Analysis Sexual Health

Lights, Camera, Action: Study Suggests Sex in Movies Predicts Early Sexual Debut Among Teens

Martha Kempner

New research suggests that seeing sex in movies early is a predictor of early sexual debut and riskier sexual behavior among teens. The authors suggest that we should limit young people's viewing of sex in movies. Maybe, but I for one have a hard time believing that simply keeping them out of the theaters is the answers. 

Last year my niece and nephew slept over for a night—it’s a rare occurrence as they live in Florida and a totally different experience for me as they are 8 and 12 years older than my own children. After my kids went to bed, we went through the list of movies available on demand. I was excited to watch something that didn’t feature animation or talking dogs and they were excited to see something that they wouldn’t necessarily see at home. We decided on the clearly inappropriate Hot Tub Time Machine. It seemed like the kind of thing an aunt and uncle should say yes too (though I did quickly text my sister to make sure I wouldn’t get in too much trouble for this choice). It wasn’t a particularly good movie and though there was a lot of sexual innuendo, I don’t remember all that many actual depictions of sexual behavior but I could be wrong—I have remarkably poor recollection of what I see in movies and a tendency to fall asleep five minutes after the opening credits. I do remember that they laughed uncomfortably and covered their eyes dramatically at a kissing scene. I read it as a mix of curiosity and embarrassment and wondered if their reaction would have been different if they’d been alone or with similar-aged friends instead of us adults but I didn’t see the movie as doing any long-term harm. 

A new study seems to suggest differently finding that early exposure to sexual content in movies is a predictor of riskier sexual behavior later. The authors of the study suggest that restricting our kids’ movie viewing is the solution but I have a hard time thinking it’s that simple. 

Study Findings

Researchers tracked the movie-viewing habits of young people ages 10 to 14 and then surveyed the same young people over the next six years in order to determine their sexual behavior. Each participant was given a list of 50 movies randomly selected from a larger list and asked which they had seen. The master list included over 500 movies released between 1998 and 2003 which had been coded based on the number of seconds of sexual content (defined as instances of sexual behavior such as heavy kissing and intercourse) they depicted. 

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The study also measured sensation-seeking, which is common in adolescence and has been linked by prior research to earlier sexual debut and more frequent engagement in casual sex in adulthood. Additional studies done on this same sample found that watching R-rated movies was associated with later increases in sensation-seeking during adolescence. 

In the last interview participants who were over 18 were asked at what age they had first had sexual intercourse, how many lifetime vaginal or oral sex partners they had had, and how often they had had casual sex (which was defined as vaginal sex not with a “serious or steady dating partner” without a condom).  

The study found that:

  • 63 percent of participants had had sex (5.3 percent before age 15, 10.2 percent at age 15, 24.5 percent at age 16, 28.8 percent at 17, and 31.2 percent at 18 or older);
  • The median number of lifetime sexual partners among sexually-active participants was two;
  • 25.2 percent of sexuall-active participants reported having had casual sex without a condom.

The authors concluded that higher levels of exposure to movies with sexual content before age 16 predicted earlier sexual debut both directly and indirectly through sensation-seeking. They said that early movie sexual exposure also predicted a higher number of lifetime sexual partners and more frequent casual sex without condoms. 

They write:

“Our results suggest that restricting adolescent’s MSE [movie sexual exposure] would delay their sexual debut and also reduce their engagement in risky sexual behaviors later in life.”

Personally, I have a hard time believing that simply keeping kids out of the theater without changing anything else in their lives (such as relationships with parents, sex education in school, or access to condoms) will have a big impact on their sexual behavior later in life but even if it did, putting blinders on them seems like an easy solution to a complex problem.

Sex in Movies  

Anyone who has been to a Cineplex recently will agree that there is a lot of sex in the movies (as well as a lot of violence but that’s for another article). According to the literature review conducted by the authors of this study, a survey of movies released between 1950 and 2006 found that over 84 percent contained sexual content -– including 68 percent of G-rated movies, 82 percent of PG movies, 85 percent of PG-13 movies, and 88 percent of R-rate movies. Yep, even the majority of G-rated movies which seem inevitably to be about penguins include some sexual content. Sure most of this seems to be innuendos designed to entertain the parents so that they don’t mind having spent $30 bucks on popcorn and candy to watch yet another group of cute talking animals sing their way from point A to point B. I think the writers assume most of it will go over the heads their younger viewers but if it doesn’t it is our responsibility as parents to help them understand what they just saw. 

