The dominant tradition of academic research on television and sexuality has been carried out by psychologists and sociologists who use ‘content analysis’ of texts and ‘effects’ research on audiences. Government and industry sponsors of various kinds,
and also advocacy groups promoting specific religious agendas, have funded these in the main. This is an important tradition of research because of its long-standing influence on television policy and regulation, despite liberal commitments to freedom of speech (see Chapter 2). Barry Gunter’s (2002) book Media Sex: What Are the Issues? provides a thorough overview of these traditions, while a more critical assessment can be found in Sarah Bragg and David Buckingham’s (2002) review in Young People and Sexual Content on Television. The limitation of this approach is in the way that it conceptualizes the relationship between television and sexuality. It is locked into a narrow definition of the issues in terms of the presence or absence of explicit sexual talk and display. Moreover, the continuing influence of Puritanism places all the emphasis on the risks rather than the potential pleasures of sexual portrayal. Concerns over the effects of television on sexual identity and behaviour are entirely normative; that is to say, oriented towards the prevention of ‘deviant’ behaviour and the promotion of traditional ‘family values’.
Multiple problems of research validity arise, ranging from the impossibility of isolating television as an influence, to doubts over the textual meanings assumed in the decontextualized coding practices used in ‘content analysis’ (Gunter 2002: 240-66). In content analysis programmes are recorded over a specific period such as a whole week and then analysis focuses on scenes in which sex is either talked about or portrayed visually. These scenes are then given coded descriptors to classify their ‘content’; that is, the type of sexual activity, whom it involves, its levels of explicitness and its moral perspective and meaning. This can then be summarized in statistical form and compared with previous studies to show what the trends are in sexual portrayal. For example, a study in the USA, where the majority of this research is conducted, found that:
Over a 20-year spell from the mid 1970s sexual depictions became increasingly prevalent on network television programs during the mid-evening time slot, with 43% of programs containing any sexual material in the 1970s and 75% doing so in the 1990s. Although network TV in the US rarely goes beyond showing kissing and cuddling there has been a marked increase in explicit talk on controversial matters such as rape, incest, and homosexuality. . . . This overall increase in sex on mainstream television was largely attributable to a greater amount of talk about sex in situation comedies and drama series.
(Kaiser Family Foundation 1996; cited by Gunter 2002: 25)
The emphasis on the increasing amount of sex in this account derives from concerns that too much sex on TV is a potential problem and needs to be monitored and regulated, alongside public opinion on this issue. This is not just a question of frequency, but is also linked to concerns over increasing explicitness, which has the potential to embarrass or offend television viewers and also, in so doing, upset advertisers.
Any emphasis on sex for pleasure is also considered potentially harmful to the morality and/or health of the nation from the ‘family values’ perspective that dominates this tradition, in which the sanctity of marriage is paramount. Gunter (2002: 37) summarizes several studies over many years which:
have indicated a tendency for television to represent sex as a largely hedonistic pursuit rather than as part of a loving, established, and long term romantic relationship, and one publicly sealed through marriage. Instead sex is frequently depicted as an activity indulged in more often by unmarried than married couples.
Worries are also expressed over the tendency in television fiction to emphasize the pleasures rather than the risks of sexual activity from a social reform perspective in a concern to promote sexual health. ‘Contraceptives are rarely referred to or used, yet women seldom get pregnant, and men and women rarely contract sexually transmitted diseases unless they are prostitutes or homosexuals’ (Gunter 2002: 37). This question of harm is taken up by ‘effects’ studies that try to measure the impact on people’s sexual behaviour and attitudes. In particular, impressionable young people are perceived as being at greatest risk of copying these portrayals. No account is taken of potential variations in viewer’s responses or interpretations beyond identifying which groups might be most ‘vulnerable’ to bad influences.
My approach in this book challenges this normative framing and the narrow concern with ‘explicitness’ and ‘protecting’ the child audience from sexual knowledge, which dominates the ‘effects’ tradition. Nevertheless, I am not arguing that television has no effects on sexual practices and identities. Indeed, I want to emphasize the crucial role it plays as sexual pedagogy. Buckingham and Bragg (2003, 2004) pursue a similar agenda through a more sophisticated form of audience research that is designed to inform cultural policy in the lighter regulatory context of the future. They argue that this needs to be linked to a better understanding of textual meanings that moves beyond the simplistic assumptions of content analysis. This book contributes to that agenda by identifying the modes of address and forms of sexual discourse mobilized across a diverse range of genres and how these have arisen from historical shifts in the regulatory context.