Ward, L.M. (1995, October). Talking about sex: Common themes about sexuality in the prime-time television programs children and adolescents view most. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 24(5), 595-615.
A common concern about the impact of television on young viewers is its role as a teacher about sexuality. However, little is known about the specific nature of the sexual messages on the television programs children and adolescents view most.
From the research conducted, three consistent findings have emerged:
- The most common type of sexual activity is typically verbal innuendo, followed by erotic touching, hugging, or kissing.
- The bulk of sexual action and language occurs between unmarried characters, instead of between married characters.
- Reference to sexually transmitted diseases, contraception, and abortion are extremely rare.
The sample used for this analysis were the twelve most popular shows for adolescents ages 12-17 during March/April 1993. The twelve programs, according to their rank, form 1st to 12th are: "Fresh Prince of Bel Air," "Blossom," "Roseanne," "Martin," "The Simpsons," "Beverly Hills 90210," "In Living Color," "Full House," "Hanging with Mr. Cooper," "Home Improvement," "Step by Step," and "Family Matters." For three episodes of each program, all interactions between characters were examined for the presence of verbal statements about sexual issues.
The programs were coded on a number of levels to obtain information about the prevalence of sexual contect in general, and about the frequency with which specific types of messages occurred.
Several findings emerged through the study:
- The programs with the highest number of messages about sexuality across three episodes were "Martin," "Blossom," and "Roseanne."
- The most common theme was that men typically see women as sexual objects and value them based on their physical appearance.
- The second most common theme concerning the male sexual role was that there is a strong link between sex and masculinity.
- Few messages centered on the female sexual role. The most common theme was that women are attracted to specific types of men (half of the messages focused on men’s physical appearance).
- Uncommon were messages that women are passive and indirect, that women are the sexual limit setters, and that there is a link for women between sexuality and virtue.
- In non gender situations the most common themes emphasized a recreational orientation toward sex. Sexual relations were treated as competition, fun, and amusing.
- Women were depicted as aggressive, often making assertive sexual moves, expressing their interest directly.
The sexual messages occuring most frequently depict sexual relations as competitive; males view females as sexual objects and value women by their physical appearance, while masculinity is linked to being sexual. Thus, the notion of males as sexual competitors and females as sexual objects are repeatedly emphasized. Also ranking high in frequency are messages focusing on the roles of communication, sharing, responsibility, and conflict in heterosexual relationships. Messages occurring less frequently include procreational orientation and depictions of females as passive, indirect, sexual limit setters.
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND DISCUSSION
- What said about sexuality on television?
- How do characters typically communicate interest in someone?
- What might partners on TV say to each other to resolve romantic conflict? How is this similar to reality?
Youth workers need to understand how to effectively use modern media to discuss sex issues. Teenagers are exposed to cultural ideals of masculinity, femininity, and physical attractiveness. Male and female adolescents must learn that women are not merely sexual objects, and that there is more to a relationship than physical attractiveness.
Rob Malenich cCYS