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Number of Sexual Scenes on TV Nearly Double Since 1998

Kaiser Family Foundation

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Rate of "Safer Sex" Messages, Up From '98, Has Now Leveled Off

Despite Overall Increase in Sexual Content, Scenes with Sexual Intercourse are Down Slightly in Recent Years

Washington, D.C. -- The number of sexual scenes on television has nearly doubled since 1998, according to Sex on TV 4, a biennial study released today by the Kaiser Family Foundation. And while the inclusion of references to "safer sex" issues -- such as waiting to have sex, using protection, or possible consequences of unprotected sex -- has also increased since 1998, that rate has leveled off in recent years. The study examined a representative sample of more than 1,000 hours of programming including all genres other than daily newscasts, sports events, and children's shows. All sexual content was measured, including talk about sex and sexual behavior.

The study found that 70% of all shows include some sexual content, and that these shows average 5.0 sexual scenes per hour, compared to 56% and 3.2 scenes per hour respectively in 1998, and 64% and 4.4 scenes per hour in 2002. These increases combined represent nearly twice as many scenes of sexual content on TV since 1998 (going from 1,930 to 3,780 scenes in the program sample totaling a 96% increase between 1998 and 2005). But despite these overall increases in sexual content, the number of shows in which sexual intercourse is either depicted or strongly implied is down slightly in recent years (7% in 1998, 14% in 2002, and 11% in 2005).

Among shows with any sexual content, 14% include at least one scene with a reference to sexual risks or responsibilities -- up from 9% in 1998, but approximately the same rate as in 2002 (15%). In shows with intercourse-related content, more than one in four (27%) includes a reference to sexual risks or responsibilities. This is nearly double the rate found in 1998 (14%), but approximately the same as in 2002 (26%).

"Given how high the stakes are, the messages TV sends teens about sex are important," said Vicky Rideout, a Kaiser Family Foundation Vice President who oversaw the study. "Television has the power to bring issues of sexual risk and responsibility to life in a way that no sex ed class or public health brochure really can."

Sex on TV 4 was released today at a forum that included opening remarks by Kaiser Family Foundation President and CEO Drew Altman, a keynote speech by Senator Barack Obama, and a roundtable discussion featuring Federal Communications Commission Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy; Fox Television Networks President and CEO Tony Vinciquerra; Law & Order: SVU Executive Producer Neal Baer; behavioral scientist and RAND Corporation Researcher, Rebecca Collins; and National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy Executive Director Sarah Brown. A webcast of the event will be available after 5 p.m. ET today at http://www.kaisernetwork.org/healthcast/kff/09nov05 .

"The increase in the number of TV shows with sexual content, combined with the increase in sexual scenes per show has led to a dramatic overall increase in sexual content on TV since 1998," said Dale Kunkel, lead researcher on the study and University of Arizona professor. "During the same period, the percentage of these shows that include "safer sex" messages has also increased significantly, but has leveled off in recent years."

Additional findings:

Sexual Content on TV

  • Among the top 20 most watched shows by teens, 70% include sexual content, and nearly half (45%) include sexual behavior.
  • During prime time hours sex is even more common with nearly 8 in 10 (77%) shows including sexual content, averaging 5.9 sexual scenes per hour.
  • Two-thirds (68%) of all shows include talk about sex and 35% of all shows include sexual behaviors.
  • Reality shows are the only genre of programming in which less than two-thirds (28%) of shows include sexual content. The percentage of shows with sexual content by genre includes movies 92%, sitcoms 87%, drama series 87%, and soap operas 85%.

Safer Sex Messages

  • Two-thirds of all references to sexual risks or responsibilities on TV are "minor or inconsequential," compared to one-third that are "substantial" or "primary" elements of the scene. Since the first study was conducted in 1998 this ratio has remained consistent.
  • One in nine (11%) network prime time shows with sex include a reference to risks or responsibilities. This rate in prime time has held relatively steady over the years -- 11% in 1998 and 13% in 2002.
  • Among the 20 most highly rated shows for teen viewers, 10% of those with sexual content include a reference to sexual risks or responsibilities at some point in the episode.
  • Over the past seven years, more and more Hollywood writers have incorporated health messages into their programming," said Vicky Rideout. "But the potential is there to do much more."

Sexual Intercourse

  • The vast majority (89%) of characters on TV involved in sexual intercourse appear to be adults age 25 or older. One in ten (10%) appear to be teens or young adults, down from one in four (26%) in 1998 and one in six (17%) in 2002.
  • About half of all scenes with intercourse (53%) involve characters who have an established relationship with one another. Fifteen percent of scenes present characters having sex when they have just met -- up from 7% in 2002.

Read the entire report on the Kaiser Family Foundation website (new window will open).

Posted: 11-Nov-05

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