Media and Sexuality Essay

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The production of media with the inclusion of sexuality is focused on a product that seeks to attract a diverse audience. Nudity and physical sexual activity are incorporated as part of the entertainment experience. Television and movies, as a form of visual media, reach this goal through a focus on needs and gratification. The needs and gratification approach is aimed at giving the audience what they desire as a form of reinforcement. Sexuality would be a good basic impulse reinforced through this process. Sexual content serves to attract and hold audience attention through reinforcement with conspicuous imagery. The utilization of sexuality in motion pictures, and to a more limited extent on commercial television, is now more prevalent with changes in social acceptance of such material. There is a social link between the expansion of sexuality in media and the social values of a given time and place. Cultural change is not widespread, and some places or communities will be more receptive than others to sexual content.

Historical Connections

The connection between media and sexuality must be understood within a historical perspective. Motion pictures produced during the 1930s through the 1960s were largely governed by the Hays Code. Will Hays was appointed the head of a commission designed to ensure that motion pictures maintained basic family values. Content was screened for offensive language, explicit images, and adult content. Films had to focus on clean content without any hint or entendre of sexual activity or sexual intention. The advent of the 1960s featured such films as The Graduate and Easy Rider. Success of these and similar films led to the message that sexuality was a potent element in attracting larger audiences. Such was the case when movies were criticized for excessive violence. The motion picture studios showed that films needed to utilize sexuality to maintain a consistent audience. Television media followed the same pattern. Development of the television media from the 1940s to 1960s relied on nationally televised programs reflecting middle-class families and their contrived everyday lives. Leave It to Beaver, I Love Lucy, and Father Knows Best were some of the programs concerned with nuclear family structures and a seeming disinterest in sexual expression. This theme changed when the innocence of the 1950s was replaced by a coming of age during the 1960s. Television dramas and family comedies incorporated sexual images and more powerful themes. Married couples no longer slept in single beds or chose to disrobe to a certain degree. As time went on, partial nudity became more permissible.

Changing Social Standards

The connection between media and sexuality is reflected by a constantly changing social landscape. Nudity and blatant sexuality became a mainstay on cable television. Films and television programs could be shown uncensored for language or nudity because such fare was provided on a paid subscription basis. The Sopranos on HBO would be one such case. The explanation is that consenting adults voluntarily chose to watch such programming. But there are still some contradictions. Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” is still the subject of heavy fines levied by the Federal Communications Commission. However, both daytime and nighttime television historically contain partial nudity or explicit or double-entendre language (e.g., Jerry Springer as a daytime show and such programs as NYPD Blue or Three’s Company). The same concerns can be expressed for the depiction of sexuality on daytime serials (otherwise known as soap operas).

Sociological Expression Of Sexual Content

One can argue that sexuality is a mediated factor in the expression of social values. The depiction or expression of sexuality is influenced by accepted mores or social expectations. One can now utilize words such as pregnant on network television today versus when I Love Lucy was produced during the early 1950s. In particular, society sets fluid standards for when such content is appropriate. There is a vast difference between network programming after approximately 10 p.m. and family-oriented programs earlier in the evening. Adult situations or language are shown later in the evening to avoid objections from families with younger children. In addition, there is a nationwide concern with the expression of community values. Miller v. CA (1972) served as an important U.S. Supreme Court case focusing on pornography, adult materials, and media content. The Court focused on community values as a basic criterion defining appropriate sexual or other content within local media. On the basis of this case, there were lawsuits against the publication of Hustler magazine in some parts of the country, the screening of Deep Throat in other areas, and community petitions requesting the removal of the Playboy Cable Channel in some parts of the United States. As a result of a failure to reconcile acceptable criteria delineating the relationship between media and sexual content, the courts and media producers are aiming toward safer programming and tighter “over air” (as opposed to cable) restrictions.


  1. Arthur, J. (2004). Television and sexuality: Regulation and politics of taste. New York: Open University Press.
  2. Key, W. B. (1974). Subliminal seduction: Ad media’s manipulation of a not so innocent America. New York: Signet.

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