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The Sexualization Of Media And The Effect On Developing Minds

Updated on May 8, 2013

The widespread influence of media in the 21st century is inescapable. Around every corner is a billboard and every form of entertainment contains commercials or advertisements. In addition to the advertisements and commercials influencing their audience, the media meant for entertainment is also highly influential. The influence these forms of communication have over their audience has obvious and hidden effects, both of which can be either positively or negatively influential. An easy to spot example is the use of sex. It has been said over and over again, sex sells, and companies take full advantage of this. The effects this form of entertain-ment and advertisement has on viewers, especially developing minds, is a widespread topic of controversy. In order to better understand this topic, the idea of how sexualization is used will be defined, examples of sexualization will be presented, and reactions from several different demographics will be included.

Although it is easy to recognize the use of sex in media it is much harder to realize the direct effect it has on the audience it may or may not be intended for. To better understand exactly what sexualization is, it will be broken down. To begin, the use of sexualization has grown greatly in the last fifty years by a considerable amount. Not only has the method by which sexualization is present grown but also the way in which it is portrayed has expanded. As the University of South Carolina Berkley expresses it,

The media industries are no longer forced to portray husbands and wives occupying separate beds, and scenes of sexual activity are rarely avoided or quietly inferred. Sex in the mass media, especially on television, is becoming increasingly frequent and explicit (Sexuality in the Mass Media).

This increase in frequency makes it much easier for a wide range of audiences to view material which may be considered questionable for their age. Media moguls know this and by including sexual themes the material grabs developing adolescent minds. It is also fact that “the television programs that are most popular with adolescents have been found to be the most sexual in nature” (Sexuality in the Mass Media). This trend was recognized by producers and to keep viewers, “each new season television programs contain more sexual content than the previous year” (Sexuality in the Mass Media).

This information however in no way indicates that sexualization in media directly causes adolescents to make irresponsible choices, but viewing sexually related statistics involving teenagers in the United States confirms that with the rise in sexuality in media also causes a rise in teenage sexuality. A study conducted by Guttmacher Institute states that

Pregnancy rates among teenagers and young women in the United States rose steadily from the early 1970s to the early 1990s, increasing by about 21% among all women younger than 20 and 17% among women aged 20–24 during those two decades. (Kost, Henshaw and Carlin 4)

It is clear that because “by the time the average 18 year-old graduates from high school, he or she will have spent 15,000 hours watching television” (Sexuality in the Mass Media) that the increase in the sexual nature of media is directly relatable to the steady growth in teenage sexuality. Research also indicates that

Just as it is well established that media exposure influences social behaviors such as aggression and social stereotyping, there is a growing body of evidence documenting the possible effects of sexual content on television (Kunkel, Cope, and Biely).

Sources like the Journal of Sex Research confirm that evidence supporting the claim that sexual content in media such as television directly effects behavior. Media producers are smart. Their business is to put out ads, shows, music and videos games that people will buy, and they know exactly how to do that using science and common sense.

On the question of whether sex sells, it most definitely does. In fact, “Sex is the second strongest of the psychological appeals, right behind self-preservation” (Taflinger). Sexual desire is hardwired into the way animals work, and the criteria for a suitable mate is the basis of this desire. Because of this, humans are naturally drawn towards reproduction. However, the difference in male and female psychobiology makes the way each interprets and perceives sex different. This difference also accounts for the different methods each are programmed to use to choose a suitable mate. For men, the best method of reproduction is to be promiscuous. This increases his chances of producing as many offspring with his genes as possible. This makes the general criteria for a woman very simple: “she must be healthy; she must be young; she must be receptive; and she must be impregnable” (Taflinger). As far as advertising targeted towards men is concerned, the more women the better. Because men often look at women as sex objects, featuring them in advertisements as just that makes women effective advertising tools. Even if the women feature no connection to the product or show, their presence in the advertisement makes the product more appealing.

On the other hand, women are psychologically programmed much differently than men. Women have a stronger attraction physical and physiological need to produce children. Their selection of a mate is much more quality driven as opposed to the quantity that men seek. Selecting the best possible mate with the best genes to produce superior offspring is of paramount importance to a woman (Taflinger).

Beyond these biological and instinctual draws towards sex lies a uniquely human element. Humans can think. Humans choose a mate not solely on physical qualities but include “societal, cultural and economic criteria to desire and selection” (Taflinger). The biological elements still exist and the male draw to impregnate as many women as possible to produce a plethora of offspring is still present, however societal constraints and self control limit this drive to a socially acceptable level. However, men can often ignore this social aspect and choose a mate based solely on physically attraction, which is why using sex in advertisements applies highly to men. Women rarely ignore the social aspect as they are forefront in her decision. Women will even ignore the physical attractiveness if the male meets her social characteristics enough (Taflinger).

