Sexuality & the Media Research Paper Starter

Sexuality & the Media

(Research Starters)

Sexuality - a person's ability to be sexual - is a concept that has changed over the past forty years. So too has America's response to it. Explicit sexual references are common in various media sources and are viewed as normal by the public. This may result in young girls behaving in unhealthy sexual ways. Research studies focusing on the influences of some of those media sources are described here. Seventeen, Cosmopolitan, and Cleo magazines are discussed, as are Hip-Hop music videos and the Internet site MySpace. In contrast, other media sources have been shown to send positive messages including those concentrating on safe sex, pregnancy prevention, and other healthy behaviors. Some of those sources are discussed here as well.

Sex, Gender & Sexuality


"In the early 1960s the word pregnant was not allowed on television, and movies and television did not show married couples in the same bed" (Kammayer, Ritzer & Yetman, 1994, p. 209). In the twenty-first century, a person is lucky to experience a two-hour time span that avoids either concept. The media did not change overnight, nor did it change in a vacuum. As such, it cannot take full responsibility for the misunderstanding or misrepresentation of sexuality. Indeed, magazine covers, various advertisements, websites, and television programs are viewed by the millions, resulting in representations that are expected by consumers. Yet, they do not necessarily depict reality; only soap opera stars have sex with their husband's sons, becoming pregnant with twins by both men in some bizarre yet plausible way. In addition, the average woman is not a size four like every model in the pages of a magazine. Nor does everyone discuss sex as liberally or as frequently as radio shock jocks. Nevertheless, the television and radio remain turned on, and the magazines sell.

It is possible that audiences live vicariously through these sexual mediums, knowing their lives will never be like those in soap operas; but in living that way, they are promoting those mediums as acceptable, and in many instances, as normal. Normalcy, however, does have standards. In a perfect world, a person would not become involved in sexual activity until he or she was mentally, emotionally, and physically prepared to do so. However, life as a teenager is rarely perfect, and peer pressure, outside influences like the media, and curiosity about changing bodies create an inherent mystique about sex. When the media continuously references sex as fun, popular, and normal, anyone who is not sexually active feels left out and, oftentimes, abnormal.

Sexuality-Based Media

Some media outlets use a variety of tactics to teach responsibility and confidence, but most do not. Indeed, the media that many children are exposed to encourage behaviors that degrade women, suggest provocative displays of physical interaction, and belittle the confidence required to "just say no." Kammayer, et al. (1994) identify three ways that sexual activities are characterized by American culture:

* Depersonalized:

* Sexual acts and sexual partners are treated as though they are unimportant (Schur, 1988, as cited in Kammayer, et al., 1994, p. 200)

* Commercialized:

* Sex is bought and sold, just like any other commodity in the marketplace

* Americans are accustomed to purchasing their recreation and sex is seen by many as a form of recreation

* Includes the sale of sexually oriented clothing and other sexual paraphernalia that are widely advertised and displayed

* In dating situations, when males pay for meals and entertainment, there is often the implicit assumption that the females owe something in return (p. 200-201)

* Coercive and aggressive:

* Surveys have shown that one-fourth to one-half of all women will experience rape or attempted rape in their lifetimes (Schur, 1988, p. 140, as cited in Kammayer, et al., p. 202).

It is unclear what came first in the formation of sexuality-based media. Did society become used to sexual references and the media opted to make it a marketing tool? Or, did the media slowly introduce images of sexuality and audiences became conditioned to it? It may be that the conditioning toward and the promotion of sexuality as mainstream happened concurrently. Regardless, the consequences of the conditioning remain the same. If sex is seen as purely physical--promoted by sexy pictures in magazines, steamy plots on television shows, and scantily clad women in music videos--rather than emotional--in real-life relationships--young men and women may mature accustomed to sex being a minor detail in their lives.

Teenagers & the Media

Some adolescents will talk to their parents. However, many will turn to their peers. Some may even depend on books, but most will gather information from various media sources. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey released in 2010, American children ages 8 to 18 spend, on average, approximately seven and a half hours every day using electronic devices such as smart phones (Kaiser, 2010). Given that American children and adolescents tend to multitask their use of media content, an average of 11 hours of media content is packed into that timeframe (Lewin, 2010).

Considering the breakdown of a twenty-four hour day for an average teenager (eight hours for sleep; seven hours in school; eight hours of media influence), there may not be much time for conversations with parents. What is more important than the lack of time to talk with parents should be the enormous power media sources have on the average teen.

According to Girls Incorporated, teens may rely on the media for information because what insights they do get from adults are not necessarily helpful:

"Two-thirds (64 percent) believe that adults tell teenagers things 'when it's too late.' More than half (57 percent) indicate that adults discuss things that fail to address the situations teenagers actually face. More than one in four girls (27 percent) says she wants more information on how girls get pregnant. About one in three wants more information about where to get (35 percent) and how to use (40 percent) different kinds of birth control methods. Half (50 percent) want more information on how to prevent AIDS or other STDs" (Girls Incorporated, "Girls' Bill of Rights," accessed July 2, 2008).

It is not clear here what is told to teens "too late," but it is possible those criteria may be directed toward physical development, which, especially for young girls, happens earlier than most people want to think. These changes by nature instill curiosity about sexuality. Without honest input from parents, though, adolescents will find information in other ways that may be inaccurate or biased.

Further Insights: The Media

Magazines & Teens

One way to settle that curiosity is to read magazines that specialize in the sexual matters of teenagers such as Seventeen. "Adolescent girls cite magazines as significant sources of sexual information that are as meaningful a source as their parents" (Treise & Gotthoffer 2002; Walsh-Childers et al. 2002, as cited in Medley-Rath, 2007, p. 25). Medley-Rath examined the advice column of Seventeen for almost ten years trying to determine if teens reading the magazine would gain clear-cut information about sexuality based on the contents of the column. As the column's format is anonymous, based on letters sent by readers, it may be easier for teens to ask Seventeen rather than their parents when questions about sex arise, especially those of an explicit nature.

