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The Media Portrayals of Sexuality and Its Effects Essay

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The paper discusses media portrayals of sexuality and how they affect people’s behaviors and perceptions of sex and sexuality. It begins by acknowledging the significance of media in modern life and then proceeds to highlight how this technology is saturated with sexual content. The paper argues that this exposure to media sexuality has an effect on the individual. It highlights the two sexual development theories supporting this view, which are cultivation theory and practice model.

A number of the negative effects of consumption of sexual material from the media are discussed. They include negative emotional experiences for women due to pervasive objectification, perpetuation of negative stereotypes, and the promotion of sexual activity among the youth. The positive impacts include the promotion of sexual health, change in attitude towards non-heterosexual sexual behaviors and creation of sexual awareness. The paper concludes by noting that while the focus has been on the detrimental effects of sexual content, media presentation of sexuality can play a positive role in human development.


Popular media is one of the most powerful technologies in the world and it plays a significant role in societal life. The media informs people’s views about the world and it is likely to influence how an individual perceives the world around him. A characteristic feature of contemporary media is the frequent portrayals of sexuality. Carroll (2012) declares that sexuality is present in almost all media and the entertainment media seems to be almost obsessed by sexual imagery.

The saturation of sexual content in mass media is based on the opinion that “sex sells”. Researchers suggest that sexuality in the media has an effect on the sexual beliefs and behaviors of individual. This paper will show that while the focus has been on the negative impacts of media portrayal of sexuality, sexual content on the media can have a positive effect on people’s behaviors and perception of sex and sexuality.

The Media and Sexuality

Carroll (2012) observes that since the early 1990s, representations in the mass media have become more explicitly erotic. The images presented by the media today are explicitly or subtly sexual. According to Ward, Day and Epstein (2006), popular media is saturated with sexual content and imagery, which appears in over 80% of the programs popular among the youth.

Sexual content appear in various forms including nudity, suggestive dressing or language, flirting, and even scenes of sexual intercourse. Various forms of independent media are used to portray sexuality. Visual media portray sexual behavior using various characters in popular shows and movies. Strasburger (2008) observes that the scripts of most TV shows are full of sexual innuendos and jokes. Movies are full of sex scenes and Strasburger (2008) declares that 80% of movies shown on Cable TV contain sexual content that often involves unmarried couples or prostitutes.

Sexual content is also presented through advertisements on print and visual media. Advertisements seek to excite the audience about the product and to achieve this sexual images are used. Carroll (2012) remarks that most advertisements use sexual images or suggestions to provoke or entice the viewer even when there is no relationship between the product being advertised and sex.

Sexuality is also depicted in other media including music videos and video games. Over the past two decades, music videos have emerged as a form of media where sexuality is even more pervasive. Aubrey, Hopper and Mbure (2011) single out the music industry as one of the avenues that have heavily capitalized on the sexualization of women. Female performers and dancers in music videos are often shown skimpily dressed or even nude. These individuals are depicted as hypersexual and promiscuous sexual objects. In video games, most of the female characters are sexualized and objectified. Carroll (2012) note that the female characters often have attractive bodies and revealing clothes.

An important point in the media and sexuality issue is that the media does not always convey ideal messages about sexuality. According to Ward et al. (2006), there is a domination of a recreation orientation to sexuality in popular media. Instead of promoting sexuality within the context of a romantic relationship, sexual activities often take place for recreational purposes.

The media idealizes the concept of fun and consequence free sexual activity. Another significant aspect of media sexuality is that it promotes stereotypical sexual roles. In most cases, women are featured as mere sexual object. In the media context, the value of women is based solely on their physical appearance and their ability to attract men. On the other hand, men are depicted as primarily sexual creatures whose main objective is to seek and engage in intercourse with women.

Arguably, the single most important reason for the saturation of our media with sexual content is due to the understanding that sex sells. The public continues to be fascinated with sex and there is an unquenchable appetite for sexual content. Carroll (2012) declares that the naked body is still “a primary means of selling products and improving ratings” and this had promoted blatant portrayals of sexuality by the media.

Due to this saturation with sexual content and imagery, it is widely accepted that popular media plays a critical role in the sexual socialization of American youth as well as the development of sexual values and behavior in the general population. Typically, parents would like to be a key source of information for their children about sexuality. However, this has not been the case and in modern times, the media has become the most important resource on sexual information for many youths. Strasburger (2008) observes that long before parents deem it appropriate to discuss sex with their children, the media will have already provided most of the information on the topic to the children.

Theories on Sexual Development and the Media

A number of theories have been proposed to explain the manner in which media depictions of sexuality affect the viewer. One traditional theory is the cultivation theory, which proposes that the more time a person spends consuming media the more likely he/she is to accept its fictional images as reality (Ward et al., 2006). According to this theory, people are at risk of adopting the beliefs and idea about sex portrayed in mass media.

