Press Room

Watching TV May Reduce Differences Between Men and Women’s Sexual Expectations

March 15, 2016
New Research
Relationships

Washington, DC - What young men and women expect, sexually, in their romantic relationships is influenced in different ways by the television programs they watch, according to a new study published in the National Communication Association’s journal, Communication Monographs.

Hilary Gamble and Leslie R. Nelson studied the effect of “relationship television,” or programs that feature romantic relationships and themes, on 18- to 24-year-olds.

The authors compared the number of hours that college students spent watching several popular television programs with the amount of relationship content in those programs. With this information, they set out to discover whether this content might explain some of the differences between male and female college students’ sexual expectations in their past and current relationships. 

“In essence, television programming communicates to viewers that the male sexual role involves active pursuit of sexual activity to prove one’s masculinity,” wrote Gamble and Nelson, “whereas the female sexual role involves objectifying oneself for men’s enjoyment and being virtuous by not being sexual.”

These stereotypes and double standards are important, as research shows that younger viewers use television to develop their own “sexual scripts.” Add to this the fact that men and women interpret information about sex differently, as well as have different sexual strategies and attitudes based on their own reproductive needs, and a very complicated picture of potential sexual expectations emerges.

To fine-tune this picture, Gamble and Nelson asked more than 200 students to indicate how often they watched certain shows and how realistic students thought the programs were. They also asked them to answer a series of questions about the amount of sexual interaction students expected in their current or most recent relationship.

To their surprise, they found that as women’s relationship television viewing increased, their expectations for sexual interaction in their relationship also increased. On the other hand, men’s expectations for sexual interaction in their relationship were dependent upon both the amount of television they watched and their perceptions of the realism of that television content. As men’s relationship television viewing increased, those who felt the television content was highly unrealistic reported lower expectations for sexual interaction in their relationship.

“This finding was surprising given the … literature that says women should be less concerned with sex than men and should expect more intimacy in their relationships,” they wrote. “Women’s sexual expectations may be more influenced by their television viewing than men because so many messages about sex on television relate to men’s sexual insatiability.”

The authors also explain that the men who felt the television content was highly unrealistic may have reported lower sexual expectations because their criticisms of the narrative motivated them “to avoid being hypocritical by redefining their expectations.”

Gamble and Nelson’s research provides important insight into the development of emerging adults’ attitudes and expectations about sex. Their results suggest that relationship television “may actually reduce the difference between men and women’s sexual expectations in relationships.”


To arrange an interview with one of the researchers, contact Natalia López-Thismón at 202-534-1104 or nlopez-thismon@natcom.org. 

About the National Communication Association

The National Communication Association (NCA) advances Communication as the discipline that studies all forms, modes, media, and consequences of communication through humanistic, social scientific, and aesthetic inquiry. NCA serves the scholars, teachers, and practitioners who are its members by enabling and supporting their professional interests in research and teaching. Dedicated to fostering and promoting free and ethical communication, NCA promotes the widespread appreciation of the importance of communication in public and private life, the application of competent communication to improve the quality of human life and relationships, and the use of knowledge about communication to solve human problems.

For more information, visit natcom.org, follow us on Twitter at @natcomm, and find us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/NationalCommunicationAssociation.

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