And what they just saw may indeed be problematic. Let’s face it, movies rarely portray accurate versions of sex and relationships let alone versions of ideal healthy relationships we’d like our kids to have. In fact, another analysis (this time of movies released between 1983 and 2003) found that 70 percent of sex acts depicted in movies occurred between newly acquainted partners, 98 percent included no reference to contraception, and 89 percent resulted in no consequences. In fact, only 9 percent contained messages promoting sexual health.

I think it’s time we called on Hollywood to portray better sex. I’m not sure we can convince writers and producers to change their plots—the average romantic comedy seems to devote about five minutes of screen time between the meet-cute and the awkwardness of the morning after. Still, how cool would it be if 30 seconds of that time was devoted to discussing birth control or if during the morning-after scene the camera panned by an open condom wrapper on the floor next to the crumpled jeans and casually tossed lacy bra. Over the years, public health professionals have partnered with television and movie producers to put out positive messages, and research has shown these can work to impart information and change viewer knowledge. Now we need to create new partnerships to change some of the messages teens see in movies so that they promote healthier sexual relationships including those that show safer sexual behavior like use of condoms and other contraceptive methods.

In the meantime, I don’t believe sheltering our kids from content is the answer. I’m not sure it’s possible with today’s technology that lets kids watch a movie practically anywhere, but even if it were I prefer a more moderate approach. Know what they plan to watch, rule out what is clearly inappropriate, and use the rest as a learning opportunity. I was recently with a friend when his ten-year-old son asked if he could see the new Batman movie. My friend said that he had to go see it first and then would decide if they could see it together. I think this was a perfect answer. Know what they’re watching and whenever possible watch it with them so that you can answer any questions or challenge any depictions of sexual relationships that don’t fit with your values or the messages you want to convey.  

“She just met him, and she says she loves him?”;

“I realize that the plot of this movie is all about strangers who have to raise a baby together and if she’d used a condom it would be over, but that was a pretty dumb decision.”; 

“I think I’d rather you leave my apple pies alone but you know it’s okay to masturbate, right.”

I’m sure many of these openers will be met with eye rolls but it proves you’re there to talk to and if even one of them starts a good conversation you are officially ahead of the game. 

I’d love to end this article by saying that watching Hot Tub Time Machine with their Aunt the Sex Educator was edifying for my niece and nephew, that I took my own advice and started enlightening conversations about sexual behavior and relationships, and that I answered questions they had had for years but were afraid to ask. Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure I spent most of the movie snoring next to them on the couch. The good news is that they have an aunt who is a sex educator and parents who would rather answer questions than keep them in the dark, so I’m confident that they came out of our foray into bad and inappropriate movies unscathed.       

Commentary Contraception

Hillary Clinton Played a Critical Role in Making Emergency Contraception More Accessible

Susan Wood

Today, women are able to access emergency contraception, a safe, second-chance option for preventing unintended pregnancy in a timely manner without a prescription. Clinton helped make this happen, and I can tell the story from having watched it unfold.

In the midst of election-year talk and debates about political controversies, we often forget examples of candidates’ past leadership. But we must not overlook the ways in which Hillary Clinton demonstrated her commitment to women’s health before she became the Democratic presidential nominee. In early 2008, I wrote the following article for Rewirewhich has been lightly edited—from my perspective as a former official at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) about the critical role that Clinton, then a senator, had played in making the emergency contraception method Plan B available over the counter. She demanded that reproductive health benefits and the best available science drive decisions at the FDA, not politics. She challenged the Bush administration and pushed the Democratic-controlled Senate to protect the FDA’s decision making from political interference in order to help women get access to EC.

Since that time, Plan B and other emergency contraception pills have become fully over the counter with no age or ID requirements. Despite all the controversy, women at risk of unintended pregnancy finally can get timely access to another method of contraception if they need it—such as in cases of condom failure or sexual assault. By 2010, according to National Center for Health Statistics data, 11 percent of all sexually experienced women ages 15 to 44 had ever used EC, compared with only 4 percent in 2002. Indeed, nearly one-quarter of all women ages 20 to 24 had used emergency contraception by 2010.

As I stated in 2008, “All those who benefited from this decision should know it may not have happened were it not for Hillary Clinton.”

