Expert Commentary

Risk factors for adolescents from greater exposure to sexual content in movies

2012 study from Dartmouth College published in Psychological Science on sexual content in movies and adolescent sexual behavior.

Kid at the movies (iStock)

A 2009 study reported that more than half of U.S. adolescents ages 14 to 16 relied on some type of media as their primary source of sexual information. Some past research suggests that media exposure has a limited impact on teens’ sexual behavior. But many adults blame sexual content on television and in the movies, resulting in content ratings identifying explicit violent and sexual content and other attempts to manage viewing habits.

In this hypersexualized media culture, navigating the social and sexual pitfalls of adolescence in the United States is no easy feat. The pregnancy rate for teens in the United States, while on the decline, is higher than rates in other industrialized nations, and as of 2009, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that rates of HIV transmission have been increasing for youth aged 15 to 24.

A 2012 study from Dartmouth College published in Psychological Science, “Greater Exposure to Sexual Content in Popular Movies Predicts Earlier Sexual Debut and Increased Sexual Risk Taking,” examined the relationship between sexualized movie content and the sexual behavior of adolescents. The research team coded the sexualized content of more than 500 popular movies released during between 1998 and 2003. They also analyzed data from telephone surveys conducted between 2003 and 2009; these asked randomly selected participants which movies they had seen from a subset of the master list, as well as the age of their first sexual experience (“sexual debut”), their number of sexual partners and the number of times he or she had engaged in sex without using a condom. Participants were also asked questions to determine their level of “sensation seeking,” or “the tendency to seek novel and intense simulation.” The sample was comprised of 611 males (49.8%) and 617 females (50.2%).

Key study findings include:

  • “Watching R-rated movies was associated with … increases in sensation seeking during adolescence,” and a higher level of sensation seeking was correlated with an earlier sexual debut, more sexual partners, and more frequent sex without a condom among both males and females.
  • Higher levels of movie sexual exposure before age 16 predicted riskier sexual behaviors in adulthood.
  • Male and female participants in the study reported sexual debuts at approximately the same age, as well as similar levels of movie sexual exposure (MSE). However, males reported having more sexual partners than females and engaging in sex without a condom more frequently.
  • Many movies do not portray safe sex: 70% of the sexual acts depicted in movies released from 1983 to 2003 occurred between casual partners; 98% lacked any reference to contraception; 89% resulted in no consequences; and only 9% of sexual content in movies contained messages promoting sexual health.

The researchers conclude that restricting adolescents’ MSE exposures would be impractical, and propose enhanced media literacy training to establish more realistic healthy norms of behavior. They also note the sexual behavior of family members and parental attitudes towards sex influence mental models as well, and that many of the higher-risk and minority teens dropped out of the study, possibly skewing outcomes.

A related study, “Effective Communication of Risks to Young Adults: Using Message Framing and Visual Aids to Increase Condom Use and STD Screening,” suggests that adolescent sexual behaviors can be positively influenced by pamphlets with visual materials and detailed information. “Results indicate that gain-framed messages induced greater adherence for prevention behaviors (e.g., condom use), whereas loss-framed messages were more effective in promoting illness-detecting behaviors (e.g., making an appointment with a doctor to discuss about STD screening).”


Keywords: youth, sex, sexuality, entertainment

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