What Is the Impact of Sexual Media on Mental Health?

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Psychologists and media scholars have been researching the impact of sexual content from TV, movies, music, and other mediums on people for decades, however results of these studies have been inconsistent.

While some analyses have found consuming media with sexual content has little to no impact on people, other studies have found exposure to sexual content and sexualized images can impact sexual attitudes and behavior, can contribute to body dissatisfaction, eating disorders, and low self-esteem, and is associated with depression and other mental health challenges.

Despite the inconsistencies in the research, the evidence for problems linked to sexual media exposure in both adolescence and adulthood is plentiful enough to be of concern.

What Is Sexual Media?

Sexual media encompasses a large category that can range from images in movies and on TV that are sexy but not explicit to pornography that portrays sexual acts.

Sarah Coyne and her colleagues defined sexual content in mainstream media for all age groups as "verbal or visual references to sexual relationships, courtship, or sexual acts." Meanwhile, pornography has been defined as "exposure to any sexually explicit material used to cause sexual arousal" and sexualized images, which can be seen in all kinds of media including advertising, are defined as "images that present the subject in a style suggestive of their sexual availability."

These different categories and definitions point to the plethora of sexual content available across different media.

How Much of Our Media Portrays Sexual Content?

In fact, it's estimated that 81% of major motion pictures and 82% of mainstream TV programs contain sexual content.

Moreover, the increased accessibility of the internet has greatly expanded the availability of pornography with thousands of people logging on to view sexually explicit content every second.

Sexual media often conveys messages about sex that may not be accurate or beneficial. For example, sexual content in mainstream media tends to feature plentiful risk-free casual sex and adheres to traditional gender roles for men and women.

The Impact of Sexual Content in Mainstream Media

Due to its prevalence, anyone who watches TV or movies today will almost inevitably consume some sexual content.

Sexual Behavior at an Early Age

A meta-analysis found that exposure to sexual content is associated with permissive sexual attitudes, risky sexual behaviors, and earlier sexual initiation, especially in adolescence. Although these relationships were small, they were significant, indicating that media can have a consequential impact on sexual attitudes and behaviors. This is an important finding as early sexual experimentation may lead to poor mental health.

Similarly, a task force of the American Psychological Association examining the sexualization of girls in all forms of media, including advertising, magazines, music lyrics, video games, movies, TV, and the internet, found that both girls and young women are negatively impacted by depictions of the sexualization of girls.

Body Dissatisfaction and Low Self-Esteem

The research suggests that exposure to these depictions lowered body confidence and comfort, led to self-image issues and low self-esteem, and was linked to mental health problems such as eating disorders, anxiety, and depression.

Finally, although research on sexual content in media has most often investigated its impact on adolescents and young adults, studies indicate older adults may be affected too.

For example, a study of Australian women over 60 years old found that exposure to sexualized images in newspapers, magazines, and TV led them to feel anger, fear, sadness, and dissatisfaction with their bodies. Moreover, sexualized images that promote negative messages about older women contributed to participants feeling marginalized or invisible, which for some of the women appeared to contribute to depression, self-loathing, and dissatisfaction.

The Impact of Pornography on Mental Health

Today, the internet enables both children and adults to easily access pornography, which makes understanding how exposure impacts mental health more important than ever. However, the research findings haven't always been consistent.

Risky Sexual Behavior

Studies have shown that Taiwanese children who consume pornography by eighth grade are more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior, including earlier sexual initiation, unsafe sex, and having multiple partners, between the ages of 18 and 25.

Negative Body Image

A review of multiple studies found that more frequent exposure to pornography by heterosexual adult men and women is associated with negative body image. And another study found that those who consumed sexually explicit media were more likely to report more depressive symptoms, lesser quality of life, and more days in which they suffered from poor mental health.

Likewise, an additional study found that gay and bisexual men who watched more pornography had more negative attitudes about their bodies and displayed symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Some Research Says Otherwise

On the other hand, a recent study found no significant relationship between the consumption of online pornography and outcomes such as body satisfaction and mental well-being. This left the researchers to conclude that the consumption of online pornography didn't play a role in people's sexual well-being or mental health.

Lessening the Impact of Sexual Media

Not every study has found that exposure to sexual media impacts those who consume it, however enough research has found evidence of negative outcomes that it is valuable to be familiar with methods to lessen those outcomes.

Make Children Aware of Unrealistic or Harmful Media

Some people seem to naturally be less impacted by sexual media due to personality factors, cognitive style, or family environment. For example, parents who actively watch TV with their children, drawing their attention to program elements that may be exaggerated, unrealistic, or damaging, teach children to think more critically about the messages behind the media they consume, which seems to buffer the impact of sexual media.

Building a Strong Sense of Self

Furthermore, the negative impacts of sexualized images on older women were shown to be minimized by several factors, including a strong sense of self that doesn't rely on appearance, feeling as though one's family and community value them, ignoring media content, and understanding that sexualized media images are unrealistic.

In fact, for girls and women, scholars have suggested that encouraging the adoption of a feminist identity can serve a protective function against sexual media because it challenges the traditional gender roles often depicted in such media.

Media Literacy Programs

In the end, media literacy programs may be the most valuable means for reducing the negative impacts of sexual media. Media literacy programs in school teach children and adolescents to notice and challenge the sexualized images and depictions of sex they are exposed to through all kinds of media.

Moreover, learning to be media literate in childhood will enable adults to make better decisions about the media they consume, be more critical of the sexual messages they're exposed to, and pass along those skills to their children.

10 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Cynthia Vinney, PhD
Cynthia Vinney, PhD is an expert in media psychology and a published scholar whose work has been published in peer-reviewed psychology journals.