Lights, Camera, Action: Study Suggests Sex in Movies Predicts Early Sexual Debut Among Teens


Last year my niece and nephew slept over for a night—it’s a rare occurrence as they live in Florida and a totally different experience for me as they are 8 and 12 years older than my own children. After my kids went to bed, we went through the list of movies available on demand. I was excited to watch something that didn’t feature animation or talking dogs and they were excited to see something that they wouldn’t necessarily see at home. We decided on the clearly inappropriate Hot Tub Time Machine. It seemed like the kind of thing an aunt and uncle should say yes too (though I did quickly text my sister to make sure I wouldn’t get in too much trouble for this choice). It wasn’t a particularly good movie and though there was a lot of sexual innuendo, I don’t remember all that many actual depictions of sexual behavior but I could be wrong—I have remarkably poor recollection of what I see in movies and a tendency to fall asleep five minutes after the opening credits. I do remember that they laughed uncomfortably and covered their eyes dramatically at a kissing scene. I read it as a mix of curiosity and embarrassment and wondered if their reaction would have been different if they’d been alone or with similar-aged friends instead of us adults but I didn’t see the movie as doing any long-term harm. 

A new study seems to suggest differently finding that early exposure to sexual content in movies is a predictor of riskier sexual behavior later. The authors of the study suggest that restricting our kids’ movie viewing is the solution but I have a hard time thinking it’s that simple. 

Study Findings

Researchers tracked the movie-viewing habits of young people ages 10 to 14 and then surveyed the same young people over the next six years in order to determine their sexual behavior. Each participant was given a list of 50 movies randomly selected from a larger list and asked which they had seen. The master list included over 500 movies released between 1998 and 2003 which had been coded based on the number of seconds of sexual content (defined as instances of sexual behavior such as heavy kissing and intercourse) they depicted. 

The study also measured sensation-seeking, which is common in adolescence and has been linked by prior research to earlier sexual debut and more frequent engagement in casual sex in adulthood. Additional studies done on this same sample found that watching R-rated movies was associated with later increases in sensation-seeking during adolescence. 

In the last interview participants who were over 18 were asked at what age they had first had sexual intercourse, how many lifetime vaginal or oral sex partners they had had, and how often they had had casual sex (which was defined as vaginal sex not with a “serious or steady dating partner” without a condom).  

The study found that:

  • 63 percent of participants had had sex (5.3 percent before age 15, 10.2 percent at age 15, 24.5 percent at age 16, 28.8 percent at 17, and 31.2 percent at 18 or older);
  • The median number of lifetime sexual partners among sexually-active participants was two;
  • 25.2 percent of sexuall-active participants reported having had casual sex without a condom.

The authors concluded that higher levels of exposure to movies with sexual content before age 16 predicted earlier sexual debut both directly and indirectly through sensation-seeking. They said that early movie sexual exposure also predicted a higher number of lifetime sexual partners and more frequent casual sex without condoms. 

They write:

“Our results suggest that restricting adolescent’s MSE [movie sexual exposure] would delay their sexual debut and also reduce their engagement in risky sexual behaviors later in life.”

Personally, I have a hard time believing that simply keeping kids out of the theater without changing anything else in their lives (such as relationships with parents, sex education in school, or access to condoms) will have a big impact on their sexual behavior later in life but even if it did, putting blinders on them seems like an easy solution to a complex problem.

Sex in Movies  

Anyone who has been to a Cineplex recently will agree that there is a lot of sex in the movies (as well as a lot of violence but that’s for another article). According to the literature review conducted by the authors of this study, a survey of movies released between 1950 and 2006 found that over 84 percent contained sexual content -– including 68 percent of G-rated movies, 82 percent of PG movies, 85 percent of PG-13 movies, and 88 percent of R-rate movies. Yep, even the majority of G-rated movies which seem inevitably to be about penguins include some sexual content. Sure most of this seems to be innuendos designed to entertain the parents so that they don’t mind having spent $30 bucks on popcorn and candy to watch yet another group of cute talking animals sing their way from point A to point B. I think the writers assume most of it will go over the heads their younger viewers but if it doesn’t it is our responsibility as parents to help them understand what they just saw. 

And what they just saw may indeed be problematic. Let’s face it, movies rarely portray accurate versions of sex and relationships let alone versions of ideal healthy relationships we’d like our kids to have. In fact, another analysis (this time of movies released between 1983 and 2003) found that 70 percent of sex acts depicted in movies occurred between newly acquainted partners, 98 percent included no reference to contraception, and 89 percent resulted in no consequences. In fact, only 9 percent contained messages promoting sexual health.

I think it’s time we called on Hollywood to portray better sex. I’m not sure we can convince writers and producers to change their plots—the average romantic comedy seems to devote about five minutes of screen time between the meet-cute and the awkwardness of the morning after. Still, how cool would it be if 30 seconds of that time was devoted to discussing birth control or if during the morning-after scene the camera panned by an open condom wrapper on the floor next to the crumpled jeans and casually tossed lacy bra. Over the years, public health professionals have partnered with television and movie producers to put out positive messages, and research has shown these can work to impart information and change viewer knowledge. Now we need to create new partnerships to change some of the messages teens see in movies so that they promote healthier sexual relationships including those that show safer sexual behavior like use of condoms and other contraceptive methods.

In the meantime, I don’t believe sheltering our kids from content is the answer. I’m not sure it’s possible with today’s technology that lets kids watch a movie practically anywhere, but even if it were I prefer a more moderate approach. Know what they plan to watch, rule out what is clearly inappropriate, and use the rest as a learning opportunity. I was recently with a friend when his ten-year-old son asked if he could see the new Batman movie. My friend said that he had to go see it first and then would decide if they could see it together. I think this was a perfect answer. Know what they’re watching and whenever possible watch it with them so that you can answer any questions or challenge any depictions of sexual relationships that don’t fit with your values or the messages you want to convey.  

“She just met him, and she says she loves him?”;

“I realize that the plot of this movie is all about strangers who have to raise a baby together and if she’d used a condom it would be over, but that was a pretty dumb decision.”; 

“I think I’d rather you leave my apple pies alone but you know it’s okay to masturbate, right.”

I’m sure many of these openers will be met with eye rolls but it proves you’re there to talk to and if even one of them starts a good conversation you are officially ahead of the game. 

I’d love to end this article by saying that watching Hot Tub Time Machine with their Aunt the Sex Educator was edifying for my niece and nephew, that I took my own advice and started enlightening conversations about sexual behavior and relationships, and that I answered questions they had had for years but were afraid to ask. Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure I spent most of the movie snoring next to them on the couch. The good news is that they have an aunt who is a sex educator and parents who would rather answer questions than keep them in the dark, so I’m confident that they came out of our foray into bad and inappropriate movies unscathed.       

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