Now, there are new emergency contraceptive pills (Ella) available by prescription, women have access to insurance coverage of contraception without cost-sharing, and there is progress in making some regular contraceptive pills available over the counter, without prescription. Yet extreme calls for defunding Planned Parenthood, the costs and lack of coverage of over-the-counter EC, and refusals by some pharmacies to stock emergency contraception clearly demonstrate that politicization of science and limits to our access to contraception remain a serious problem.

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Today, women are able to access emergency contraception, a safe, second chance option for preventing unintended pregnancy in a timely manner without a prescription. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) helped make this happen, and I can tell the story from having watched it unfold.

Although stories about reproductive health and politicization of science have made headlines recently, stories of how these problems are solved are less often told. On August 31, 2005 I resigned my position as assistant commissioner for women’s health at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) because the agency was not allowed to make its decisions based on the science or in the best interests of the public’s health. While my resignation was widely covered by the media, it would have been a hollow gesture were there not leaders in Congress who stepped in and demanded more accountability from the FDA.

I have been working to improve health care for women and families in the United States for nearly 20 years. In 2000, I became the director of women’s health for the FDA. I was rather quietly doing my job when the debate began in 2003 over whether or not emergency contraception should be provided over the counter (OTC). As a scientist, I knew the facts showed that this medication, which can be used after a rape or other emergency situations, prevents an unwanted pregnancy. It does not cause an abortion, but can help prevent the need for one. But it only works if used within 72 hours, and sooner is even better. Since it is completely safe, and many women find it impossible to get a doctor’s appointment within two to three days, making emergency contraception available to women without a prescription was simply the right thing to do. As an FDA employee, I knew it should have been a routine approval within the agency.

Plan B emergency contraception is just like birth control pills—it is not the “abortion pill,” RU-486, and most people in the United States don’t think access to safe and effective contraception is controversial. Sadly, in Congress and in the White House, there are many people who do oppose birth control. And although this may surprise you, this false “controversy” not only has affected emergency contraception, but also caused the recent dramatic increase in the cost of birth control pills on college campuses, and limited family planning services across the country.  The reality is that having more options for contraception helps each of us make our own decisions in planning our families and preventing unwanted pregnancies. This is something we can all agree on.

Meanwhile, inside the walls of the FDA in 2003 and 2004, the Bush administration continued to throw roadblocks at efforts to approve emergency contraception over the counter. When this struggle became public, I was struck by the leadership that Hillary Clinton displayed. She used the tools of a U.S. senator and fought ardently to preserve the FDA’s independent scientific decision-making authority. Many other senators and congressmen agreed, but she was the one who took the lead, saying she simply wanted the FDA to be able to make decisions based on its public health mission and on the medical evidence.

When it became clear that FDA scientists would continue to be overruled for non-scientific reasons, I resigned in protest in late 2005. I was interviewed by news media for months and traveled around the country hoping that many would stand up and demand that FDA do its job properly. But, although it can help, all the media in the world can’t make Congress or a president do the right thing.

Sen. Clinton made the difference. The FDA suddenly announced it would approve emergency contraception for use without a prescription for women ages 18 and older—one day before FDA officials were to face a determined Sen. Clinton and her colleague Sen. Murray (D-WA) at a Senate hearing in 2006. No one was more surprised than I was. All those who benefited from this decision should know it may not have happened were it not for Hillary Clinton.

Sometimes these success stories get lost in the “horse-race stories” about political campaigns and the exposes of taxpayer-funded bridges to nowhere, and who said what to whom. This story of emergency contraception at the FDA is just one story of many. Sen. Clinton saw a problem that affected people’s lives. She then stood up to the challenge and worked to solve it.

The challenges we face in health care, our economy, global climate change, and issues of war and peace, need to be tackled with experience, skills and the commitment to using the best available science and evidence to make the best possible policy.  This will benefit us all.

Culture & Conversation Media

Filmmaker Tracy Droz Tragos Centers Abortion Stories in New Documentary

Renee Bracey Sherman

The film arrives at a time when personal stories are center stage in the national conversation about abortion, including in the most recent Supreme Court decision, and rightly so. The people who actually have and provide abortions should be driving the narrative, not misinformation and political rhetoric.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

A new film by producer and director Tracy Droz Tragos, Abortion: Stories Women Tell, profiles several Missouri residents who are forced to drive across the Mississippi River into Illinois for abortion care.

