Greater Exposure to Sexual Content in Popular Movies Predicts Earlier Sexual Debut and Increased Sexual Risk Taking (2015)

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Psychol Sci. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2013 Sep 23.
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PMCID: PMC3779897


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Early sexual debut is associated with risky sexual behavior and an increased risk of unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections later in life. The relations among early movie sexual exposure (MSE), sexual debut, and risky sexual behavior in adulthood (i.e., multiple sexual partners and inconsistent condom use) were examined in a longitudinal study of U.S. adolescents. MSE was measured using the Beach method, a comprehensive procedure for media content coding. Controlling for characteristics of adolescents and their families, analyses showed that MSE predicted age of sexual debut, both directly and indirectly through changes in sensation seeking. MSE also predicted engagement in risky sexual behaviors both directly and indirectly via early sexual debut. These results suggest that MSE may promote sexual risk taking both by modifying sexual behavior and by accelerating the normal rise in sensation seeking during adolescence.

Keywords: mass media, sex

The effects of media on adolescents’ risk behaviors, including tobacco use (), alcohol use (), and aggression (), have been widely documented. Relatively less is known, however, about how media influence adolescents’ sexual behavior, including their age of sexual debut and subsequent sexual risk taking. Early sexual debut is associated with an increased number of sexual partners and inconsistent condom use, as well as an increased risk of sexually transmitted infections (STIs; ). Delaying adolescents’ sexual debut, therefore, could curb U.S. rates of STIs (more than 9 million new cases occur annually among adolescents; ), and could potentially reduce instances of unplanned pregnancy (roughly 64 unplanned pregnancies occur for every 1,000 female adolescents age 19 or younger; ). Identifying risk factors for early sexual debut and sexual risk taking, therefore, is an important public-health concern. One significant influence on engagement in risky sexual behavior may be media ()—specifically, movie sexual exposure (MSE). In the study reported here, we examined the association of MSE with sexual debut and engagement in risky sexual behaviors, both directly and indirectly through changes in sensation seeking.

Sex in the Movies

Popular movies provide adolescents with a wealth of sexual exposure, much of which may promote risk behaviors. A survey of movies released from 1950 to 2006 revealed that more than 84% contained sexual content (68% of G-rated movies, 82% of PG-rated movies, 85% of PG-13-rated movies, and 88% of R-rated movies; ). Also, the sexual explicitness of PG-13-rated and R-rated movies has increased over the past decade (). Potentially even more important for adolescents’ sexual health, however, is that most of these movies do not portray safe sex. A content analysis revealed that 70% of the sexual acts depicted in movies released from 1983 to 2003 occurred between newly acquainted partners, 98% included no reference to contraception, and 89% resulted in no consequences (). Additionally, found that only 9% of sexual content in movies contained messages promoting sexual health. Adolescents who watch popular movies, therefore, are exposed to a great deal of sex, most of which is portrayed in an unrealistic and/or risk-promoting manner.

How Media Influence Sexual Behavior

posited that the effect of media on sexual behavior is driven by the acquisition and activation of sexual scripts. Scripts provide behavioral options in social situations, including those that may lead to sexual behavior, and the content of scripts is often influenced by media. As mentioned in the previous section, movies generally offer permissive and risky sexual messages to viewers (; ), and a higher degree of sexual media exposure has been found to predict more permissive sexual attitudes (; ). Furthermore, adolescents sometimes seek out sexual media, possibly to learn these scripts (). In fact, 57% of U.S. adolescents (ages 14–16) reported using media as a primary source of sexual information ().

