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Television Consumption and
Gender Role Attitudes in Late Adolescent Males
By Jay Senter
MS – Journalism candidate
University of Kansas
Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications 2005 Convention
Submitted to the Leslie J. Moeller Award competition for graduate students
in the Mass Communication and Society Division
Renita Coleman, research chair
Author contact information:
E-mail: [log in to unmask]
Mailing Address: 1201 Oread Ave. #7, Lawrence, KS 66044
Using the cognitive information-processing model and cultivation
theory as a basis, this study examined the potential connection
between late adolescent males' television consumption and their
attitudes about masculinity. Participants kept track of their
television viewing for a week and then responded to an attitudes
questionnaire. The data yielded a correlation between the amount of
sexual content the participants consumed and the likelihood that they
accepted stereotypical portrayals of masculinity as normative.
Television Consumption and Gender Role Attitudes in Late Adolescent Males
Throughout the history of television, cultural critics have embraced
a consensus view that there is "too much" sex and violence on the
small screen. But it is not the omnipresence of sexual and violent
content on television, in and of itself, that is
problematic. Rather, it is the potential effects on the people who
view that content that attracts the attention of politicians and parents.
In recent decades, the effects of sexual television content in
particular have become of greater interest to media researchers for
several reasons. Perhaps most significantly, the amount of sexual
content on television has risen steadily over the past two decades,
as has its explicitness (Huston, Wartella & Donnerstein, 1998). This
increase is noteworthy in the context of theories about learning and
the socialization of adolescents, which suggest that teens use what
they see on television as a model for their own attitudes and
behaviors. As Gunter (2002) noted:
The concern about the exposure of young people to sex in the media
has two main aspects. First, there is a worry that very young
children may be upset by seeing explicit sexual scenes that they lack
the maturity to interpret. Second, exposure to media content that
places emphasis on sexual themes among teenagers is believed to
encourage early onset of sexual behavior and contributes, in turn, to
the growth in unwanted teen pregnancies and sexually transmitted
diseases (pg. 5).
Research on the effects of television sex is a burgeoning field, and,
thus far, the majority of research has taken a universal or
female-only approach. That said, the specific effects of exposure to
sexualized television content on young men have gone largely
unexamined. This is predictable for a number of reasons. First, the
scholarly tradition of feminist theory provides a specialized
framework from which to view the effects of sexualized television
content on females. Furthermore, women are more likely to bear the
brunt of the negative consequences of sexual activity mentioned by
Gunter. They are undoubtedly more likely to be the victims of sexual
assault (Rennison & Rand, 2002), they are inherently more likely to
shoulder the burden of an unwanted pregnancy (Ventura, 1992), and
they are physiologically at greater risk of contracting sexually
transmitted infections (Alan Guttmacher Institute, 1994), including HIV/AIDS.
As such, focusing on the effects of exposure to sexual television
content on women seems to make sense from a public health
perspective. But focusing on women at the expense of research on men
has potentially negative implications for the entire
population. This paper will develop the notion that depictions of
normative masculinity on television often lionize sexual promiscuity
and frequency. If this is so, it may not be surprising that studies
have found that adolescent males who watch television with highly
sexual content are more likely to lose their virginity at an earlier
age: several theories suggest that television serves as a teacher, a
source for adolescents to get information about sex.
But the precise mechanisms through which consumption of television
could lead to the onset of sexual behavior are not clearly
understood. This study was intended to help fill a gap in current
scholarship about the effects of television on adolescents'
sexuality. By examining how watching television is related to
adolescent males' attitudes about sex and sex roles, this research
could help add to our understanding of how watching sexualized
television might ultimately lead to the early initiation of sexual
intercourse by male teens.
Review of Literature
Research on the effects of exposure to sexualized television has
been a relatively recent development in mass communications
scholarship and has followed in the theoretical footsteps of the
research on exposure to television violence. In particular,
researchers have been concerned with how viewing television might
affect the sexual socialization of impressionable teens.
While a number of studies have examined the ways in which portrayals
of women in the media affect adolescent females (Brown, Barton White
& Nikopoulou, 1993; Heinberg & Thompson, 1995; Henderson-King &
Henderson-King, 1997), far less attention has been paid to how
mediated portrayals of masculinity affect adolescent males'
socialization. Though gender scholars have recently acknowledged the
emergence of new or refined conceptions of masculinity (Greven, 2002;
Hanke, 1998), the paradigm of the "hegemonic male" still
endures. This paradigm is often manifested in the narratives of
television and film, where the "most masculine" men are identified by
their physical power, sexual conquests, control over emotions and
dominant personalities (Beggan and Allison, 2001; Hanke, 1992).