The 93-minute film features interviews with over 20 women who have had or are having abortions, most of whom are Missouri residents traveling to the Hope Clinic in Granite City, Illinois, which is located about 15 minutes from downtown St. Louis.

Like Mississippi, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming, Missouri has only one abortion clinic in the entire state.

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The women share their experiences, painting a more nuanced picture that shows why one in three women of reproductive age often seek abortion care in the United States.

The film arrives at a time when personal stories are center stage in the national conversation about abortion, including in the most recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, and rightly so. The people who actually have and provide abortions should be driving the narrative, not misinformation and political rhetoric. But while I commend recent efforts by filmmakers like Droz Tragos and others to center abortion stories in their projects, these creators still have far to go when it comes to presenting a truly diverse cadre of storytellers if they really want to shift the conversation around abortion and break down reproductive stigma.

In the wake of Texas’ omnibus anti-abortion law, which was at the heart of the Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt Supreme Court case, Droz Tragos, a Missouri native, said in a press statement she felt compelled to document how her home state has been eroding access to reproductive health care. In total, Droz Tragos interviewed 81 people with a spectrum of experiences to show viewers a fuller picture of the barriersincluding legislation and stigmathat affect people seeking abortion care.

Similar to HBO documentaries about abortion that have come before it—including 12th & Delaware and Abortion: Desperate ChoicesAbortion: Stories Women Tell involves short interviews with women who are having and have had abortions, conversations with the staff of the Hope Clinic about why they do the work they do, interviews with local anti-choice organizers, and footage of anti-choice protesters shouting at patients, along with beautiful shots of the Midwest landscape and the Mississippi River as patients make road trips to appointments. There are scenes of clinic escorts holding their ground as anti-choice protesters yell Bible passages and obscenities at them. One older clinic escort carries a copy of Living in the Crosshairs as a protester follows her to her car, shouting. The escort later shares her abortion story.

One of the main storytellers, Amie, is a white 30-year-old divorced mother of two living in Boonville, Missouri. She travels over 100 miles each way to the Hope Clinic, and the film chronicles her experience in getting an abortion and follow-up care. Almost two-thirds of people seeking abortions, like Amie, are already a parent. Amie says that the economic challenges of raising her other children make continuing the pregnancy nearly impossible. She describes being physically unable to carry a baby and work her 70 to 90 hours a week. Like many of the storytellers in the film, Amie talks about the internalized stigma she’s feeling, the lack of support she has from loved ones, and the fear of family members finding out. She’s resilient and determined; a powerful voice.

The film also follows Kathy, an anti-choice activist from Bloomfield, Missouri, who says she was “almost aborted,” and that she found her calling in the anti-choice movement when she noticed “Anne” in the middle of the name “Planned Parenthood.” Anne is Kathy’s middle name.

“OK Lord, are you telling me that I need to get in the middle of this?” she recalls thinking.

The filmmakers interview the staff of the Hope Clinic, including Dr. Erin King, a pregnant abortion provider who moved from Chicago to Granite City to provide care and who deals with the all-too-common protesting of her home and workplace. They speak to Barb, a talkative nurse who had an abortion 40 years earlier because her nursing school wouldn’t have let her finish her degree while she was pregnant. And Chi Chi, a security guard at the Hope Clinic who is shown talking back to the protesters judging patients as they walk into the clinic, also shares her abortion story later in the film. These stories remind us that people who have abortions are on the frontlines of this work, fighting to defend access to care.

To address the full spectrum of pregnancy experiences, the film also features the stories of a few who, for various reasons, placed their children for adoption or continued to parent. While the filmmakers interview Alexis, a pregnant Black high school student whose mother died when she was 8 years old, classmates can be heard in the distance tormenting her, asking if she’s on the MTV reality show 16 and Pregnant. She’s visibly distraught and crying, illustrating the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” conundrum women of color experiencing unintended pregnancy often face.

Te’Aundra, another young Black woman, shares her story of becoming pregnant just as she received a college basketball scholarship. She was forced to turn down the scholarship and sought an adoption, but the adoption agency refused to help her since the child’s father wouldn’t agree to it. She says she would have had an abortion if she could start over again.

