COLUMBIA, Mo. — Young people who watch more sexual content from movies also tend to engage in more sexual behavior and begin sexual activity at an earlier age, according to a University of Missouri researcher’s study.
“We can’t say that watching sexual content in movies is directly responsible for adolescents’ sexual behavior,” said Ross O’Hara currently a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Missouri, who conducted the research with other psychological scientists while at Dartmouth College. “However, there is a correlation between the two. Sensation seeking, or the tendency to seek more novel and intense sexual stimulation, does seem to increase in young people who watched more movies with sexually explicit content.”
To conduct his study, O’Hara and his colleagues recruited 1,228 participants between 12 and 14 years of age. Each participant reported which movies they had seen out of randomly selected lists of 50 top-grossing films from 1998 to 2004. These films had previously been evaluated according to the amount of sexual content they contained.
Six years later, the participants were surveyed to find out how old they were when they became sexually active and how risky their sexual behavior might have been. Some of the questions included: Did they use condoms consistently? Were they monogamous or did they have multiple partners? Statistical methods were used to separate out the influence of exposure to sexual content in movies from the influences of socio-economic variables, family structure, TV use, and other variables.
The results of the study found that adolescents who are exposed to more sexual content in movies start having sex at younger ages, have more sexual partners, and are less likely to use condoms with casual sexual partners.
“One important observation from our evaluation of the films was that few showed contraceptive use or safe sexual practices,” O’Hara said. “When safe sex is portrayed in films, it is often in comedies and is presented as an inconvenience or embarrassment. The motion picture industry could make an effort to show healthier, safer behaviors, just as they have reduced the amount of smoking shown in films.”
The parents of adolescents have a role to play in tempering the influence of films on their children as well, O’Hara said. To minimize risky sexual behavior later in life, parents can restrict the amounts of sexual content children view and educate them about the consequences of sexual behavior that are often left out of films.
The study, “Exposure to Sexual Content in Popular Movies Predicts Earlier Sexual Debut and Increased Sexual Risk-taking,” has been accepted for publication in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. O’Hara conducted this research while at Dartmouth College.