Brown, Steele and Walsh-Childers (2002) noted that this phenomenon is
a stable fixture throughout the media and could play a role in the
sexual socialization of adolescent males:
Boys are subject to a more consistent message [in the media about
sexuality] which is basically that the more women a man has sex with,
the more of a man he is because a 'real' man would never say no to
the opportunity to have sex with a woman. This explanation is
problematic for those boys who do not aspire to stud status (p. 4).
Feminist scholars have long assailed the representation of hegemonic
masculinity on the grounds that it propagates the objectification and
subjugation of women. While many feminist activists have encouraged
women to combat the patriarchal system through female empowerment, it
stands to reason that an equal amount of progress toward gender
equality might be made by addressing commonly held stereotypes of
masculinity. There are, after all, at least two parts to the gender equation.
But the benefits of addressing the most widely held conceptions of
masculinity are not limited to feminist pursuits. Mounting evidence
suggests that men who accept the hegemonic ideal of masculinity are
susceptible to distinctive psychological strains, and may engage in
behaviors that pose significant health risks. Pleck's gender role
strain theory (1995) posits that men who feel compelled to adhere to
societal stereotypes of masculinity are more likely to experience
what he calls discrepancy and dysfunction strains. Discrepancy
strain occurs when a male tries and fails to live up to some ideal of
masculinity and, consequently, fails to address either his own needs
or the needs of others. For example, a man who seeks to control his
emotions in an attempt to build a masculine identity may suffer
psychological strain from not being able to fully express himself.
Furthermore, others have suggested that men who develop
characteristics consistent with the hegemonic male stereotype may
have a more difficult time attracting women with whom to share a
committed relationship (Beggan and Allison, 2001).
Especially disconcerting, however, is the degree to which the sex
role components of hegemonic masculinity might encourage adolescents
to engage in risky sexual behavior. Each year, one in four sexually
active teens is diagnosed with a sexually transmitted infection in
the United States (Alan Guttmacher Institute, 1994). Moreover, the
earlier a teen engages in sexual activity, the more likely he or she
is to contract an STI or to play a part in an unplanned pregnancy
(Koyle, Jensen, Olsen & Cundick, 1989). These facts illustrate the
perils of the early onset of sexual activity and the use of unsafe
sex practices at the individual level, but it is important to note
that the early onset of sexual activity is problematic at a societal
level as well. The public costs of sexually transmitted infections
and teen pregnancies continue to be significant (Centers for Disease
Control, 2003). In a recent study, Chesson, Blandford, Gift, Tao and
Irwin (2004) estimated that the total cost of all STIs contracted by
15- to 24-year-olds in 2000 would be $6.5 billion in 2000
dollars. This level is so substantial, the authors noted, that
addressing just a small fraction of the problem could yield enormous
benefits: "The overall cost burden of (STIs) is so great that even
small reductions in incidence could lead to considerable reductions
in treatment costs" (p. 15).
Cultivation theory (Gerbner, Gross, Morgan & Signorielli, 1986)
suggests that heavy viewers of television are more likely to accept
behaviors they see often depicted in programming as normal. In its
original iteration, the theory was used to explain the potential
effects of prolonged exposure to television violence. More recently,
it has been adopted by scholars looking to explain how television
might affect viewers' beliefs about materialism (Harmon, 2001) and sexuality.
Cultivation theory is particularly appealing in the case of research
on sex and sex roles because of the pervasive nature of sex on
television (Kaiser Family Foundation, 2003). But it also has a major
weakness: because television has evolved substantially since the
theory was developed in the mid-1970s, cultivation theory may not
account for the way that television is viewed in the current media
environment. The theory's primary creator, George Gerbner, believed
that the total amount of television people viewed could predict their
attitudes about societal violence or other subjects frequently dealt
with on television. At the time, however, the American public had
access to only a few broadcast channels. As such, it was easy to
predict how much violent content a subject had been exposed to even
without accounting for precisely which programs the subject viewed.
In today's television environment, where a significant proportion of
the public has access to dozens of specialized cable channels, and
where, thanks to the advent of the remote control, many viewers
monitor several programs at once instead of watching a single show,
cultivation theory's hypothesis that "total viewing predicts
attitudes" may not stand up.
