Portrayal of sex in entertainment media negatively affects healthy relationships

Shae Caragher, Staff Writer

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It’s 2008 and you’re watching a family movie with the parents. Suddenly, you’re blinded by your mother’s palm, shielding you from the horror of two characters kissing. Characters kissing in a movie used to be extreme cause for concern, but entertainment media since has pushed its limits in portraying sex far beyond the implication of sex or partially censored nudity and innuendos. The excess of sex and porn-resembling media in everyday film and television is damaging to the mind, healthy and authentic relationships, and views towards women as well as men. 

The amount of sex and nudity shown in film and television the past decade has drastically increased. While some claim that the increase of sexually explicit content in the media is liberating or  empowering, studies show that exposure to sexual content is linked to more violent sex, as well as long term sexual socialization developmental issues. According to one study, “in 2005, more than two-thirds of television programs contained sexual content …” In my own experience, while watching a pilot episode of a 48-minute-long TV show, 24 minutes of it consisted of extreme nudity, violent sexual encounters, and full frontal shots of genitalia. With sexually graphic content now easily accessible through Netflix, TV shows, and film, the ability to self-censor is becoming increasingly difficult.

The act of safe and consensual sex in and of itself is not bad, but the way the entertainment industry portrays sex is incredibly damaging not only to our minds and development, but also how we view ourselves and others. A study from 2014 found a correlation between watching unprotected sex on screen and having unprotected sex in reality. Another study found that the number of women who have underwent a labiaplasty has increased by 40% between 2015 and 2016. The more a certain “look” or ideal, such as breast size and shape, penis size, violent or roleplaying sex, and unprotected sex, is displayed on screen, the more likely it is for viewers to view themselves in a certain light or model their own sex lives after what they see on screen.

The way that sex and sexual encounters are now displayed in media reinforces certain stereotypes for both men and women. One study states, “Within North American media, the dominant sexual script expects men to push sexual relationships, prioritize sex and pleasure over emotion, treat women as sexual objects, and reject homosexual feelings or ‘feminine’ behavior.” These notions are  normalized and expected to play out in individuals’ sex lives. Women are also, “expected to … act sexually passive, use their bodies and looks to attract men, prioritize emotions and commitments over sex, and minimize their own desire.” There is a gross disparity between sexual expectations for men and women, which deepens the negative and damaging stereotypes between them in sexual relationships. 

Additionally, the higher consumption of sexually explicit content in media is correlated with misogynistic attitudes towards women. According to a 2017 study, “Sexually objectifying portrayals of women appear in 52% of magazine advertisements … More than 100 studies have revealed links between young people’s exposure to objectifying content and their objectification of women.” The increased exposure to sexually objectifying content leads to more compliance with and tolerance of sexual harassment, interpersonal violence, body dissatisfaction, and violent sexual fantasies. 

Modern sex in media is shown to be as common or normalized as a handshake. The consequences of unsafe sex are rarely shown in media, leaving those who do not have proper sexual education susceptible to unwanted pregnancies and STIs. Violent sex displayed as passionate love making leads to a normalization of forceful sexual encounters. Because of the expectations for men and women to behave in a typically a dominant-submissive manner, the ability for healthy and mutually respectful sexual partnerships is increasingly difficult to maintain. 

While we all are able to choose what TV shows and films we watch, it is more and more challenging to find media that highlights healthy intimacy and positive sexual relationships, or even media that doesn’t contain any sex at all. It is important to understand that sex so often portrayed in media does not correlate with reality.