Activated scripts must be applied to guide behavior, and media can influence which sexual scripts are used (). Among adolescents with high MSE, the sexual scripts portrayed in movies may be readily accessible because of the frequency of prior activations. The more easily a script is activated, the more likely it is to be applied in a given situation. In fact, longitudinal studies have shown that a greater degree of television sexual exposure predicts greater engagement in noncoital sexual activities among adolescents () and earlier sexual debut (; ; ), controlling for demographic factors, religiosity, and parenting. Furthermore, greater exposure to sexual content in media, including movies, television, music, and magazines, has been associated with both a higher likelihood of engaging in noncoital sexual activities among adolescents (; ; ) and earlier sexual debut (), controlling for adolescents’ and their parents’ characteristics. Finally, greater exposure to movies and men’s magazines has been associated with earlier sexual debut and a greater number of casual partners among male college students, effects mediated by sexual norms and beliefs (). These results lend support to Wright’s model by showing that sexual media influence both sexual attitudes and behavior.

Effects of Movies on Adolescents’ Risk Behavior

Despite the plethora of sex depicted in movies and the popularity of movies among youth, much more research has been devoted to the influence of television on adolescents’ sexual behavior. We were interested in the effect of MSE on sexual debut and engagement in risky sexual behaviors because evidence suggests that adolescents’ sexual attitudes and behavior are influenced more by movies than by other forms of media (; ). For example, in a study of male college students (), only exposure to movies (as compared with exposure to television, music videos, and men’s magazines) directly predicted age of sexual debut, and exposure to movies (along with exposure to men’s magazines) indirectly predicted number of casual sexual partners. Moreover, longitudinal studies of movies’ influence on adolescents’ substance use have shown strong and consistent effects: Exposure to tobacco use in movies predicts initiation and escalation of smoking (; ; ), and exposure to drinking in movies predicts initiation and escalation of alcohol use (; ; ; ).

Our goal in the study reported here was to examine the effects of early MSE (i.e., before age 16) on age of sexual debut and risky sexual behaviors (i.e., multiple sexual partners and inconsistent condom use) in adulthood. These relations were assessed using data from a longitudinal study of U.S. adolescents (). We employed the Beach method to estimate participants’ exposure to risky sexual behaviors portrayed in movies (). This method entails second-by-second coding of risk behaviors in movies to maximize validity and reliability, and it allowed for a more comprehensive sampling of popular movies than has been used in previous studies. It has been validated in studies among youth of movies’ effects on smoking (e.g., ) and on alcohol use and alcohol-related problems (e.g., ). The current study was the first to use the Beach method to estimate MSE and examine its relations with sexual debut and risky sexual behaviors.

Effects of Movies on Sensation Seeking

There is reason to believe that MSE influences sexual behavior indirectly by increasing sensation seeking—the tendency to seek novel and intense stimulation (). Sensation seeking rises during adolescence, peaking between the ages of 10 and 15, and then declines through late adolescence (). Greater sensation seeking is associated with both earlier sexual debut () and more frequent engagement in casual sex in adulthood (). It is important to note that sensation seeking arises from both biological and socialization factors (), which suggests that environmental influences, such as MSE, could affect the development of this trait. In fact, research with the sample used in the current study showed that watching R-rated movies was associated with later increases in sensation seeking during adolescence (but not vice versa), which in turn increased the risk of tobacco and alcohol use during adolescence (; ). However, the mediating effect of sensation seeking has not been tested, to our knowledge, with respect to media’s influence on sexual behavior. In the current study, therefore, we examined whether changes in sensation seeking mediated the anticipated relations of MSE with sexual debut and with risky sexual behaviors.

The Current Study

This study expanded upon past research in several ways. First, previous studies combined MSE with exposure to sexual content in other media (e.g., ), thereby obscuring the effect of MSE. In our analysis, we focused exclusively on MSE. Second, the Beach method allowed for the content coding of more than 600 popular movies released over a 6-year period, a much larger sampling than has been used in previous research. Third, few studies of movies’ effects on sexual behavior have been longitudinal; the duration over which the data analyzed in our study were collected allowed us to examine both sexual debut and postdebut sexual outcomes that could result in STIs or unplanned pregnancies. Finally, this study was the first to examine whether media effects on engagement in risky sexual behaviors are mediated by changes in sensation seeking. Specifically, our hypotheses were as follows:

  • Hypothesis 1: Early MSE predicts age of sexual debut, an effect mediated by increases in sensation seeking.
  • Hypothesis 2: Early MSE predicts engagement in risky sexual behaviors (i.e., increased number of sexual partners and frequency of casual sex without a condom) approximately 6 years later, an effect mediated by age of sexual debut.