As such, scholars have begun to use the cognitive
information-processing model (Huesmann, 1997) to explain the
potential effects of television viewership and sexual attitudes and
behaviors (Aubrey, Harrison, Kramer & Yellin, 2003; Huston, Wartella
& Donnerstein, 1998). The cognitive information-processing model
theorizes that people form attitudes about issues by observing how
those issues are treated by others. This observational learning can
take place through witnessing real events or events in the
media. The model posits that people store this observational
information in the form of a "cognitive script." People access these
scripts when they are presented with a perhaps unfamiliar situation
and use them as a model for their own behavior. Thus, an early- to
mid-adolescent male who has had relatively little sexual experience
of his own may form scripts about socially accepted sexual activity
from what he sees on television.
It seems likely that these scripts would be more influential for
those teens who do not have siblings or parents whose relationships
could serve as the basis for their own behavior. Furthermore,
television might play an important role in the formation of such
scripts because it allows teens to view depictions of the intimate
moments in a sexual relationship that adolescent males would not have
access to when observing their parents or siblings. That is,
television ostensibly offers a glimpse into what might be happening
behind mother and father's closed door – whether it is a realistic
glimpse or not is another matter entirely.
The cognitive information-processing model is of particular interest
in the case of this research because it suggests that acceptance of
the hegemonic male stereotype would be an intermediary step in the
correlation between exposure to sexualized television content and the
initiation of sexual intercourse: those adolescents who watch
television form scripts about socially accepted sexual behaviors and
then use those scripts as the basis for their own sexual behavior.
Sex on Television and Teens' Sexual Behaviors
Using cultivation theory, the cognitive information-processing model
and other theoretical frameworks, mass communications scholars have
begun to explore how television might influence adolescents' sexual behaviors.
Two groundbreaking studies in the field sought to find a connection
between heavy television viewing and the early onset of sexual
intercourse. Peterson, Moore and Furstenberg (1991) conducted a
survey in which they collected data about a sample of teens' viewing
habits and sexual activity. Each subject's television viewing habits
were classified in terms of the amount of highly sexual content he or
she consumed. The study found no significant link between the amount
of any kind of television watched by female adolescent subjects and
their reported sexual activity. The results from the male subjects,
however, yielded some significant correlations. Adolescent males who
viewed the most television tended to be more sexually experienced and
those subjects who viewed television apart from their parents were
the most likely to have had sexual intercourse. The authors
speculated that the different results for males and females might be
explained by societal standards for acceptable sexual activity:
(T)here are still normative differences in the acceptability of
premarital sexual activity for males and females, and these
differences lead to higher social costs for females. Given this
situation, we would expect factors which in general have at most a
modest influence on sexual activity [such as television] to be more
influential for boys than for girls (p. 114)
While this explanation may have sound basis in theory, it fails to
account for the different messages males and females get from
television about sexuality (Ward, 1995). This study posits that the
messages young men are exposed to regarding sexuality would also
impact which sexual behaviors they accept as normative.
Brown and Newcomer (1991) sought to answer essentially the same
question as Peterson, Moore and Furstenberg. In a longitudinal
study, they surveyed students first in junior high and then in high
school about their television viewing habits and their sexual
experience. Like Peterson et al., Brown and Newcomer also qualified
the types of television the subjects watched. Their results
suggested that while there was not a linear correlation between the
overall amount of television viewed and sexual experience, those
subjects whose television diet consisted of a heavy proportion of
"sexy" content were more likely to be non-virgins.
Like the results of the Peterson, Moore and Furstenberg study, the
Brown and Newcomer results provide enticing evidence of a
relationship between consumption of sexualized television and the
initiation of sexual activity but did little to explain how that
relationship works. The authors suggested that the results offer
some support that viewing sexual television leads to sexual
intercourse, but were explicit in noting that the reverse causal
relationship cannot be rejected: "It is probably most reasonable at
this point to assume that both sequences are at work: as adolescents
mature physically and sexual content on television becomes more
relevant, such content is sought out, paid attention to, and
subsequently modeled" (p. 88).
Both studies received a significant update when Collins, Elliott,
Berry, Kanouse, Kunkel, Hunter and Miu (2004) published the results
of a longitudinal study that attempted to improve on the designs of
its predecessors by controlling for mediating variables. Collins et
al. surveyed 1,792 adolescents aged 12 to 17 on two occasions, one
year apart. The researchers collected information on participants'
television diets, both in terms of raw amount and proportion of
highly sexualized content. They also collected data on over a dozen
mediating variables known to be related to the earlier initiation of
sexual activity in adolescents. These variables included: the
marital status of the participants' parents, how many parents the
participant lived with, the age and maturity of the participants'
friends, how closely the participants' parents monitored their
television viewing and the participants' general mental health.
