The average teenager will encounter 10,000 to 15,000 sexual references in the media each year. Sex-related scenes appeared on television at a rate of 4.6 per hour in 2005. Unfortunately, most of the sex portrayed in media has little to do with the reality of sexual health, says Stacey J. T. Hust, associate professor at Washington State University’s Edward R. Murrow College of Communication.

In looking at movies, television shows, music, and magazines popular with teens, she and her colleagues “found that less than one-half of one percent of all sexual content is actually health-related content,” says Hust. “They’ll depict a whole lot of sexual behavior, but no consequences that are realistic, and no real discussion of sexual health.”

The research analyzed not only the incidences of sex, but also the content and context of the references. They found sexual health content was mostly ambiguous, inaccurate, and reinforced stereotypes like females being primarily responsible for contraception.

WSU communication professor Erica Austin, who collaborates with Hust as part of the Murrow College’s Center for Media and Health Promotion, notes that even between television shows, alcohol advertising heaps on the innuendo and stereotypes of sexual behavior.

“Some kids will say that they feel there’s an expectation that they will be sexually active and that alcohol makes it easier to go do that,” says Austin, with little attention to the risks of mixing sex and alcohol.

Those consequences can include sexual assault, STDs, or unplanned pregnancy. “Alcohol use is one of the main problems associated with unplanned and unwanted sexual activity. Not just sexual assault, but also no contraception use or consenting to unwanted sexual activity,” says Hust.

Despite the lack of good information and misleading sexual portrayals, adolescents often turn to television or movies for their information about sex, say Austin and Hust, which can influence their decision-making, particularly in the absence of parental involvement.

“I’m not suggesting that the media should be responsible for sex education. That would be ludicrous. But it’s the absence of sexual health in sexual conversations that’s problematic,” says Hust.

The barrage of sexual messages and imagery can seem overwhelming and harmful, but Hust and Austin also see opportunities to use the media for education. They, along with WSU communication professor Bruce Pinkleton and WSU Health and Wellness Services communications coordinator Paula Adams, have tested media literacy and entertainment education as methods of dispelling myths and improving knowledge.

“If you’re a teenager and you want to learn some sexual health information, you’re really going to have to know how to find it,” says Austin. “How do you help young people to use the media more effectively? Rather than just saying all media are bad, all messages are bad, there is some good stuff out there, but you have to be able to find it.”

She and Pinkleton evaluated a media literacy curriculum—in which students learn how to decode and debunk media messages—to accompany both comprehensive and abstinence-only sex education programs, with very good results in stripping the facade of sex myths in the media.

“We found young people love the media literacy curricula,” says Austin. “Everyone loves talking about the media—sometimes they like bashing the media, but they love to talk about. It’s a great catalyst for having discussions on topics that might be difficult to talk about. It’s a very effective way to draw people into a conversation about sexual health.”

The media literacy training was peer-led, so teens presented the material and led discussion with the support of an adult mentor. “The participants really liked that other teenagers were presenting the materials to them. That really made it resonate,” says Austin.

The media literacy method can also increase the effectiveness of other educational efforts, such as tobacco use, alcohol abuse, public affairs engagement, and nutrition, says Austin. “It seems to be a universally promising approach for health promotion,” she says.

Hust also sees opportunities to use the media to help raise awareness and knowledge of sexual assault, the most underreported violent crime and a serious problem on college campuses.

“I use entertainment education, which includes working with script writers and producers to see how they can change their content to make it more healthy for the audience,” she says, “and how health communicators can use that strategy so they can make entertaining messages that people will actually pay attention to.”

She and Adams tried that method on the WSU campus with a short, free magazine sent out to freshmen. The magazine combined stories, comics, quizzes, and other entertaining material written by undergraduates with information on sexual assault, what consent means, and models of positive behavior.

Hust found the students welcomed the magazine and thought the sexual assault content was as engaging as the general interest content. It also had a positive effect on the readers’ understanding of norms and their willingness to intervene in a sexual assault.

On the web

Center for Media and Health Promotion at the Murrow College of Communication