What young men and women expect from their sexual relationships is influenced in different ways by the television programmes they watch, according to a new study in Communication Monographs.
Hilary Gamble and Leslie R. Nelson studied the effect of 'relationship television', that is, programmes which feature romantic relationships and themes, on 18-25 year olds.
Their starting point was the different messages that television programmes send out -- and the concern that 'emerging men and women' may have incompatible sexual expectations for their current and future relationships as a result.
As the pair observes: "In essence, television programming communicates to viewers that the male sexual role involves active pursuit of sexual activity to prove one's masculinity, whereas the female sexual role involves objectifying oneself for men's enjoyment and being virtuous by not being sexual."
Recognising these stereotypes and double standards is 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 over 200 students to indicate how often they watched certain shows and how realistic they thought they were. They also asked to them answer a series of questions about how their experiences in relationships compared with their expectations.
To their surprise, they found that as women's 'relationship television' viewing increased, so too did their expectations for sexual interaction in their relationship; on the other hand, men's expectations for sexual interaction in their relationship stayed consistent.
"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 write. "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 'ceiling effect' may also account for the differences between young men and women's expectations. The authors write: "Men reported higher sexual expectations in relationships compared to women, therefore it may have been more difficult for men's relationship television viewing to predict any additional sexual expectations over and above those they have formed from other sources. Women's reported sexual expectations had room to vary, and their relationship television viewing was able to predict some of this variance."
Gamble and Nelson's research provides important insight into how young people's attitudes and expectations about sex develop. Their results suggest that relationship television 'may actually reduce the difference between men and women's sexual expectations in relationships'. If only they could agree on which television shows to watch.
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