Participants and procedure

These data were collected in a six-wave longitudinal study spanning from June 2003 to October 2009. At Time 1, data were collected in a random-digit-dial telephone survey of 6,522 adolescents, from 10 to 14 years of age, living in the United States. The subsequent three follow-up surveys were conducted approximately every 8 months; the final two follow-ups occurred approximately 5 years and 7 years after Time 1. At Time 6, 2,718 participants responded (38.2% retention), but only participants who were 18 years of age or older (n = 1,300) were asked to report their sexual behavior. To ensure that MSE had occurred before sexual debut, we omitted from the analysis participants whose sexual debut occurred before Time 2 (n = 72), which left a final sample of 1,228 participants. Participants in the final sample were between 12 and 14 years old at Time 1 (M = 12.89 years, SD = 0.79) and between 18 and 21 years old at Time 6 (M = 18.90 years, SD = 0.81). The sample comprised 611 males (49.8%) and 617 females (50.2%); 891 were European American (72.6%), 159 were Hispanic (12.9%), 71 were African American (5.8%), and 107 were of other racial or ethnic backgrounds (8.7%). Participants lost at follow-up were at greater risk for early sexual debut and engagement in risky sexual behavior at Time 1 than were those who were retained in the sample. The participants who were not retained reported higher MSE and sensation seeking and lower maternal responsiveness, and were more likely to have a television in their bedroom (ps < .001). Also, significantly more minorities than European Americans were lost at follow-up (p < .02).


MSE was measured using the Beach method. At Time 1, the 523 top-grossing movies released between 1998 and 2003 were coded for the number of seconds of sexual content, which was defined as instances of sexual behavior, such as heavy kissing or intercourse. Each movie was rated by one of two trained coders, and a random subsample of 10% of the movies was double-coded (interrater agreement: r = .92). Each participant received a unique list of 50 movies randomly selected from the larger pool and reported which of those movies he or she had seen. These data were used to extrapolate participants’ total exposure to sexual content from all 523 movies. The same procedure was used at Time 2 with a smaller pool of movies (161), comprising the top-grossing movies released since the previous content coding. (The number of seconds of sexual content in selected representative movies is presented in Table S1 in the Supplemental Material available online.) We calculated MSE by converting seconds of sexual content into hours, summing the hours of sexual content viewed at Time 1 and Time 2, and performing a square-root transformation to correct for positive skew.

Sensation seeking was measured with a four-item scale designed for children (Time 1: α = .60; Time 2: α = .58; ). This measure tapped two of four constructs identified by as important components of sensation seeking, thrill/adventure seeking and boredom susceptibility; in addition, it tapped intensity seeking, a component of the Arnett Inventory of Sensation Seeking (). Participants responded to each item using a scale from 1 to 4, with higher scores indicating higher sensation seeking. Each participant’s scores were summed. This measure has been validated for predicting adolescents’ tobacco and alcohol use (; ).

Age of sexual debut was reported by participants at Time 6. Risky sexual behavior was measured at Time 6 and comprised two components: lifetime number of vaginal- or oral-sex partners (open response) and number of instances of casual sex (defined as vaginal sex not with a “serious or steady dating partner”) without a condom (reported using a scale from 0, never, to 5, five or more times). Scores for these two items were recoded into ordinal variables and combined, α = .62.1

Covariates related to both MSE and sexual behavior (including sensation seeking) were measured at Time 1. Gender, race, and age were reported by participants’ parents. Participants reported how often they attended church or engaged in religious activities, how many hours of television they viewed each day, whether they had a television in their bedroom, and with whom they lived (a measure used to code family structure as either intact or divided). Participants also completed a nine-item maternal-responsiveness measure (α = .71) and a seven-item maternal-demandingness measure (α = .59; ). Finally, we controlled for MSE that occurred between Time 2 and participants’ sexual debut.2 Including this covariate allowed us to focus specifically on early MSE (i.e., before age 16) as a predictor of sexual debut and engagement in risky sexual behaviors, controlling for subsequent MSE.


