From “Fifty Shades of Gray” to “Orange is the New Black,” it’s hard to find media that is not about, or at least associated with, sex. Even though it’s pure fiction, these scenes can impact real life ideas about sex.
Much research shows because young adults often have limited sex education, they often turn to media to learn about sex. Ashton Speno, assistant professor of mass communications, teaches about this in some of her classes.
“If [adolescents] are not able to get information from their parents or their school or any other organization … they are going to find other sources, and so a lot of times they will turn to the internet, and of course we see depictions of sexuality on TV and film,” Speno said. “Because there’s a lack of information from other sources, these media portrayals can carry a significant weight in shaping the conceptions about sexuality for viewers.”
As the popularity of streaming services rises — Screenrant.com reported the market for streaming services grew by 34 percent in 2020 — sex may be become all the more prevalent in shows and film. Gary Hicks, professor of mass communications, said issues of regulation across different platforms may impact the amount of sex seen on screen.
“Anything that is internet-based for streaming, the Supreme Court ruled a number of years ago that it holds First Amendment rights that are basically the same as print, so government interference can be a problem,” Hicks said. “Now for broadcast, … the [Federal Communications Commission] has two major powers: one is granting licenses for stations, and the other is content. While they have allowed more and more and more graphic sexuality to be shown, they have also — and I think this reflects the prudish puritanical attitudes of the American public — are much, much more opposed to showing sexual situations than anything else.”
The sexual encounters seen in TV and film often follow what is called the “heterosexual script.” Speno, who researches gender and the media’s messages about sexualization, said this script forms gendered double standards.
“If you’re a teen and you’re watching most any TV show, if the female character is going to hook up with somebody, then she’s a ‘slut,’ and that’s how people are going to treat her in the episode. If she decides she’s not going to hook up with somebody, then she’s a ‘prude,’” Speno said. “So her virtue is tied to her sexuality, where this isn’t the case for the male characters … they’re proving their manhood and their masculinity by hooking up.”
Speno’s research on adolescent sexting behaviors shows how this double standard translates into real life.
“My research has found that girls who are self-objectifying, or viewing themselves as an object for others to evaluate, are more likely to participate in sexting,” Speno said. “So, it’s kind of showing that they’re getting this idea from the culture that the way to gain value in the culture is to get the sexual attention of others, especially men, … whereas boys will want to participate in sexting not to objectify themselves, but their motivation is that they’re kind of proving their masculinity. They want to collect pictures from multiple girls or women and kind of brag to their buddies, or show their buddies the pictures and kind of demonstrate their manhood so to speak.”
Speno said the heterosexual script also genders the very goal of sexual relationships.
“We see the message that men should avoid commitment in these TV shows and films, that they should focus on having sex with multiple partners and avoid relationships, whereas women seek relationships,” Speno said. “So, you see the problem there: If the media is saying, ‘It needs to be between a male and a female,’ well, we have the males that are avoiding commitment and the women who are seeking it.”
The heterosexual script leaves LGBTQ+ relationships out. While the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation reported a slight increase in LGBTQ characters seen in major studio films from 2018 to 2019, this does not mean that the portrayals are positive or representative of each group under the LGBTQ+ umbrella.
Hicks, whose research focuses on how media impacts marginalized communities, said profit often plays into this.
“[For] media institutions … the bottom line is to make money, and they’re going to sell what makes them money,” Hicks said. “While they have done some remarkably progressive things, in terms of allowing women to show they control their own sexuality … and [has] allowed the LGBT community some visibility, ultimately these media organizations are going to show them in ways that are going to draw in viewers, and the ways that they do that is to make them typically the most titillating and, sadly, sometimes that’s the most stereotypical way.”
Elza Ibroscheva, associate provost and mass communications professor, researches how women are portrayed in media and depictions of sexuality in Eastern European countries. Ibroscheva said LGBTQ+ characters may be confined to certain genres.
“I think we only allow this into certain genres like a comedic series so therefore it is a lot less problematic for us to digest and sort of relate [to] or laugh at certain scenarios … like slipping into the disguise of comedy because we could then say, ‘Well, it’s OK because it’s comical, it’s not your neighbor next door doing these things,’” Ibroscheva said.
Still, Ibroscheva is optimistic that the future will bring better representations.
“I think there is a chance to change this with the influx of new fresh blood into script writing and through all these streaming platforms that are constantly looking for new ideas and shows that will connect to people who will want to watch them, so in some ways if we show we are interested in this type of content, the shows will eventually become reality,” Ibroscheva said.
Apart from introducing more sexually diverse characters, Hollywood is also having another reckoning. As a result of the #MeToo movement, trained sex scene choreographers called intimacy coordinators are becoming essential fixtures on film and TV show sets.
“To me, this shows a real maturation of the industries of film and TV,” Hicks said. “Instead of just a director who knows how to make a movie saying, ‘OK, now just go make out’ or, ‘Go do this or that,’ which can be very uncomfortable when you have 40 people around you on a set, it has become very commonplace today — and is becoming much more so — to have these professionally trained counselors come onto a set …, find out what the director wants, and then they choreograph it like a dance to preserve the greatest amount of respect for the actors doing it.”
Sex in TV and film is not going away, and may still cross into problematic territory. This begs the question, How can we make things better for the next generation? Speno said it’s all about taking control of the narrative.
“A storyline that we see on TV is the perfect entryway into a discussion because it’s this hypothetical situation that’s not involving your kid, so I think it’s a really great way to start a discussion like, ‘Oh here’s this story unfolding that we’re watching right now. It seems like this male character is coercing this female character,’” Speno said. “I think that the parents adding in their commentary, while it may not always seem to be welcomed by the teenager, is so much better than saying nothing.”