Psychosexual correlates of viewing sexually explicit sex on television among women in the Netherlands

Psychosexual correlates of viewing sexually explicit sex on television among women in the NetherlandsDuring the last decade, the amount of sexually explicit programs on both public and commercial Dutch television has increased enormously. What is offered to the viewers varies from often soft, but sometimes hard-core, porn movies to very explicit documentaries about ordinary and less ordinary people's sexual lives. Although many commentators seem to wonder, it had not been investigated to what extent Dutch women watch these programs, what their reasons for watching would be, and what their reactions to these programs are. This study was designed to explore frequency, motives, and reactions related to watching sexually explicit sex on TV (SETV) among women in The Netherlands, with the aim to collect more descriptive data on the subject. Although this was a correlational study, and causal inferences cannot be made, self-report of reactions to SETV may shed some light on the effects exposure to SETV may have on women.

The international scientific literature in this area is remarkably sparse. Although we know a fair amount about the ubiquity of sexual content in the media, not in the least on television, we still know relatively little about the effects of exposure to sexual media content on sexual behaviors and attitudes (Brown, 2000a). Some studies have associated viewing of sexually oriented TV programs to more liberal sexual attitudes, and greater or earlier sexual experience among adolescents (e.g., Brown & Newcomer, 1991; Calfin, Carroll, & Shmidt, 1993; Kalof, 1999). These findings are supported by cultivation theory (Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, & Signorielli, 1994), which proposes that viewers gradually adopt the image of reality that is presented by television. Laboratory studies of the effects of exposure to sexually explicit material (SEM) have also shown subjects to become less sexually anxious, and have more favorable attitudes toward sexuality and SEM after exposure (see Davis & Bauserman, 1993, for a review).

However, besides these general associations, one thing stands out from some studies in this particular area as well as from (laboratory) studies in closely related areas: Individual differences in terms of motivations for watching, and of exposure effects are substantial. Personality characteristics such as higher conservatism, erotophobia, and negative attitudes toward sexually explicit media have, for example, been shown to be associated with less consumption of them among men as well as women (e.g., Coles & Shamp, 1984; Lawrence & Herold, 1988). Mosher (1988) argued that people are selective in their sexual media viewing habits, and that they are likely to choose the material that is congruent with their sexual scripts, fantasies, and disposition. Bogaert (2001), elaborating on this idea, found that individual differences (e.g., in intelligence and antisocial tendencies) were indeed predictive of undergraduate men's choices of, and preference for, various forms of sexual media.

In addition, exposure to sexually explicit media does not affect all people in the same way. There is a strong suggestion emerging from the literature that exposure to sexually explicit media and sexual stimuli needs to be studied as a cyclical process, in which personal identity, motivation, and evaluation interact in a mutually reinforcing way. Brown (2000b) and Steele (1999), for instance, have shown that teenagers' identity (their sense of themselves, and others) affects and is affected by the way they use, understand, appropriate, or resist mass media images, and messages about love, sex, and relationships, thereby putting an emphasis on media practice rather than media content or direct effects. And Ward and Rivadeneyra (1999), for example, found that the extent to which people were personally involved with TV comedies and dramas (i.e., the level of identification or connection with the content) was a better predictor of sexual outcomes (attitudes, expectations, and behavior) among university undergraduates than was the sheer viewing amount.

Studies in related areas have also indicated that personal factors may influence the effects of exposure through related variations in cognitive and emotional processing of the sexual stimuli (cf. Newhagen, 2000). Janssen and Bancroft (2000) and Janssen, Everaerd, Spiering, and Janssen (2000), for instance, present evidence that the effects of exposure to SEM on sexual arousal are mediated by the way the stimuli are given meaning in connection to personality aspects such as inhibition or excitation proneness among men. Laan (1994), Laan and Everaerd (1995), and Pearson and Pollack (1997) have found comparable evidence for women. The consistent evidence of differences between men and women in affective reactions and self-ratings of arousal after exposure to SEM (e.g., Davis & Bauserman, 1993; Malamuth, 1996) is a convincing illustration of personal differences in this respect in the first place. In addition, the mixed findings on the effects of exposure to pornography in men (e.g., Allen, Emmers, Gebhart, & Geary, 1995; Bauserman, 1996; Donnerstein, Linz, & Penrod, 1987; Malamuth & Check, 1985; Zgourides, Monto, & Harris, 1997) can be explained, in part, by the notion that exposure to pornography may have adversarial attitudinal and behavioral effects in some men, but not in others (cf. Vanwesenbeeck, Van Zessen, Ingham, Jarmazovic, & Stevens, 1999). Likewise, contradictory evidence in the area of the negative effects of exposure to ideal body media images on women's self-esteem and body image has led authors to stress that, depending on individual factors such as age, body mass, general body dissatisfaction, and frequency of exposure, and depending on the way body images are processed cognitively and emotionally, exposure to slim ideals may have negative consequences for some women, but not for others (e.g., Botta 1999; Henderson-King & Henderson-King, 1997; Posavac, Posavac, & Posavac, 1998; Shaw & Waller, 1995).

Although from a different vein, the studies mentioned suggest a cycle of cognitive and emotional practice and processing, through which reactions to SEM or other sexual stimuli are affected by personality and identity variables and connected individual meanings and motivations, that may, in their turn, be affected by past experience of specific reactions and evaluations in relation to SEM. Thus, when exploring reactions of women to SETV, it seems relevant to do so in relation to personal motives for watching and other relevant personal variables. In this study, frequency of watching SETV, motivations for watching, and reactions to watching have been measured among a convenience sample of Dutch women, and cross-sectionally related to some demographic, psychosexual, and behavioral variables that were considered relevant in an exploration of this kind. These variables are age, educational level, and relationship status, attitudes toward SEM, sexual self-image, sexual behavior variables, sexual experience variables, and some body-related measures. Taking it from the notion that specific psychosexual characteristics may enhance specific use and processing of SETV, thereby resulting in specific reactions to SETV that may in their turn be integrated in one's identity, it may be expected that identity, motivation, and reactions in relation to SETV are strongly and meaningfully related to each other.



In the summer of 1999, printed questionnaires, entitled Give your opinion about sex in the media were distributed, predominantly through agencies of The Body Shop, in the context of a national campaign about media images and self-esteem. The campaign was a collaboration between The Body Shop, The Netherlands Institute of Social Sexological Research (NISSO), and two national feminist organizations, Transact and Mama Cash. The campaign sought media attention for the subject; produced several posters, leaflets, and brochures on several aspects of women's self esteem, most often in relation to media images; and studied some questions about women's media consumption and their responses to media.

The questionnaire focused on three different domains of exposure to sexuality in the media: sexually tainted advertisements in the street scene, informative magazine articles about sexuality and relationships, and sexually explicit TV programs (SETV). Only the findings related to the latter will be reported here. The introduction to the questions asked in relation to SETV read as follows: "Many programs shown on television nowadays are meant to be sexually exciting. Imagine, for instance, erotic movies and programs that picture the sexual preferences and behavior of people." Questions were then asked about the frequency of watching, motives for watching, and reactions to these programs. Beforehand, questions were asked about demographics, and about psychosexual and behavioral variables. These will be discussed below.