UA Research Shows More Sexual Content on TV

Jeff Harrison
Nov. 10, 2005

If you think you're seeing more sex on television, you're probably right.

Researchers at The University of Arizona in Tucson are behind a biennial study released by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation that measures sexual content on television.

The "Sex on TV 4" report details how many shows across the television landscape include sexual content, including talk about sex and sexual behavior, references to safer sex, risks and responsibilities, how those findings vary by type of program and how the depiction of sex on television has or hasn't changed over the past seven years.

It is the largest study of sex on television to date. Researchers watched and analyzed 1,154 shows for the current study, and a total of 4,742 programs that include the three previous investigations.

Dale Kunkel, a professor of communication at the UA, and his colleagues cite a number of key findings in the report. Among them: the number of shows with sexual content has increased from 56 percent in the first study in 1997 to 70 percent, and the proportion of shows with sexual content during prime-time on the major networks has also increased from 67 to 77 percent in that time.

References to safer sex or the risks and responsibilities of sexual behavior remain rare, and following an increase in 2002, the proportion of shows with such references has leveled off. Some types of programs have incorporated more risk and responsibility messages than others.

The vast majority of characters who have sex on TV are portrayed as over 25 years of age, which is older than in years past. But only about 53 percent of all scenes with intercourse involve characters who have an established relationship with one another.

Both the proportion of shows that contain sexual content and the number of sexual scenes within shows have increased, doubling within the same time frame since the study began seven years ago.

Kunkel said that's important because there is increasing evidence that television influences teenagers' perception, attitudes and sexual behaviors. Despite the infusion of new media and high tech, television still dominates the media diets of most young people.

"Television can have a positive impact on the behavior of young people by promoting healthier sexual decisions, but such outcomes only occur when viewers see characters who are concerned about sexual patience or safe sex practices. Unfortunately, such portrayals occur just a very small part of the time in TV entertainment," Kunkel said.

Kunkel's colleagues at the UA communication department include Assistant Professor Keren Eyal, doctoral student Keli Finnerty and Professor Edward Donnerstein, dean of the UA College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. The Kaiser Family Foundation provided a $165,000 grant to fund the study.

Kunkel can be reached at 520-307-0698, or by e-mail at Eyal's fax number is 520-621-5504.

Related articles:

The Arizona Republic
The Washington Post
BBC News
Los Angeles Times
San Jose Mercury News


Resources for the media

Dale Kunkel
Editors Note:
The Kaiser Family Foundation has a news release, the Sex on TV 4 report, plus an executive summary and Webcast information online at:
Kaiser Foundation Sex on TV 4