The Case for More Sex on TV!
Everywhere you look on TV, it’s sex, sex, sex. Rachel and Finn are almost ready to have sex in TV’s most painful courtship. Kurt’s fighting off Sebastian in his quest to bed Blaine. And Zooey Deschanel, star of the maddeningly unwatchable “comedy” New Girl, seems barely able to talk about anything else.
While these plotlines make for dull entertainment, they may be good for our sexual health, according to a trio of Ohio State researchers. In a study released this summer, Emily Moyer-Guse, Adrienne H. Chung and Parul Jain suggest that watching conversations about safe sex on television helps individuals model those behaviors in real life. Watching television characters – and especially characters with whom we relate – navigate discussions of their sexual health and history provides a “social script” for us to mimic those behaviors in our own lives. Basically, we’re just copying Rachel, Kurt and Jess as they navigate discussions about sex.
As extra credit for one of their courses, 234 undergraduate students watched one of three episodes of Sex in the City. (For the record, I hope the researchers got approval from their Institutional Review Board before subjecting students to such a painful treatment condition.) One-third of the sample watched an episode where Samantha & Co. openly discussed sexually transmitted infections (STI) and their sexual histories. One-third of the sample watched an episode where STIs were part of the plotline, but were not openly discussed between characters. The final third watched an episode without mention of STIs or characters’ sexual histories. Students completed a post-test evaluation immediately after their viewing, followed by a second post-test evaluation two weeks later, detailing their own sexual behaviors and discussions.
The researchers hypothesize that television characters provide the narrative scripts for our own lives. After watching episodes where characters discuss their sexual health and history, they argue that students are more likely to model that behavior. Where the episodes don’t contain such discussions, students don’t learn the narrative scripts to talk about sex and sexual history.
In the immediate post-test after watching the episodes, the research finds no difference between groups when asked about their discussions of STIs and sexual histories. Students who viewed the episodes that included the STI storylines were no more likely to report themselves likely to discuss STIs with their partners, health care providers, or friends, and were no more likely to report that they would get tested. However, things shifted in the two-week period following their viewing. Students who watched the Sex and the City episode where sexual discussions took place were significantly more likely to have engaged in discussions of safe sex during the two-week period following their viewing. In other words, “exposure to the characters modeling sexual discussions increased related behavior over the subsequent two weeks.”
The findings are particularly robust for sexually active participants in the sample. Watching Samantha and the girls babble about STIs significantly increased the likelihood that sexually active students discussed STIs with their partners. And while only a minority of students engaged in these discussions, “participants (who watched the storyline where STIs and sexual history were discussed) were more than twice as likely to engage in sexual health conversations after exposure (to the episode of Sex and the City) than either of the comparison conditions.”
The moral of the story is clear: More sex on TV! When it comes to discussions of sexual history, Jess (oh god), Finn (oh, help!), Kurt (please no!) and Samantha (seriously?!) are good role models. When they talk openly about their sexual histories, they provide a narrative script for us to talk about our own.