After controlling for these mediating variables, the researchers
found that the respondents who had television diets with the highest
proportion of sexy content at the baseline survey were more likely to
initiate sexual intercourse or non-coital sexual activity in the
following year. Participants who scored in the top ten percent for
sexy-television viewing in the baseline survey were approximately
twice as likely to initiate intercourse in the following year as were
participants who scored in the bottom ten percent, once mediating
variables had been controlled for. Youths whose television diet had
a proportion of sexual content one standard deviation above average
exhibited sexual behaviors typical of adolescents 9 to 17 months
older than they were. The authors noted that the implications of
these results would be significant from a public health
standpoint: "The magnitude of these results are such that a moderate
shift in the average sexual content of adolescent TV viewing could
have substantial effects on sexual behavior at the population level" (p. 287).
Like Brown and Newcomer, Collins et al. found no link between the
overall amount of television the participants watched and their
sexual behaviors. The correlations presented themselves only when
data about the proportion of sexy television consumed was used. The
researchers suggested that this might have something to do with the
recent shift in the way television is viewed, with abundant cable
channels that provide specialized, diverse content options to viewers.
Combined, these three studies suggest that there is a potentially
strong connection between heavy consumption of sexualized television
programming and the early onset of sexual activity. Given the
results of the Peterson et al. study, these effects appear to be more
pronounced among males, especially those who did not report having
much parental mediation in their television consumption.
Assessing Portrayals of Gender and Sex on Television
A series of content analyses of the television programming most
frequently consumed by adolescents suggest that the effects described
by the Brown and Newcomer, Collins et al. and Peterson et al. studies
fell in line with cultivation theory and the cognitive
information-processing model, as references to sex and sex roles are abundant.
Cope-Farrar and Kunkel (2002) found that, among the 15 shows most
popular with teenagers during the 1996 season, 82 percent of the
programs coded by the researchers contained some talk about sex, or
the exhibition of some sexual behavior. The characters in the sample
who were depicted engaging in sexual activity were almost never shown
discussing the potential consequences of their behavior. Of 99
scenes coded for sexual behavior, the researchers found only one
scene that espoused the theme of sexual patience, only two scenes
depicting the risks of sexual activity, and no scenes featuring
themes of sexual precaution.
The most recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a
non-partisan organization that conducts research on the entertainment
media and public health, found a modest increase in the references to
safe sex practices over the past few years, but notes that the amount
of sex on television is still very high (2003).
Perhaps the most relevant findings to the research proposed in this
paper, however, come from Ward's analysis of the most common sexual
themes in television programs popular with adolescents and children
(1995). The content analysis coded for thematic representations of
gender roles as well as the presence of sexual discussion and
activity. The study found that messages about the male sex role were
most frequent among all messages about sexuality on
television. Specifically, the analysis found frequent references to
two themes: that men view women primarily as sex objects valued for
their physical attractiveness, and that a man's sense of masculinity
is closely linked to his sexual prowess. That is, men were often
portrayed as "sex driven, as always ready and willing for sex,
anytime, anywhere" (pg. 8). This point seems to be supported by the
findings of a recent survey in which male teens were far less likely
than female teens to report that they had learned something from
television about how to say no to a sexual situation that made them
feel uncomfortable (Kaiser Family Foundation, 2003).
While expectations and values about sexuality may drive some viewing
choices, rather than the other way around, the aforementioned studies
strongly suggest that sexuality on television is pervasive, and that
the most frequently presented sexual themes address the stereotypical
male sex role. If this is the case, we might expect that adolescent
males who consume television diets high in sexual content would use
these frequently portrayed messages about the male gender role as a
basis for their own sexual attitudes and behaviors – an expectation
that is supported by several studies.
Aubrey, Harrison, Kramer and Yellin (2003) sought to find a
correlation between the amount of television 202 college
undergraduates viewed and their sexual expectations. The authors
found that men who viewed the most sexually-oriented television
expected greater variety – more partners and a wider range of
experiences – than men who viewed less sexual television. Another
study (Ward, 2002) found that the more prime-time television and
music videos male undergraduate students watched, the more likely
they were to view women as sex objects.
