Does it Matter if Watching Sex Scenes Leads to Risky Teenage Promiscuity? No.

There’s been a fair amount of media coverage about a new study forthcoming in Psychological Science that finds a correlation between watching sex scenes and risky teenage sexual behavior. What bothers me about the study and the media coverage (beyond the standard issues with correlation and causation) is the following paragraph, which was included in most news stories:

While the study authors pointed out that the research does not prove a direct causal effect of movies on sexual behavior, the study “strongly suggests that parents need to restrict their children from seeing sexual content in movies at young ages.”

I know it’s tempting for the authors to explain how their findings will improve the lives of children around the country, but there’s a big problem with their statement. When it comes to predictors of future achievement and overall quality of life, the quality of the relationship a child has with their parents is likely to be far more important than the amount of sex they see on screen. And because parents don’t have an unlimited amount of “parental capital,” you can’t simply declare that it’s worthwhile for them to stop their children from seeing sexual content.

A good parent will decide when it’s important to put their foot down, and they won’t do it when the cost of straining their relationship with their kids outweighs the benefits of the behavioral restriction. Because kids are going to see sex no matter what (because, you know, the internet exists), in most cases it seems like a bad idea for parents to heed the author’s words. Sure, if teenagers are completely indifferent between seing a movie with sex and Pixar’s latest masterpiece, by all means nudge them to see the Pixar film. But in general it seems like a bad idea to spend parental capital or risk straining a relationship in an attempt to stop children from seeing sexual content.

The coverage of the study is emblematic of the larger problems with having a continuous stream of studies that tell parents what they should stop their children from doing. Imagine a study came out that showed that over-eating in movies leads to more unhealthy eating, but instead of being about children, it was about adults. Would the authors be recommending that people stop their significant others from watching movies with lots of eating? Of course not. Because in healthy relationships one party can’t be placing relatively frivolous restrictions on the other. Obviously parents have more leeway to place restrictions on their children than on their spouses, and when it comes to things like drugs and school attendance parents should clearly lay down the law. But it would unwise for them to heed every single “here’s what you shouldn’t let your kids do” study. If they do, the increased tension in their relationships with their children will outweigh the benefits of marginally reducing potentially detrimental behaviors.
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O’Hara R.E., Gibbons F.X., Gerrard M., Li Z., & Sargent J.D. (2012). Greater Exposure to Sexual Content in Popular Movies Predicts Earlier Sexual Debut and Increased Sexual Risk Taking. Psychological science PMID: 22810165

2 Responses to Does it Matter if Watching Sex Scenes Leads to Risky Teenage Promiscuity? No.

  1. Tom Rees says:

    Also, surely the solution is to provide proper sex ed so that the sexual behaviour that they engage in is not risky? If the only discussion of sex they get comes from films, well they are going to have a few problems.

  2. sarah says:

    “A good parent will decide when it’s important to put their foot down, and they won’t do it when the cost of straining their relationship with their kids outweighs the benefits of the behavioral restriction.” Would this be considered a permissive parenting style? Meaning that the parents are responsive, warm, and accepting of their children but impose few rules and rarely punish their children? A better parenting approach would be an authoritative parenting style, where the parent is warm, responsive, and involved with their children. You can still be a good parent by putting your foot down and discouraging your child to not watch movies with sex in them. Let your kid be a kid, why does everything have to involve sex? When the time is appropriate the parents should educate their children about sex vs letting them learn it all from TV, movies, or other outside influences.

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