Descriptive statistics

The median MSE was 0.93 hr (interquartile range: 0.43 hr–1.32 hr). Sensation seeking was generally low, M = 7.90 (SD = 2.39) at Time 1 and M = 8.07 (SD = 2.32) at Time 2. By Time 6, 774 participants (63.0%) had sexually debuted: 40 (5.2%) before age 15, 79 (10.2%) at age 15, 190 (24.5%) at age 16, 223 (28.8%) at age 17, and 242 (31.2%) at age 18 or older. Among sexually active participants, the median number of lifetime sexual partners was 2 (interquartile range: 1–4 partners), and 195 of these participants (25.2%) reported that they had had casual sex without a condom.

Gender differences

Male and female participants were equally likely to have sexually debuted by Time 6; moreover, males and females sexually debuted at approximately the same age and reported similar MSE. Males, however, reported having more sexual partners (M = 3.43, SD = 5.94) than did females (M = 2.48, SD = 3.91), t(1221) = 3.48, p = .001, and engaging in casual sex without a condom more frequently (M = 0.43, SD = 1.14) than did females (M = 0.29, SD = 0.87), t(1223) = 2.37, p < .02. Males also reported higher sensation seeking than females at both Time 1 and Time 2, ts(≥ 1195) ≥ 3.70, ps < .001.

Zero-order correlations

Table 1 displays the full correlation matrix, by gender. Higher MSE was associated with earlier sexual debut, more sexual partners, more frequent casual sex without a condom, and higher sensation seeking for both genders, ps < .001. The relationship between MSE and sexual debut, however, was significantly stronger for males, r(595) = −.33, than for females, r(585) = −.21; z = 2.19, p < .03. Higher sensation seeking was also associated with earlier sexual debut, more sexual partners, and more frequent casual sex without a condom among both genders, ps < .01. Finally, earlier sexual debut was associated with more sexual partners and more frequent casual sex without a condom for both genders, ps < .001.

Table 1 
Correlations Between Study Variables

Survival analysis

To examine predictors of sexual debut, we performed a Cox proportional-hazards regression with MSE at Times 1 and 2, sensation seeking at Time 2, and the covariates entered into the model (Table 2). Omnibus tests of the model’s coefficients showed that the model was significant, χ2(13, N = 1,133) = 805.01, p < .001. The hazard ratio for MSE was 5.38, p < .001, indicating that for each 1-hr increase in MSE on a square-root scale, the hazard of debut at each age increased more than 5 times. Other significant predictors of sexual debut included change in sensation seeking (hazard ratio = 1.11, p < .001), gender (females debuted later than males; hazard ratio = 0.81, p = .006), family structure (participants from divided homes debuted earlier than did those from intact homes; hazard ratio = 1.22, p = .030), and having a television in the bedroom (hazard ratio = 1.20, p = .024). The survival analysis was also performed separately for each gender. The model for each gender was significant, but the influence of MSE on sexual debut was stronger for males (hazard ratio = 6.71, p < .001) than for females (hazard ratio = 4.24, p < .001). Including an MSE × Gender interaction in the model showed this difference to be significant, p = .01 (see Fig. 1).

Fig. 1 
Adjusted survival curves for age of sexual debut for males and females with high versus low movie sexual exposure (MSE), as determined on the basis of median splits.
Table 2 
Results of the Cox Regression for Age of Sexual Debut

Structural equation model

A structural equation model predicting risky sexual behavior at Time 6 was evaluated using the robust weighted least squares approach in Mplus 6.12 (). Sexual debut was recoded as an ordinal variable (1 = 14 years of age or younger, 2 = 15 years of age, 3 = 16 years of age, 4 = 17 years of age, 5 = ≥ 18 years of age or older; participants who were virgins at Time 6 were coded as 5). MSE summed from Times 1 and 2 was exogenous in the model; sensation seeking at Time 2, age of sexual debut, and risky sexual behavior at Time 6 were endogenous. Sensation seeking was specified as a multi-indicator manifest variable, MSE and age of sexual debut were specified as single-indicator manifest variables, and risky sexual behavior at Time 6 was specified as a latent variable with two indicators: number of lifetime partners (factor loading = .90) and instances of casual sex without a condom (factor loading = .81).

