The (Sexual) Revolution Will Be Televised

The FCC crackdown in the aftermath of Janet Jackson’s nipple slip may not have been entirely misguided. A new study finds that exposure to sexuality in the media can, in fact, make teenagers more likely to have sex at an early age. Researchers surveyed 1,017 teens in fourteen North Carolina middle schools, interviewing students between the ages of twelve and fourteen about their media-consumption habits and their sexual activities (or lack thereof). The researchers then performed what must have been a fairly stimulating “content analysis” of the 264 television shows, magazines, songs, and movies that were mentioned by more than 10 percent of the students, quantifying the portrayals and discussions of “pubertal development, romantic relationships, body exposure or nudity, sexual innuendo, touching and kissing and sexual intercourse.” Using these data, and controlling for a variety of factors, the study found that the students between the ages of twelve and fourteen who enjoyed the largest “Sexual Media Diet” (SMD) were the most likely to engage in sexual activity within the next two years—but only if they were white. Among black teens, there was no correlation between SMD and sexual activity, even though black teens tended to be more sexually experienced, and to spend more time consuming media, than their white peers. The authors note that teens tend to base their sexual behavior on perceptions of their peers’ activity, and suggest that a hypersexualized media may function as “a kind of sexual superpeer that encourages them to be sexually active.” For black teenagers, however, they speculate that the power of “real peer groups that promote early and frequent sexual activity”—particularly the cultural pressure on “urban black males who are encouraged to achieve status by having as many sexual partners as possible”—may be stronger than it is for white teens.

—“Sexy Media Matter: Exposure to Sexual Content in Music, Movies, Television, and Magazines Predicts Black and White Adolescents’ Sexual Behavior,” Jane D. Brown et al., Pediatrics

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