Regularly viewing the repeated portrayals of glamorous, casual, risk free sex might cause the audience to adopt similar beliefs about sex in the real world. Ward et al. (2006) are careful to note that the cultivation theory does not imply that frequent media consumers are “mere passive sponges that allow their attitudes and beliefs to be twisted and altered by all the media they consume” (p.60). Rather, the theory suggests that media consumption reinforces existing attitudes and makes them easily accessible.

A contemporary theory explaining the role of media in sexual development is the media practice model. This theory advances that while there exists a correlation between the consumption of sexual content and the development of sexual identities, there exists no evidence of causality (Watson & McKee, 2013).

As such, the model suggests that it could be that young people who are starting to develop sexually are more interested in sexual content in the media and therefore look for it. The media practice model considers that there is a divergence in the selection of, exposure to, and interpretation of media content among consumers. Carroll (2012) confirms that media consumers access the media with different needs and motivations and what they take away from the media is influenced by why they came to it.

Impact of Media Portrayal of Sexuality

Since sex is a common theme on mass media, it can be expected that this will have an effect on the sexual behavior and attitude of individuals. Some of the effects are negative while others are positive.

Negative Impacts

Media has contributed to the perpetuation of negative stereotypes regarding sexuality. The presentation of women as sex objects has led to increased objectification of females by their male counterparts in the real world. Due to media influence, some men develop the idea that women are primarily sex symbols whose primary reason for existing is to please men. Research indicates that the representation of sexuality by the entertainment media has had a detrimental effect on black women (lacey, 2008).

The media is full of exploitative images of black women and consumers are used to viewing black women’s bodies objectified and sexualized. Lacey (2008) asserts that the super-sexualized, sexually accessible and sexually deviant mythologies associated with Black bodies are specifically detrimental and demeaning to the black woman. By presenting black women as hypersexual and promiscuous individual, the media helps to propagate negative stereotypes about these women.

The practice of pervasive sexualization and objectification of women in the media leads to negative emotional experiences for most women. The media makes it seem like a woman’s worth is solely based on her physical appearance. It then goes on to present a picture of what the ideal physical form of a woman should be. The media has perpetrated the rigid standards of beauty that are typified by slim women with perfect skin and beautiful hair. This leads to high levels of body dissatisfaction and lower self-esteem among women who do not possess this supposed ideal physical form constantly promoted by the media.

The objectification of women also makes it seem like men are constantly judging women based on their physical appearance (Calogero, 2004). Due to exposure to this concept from the media, women develop the idea that their bodies are on constant display to the male audience and this creates an over conscious to physical appearance by women. Calogero (2004) declares that women experience anxiety about their bodies and body shame since they are conditioned by the media to always anticipate a male gaze. Media portrayals of sexuality therefore lead to negative emotional experiences for many women.

The media has been blamed for promoting sexual activity especially among the youth since it presents sexual encounters as normative. Strasburger (2008) reveals that frequent exposure to sexually oriented genres may cause younger viewers to overestimate the frequency with which youth sex and extramarital affairs occur. Through exposure to numerous incidents of teenage sex and unmarried intercourse, the youth may develop the notion that “everybody is doing it”.

Strasburger (2008) warns that the media might have a negative impact on sexual behavior since it presents sex as a “casual pastime, a romp in the hay, with little or no consequences” (p.218). The media plays a role in pressuring teenagers and young adults into engaging in sexual activities. Strasburger (2008) explains that through depictions of numerous sexual encounters between teenagers, the media creates the impression that more people in these age groups are having sex than it is in reality.

For this reason, high consumption of media material is directly linked to the overestimation of the number of peers engaging in sexual activities. Due to this faulty perception, teenagers may seek out sex since they presume that everyone is engaging in this activity except them. Researchers have attributed the increased prevalence of teenage sex as well as the decreasing age at first intercourse to sexual content on TV (Strasburger, 2008).

The media conveys unrealistic messages about sexuality that might lead to dissatisfaction in real life encounters. People often view TV program characters and entertainment media personalities as their role models. Watson and McKee (2013) confirm that many youth set relationship ideals based on the media content they consume.

They are likely to emulate their behavior or use them as guides on important issues including sex. Ward et al. (2006) note that frequent viewing of sexually oriented genres such as soap operas and music videos has been associated with dysfunctional beliefs about relationships. Individuals who assume that media portrayals of sexuality are accurate experience significant dissatisfaction in their own experiences since they fall below the standards expected due to media viewing.

Positive Impacts

The media has had a positive effect on the sexual health of individuals since it promotes safe sex practices. Over the last two decades, STIs have emerged as a significant risk to sexually active individuals. The government has invested in many campaigns to raise awareness and educate the public on safe sex. The media has played a huge role in propagating information about sexual health and risks.