For example, the following question and response were printed in Seventeen in December of 1995 (p. 46).

Reader: Questions losing her virginity as her boyfriend's penis was "partially inside her vagina."

Seventeen: "There's no textbook definition of sex … You are right that, technically speaking, penetration pretty much equals sex. For your boyfriend, though, it may not qualify unless he has an orgasm" (Medley-Rath, 2007, p 39).

Medley-Rath notes that in this exchange, "sex is defined [for girls] based on penetration but for boys it might only count if he orgasms" (p. 30). An anxious teen trying to determine one of the most important questions of her life might find this response confusing. If initial ejaculation represents the epic moment for boys, do they lose their virginity through masturbation (self or mutual) or though oral sex? This was not addressed during the nine-year research study conducted by Medley-Rath; the researcher notes that the lack of such information suggests that boys get to decide when they lose their virginity while girls have that decision made for them (p. 39).

Likewise, if an adolescent inquires about gay, lesbian, or alternative sexual acts, Medley-Rath found that he or she was provided the same information that was provided to heterosexual inquiries: virginity (for girls) is lost when a penis penetrates a vagina. This communicates to readers that the important event of losing one's virginity can only happen to girls who have intercourse with boys. It also communicates that intercourse (vaginal penetration with a penis) is normal. According to Medley-Rath,

"Teen magazines present heterosexual sexual behaviors as normative (Carpenter 1998; Currie 1999; Jackson 1999, as cited in Medley-Rath, p. 25) … Heteronormative virginity loss is placed on a pedestal compared to non-heteronormative virginity loss, even though individuals may have other sexual experiences they consider as important as intercourse" (Medley-Rath, p. 27).

Adolescence is difficult enough. To have feelings that are not discussed by a magazine that is supposed to support teen girls may have a devastating effect. Yet, in the culture of Seventeen, that has not seemed to be a concern; heteronormative ideals have continued to be espoused by the magazine in the twenty-first century. On the other hand, Medley-Rath did note that Seventeen was clear to stress that abstinence is the only way to avoid sexually transmitted infections (August 1989, p. 172). Conversely, Seventeen never supplied an official definition of abstinence for its readers (p. 34). Nor did the magazine discuss the medical determination of a broken hymen with regard to virginity loss in girls within the nine years Medley-Rath studied its column.

Magazines & Adults

Seventeen was created to reach females ages 13 to 18; Cosmopolitan and its Australian contemporary, Cleo, were created for female readers ages 18 to 34. Cosmo is the most widely read women's lifestyle magazine globally (McCleneghan, 2003, as cited in Farvid & Braun, 2006, p. 298), and therefore the information within the magazine reaches (and influences) millions of people. Farvid & Braun (2006) conducted an examination much like Medley-Rath's to determine how sexuality has been approached in these two adult magazines. Farvid & Braun looked at the portrayal of male sexuality and how it conditions female sexuality (both overtly and covertly) from issue to issue (p. 296). They conclude:

"The focus on men is particularly relevant because, in a heteronormative world, male and female sexualities are constructed simultaneously. Therefore, although previous examinations of constructions of femininity/female sexuality in magazines have been useful, they are only partially complete, as female (hetero) sexuality is also constructed through the magazines' accounts of male (hetero) sexuality" (Farvid & Braun, 2006, p. 298).

The research was based on six issues of both magazines from January to June 2002 (p. 298), and the data is consistent with that of the Seventeen study. Sexuality (for both men and women) was portrayed exclusively as heterosexual (Jackson, 1996; McLoughlin, 2000, as cited in Farvid & Braun, p. 299). Furthermore, while there were a number of incidences in which women were portrayed as being confident and independent,

"…women were overwhelmingly represented as wanting/ needing men in their lives and ultimately seeking (monogamous) long-term relationships with men; this was often situated as the desired outcome from a new date/sexual encounter…[Furthermore, w]omen were constantly depicted as ultimately looking for their 'Mr Right' (who was presumed to exist for all women)… [and] men were implicitly located as the underlying source of women's fulfilment, security, and happiness. The magazines rarely considered a woman's life without a man … Men were rarely represented as 'needing' women in the same manner, and their presumed full autonomy and independence was something women implicitly still do not possess, nor should they desire it" (p. 299-300).

As a publication created for women, what men want in and outside of the bedroom was the focus from month to month. In addition, women "giving" men what they want was also the focus in that advice (sometimes from men), provided for readers to best meet the (primarily sexual) needs of the men in their lives. This information was provided based on the assumption that women did not already have it--or could not figure it out on their own. Furthermore, it was clear within the magazines that what men want was their primary concern and should also be the primary concern for women (Farvid & Braun, 2006, p. 300). Of concern is the fact that interviews from men were expanded upon by the magazine editors as though what the men said was gospel. One man described being controlled by his "groin" as though the biology of his body was responsible for his actions; he could not help being a creature of sexual desire (p. 301). Farvid & Braun note how dangerous this concept can be as it "can function to represent male sexuality as not only needy/driven, but also as uncontrollable, which potentially shifts the responsibility of certain sexual actions (such as infidelity/cheating [or sexual assaults]) away from the man" (p. 301).

When articles entitled "Guy talk: Is there any man totally cheat-proof?," which include quotes from men, are juxtaposed to one advertisement after another selling products to hamper the aging process, it should not be a mystery what message women are supposed to take from these publications (Cosmopolitan, January 2002, as cited in Farvid & Braun, 2007, p. 302)....

(The entire section is 6312 words.)