Sex and Relationships in the Media

The pressure put on teens through ads, television, film and new media to be sexually attractive—and sexually active—is profound. Not only that, but media representations of relationships often teach unhealthy lessons.

Women as sexual objects

Some of the worst messages about sex and relationships appear in advertising, which –because of its need to quickly grab and hold attention – often uses shocking or taboo images,[1] even though recent research has established that younger consumers are less likely to choose products when ads are sexualized.[2] Advertising, however, is by no means alone in how it portrays women and relationships. Both reality TV and sports programming are also associated with men seeing women in sexually objectified ways.[3] Mass media portrayals of relationships and sexuality communicate a “script” that tells girls to “set sexual limits, act sexually passive, use their bodies and looks to attract men, prioritize emotion and commitments over sex, and minimize their own desire.”[4] There is an intersection between gender and race, as well, with Asian women being particularly likely to be portrayed in an exoticized, hypersexualized way.[5]

Media representations often model unhealthy relationships: of the 50 most popular TV programs aimed at children, nine in 10 portrayed some kind of relationship violence, either between friends or romantic partners.[6] Many books, TV shows and movies popular with teen girls, such as the Twilight series, present problematic views of consent that portray women as having only a passive sexuality and men as being unable to control theirs.[7] Men and boys get these messages, as well. One in three boys say that they see male characters in TV or movies making sexual comments or jokes about female characters,[8] leading to an association between boys viewing traditional media and holding negative views of women.[9] Portrayals of abusive behaviours, like stalking, as being romantic can also lead audiences to see them as more acceptable.[10]

Media representations of romantic relationships are almost exclusively through a heterosexual lens. In both teen and children’s programming, portrayals of same-sex relationships – even in fully non-sexual contexts, such as a character having two parents of the same gender – are still rare enough to attract controversy.[11] This may be changing, though, as intimacy coordinators such as Ita O’Brien are working not just to improve the experience of filming sex scenes for actors, but to make them more accurately reflect relationships and sexuality.[12]

For both girls and boys, internalizing media views of sexuality can lead to increased dissatisfaction with their own bodies as well as feeling less in control and taking more risks in their own sexual activity.[13] As media activist Jean Kilbourne puts it, sex in the media “has far more to do with trivializing sex than with promoting it. The problem is not that it is sinful but that it is synthetic and cynical. We are offered a pseudo-sexuality that makes it far more difficult to discover our own unique and authentic sexuality.”[14]

Friends and frenemies

Friendships are frequently stereotyped in unhealthy ways, as well. Back-biting, undermining and other forms of relational aggression among girls is common in media portrayals of female friendship[15] and can make youth more likely to see it as essential for getting ahead in life.[16]

Girls are more heavily influenced than boys by representations of relational aggression;[17] men’s friendships, on the other hand, are mostly presented in media as a source of comedy. While media texts about female friendships almost always portray already-established relationships, ones about men’s friendships usually focus on their beginning, an ironic reversal of the romantic-comedy genre that gives rise to the term “bromance”[18] and derives humour from the idea that male friendships are uncomfortably close to homosexuality.[19] This attitude, too, carries over into their own relationships, as many young men feel the need to deflect any expressions of friendship – or, indeed, any emotional expression at all – with the hashtag “#nohomo”.[20]

Relational aggression can also occur through digital media, and both media representations and behaviour are connected: girls who believe in stereotypes about relational aggression are more likely both to cyberbully others and to be cyberbullied themselves.[21] Girls and women are often targeted with gender-based harassment online, too, which can lead them to censor themselves, to feel afraid or distressed or even to opt out of the internet completely.[22]

[1] 2019. Sex Sells: The objectification of women in advertising. DW. Retrieved from

[2] Johnson, A. (2023). Does Sex Still Sell? How Perception of Sexualized Advertising Influences Buying Behaviors.

[3] Seabrook, R. C., Ward, L. M., & Giaccardi, S. (2019). Less than human? Media use, objectification of women, and men’s acceptance of sexual aggression. Psychology of Violence, 9(5), 536–545.

[4] Collins, R et al (2017). Sexual Media and Child well-being and health. Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics. 140(2).

[5] Weaver, J. (2021) “The growing movement against Hollywood’s hypersexualization of Asian women.” CBC News.

[6] Martins N, Wilson BJ. Mean on the screen: Social aggression in programs popular with children. Journal of Communication. 2012;62(6):991–1009.

[7] Kendal, Evie and Kendal, Zachary. Consent is sexy: Gender, sexual identity and sex positivism in MTV's young adult television series 'Teen Wolf' (2011-) [online]. Colloquy, No. 30, Nov 2015: [26]-41.

[8] Undem, Tressa, and Ann Wang. (2018) The State of Gender Equality for U.S Adolescents. Plan USA.

[9] Ward, L. M. (2016). Media and sexualization: State of empirical research, 1995–2015. Journal of Sex Research, 53(4-5), 560–577.

[10] Lippman, J. R. (2018). I did it because I never stopped loving you: The effects of media portrayals of persistent pursuit on beliefs about stalking. Communication Research, 45(3), 394-421.

[11] “What do we tell the kids? Children's TV struggles with LGBTQ characters.” AFP, October 14 2019.

[12] Holden, S. (2021) “I May Destroy You: How Ita O’Brien choreographed TV’s most talked-about sex.” BBC News.

[13] Ward, L. M. (2016). Media and sexualization: State of empirical research, 1995–2015. Journal of Sex Research, 53(4-5), 560–577.

[14] Graydon, Shari. “The Portrayal of Women in the Media: The Good, the Bad and the Beautiful,” chapter in Communications in Canadian Society, 5th edition, Ben Singer, ed., Nelson 2001

[15] Cecil, D. (2008). From Heathers to Mean Girls: An examination of relational aggression in film. Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 15,262–276.

[16] Behm-Morawitz, E., Lewallen, J., & Miller, B. (2016). Real mean girls? Reality television viewing, social aggression, and gender-related beliefs among female emerging adults. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 5(4), 340–355.

[17] Coyne, S. M., Ehrenreich, S. E., Holmgren, H. G., & Underwood, M. K. (2019). “We’re not gonna be friends anymore”: Associations between viewing relational aggression on television and relational aggression in text messaging during adolescence. Aggressive behavior, 45(3), 319-326.

[18] Boyle, K., & Berridge, S. (2012). I love you, man: Gendered narratives of friendship in contemporary Hollywood comedies. Feminist Media Studies, 14(3), 353–368. doi:10.1080/14680777.2012.740494.

[19] Hansen-Miller, David and Gill, Rosalind. (2011) “‘Lad Flicks’: Discursive Reconstructions of Masculinity in Popular Film”, in Hilary Radner & Rebecca Stringer (eds.), Feminism at the Movies: Understanding Gender in Contemporary Popular Cinema.New York: Routledge, pp. 36--50

[20] Pascoe, C.J., Diefendorf, S. No Homo: Gendered Dimensions of Homophobic Epithets Online. Sex Roles 80, 123–136 (2019).

[21] Wright, M & Wachs, S. Adolescents’ Cyber Victimization: The Influence of Technologies, Gender and Gender Stereotype Traits. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2020, 17(4), 1293;

[22] Vitak, J., Chadha, K., Steiner, L., & Ashktorab, Z. (2017, February). Identifying women's experiences with and strategies for mitigating negative effects of online harassment. In Proceedings of the 2017 ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing (pp. 1231-1245).