Written media provides a good forum to disseminate information on sexual health and development. For example, magazines are deemed valuable sources of advice on sexual issues by the young. Information about sexual health issues is also passed through soap operas and radio dramas. Many sexually active characters in TV programs talk about using protection and the risks posed by unsafe sex.

Through such exchanges, the audience is sensitized on the issue of sexual risks. According to Ward, et al. (2006), many people learn how to talk about safer sex practices with their partner from the media. Strasburger (2008) reveals that according to a national survey on birth control, teenagers indicated that the media was the most important source of information on contraceptives. As such, sexual content disseminated by the media has a positive impact on the sexual development of the media audience.

Media has led to the increase in acceptance of non-heterosexual sexual behaviors. Media is willing to deal with controversial issues such as homosexuality in a frank and more honest manner therefore promoting public discussion on the topic. The media portrayals also lead to a change in negative stereotypes about lesbians and gays that are often based on ignorance.

By bringing minority groups to the spotlight, the media increases public understanding of these groups. Carroll (2012) notes that popular shows such as “Desperate Housewives” and “The L Word” have helped bisexual, lesbian, and gay men become more mainstream on television. Through the portrayals of these non-mainstream sexual behaviors, the media has increased the acceptance of these sexual minorities by the general population.

The media plays a major role in helping people form positive opinions on sexual behavior that are traditionally objectionable to the society. These include contentious topics such as oral sex and masturbation. Masturbation is described by Watson and McKee (2013) as a “normal and healthy part of a person’s sexuality” (p.450).

The authors go on to state that masturbation is the ultimate form of safe sex and in addition to this, it leads to higher levels of sexual self-esteem and sexual satisfaction. In spite of these positive attributes of masturbation, the topic attracts levels of controversy. The many religious and cultural taboos surrounding it have led to a lack of widespread public acceptance of the practice. The mass media offers a platform for individuals to be educated on masturbation and oral sex.

The media offers adolescents and the youth with an opportunity to practice dating norms and ideals through their imagination. Strasburger (2008) declares that the media is the most influential source of sexual information for many people. By observing characters on television or reading magazines, individuals are able to pick up a wide array of information on sexual matters.

The media fills the gain in young people’s sexual education by playing an important educative role that neither parents nor schools are comfortable doing. In addition to this, sexual media content provides a means for young women to try out romantic situations in their imagination and experience a fantasy relationship (Ward, et al., 2006). Through such activities, young girls get to practice sexual behavior in a safe environment where they do not face the concerns or consequences present in real life.

Discussion and Conclusion

The dominant perception of the role of media in sexual development is that it is a negative influence. To some extent, this is a true since the media engages in over-sexualization and the perpetration of stereotypical information for example about non-heterosexual identities (Watson & McKee, 2013). The media also contributes to dissatisfaction due to its unrealistic messages about sexuality.

However, this paper has shown that the media can play a positive role in sexuality. Watson and McKee (2013) acknowledge that there has traditionally been a negative attitude by researchers in sexuality towards the media. However, current research suggests that the entertainment media are in fact an important part of the ecology of sexuality information. The media reaches different demographics and provides its audience with information that they want and in a way that they would like to receive it.

This paper set out to show that sexual content on the media is not solely negative as it can have a positive effect on people’s behaviors and perception of sex and sexuality. It began by recognizing that sexuality is present in almost all media and the entertainment media seems to be almost obsessed by sexual imagery. The paper acknowledged that exposure to sexuality in the media has an effect on the sexual behavior and attitude of individuals.

Some of the positive effects include the promotion of sexual health, change in attitude towards non-heterosexual sexual behaviors and creation of sexual awareness. However, the media also leads to some detrimental impacts including negative emotional experiences for women due to pervasive objectification, perpetuation of negative stereotypes, and the promotion of sexual activity among the youth. The paper has observed that research has traditionally focused on the negative outcomes of media presentation of sexual content. However, from this discussion, it is clear that some positive outcomes are associated with media portrayals of sexuality.


Aubrey, J.S., Hopper, K., & Mbure, W.G. (2011). Check That Body! The Effects of Sexually Objectifying Music Videos on College Men’s Sexual Beliefs. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 55(3), 360–379.

Calogero, R. M. (2004). A Test of Objectification Theory: The Effect of the Male Gaze on Appearance Concerns in College Women. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 28(4), 16–21.

Lacey, A.K. (2008). Authoring the Other: Regarding Race and Gender in a Multicultural Adaptation of the Classic Fairytale “Cinderella”. Arizona: Arizona State University Press.

Strasburger, V. C. (2008). Sexuality and the Media. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Ward, M., Day, K.M., & Epstein, M. (2006). Uncommonly Good: Exploring How Mass Media May Be a Positive Influence on Young Women’s Sexual Health and Development. New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development, 112(1), 57-70.

Watson, A., & McKee, A. (2013). Masturbation and the Media. Sexuality & Culture, 17(3), 449-475.

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