassment among adolescents and college students (for a review, see Ward, 2003), and frequent viewing of music videos and soap operas, as well as high television use in general, has been linked with a greater number of sexual partners, more sexual experience, and earlier sexual initiation among these populations (Ashby, Arcari, & Edmonson, 2006; Escobar-Chaves et al., 2005; Strouse & Buerkel-Rothfuss, 1987; Strouse, Buerkel-Rothfuss, & Long, 1995).
Despite the rich body of research framing media effects in this way, we might ask if media are only a negative influence on sexual socialization in young adulthood. Although references to sexuality are abundant in the media, they are not monolithic. In addition to making references to sexual stereotypes and promoting premarital sex, certain types of media also include information about STDs and safe-sex practices, discussions of sexual intentions and sexual agency, and depictions of complex decision making. In addition, the primary focus of previous research has been on television, not magazines, which are often even more direct and information-centered. Accordingly, with this study we seek to address these shortcomings by examining connections between magazine reading and several positive sexual health outcomes.
Media as a Source of Sexual Education
Young people acknowledge the media as an important source of sexual education. …