Racy scenes encourage greater sexual activity
By James Peng, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Tuesday, July 24, 2012
Children who watch feature films with more racy scenes tend to engage in sex at a younger age, have more sexual partners and participate in more unsafe sex, according to a study by researchers in a Dartmouth social health psychology lab and at the Geisel School of Medicine.
The study, titled “Greater Exposure to Sexual Content in Popular Movies Predicts Earlier Sexual Debut and Increased Risk Taking,” was published online in the journal Psychological Science on Wednesday.
The researchers used data from a longitudinal study of American adolescents and determined that racy movies increase sexual risk by “modifying sexual behavior,” according to the article.
“Kids who are watching more of these movies lose their virginity at a younger age and reported less condom use,” lead author Ross O’Hara, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Missouri, said in an interview with The Dartmouth. O’Hara conducted the research while working on his PhD in the psychological and brain sciences department.
In 2003, O’Hara, psychology professor Rick Gibbons, psychiatry professor Meg Gerrard, epidemiology and biostatistics professor Zhigang Li and pediatrics professor James Sargent compiled a list of several hundred top-grossing movies and coded each of them based on the length of sexual content — which ranged from heavy kissing to sexual intercourse — in each movie. They then asked approximately 1,230 children between the ages of 12 and 14 which of the movies they had seen. After six years, the research team asked the same group of children about their sexual behavior — when they first started having sex, the total number of sexual partners and the number of occasions of casual sex without protection in which they had engaged.
The study also considered how these movies affected the children’s development of a trait called “sensation seeking,” or the tendency to “seek novel and intense stimulation,” according to the study. To measure the factor, the researchers surveyed the children on their tendency to seek thrill, susceptibility to boredom and proclivity for intensity.
The results indicated that exposure to sexual content in movies increases sexual risk and also drives the development of the sensation seeking trait.
“Sexual content may accelerate the normal rise of sensation seeking during adolescence, thereby promoting risky behavior,” the article said.
O’Hara said that the study aimed to justify that the current rating system for movies is “sensitive to sex already.” He said that parents should pay attention to these ratings and control what movies their children choose to see.
“If there’s any sexual content in there, it should be restricted to kids of younger ages,” O’Hara said. “What they see on screen will not be a good indication of what will work out when they do decide to have sex.”
O’Hara also said that filmmakers who choose to include sex scenes in their movies should make the scenes more “realistic” by mentioning condom use.
“This is something they should consider because potentially, kids are watching this and taking this as a guide or image when they do decide to have sex,” he said.
The biggest limitation to the research, however, is that it was not an experimental study, so the data can be used to prove correlation but not causation, he said.
“We can’t say for sure that watching these movies is causing changes in behavior,” O’Hara said.
College Health Services Director Jack Turco said he was not surprised by the study’s findings, given the impact of the media on younger generations.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if early input can induce individuals to partake in sexual activity,” he said. “One thing that’s clear is that more and more kids are getting influence from what’s on television and what’s on the internet.”
Turco said, however, that the correlation found in the study could be based on other factors, such as the children’s socioeconomic status or the strictness of their parents.
O’Hara said that the research team is now studying the influence of drinking scenes in movies on children’s sexual behavior.