The long-held belief about representations of sex in the media – in film, soap operas, magazines, music videos and the like – has generally been one of uniformity.
Paul J. Wright, a University of Arizona doctoral student in the communication department, is challenging that belief.
"There is a tradition (in academia) of studying entertainment media content that tends to lump all media outlets together, based on the assumption that their messages about social life are similar" Wright said.
"But," he added, "the media environment has diversified exponentially and there is reason to believe we should question the assumption of uniform sexual portrayals."
He noted research that has found depictions of how rewarding married sex is tends to vary across mediums, as do portrayals of individuals who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
"What we're doing with this research is saying that depending on what kids are watching and reading, the outcomes may vary," said Wright, who earned the inaugural Edward Donnerstein Magellan Circle Graduate Fellowship award during the fall of 2009 for his work.
However, in his research alongside Dale Kunkel, a UA communication professor, Wright has determined that two issues remain constant regardless of genre: Sex is generally portrayed as risk and responsibility-free and is also heavily gendered based on heterosexual stereotypes.
Recently, two of his articles on the topic of sexual socialization were published. "Sexual Socialization Messages in Mainstream Entertainment Mass Media: A Review and Synthesis" was published in the journal" Sexuality and Culture" in November. Another article he authored, "Father-child Sexual Communication in the United States: A Review and Synthesis," was published in an October issue of the Journal of Family Communication.
"In terms of media sex, even though it is just as prevalent and it certainly has been around as long as, say, media violence, there hasn't been as much research until very recently," said Wright, whose minor is family studies and human development.
Wright and Kunkel have worked to critically evaluate what is known about youth sexual behaviors and ways that media exposure may influence their chances of engaging in sex.
Given the prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancy among the younger population, the public health consequences of sexual media exposure could be dramatic, both said.
Wright said that recent research shows that mass media exposure "is an important predictor of teens going from never having sex to having sex" and that such exposure may also lead to an increased number of sexual partners and a decline in the use of contraception.
Prior to the early 2000s, youth sexual behavior studies tended to focus only on interpersonal and demographic variables, such as income, academic achievement, family structure, parenting styles and peer relations, Wright noted.
But the research landscape has changed in recent years.
"Media and sexual socialization didn't get much attention until about 10 years ago, largely because it was considered too sensitive to explore," said Kunkel, Wright's adviser, who also has been involved in numerous studies since 1997 that have evaluated sexual content on television.
In 1997, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation commissioned a report to evaluate how to study the effects, if any, entertainment media has on the sexual decision-making and behaviors of viewers. Ed Donnerstein, former dean of UA's College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, was a key figure in drafting the report.
Then, in 2001, the U.S. Office of the Surgeon General issued a "call to action" in response to growing concerns about public health threats related to poor sexual health, resulting in sexually transmitted diseases, unintended pregnancies and rape. The office also noted that each year, more than 104,000 children are reportedly victims of sexual abuse. This report drew increased attention to the issue of sexual health.
Additionally, the National Institutes of Health has begun elevating funding support for institutions investigating the effects representations of sex in the media have on the sexual behavior of young Americans.
Kunkel said Wright's research is promising and could aid in movements toward policy reform.
"What we should be doing, and what Wright is doing, is an overall assessment about what conclusions we can draw across a growing number of studies in this area," Kunkel said. "That's the type of research that influences debates in Congress and regulatory agencies with more force."
Implications of the research exist for policymakers, media organizations, researchers and parents, both noted.
"While media messages regarding precocious and unsafe sex are fairly stable across genres, I am cautioning my colleagues to remember that other types of sexual socialization messages are more diverse. You have to be careful about assuming portrayals are uniform," Wright said.
"Much of the solution lies, of course, in the hands of adults to say it is our responsibility to protect the youth of our society from exposure to media content that may disrupt their healthy human development, whether it is violence, smoking, illicit drug use or risky sex."
By La Monica Everett-Haynes, University Communications January 28, 2010