It should be noted that the face of television has changed markedly
over the past decade, both in content and format. Situation
comedies, long the staple of network broadcasts, have been largely
replaced with "reality shows." Little research has been conducted on
the content and themes in reality programming, so it is difficult to
say whether or how much the proliferation of the format would affect
the results of Ward's 1995 content analysis were it duplicated
today. Still, when one considers that many reality programs are
romantically themed (ABC's The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, NBC's
Who Wants to Marry My Dad), and even those that are not explicitly
romantic often have romantic sub-plots (CBS's Survivor and Big
Brother, MTV's The Real World, NBC's The Apprentice) it seems likely
that the shift from scripted programming to reality programming
probably has not led to a decrease in the amount of references to the
stereotypical male sex role.
Also, within the framework of the cognitive information-processing
model, viewing reality programming may actually accentuate the
effects proposed in this paper. If viewers are presented with
programming billed as a reflection of "reality," they may be more
likely to accept it as normative and use it in the formation of
scripts. Ward and Rivadeneyra (1999) found that males who perceived
the television programs they watched as more accurate reflections of
reality were more likely to believe that their peers frequently
engaged in sexual activity.
The cumulative results of the literature suggest that the cultivation
theory and cognitive information-processing model might be at work in
the socialization of adolescent males' sexuality.
This is not to say that television plays an exclusive, or even
particularly strong role in influencing the choices all adolescents
make about their sex lives. Studies have consistently found that
teens cite their parents, peers and schools as more important sources
of information about sexuality than the mass media (Sutton, Brown,
Wilson & Klein, 2002). Still, television is one of the most widely
consumed forms of mass media among teenagers (Nielsen Media Research,
1998), and it provides a wealth of often inaccurate information about
sex, a subject that takes on increasing importance as teens make
their way through adolescence.
Through the theoretical frameworks discussed above, these findings
have the potential to explain how television might impact the sexual
socialization of adolescent males: those teens who consume heavy
amounts of sexual television content, especially those who don't
discuss what they see on television with their parents, would be the
most likely to accept what they see on television as normative. If,
as Ward suggests, messages about stereotypical male sex roles
dominate the already large amount of sexual content on television,
then heavy viewers of television would be expected to be most likely
to accept the sex roles portrayed on television as
normative. Ostensibly, for adolescent males, the intermediary step
between viewing highly sexualized television content and the early
onset of sexual activity might be the acceptance of the hegemonic
As such, this research was primarily designed to test the following
H1: A positive correlation exists between the proportion of "sexy"
television an adolescent male watches, and the degree to which he
accepts stereotypical portrayals of masculinity as normative.
As previous research has demonstrated, the relationship between what
an adolescent male watches on television and what attitudes and
behaviors he embodies is a complicated one, and is influenced by
several outside factors. One of those factors is certainly age. As
adolescent males get older, they begin to amass personal experiences
that have a stronger impact on their beliefs about masculinity than
exposure to television would. Consequently, one would expect for the
relationship described in H1 to be stronger for mid-adolescent than
H2: Younger males will be more likely that older males who watch a
similar proportion of "sexy" television to accept stereotypical
portrayals of masculinity as normative.
Previous studies (Brown and Newcomer, 1991; Collins et al., 2004)
have also shown that the relationship between an adolescent's
television consumption and sexual experience is mitigated by parental
intervention in what he or she watches. Those teens who watch
television with their parents frequently and who discuss what they
see on television with their parents are less likely to be sexually
experienced than those teens who do not. As this study posits that
acceptance of the stereotypical male sex role is an intermediary step
between exposure to sexual television content and sexual intercourse,
it would make sense that parental mediation would impact the results
of this research as well:
H3: Those adolescent males who report higher degrees of parental
mediation in their television consumption will be less likely to
accept stereotypical portrayals of the male sex role as normative
than those who report lesser degrees of parental mediation.
Because of time constraints and research regulations at the local
school district, accessing an ideal sample population of early- to
mid-adolescent males proved to be unfeasible. As such, the research
relied on a sample of college underclassmen at the University of
Kansas in Lawrence. The students were given the option of
participating in the study for extra credit in an introductory
journalism class. Both male and female students were asked to
participate, but only the data from the male students was processed
Participants in the study completed a two-part data collection
booklet. The first part of the booklet asked them to keep track of
all the television programming they watched for one week. Previous
studies in the area had gathered data on television viewing by asking
participants to rate on a five point Likert scale how frequently they
viewed certain popular shows (Brown & Newcomer, 1991; Ward, 2002),
and then asking participants to estimate how much time they spent
watching television on an average day. The method used in this
research was intended to improve on that design by accounting for the
specific shows and amounts of time participants watched. Certainly,
this method is far from flawless, as it relies on self-reported data
from the participants, but it might be more appropriate given the
vast cable and satellite networks that now comprise the television
environment: adolescents viewing habits may vary so greatly from
individual to individual that providing a participant with a list of
popular shows might not adequately account for his viewing habits.
