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Monkey See, Monkey Do (and by “Do” We Mean “Have Sex”)

Recently, we reviewed research that indicates portrayals of sex in pop culture (e.g., movies, TV) influence young adults’ attitudes toward sex and “hookup” behavior. Soon-to-be-published research1 in the journal Psychological Science has more to add on the topic. Researchers surveyed over 1200 adolescents aged 12-14 throughout the U.S. by telephone and followed their sexual activity over a period of about 6 years. They found that more exposure to sex in popular movies (e.g., American Pie) at a young age (before 16) was associated with an earlier “sexual debut.” In other words, the more teens were exposed to sex in movies, the younger they were when they first started having sex.

The authors explain this by suggesting that movies give “permissive and risky sexual messages1 to young viewers. In other words, when teenagers watch movies with sex, they absorb the subtle message that sex at a young age is OK. Other variables that played a role in having an early sexual debut: a) having a TV in the bedroom, b) having a divided household (parents split up), and c) being a guy (male teens were more influenced by movies than female teens, and had sex at an earlier age regardless of media influence). 

The rates for sexual activity in this study are consistent with what we already know—overall, most teenagers are sexually active (over 60% in this sample) and of these sexually active teens, most are older than 16 (85% in this sample). Additionally, most of the sexually active teens in this sample reported between 1 and 4 sexual partners (which suggests they’re not turning into hardcore “sex addicts”).

Although the study clearly demonstrates media effects, it isn’t necessarily the case that exposure to sex in movies causes early sexual debut. The researchers looked at what we call a mediator variable (another variable that helps explain why 2 other variables are connected – for example, the link between high temperature in the summer and drinking lots of water is “mediated” by feeling thirsty). In this case, sensation-seeking2 teens are more likely to seek thrills and adventures and are—as you’d expect—more likely to try having sex. Risk-taking behavior in general (not just in the context of sex) increases throughout adolescence (e.g., experimenting with alcohol or cigarette smoking as well). This study found that change in sensation-seeking partially explained the link between media exposure to sex and early sexual debut. In other words, exposure to sex in movies was associated with having more change in sensation-seeking personality in adolescence, which then was associated with earlier sexual debut [See this post for another example of a study with “mediation”].

It’s important to note that the authors calculated the degree of sexual content in movies by counting the number of seconds in each film containing instances of sexual behavior, which they defined as anything from “heavy kissing” to intercourse (and I’m not sure everyone would define sex as kissing). The authors also acknowledged that they did not examine other variables that might have played a role in teens’ sexual behavior—for example, parents’ and close friends’ attitudes toward sex. Maybe parents’ “permissive” attitudes toward sex are what cause young teens to watch movies with sexual content and also cause early sexual debut.

In the Discussion section of the paper, the authors made a bold claim: teenagers’ access to media with sexual content should be restricted in order to delay their sexual activity (and protect them from potential negative consequences):

Our results suggest that restricting adolescents’ MSE [movie sexual exposure] would delay their sexual debut and also reduce their engagement in risky sexual behaviors later in life. This strategy could attenuate the direct influence of media on adolescents’ sexual behavior by limiting the acquisition of risky sexual scripts…” 1

In closing, I think we need more discussion about this issue, and whether it’s appropriate or prudent to limit teens’ exposure to sex in TV and movies. This study design did not assess or evaluate this course of action (recommended by the study authors), so it doesn’t allow for definitive conclusions on whether it would be effective. Such limiting tactics might help the goal of reducing risky sexual activity, or they might backfire, or have no result. We need further research on this kind of intervention, to see if attempting to control what kinds of movies young teens watch actually does make a difference in their sexual behavior. But the findings certainly provide food for thought.

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1O’Hara, R. E., Gibbons, F. X., Gerrard, M., Li, Z. & Sargent, J. D. (in press). Greater exposure to sexual content in popular movies predicts earlier sexual debut and increased sexual risk taking. Psychological Science.

2Zuckerman, M. (1979). Sensation seeking: Beyond the optimal level of arousal. Lawrence Erlbaum, Hillsdale, NJ.

Dr. Dylan Selterman - Science of Relationships articles Website/CV
Dr. Selterman's research focuses on secure vs. insecure personality in relationships. He studies how people dream about their partners (and alternatives), and how dreams influence behavior. In addition, Dr. Selterman studies secure base support in couples, jealousy, morality, and autobiographical memory.

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