The structural model (Fig. 2) provided an excellent fit to the data, χ2(12, N = 1,133) = 11.11, p > .51; root-mean-square error of approximation (RMSEA) < .001; confirmatory fit index = 1.00; Tucker-Lewis index > 1.00. This model explained 72% of the variance in age of sexual debut and 58% of the variance in risky sexual behavior at Time 6. Results supported Hypothesis 1: The indirect effect of MSE on age of sexual debut via changes in sensation seeking was significant, β = −0.01, p < .002 (MSE → changes in sensation seeking: β = 0.09, p < .001; changes in sensation seeking → age of sexual debut: β = −0.14, p < .001). Also, MSE directly predicted age of sexual debut, β = −0.33, p < .001. Results also supported Hypothesis 2: MSE indirectly predicted risky sexual behavior at Time 6. The indirect effect of MSE on risky sexual behavior at Time 6 via age of sexual debut was significant, β = 0.21, p < .001 (age of sexual debut → risky sexual behaviors at Time 6: β = −0.64, p < .001), as was the indirect effect via changes in sensation seeking and age of sexual debut, β = 0.01, p < .005. Finally, MSE directly predicted risky sexual behavior at Time 6, β = 0.10, p < .05.

Fig. 2 
Effects of movie sexual exposure (MSE) on risky sexual behavior as mediated by changes in sensation seeking and age of sexual debut. MSE was measured at Times 1 and 2; the two components of risky sexual behavior (i.e., number of lifetime sexual partners ...

This model was modified to allow paths to vary by gender. The multigroup model also provided an excellent fit to the data, χ2(43, N = 1,133) = 30.38, p > .92; RMSEA < .001; confirmatory fit index = 1.00; Tucker-Lewis index > 1.00. Releasing the equality constraint on the path from MSE to age of sexual debut significantly improved model fit, χ2(1, N = 1,133) = 8.28, p < .005. The direct effect of MSE on age of sexual debut was stronger for males, b = −2.41, p < .001, than for females, b = −1.38, p < .001; however, the total indirect effects of MSE on risky sexual behavior at Time 6 were similar for males, β = 0.24, p < .001, and females, β = 0.17, p < .001.


Higher early MSE (before age 16) predicted more risky sexual behaviors (i.e., a higher number of lifetime sexual partners and more frequent casual sex without a condom) in adulthood, and it did so both directly and indirectly, via earlier sexual debut. This result supports previous findings that sexual media diet predicts age of sexual debut (e.g., ), and it extends those findings to suggest that MSE has a lasting influence on risky sexual behaviors in adulthood (). MSE also predicted sexual debut indirectly through an increase in sensation seeking. This finding provides further evidence that exposure to movies with sexual content may accelerate the normal rise in sensation seeking during adolescence (), thereby promoting risky behavior generally (; ). Finally, the influence of MSE on sexual debut and risky sexual behavior at Time 6 was stronger among males than females, although its influence on sensation seeking was similar between the genders. It is worth noting that the sizes of the effects of MSE on sexual behavior ranged from medium (|.33|) to small (|.01|). However, the largest direct effect was found for the influence of MSE on sexual debut. These results suggest that MSE may have a greater impact on other potential mediating mechanisms, such as changes in attitudes () or sexual scripts (). Given the prevalence of MSE among adolescents, we believe that even small effects of MSE have important implications for adolescents’ sexual health.