The television diary phase began with instructions for how to record
each show watched, including an instruction for recording two or more
shows that were monitored during the same period. Once they had
completed the television diary, the participants were asked to answer
a few questions about their television viewing habits, including how
much television they watched on an average week using the figures
from their diary as a basis, and how much parental mediation they had
in their television consumption as younger adolescents.
The second part of the data collection process was a brief
questionnaire that included nine stimulus items about stereotypical
masculinity (Appendix A). The stimulus items were modeled on the
themes about stereotypical masculinity that Ward found portrayed most
commonly in her 1995 study. Specifically, the survey was designed to
measure the degree with which the participants accepted that: 1.) sex
is the defining act of masculinity, 2.) that men value women
primarily for their physical attractiveness, and 3.) that men will do
almost anything to get a woman into bed. The participants were asked
to rate their level of agreement or disagreement with each of the
items using a five point Likert scale. A reliability analysis of the
attitudes survey yielded an Alpha score of .7093, within the range
generally considered acceptable for communications research (Keyton,
2001). The questionnaire also included questions about the
participants' age and ethnicity.
Once the participants had completed and returned the data collection
booklets, a master list of all the shows named in the television
diaries was compiled. This list was then presented to a group of 22
adult coders, mostly journalism graduate students, who were
instructed to rate the sexiness level of each show on a zero to two
scale (zero=not at all sexual; one=sometimes sexual; two=frequently
sexual). This method was based on the sexual content rating technique
used by Brown and Newcomer (1991), who noted that previous research
showed that untrained adults could provide content ratings as
reliable as trained coders. The coders' ratings were then averaged
to get a "sexiness level" for each show.
A Sexual Television Diet score for each participant, measuring how
much sexual content the participant consumed, was derived from these
figures by multiplying the sexiness level by the time a participant
spent with each program, adding the figures for all the shows, and
then dividing the sum by the total hours watched. This calculation
omitted sports programming, as had previous studies (Brown and
Newcomer 1991, Collins et al. 2004).
The participants' answers to the attitude questionnaire and the two
questions about parental mediation were used to derive the
Stereotypical Masculinity Acceptance score and the Parental Mediation
A total of 120 sets of surveys and television diaries were collected
from the sample of male college underclassmen. After eliminating the
entries that lacked signed consent forms or contained incomplete
information, 93 entries remained in the sample.
Relatively speaking, the sample was racially homogeneous, as might
have been expected given the population from which it was taken.
Self-reported data from the participants showed that 86 were White,
four were Black, and three were of mixed or other ethnicities.
Before controlling for other variables, the data revealed a positive
relationship between the primary predictor and criterion variables. A
simple Pearson correlation analysis yielded a relatively weak but
statistically significant positive correlation between the Sexual
Television Diet score and the Stereotypical Masculinity Acceptance
score (.237, N=93, p=.05), as predicted in H1 (Table 1). That is,
for the participants in this study, watching a television diet high
in sexual content meant that a participant was more likely to accept
stereotypical portrayals of masculinity as normative.
TABLE 1: Pearson correlation analysis for primary variables
Stereotypical Masculinity Acceptance
Sexual Television Diet
Sexual Television Diet
Stereotypical Masculinity Acceptance
* correlation is significant at the 0.05 level (2-tailed)
** correlation is significant at the 0.01 level (2-tailed)
The total amount of television the participants watched was not
significantly related to their Stereotypical Masculinity Acceptance
scores. The age data did not reveal any significant relationship
with the Stereotypical Masculinity Acceptance scores either, though
this might have been expected given the relatively homogeneous nature
of the sample (age: M=19.31, sd=1.31).
The most significant relationship that presented itself in the
Pearson correlation analysis was that between the Parental Mediation
variable and the Stereotypical Masculinity Acceptance score. There
was a moderately strong negative relationship between the amount of
parental mediation the participants reported and their acceptance of
stereotypical portrayals of masculinity as normative (-.354, N=89,
p=.01). This relationship was predicted in H3.