While anti-choice rhetoric has conflated adoption as the automatic abortion alternative, research has shown that most seeking adoption are personally debating between adoption and parenting. This is illustrated in Janet’s story, a woman with a drug addiction who was raising one child with her partner, but wasn’t able to raise a second, so she sought an adoption. These stories are examples of the many societal systems failing those who choose adoption or students raising families, in addition to those fighting barriers to abortion access.

At times, the film feels repetitive and disjointed, but the stories are powerful. The range of experiences and reasons for having an abortion (or seeking adoption) bring to life the data points too often ignored by politicians and the media: everything from economic instability and fetal health, to domestic violence and desire to finish an education. The majority of abortion stories featured were shared by those who already had children. Their stories had a recurring theme of loneliness and lack of support from their loved ones and friends at a time when they needed it. Research has shown that 66 percent of people who have abortions tend to only tell 1.24 people about their experience, leaving them keeping a secret for fear of judgment and shame.

While many cite financial issues when paying for abortions or as the reason for not continuing the pregnancy, the film doesn’t go in depth about how the patients come to pay for their abortions—which is something my employer, the National Network for Abortion Funds (NNAF), directly addresses—or the systemic issues that created their financial situations.

However, it brings to light the hypocrisy of our nation, where the invisible hand of our society’s lack of respect for pregnant people and working parents can force people to make pregnancy decisions based on economic situations rather than a desire to be pregnant or parent.

“I’m not just doing this for me” is a common phrase when citing having an abortion for existing or future children.

Overall, the film is moving simply because abortion stories are moving, especially for audiences who don’t have the opportunity to have someone share their abortion story with them personally. I have been sharing my abortion story for five years and hearing someone share their story with me always feels like a gift. I heard parts of my own story in those shared; however, I felt underrepresented in this film that took place partly in my home state of Illinois. While people of color are present in the film in different capacities, a racial analysis around the issues covered in the film is non-existent.

Race is a huge factor when it comes to access to contraception and reproductive health care; over 60 percent of people who have abortions are people of color. Yet, it took 40 minutes for a person of color to share an abortion story. It seemed that five people of color’s abortion stories were shown out of the over 20 stories, but without actual demographic data, I cannot confirm how all the film’s storytellers identify racially. (HBO was not able to provide the demographic data of the storytellers featured in the film by press time.)

It’s true that racism mixed with sexism and abortion stigma make it more difficult for people of color to speak openly about their abortion stories, but continued lack of visual representation perpetuates that cycle. At a time when abortion storytellers themselves, like those of NNAF’s We Testify program, are trying to make more visible a multitude of identities based on race, sexuality, immigration status, ability, and economic status, it’s difficult to give a ringing endorsement of a film that minimizes our stories and relegates us to the second half of a film, or in the cases of some of these identities, nowhere at all. When will we become the central characters that reality and data show that we are?

In July, at the progressive conference Netroots Nation, the film was screened followed by an all-white panel discussion. I remember feeling frustrated at the time, both because of the lack of people of color on the panel and because I had planned on seeing the film before learning about a march led by activists from Hands Up United and the Organization for Black Struggle. There was a moment in which I felt like I had to choose between my Blackness and my abortion experience. I chose my Black womanhood and marched with local activists, who under the Black Lives Matter banner have centered intersectionality. My hope is that soon I won’t have to make these decisions in the fight for abortion rights; a fight where people of color are the backbone whether we’re featured prominently in films or not.

The film highlights the violent rhetoric anti-choice protesters use to demean those seeking abortions, but doesn’t dissect the deeply racist and abhorrent comments, often hurled at patients of color by older white protesters. These racist and sexist comments are what fuel much of the stigma that allows discriminatory laws, such as those banning so-called race- and sex-selective abortions, to flourish.

As I finished the documentary, I remembered a quote Chelsea, a white Christian woman who chose an abortion when her baby’s skull stopped developing above the eyes, said: “Knowing you’re not alone is the most important thing.”

In her case, her pastor supported her and her husband’s decision and prayed over them at the church. She seemed at peace with her decision to seek abortion because she had the support system she desired. Perhaps upon seeing the film, some will realize that all pregnancy decisions can be quite isolating and lonely, and we should show each other a bit more compassion when making them.

My hope is that the film reaches others who’ve had abortions and reminds them that they aren’t alone, whether they see themselves truly represented or not. That we who choose abortion are normal, loved, and supported. And that’s the main point of the film, isn’t it?

Abortion: Stories Women Tell is available in theaters in select cities and will be available on HBO in 2017.

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