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How Am I Supposed to Know How to be Sex Positive?

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November 12, 2012

This post is part of a series about reproductive justice and the media done in partnership with Women, Action, & the Media.

Increasingly, a culture of fear seems to be pervading the mass media.  In the news, we hear about so many awful things happening in our community that we assume crime is high.  Our response is then to be fearful and precautionary.  In the advertisement industry tries to convince us that we are not satisfied without a certain product, instilling fears of inadequacy.

News and advertising are only two of the many realms of mass media that play on negativity generally. Depictions of sexuality in entertainment media are no exception to media’s negative undercurrent.

While I would love to write a book on sexuality in mass media generally, popular United States movies specifically will be the scope of this post.  Over the past two decades, films have rarely provided positive depictions of sexuality and have lacked safe sex messages.  This is a problem for a number of reasons.

Movies touch a significantly large population of people and have the potential to model and communicate to masses what kinds of sex, sexuality and sexual behaviors are normative in our society.  Research has shown that media does actually influence adolescents’ ideas of appropriate and inappropriate behavior.  That being said, a recent study of portrayals of sex and drugs in the most popular movies of the past 20 years is kind of horrifying.

The authors reviewed 87 movies and four 53 sexual occurrences in 28 of the movies:

“There was only one suggestion of condom use, which was the only reference to any form of birth control. There were no depictions of important consequences of unprotected sex such as unwanted pregnancies, HIV or other STDs. Movies with cannabis (8%) and other non-injected illicit drugs (7%) were less common than those with alcohol intoxication (32%) and tobacco use (68%) but tended to portray their use positively and without negative consequences.”

This study illuminates and exemplifies how rare it is to find a depiction of sexually healthy behavior in popular entertainment today. When sexually healthy behavior is portrayed on screen, it comes along with assumptions about sexual orientation, gender stereotypes and a limited picture of safe sex practices/contraception.
Portrayals of sexuality in movies also tend to reflect a few specific themes:

  1.  Sexual health is embarrassing and humorous.
  2.  Boys are obsessed with obtaining sex and sexual performance.
  3.  Girls are responsible for safe sex and preventative measures.

This theme of boys being obsessed with sex relates to the common (and irritating) saying “boys will be boys.”  Boys are more often than women depicted as overly aggressive, pressuring and sex-driven in sexual situations.  Not only that, but we rarely see boys being chastised for their transgressions – rather undesirable behavior is given a pass (and oftentimes even validated) with the phrase “boys will be boys.”  When a boy just “being a boy” results in an unwanted pregnancy, blame falls on girls for ruining the boys’ fun.

Our society has engrained in us to avoid behavior that could result in STI’s and unwanted pregnancies.  Adolescents, whether we know it or not, are heavily influenced by the messages embedded in our entertainment.  I have yet to see a realistic portrayal of healthy and positive sexuality in a film.  See the problem?

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