Using sex in advertising to appeal to men is much easier than it is to women. The mostly physical attraction that men have to women works perfect for advertisers, who are able to use the physical attractiveness of a women to their advantage in a quickly viewed advertisement. Men will subconsciously associate ‘getting’ the woman with buying the product. Most men realize that “women are less concerned with mere anatomy. Women are looking for more” (Taflinger) and buying this product increases their chances with a more suitable mate.

The use of sex in advertising to women is a completely different game. Physical attraction and sex are important, but not nearly as important as the importance sex has for the future. Advertisers are less likely to use sex to sell products to women but much more likely to use a fairly new idea, ‘Romance’. Romance meets the criteria that a woman searches for in a mate, thus making any product being advertised using romance more attractive to her.

Several different mediums are used to transmit sexually themed advertisements and commercials. The typical American home “had a television on for 8:18 each day” (Latest Television Facts). Figuring that during a 30 minute show approximately eight minutes are commercials, the average America television shows 132 minutes of commercials a day (How Much Do). Out of these 132 minutes of television commercials, “over 20% contain sexual content, up significantly in recent years” (The prevalence of sexual imagery). The companies that use these methods find them very successful.

Companies using sex to sell a product that have no connection are not uncommon. Companies such as Abercrombie & Fitch increased its sales from 50 million USD in 1992 to over 1.5 billion USD in 2001 after launching a sex filled matalog, a combination of a magazine and a catalog (The prevalence of sexual imagery). Another prominent example of using sex to sell a service completely non-sexual is The super bowl spot featuring Danica Patrick and other models in suggestive poses or sexual situations is intended to sell web site hosting services. According to Bob Parsons’s blog, the “Traffic to our Web site today is up over 4 times normal levels” (Allen) after the 30 second super bowl commercial. Regardless of the relevance to the product, advertisers recognize the important of grabbing the attention of their audience and including sexual themes gets the job accomplished. Companies both small and large are using this practice to boost sale and generate product attention.

In addition to small companies, Fortune 500 companies use sex as an advertising tool to sell products. Proctor and Gamble, number 25 on the list of 500 and owner of the beauty line Herbal Essence recently used a questionable commercial that was highly effective. The commercial in question features women faking orgasms while using the product to wash their hair. The tag line reads “A totally organic experience” (Allen). This approach generated some controversy along with a whole lot of money. In just seven short years the fairly new brand went from being worth nothing to being worth approximately seven hundred million dollars.

Many parents react strongly to the use of sexual themes in entertainment. According to

A new survey conducted by the Pew Research Center showed that 75% of the 1,505 adults polled from March 17-21 would like to see tighter enforcement of government rules on broadcast content, particularly when children are most likely to be watching (Facts and TV Statistics).

Three out of four adults believe that tighter government rules could help make the content more appropriate for children. If this large majority of adults believe that tighter restrictions should be implemented, it is safe to assume that they also believe that the content currently on television is inappropriate for the viewing audience, children.

In conclusion, using sex as an advertisement tool is very common as a whole and although effective the reaction by most is generally negative. Advertisers physiologically attack viewers and subliminally convince them to buy their products. Educated consumers are able to recognize this and some can avoid it, but when it targets children or those unable to recognize it becomes important to make all involved aware of the dangers that using sex as an advertising tool can present.

Works Cited

Allen, Scott. “Sex Sells? Oh Really?”. About, February 5, 2008. Web. April 7, 2011.


“Facts and TV Statistics” N.P. N.D. Web. April 7, 2011.


“How Much Do Television Ads Cost? - Television Advertising Costs – A Primer.” 2011.

April 7, 2011. <>

Kost K, Henshaw S and Carlin L. “U.S. Teenage Pregnancies, Births and Abortions:

National and State Trends and Trends by Race and Ethnicity.” 2010, April 1, 2011 <>.

Kunkel D, Cope K. M., Biely E. “Sexual Messaging on Television: Comparing Findings From Three

Studies” The Journal of Sex Research 36 (1999): n. pag. Web. 1 April 2011.

“Latest Television Facts” 2008. April 7, 2011.


“Sexuality in the Mass Media: How to View the Media Critically” 2003.

April 1, 2011. <>

Taflinger, Richard. “Taking Advantage - You and Me, Babe: Sex and Advertising” 1996.

April 5, 2011. <>

“The prevalence of sexual imagery in ads targeted to young adults.”

Journal of Consumer Affairs. N.P. December 22, 2003. Web. April 7, 2011.


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