Reducing risky sexual behaviors

Our results suggest that restricting adolescents’ MSE would delay their sexual debut and also reduce their engagement in risky sexual behaviors later in life. This strategy could attenuate the direct influence of media on adolescents’ sexual behavior by limiting the acquisition of risky sexual scripts and/or reducing their likelihood of activation (). In addition, restricting MSE may retard the increase in sensation seeking normally experienced during adolescence (), which, in turn, could delay sexual debut and subsequent engagement in risky sexual behaviors (; ). Limiting youths’ MSE may be a difficult task, however, given the copious amounts of sex portrayed in movies (; ). One promising approach would involve incorporating media-literacy training into sexual education. A recent intervention showed that a peer-led sexual-media-literacy curriculum increased ninth-grade students’ self-efficacy in resisting peer pressure with regard to sexual behavior, reduced their perception of the normative prevalence of sexual activity during adolescence, and improved their attitudes toward abstinence ().

Limitations and future directions

Some limitations of our study should be acknowledged. First, participants lost at follow-up were at greater risk for early sexual debut and risky sexual behavior than were those retained in the study, a pattern typical in longitudinal research (). This biased attrition may have resulted in an underestimation of the true effect of MSE on sexual outcomes. Second, our results may not generalize to nations with sexual-education curricula and sexual norms that differ from those of the United States, although effects of media exposure on alcohol and tobacco use have been found to be similar among U.S. adolescents and samples from other countries (e.g., ). Third, participants did not report their sexual behavior until they were at least 18 years old, and their retrospective memory for age of sexual debut, number of sexual partners, and instances of casual sex without a condom may therefore have been biased. This would be more problematic if these biases were associated with MSE (e.g., if adolescents who watched more movies with sexual content were more likely to exaggerate their sexual experience).

Our data also did not include measures of other factors that may confound relations between MSE and sexual behavior, such as the sexual behavior of siblings and peers, parental attitudes toward sex, and pubertal status (although we controlled for age). Likewise, we were unable to examine cognitive or psychosocial mediators of the effect of MSE on age of sexual debut and engagement in risky sexual behaviors. Previous studies using the same data for these mediators have shown that movies’ effects on substance use are mediated by changes in perceived favorability of typical substance users (i.e., substance-user prototypes), behavioral willingness to use substances, expectancies regarding substance use, and substance use among peers (; ; ). Future research should examine potential mediators to explore why seeing sex on the big screen translates into having sex in the real world.

Future studies should also attempt to differentiate the effects of MSE from the effects of exposure to portrayals of other risk behaviors in popular movies, especially with regard to changes in sensation seeking. It is unclear whether changes in sensation seeking were related specifically to MSE or to other co-occurring elements of adult-oriented movies (e.g., alcohol use; ). An important avenue for future work will be to examine whether the effects of MSE on sexual behavior are partly attributable to exposure to portrayals of drinking in movies and subsequent alcohol use (e.g., ), given that adolescents’ alcohol use and risky sexual behaviors are inherently intertwined ().

Finally, our results may have been moderated by race. African Americans tend to sexually debut at a younger age, engage in more risky sexual behaviors, and contract more STIs than do European Americans (; ; ). However, African Americans also tend to be less responsive than European Americans to media depictions of sex () and alcohol use (). Unfortunately, our study’s sample included too few African Americans for us to test moderation by race. Future research may allow for a better understanding of when and how movies influence youth, and how to impede this influence in order to promote healthier sexual behavior.



This research was funded by National Institutes of Health Grants CA077026 and AA015591 to James D. Sargent.


1Participants who were virgins at Time 6 were coded as never having had casual sex without a condom. However, because number of lifetime partners included oral-sex partners, 105 participants who were virgins (23.1% of virgins) had a risky-sexual-behavior score greater than zero.

2For example, this measure comprised MSE at Time 3 for participants whose sexual debut was prior to Time 4, but comprised MSE at Times 3, 4, and 5 for participants whose sexual debut was prior to Time 6.


Supplemental Material

Additional supporting information may be found at



Declaration of Conflicting Interests

The authors declared that they had no conflicts of interest with respect to their authorship or the publication of this article.



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