There was also a significant relationship between the Sexual
Television Diet score and the Parental Mediation scores (-.243, N=89,
p=.05), suggesting that the relationship between parental mediation,
television programming selection and acceptance of stereotypical
masculinity are likely interwoven.
In an attempt to better describe that relationship, the predictor
variables of the Sexual Television Diet score and the Parental
Mediation score were regressed onto the Stereotypical Masculinity
Acceptance score. The two predictor variables in that equation
accounted for roughly 15 percent of the variance (R2=.149, adj.
R2=.129) in the criterion variable, a relationship that was
statistically significant, F(2, 86) = 7.54, p=.001).
TABLE 2: Multiple regression analysis with Stereotypical Masculinity
Acceptance as the
dependent variable and Parental Mediation and Sexual Television Diet as the
of the Estimate
Sexual Television Diet
Beta coefficients (Table 2) for the multiple regression equation
revealed that the Parental Mediation score in this model had the most
significant impact on the criterion variable. That is, when both the
Parental Mediation score and the second Sexual Television Diet score
were taken into account, the role of the Sexual Television Diet score
became statistically insignificant.
The purpose of this study was to examine how watching sexual
television programming might be related to the beliefs adolescent
males hold about masculinity, and perhaps in doing so to add some
understanding to how television might impact the sexual behaviors of
those young men who consume it.
Because this was a small study, and the sample was not ideal for the
hypotheses put forth in the proposal, the results should be
considered preliminary and serve as the basis for future
research. Still, the presence of statistically significant
relationships between key variables as predicted in the hypotheses
adds to a growing body of evidence that consumption of sexual
television content, especially when mediating factors are not
present, can lead to a set of sexual attitudes and
behaviors. Moreover, the particular results of this study suggest
that the sexual behaviors more commonly exhibited by adolescent males
who consume higher quantities of sexual television may be the
outgrowth of a set of beliefs and attitudes frequently affirmed on television.
The most significant results of the study fall in line with previous
research that has been conducted in the area. Notably, the amount of
parental mediation the participants reported in their television
consumption as junior high and high schoolers proved to be the most
significant variable, as in the Collins et al. study (2004). These
results may not be surprising in the context of research that has
shown teens consider their parents the most important source of
information about sex (Sutton, Brown, Wilson & Klein, 2002). As
such, the results of this study may indicate that television
influences adolescents' attitudes about sex and gender when other
sources of information that the adolescents deem stronger and more
reliable, such as parents, are not present.
Because the research was administered to college-aged adolescents,
and the parental mediation survey items in the study were phrased in
terms of how much mediation the participant had when he was in junior
high and high school, the relationships that presented themselves in
the Pearson analyses raise a number of questions. Specifically, it
would be of interest to see how the participants' television diets
and gender role attitudes evolved through their adolescence: did
those participants with a high level of parental mediation in their
early adolescent years stop watching as much highly sexual television
content as they got older, and how did their attitudes change as they matured?
Data on the type and amount of television viewed by the participants
was consistent with previous research as well. As in previous
studies (Brown & Newcomer, 1991; Peterson, Moore & Furstenberg, 1991;
Collins et al., 2004), it was the figure for the amount of sexualized
television, and not the total viewing hours, that yielded a
significant relationship with another variable – an interesting
phenomenon in the context of Gerbner's original work in cultivation
theory with violence and the media. At the time of Gerbner's work,
television viewers were generally confined to three broadcast
networks, whose prime-time programming was limited enough that its
content could be easily analyzed. As such, Gerbner's prediction that
total prime-time viewing would predict a belief that there were high
levels of societal violence was anchored in a keen understanding of
just how much violence was shown on prime-time television. The
advent of cable, and more recently satellite channels, however, has
made such a method all but impossible. Television stations now cater
to such a wide range of individual interests that simply knowing the
television is on is not nearly enough information to understand what
kind of content a person is consuming. Both the Food Network and MTV
broadcast during prime time, after all.
As such, it is of little surprise that the total viewing hours figure
yielded no significant correlations with the Stereotypical
Masculinity Acceptance scores. The television environment has
changed so greatly that the model used in the original cultivation
theory research is probably no longer relevant.
The results of this study also support previous research on the
relationship between adolescents' attitudes about sex and dating, and
their television consumption. As in Ward's study (2002), these
results suggest that exposure to certain types of television is
positively related to males' attitudes about stereotyped gender
roles. That study, which used both correlational and experimental
methods, classified the participants' viewing habits in terms of the
total hours they spent watching three specific types of television
programming: prime time television, soap operas and music
videos. Combined with the data from this study, which took into
account the specific programs the participants watched on television,
there is mounting evidence that a significant, if limited,
relationship exists between adolescent males' attitudes about their
gender roles and what they watch on television.
