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Posted 09.29.04

Teen Sex Isn't Consequence Free, Even On Television

Findings Indicate Women's Sexual Esteem Could Be Damaged

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- When teenagers turn on the television during the evening, they are bombarded with scenes of young adults engaged in sexual situations. Previous research has shown that sex on television is virtually free of consequences, such as unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease. However, a new study by a University of Missouri-Columbia researcher found that while there are few physical sexual consequences on television, there are three times as many emotional and social consequences for engaging in sexual activity.

"Researchers have typically defined sexual consequences as ‘physical' and have downplayed the more ubiquitous emotional and social consequences of sex," said Jennifer Aubrey, an MU assistant professor of communication. "Adolescents are just as concerned with these types of issues. In many instances, teens are more concerned about the maintenance of their sexual reputations, about uncertainty and confusion about their bodies, and about their emotional relationships with their partners than with the physical dangers of sex."

Aubrey examined 84 episodes of one-hour shows that appeared between 8 and 11 p.m. (EST) on ABC, NBC, CBS, UPN or WB. The characters Aubrey looked at ranged in age from 12 to 22. Of those 84 episodes, 90 percent contained at least one sexual reference and, on average, contained eight references per hour of programming. If only physical consequences had been examined, Aubrey would have looked at only 5 percent of the 676 scenes containing a sexual reference. However, when she included the emotional and social consequences, the number jumped to 32 percent.

Aubrey took 220 of the scenes involving a negative consequence and found that 75 percent were "emotional/social," with the characters experiencing such things as humiliation, rejection, guilt, anxiety and disappointment, and only 17.5 percent were physical. The other 7.5 percent were punitive in nature, meaning the characters were punished for their actions.

One of the findings that was surprising, Aubrey said, was the extreme lack of positive consequences found. Of the 676 scenes Aubrey examined, only 4 percent contained a positive consequence. Aubrey also found that in all scenes where a negative consequence was portrayed, the sexual activity was initiated by female characters 60 percent of the time and by male characters 40 percent of the time.

Aubrey said that one of the implications of her study is that if adolescent girls identify with sexually punished characters, their own sense of sexual esteem could be reduced, and this, in turn, could be disempowering for them when making healthy sexual decisions.

Aubrey's study recently was published in the academic journal, Sex Roles.


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