Magazine article Insight on the News

Sex-Saturated Culture Sends Message to Kids

Magazine article Insight on the News

Sex-Saturated Culture Sends Message to Kids

Article excerpt

Child advocates and media critics are worried that America has embraced a culture of pornography -- from music videos to trendy clothing -- that sends the wrong signals to children.

University of Michigan psychology professor L. Monique Ward was going over the results of her recent two-year study of young adults and their attitudes toward sex and the media when she was struck by one particular realization.

"I was surprised at how much 18- to 20-year-olds are still affected by media's messages about sex" Ward says. "When we first started our research, we assumed that 15-year-olds who largely hadn't started dating yet would have much of their reality shaped by the media. They don't know the difference sometimes [between media reality and real life] and don't have the maturity to make informed choices about sex. But 18- to 20-year-olds are at the pinnacle, so to speak, when it comes to dating and relationships. They're older, more mature, less naive. And they're still affected."

This begs a deeper question: What about the harder, coarser stuff out there? Ward's study focused on sudsy TV programs such as Friends and soap operas, relatively mild fare compared with cable TV's The Man Show and The X Shorn both of which feature female porn movie stars in "advice-giving" comedy sketches. If 18-to 20-year-olds' attitudes are shaped by television characters like Ross and Rachel and Monica and Chandler, what is the impact of the anything-goes philosophy of pornography?

Certainly, young people have adopted new fashion standards -- witness T-shirts emblazoned with "Future Porn Star" or "Future Pimp," sold at popular clothing stores such as Commander Salamander in the trendy Georgetown section of Washington. "I find it humorous," says Chuck Hood, 22, who recently bought a "Future Porn Star" shirt. "It's just something other people can laugh at, a special look. It's not an attention-grabber; it's just something kind of funny to wear. It's big in the club scenes nowadays"

Even young children wear "porn star" T-shirts, often without understanding what they mean. "A woman came to one of my lectures, and she had been baby-sitting a young girl who was 8" says Ann Simonton, director of Media Watch, a nonprofit organization in California that studies women's issues in the media. "She was wearing that shirt and the woman asked her, `Do you even know what that means?' She said, `No, I don't know what it means, but it makes the boys like me more.'"

Ward's study, which was published last fall in the Journal of Sex Research, examined the sexual attitudes of 314 men and women in the 18-to-20 age category and how they were shaped by the media. "People who watched a lot of TV accepted the recreational notion of sex as game-playing and strategizing" she says. "Respondents were also more likely to assume that their peers were really sexually active and to buy into the notion that everybody is doing it. We found that those who watch TV a lot are more involved with it and that it shapes sexual attitudes and expectations"

On the other hand, Children Now, a nonprofit child-advocacy group in California, suggests that teen-agers might mean what they say. "Teen pregnancy is down; there's a real changing pattern of sexuality, differing views; it's not a black-and-white picture," says Children Now President Lois Salisbury. …

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