But where this relationship fits into the larger issue of how media
consumption impacts the choices adolescents make about their sexual
behavior is another question. Collins et. al. (2004) provided a
convincing demonstration that watching a highly sexualized television
diet predicts initiation of sexual activities, including sexual
intercourse. That study has provided the strongest evidence to date
that the relationship between the two variables is a causal one,
though it is still impossible to rule out reverse causal or third
In any case, little remains known about how the formation of gender
role attitudes fits into that equation. The results of this study
suggest that the cognitive information-processing model might be at
work in the relationship between watching a highly sexualized
television diet and initiating sexual activity. If, as these results
suggests, males who watch television diets heavier in sexual content
are more likely to accept the tenants of hegemonic masculinity,
including frequent sexual activity and the objectification of women,
as normative, we might expect them to act out on those attitudes by
pursuing sexual experiences more quickly than their peers. We might
posit, then, that those males who watch television diets high in
sexuality form cognitive scripts from that information, which they
use in their own lives as the basis for encounters with women.
The combination of beliefs that sex is the defining act of
masculinity and women are to be valued primarily for their physical
attributes may contribute not just to sexual activity, but also to
sexual promiscuity in adolescent males – an issue that has serious
implications from a public health perspective. If a man believes
that having a lot of sex makes him manly, and that women are valuable
only as physical, not intellectual, companions, he is probably less
likely to form meaningful connections with women and enter a
monogamous relationship. Rather, he may be more likely to "play the
field," and seek out several sexual partners.
Of course, the attitudes data from this study is simplistic, and
consequently does not provide much fodder for speculation as to what
kinds of sex might be considered more masculine than others. Future
studies might take into account whether adolescent males consider
having a lot of sex with a monogamous partner as manly as having sex
with a number of different partners. Such data would help clarify
the implications of the relationship between beliefs about gender
role norms and sexual behavior.
Conclusion and areas for future study
If, as psychological theory and previous mass communications studies
suggest, the amount of heavily sexual television an adolescent male
watches impacts his sexual attitudes and behaviors, especially when
his parents are relatively uninvolved, the consequences at a societal
level would be noteworthy. Most importantly, how to address such
issues would be a matter of great debate.
At present, the Federal Communications Commission appears to be
preoccupied with the idea of cracking down on television
indecency. How much such policies would contribute to decreasing the
amount of sexual content adolescents consume is a matter of
considerable speculation. As electronic media with on-demand
capabilities continue to proliferate, adolescents in coming years
will have greater access to the kinds of programming they want, when
they want it, than any previous generation. As such, attempts to
crackdown on media indecency may be akin to hacking off the tip of an
iceberg: the most visible part of the problem would be gone, but the
bulk of the issue would persist.
In any case, the relationship between adolescent males' consumption
of sexual television content, the formation of beliefs about sex and
gender, and the initiation of sexual behaviors deserves further
exploration. To date, no longitudinal study incorporating measures
for television consumption, sexual attitudes and sexual behaviors has
been conducted. Such a study would provide considerable insight into
how television consumption might ultimately contribute to the early
initiation of sexual intercourse in adolescents.
1.) What is your sex? A.) male
(please circle your answer to the right) B.) female
2.) How old are you? (please write your answer in the box)
3.) What is your ethnicity? A.) white
(please circle your answer to the right) B.) black
E.) Native American
F) Other (please specify):
Carefully read each statement below and then circle the answer which
best reflects your feelings. There are no right or wrong
answers. Many of the statements are similar to other statements – do
not be concerned about this. Work quickly and record your first impression.
1 2 3 4
1 2 3 4
1 2 3 4
1 2 3 4
1 2 3 4
1 2 3 4
1 2 3 4
1 2 3 4
1 2 3 4
Men will say whatever it takes to get a
woman into bed.
A woman's looks are more important than
her personality or intelligence.
A man who doesn't have much sex can still
Men are honest about their intentions
when trying to meet and bed women.
The most desirable women are the best
A man who says no to sex with an attractive
woman isn't as much of a man.
If a man wants to have sex with a woman,
he'll do almost anything to make it happen.
It isn't that important for a woman to be
The more women a man has sex with,
the more "manly" he is.
1 2 3 4
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