Sex and Relationships in the Media

The pressure put on women through ads, television, film and new media to be sexually attractive—and sexually active—is profound. While this is nothing new, research has found that women’s representation in popular media has steadily become more and more sexualized over the last forty years. [1]

“Amber O’Brien, 25, is having the time of her life. Recently she decided it was time to have breast implants. Amber’s proudest achievement: buying a condo. Her life mission: always be open to new ideas. Her pet peeve: people who pressure you into doing things.”

Source: Breast implant advertisement

Women as Sexual Objects

Provocative images of women’s partly clothed or naked bodies are especially prevalent in advertising. Shari Graydon, former president of Canada’s Media Action Média, argues that women’s bodies are sexualized in ads in order to grab the viewer’s attention.[2] Women become sexual objects when their bodies and their sexuality are linked to products that are bought and sold.

Media activist Jean Kilbourne agrees. She notes that women’s bodies are often dismembered into legs, breasts or thighs, reinforcing the message that women are objects rather than whole human beings.

Although women’s sexuality is no longer a taboo subject, many researchers question whether or not the blatant sexualization of women’s bodies in the media is liberating. Laurie Abraham, executive editor of Elle magazine, warns that the biggest problem with women’s magazines is “how much we lie about sex.” [3] Those “lies” continue to perpetuate the idea that women’s sexuality is subservient to men’s pleasure. In her study of Cosmopolitan and Playboy magazines, for example, Nicole Krassas found that both men and women’s magazines contain a single vision of female sexuality—that “women should primarily concern themselves with attracting and sexually satisfying men.” [4]

The presence of misinformation and media stereotypes is disturbing, given research that indicates young people often turn to media for information about sex and sexuality. In 2003, David Buckingham and Sara Bragg reported that two-thirds of young people turn to media when they want to learn about sex - the same percentage of kids who ask their mothers for information and advice. [5]

How to Catch (and Keep) Your Man

Many researchers argue that the over-representation of thin women in mass media reinforces the conclusion that “physically attractive” and “sexually desirable” mean “thin.” A study of women’s magazine covers reveals that messages about weight loss are often placed next to messages about men and relationships. Some of her examples: “Get the Body You Really Want” beside “How to Get Your Husband to Really Listen,” and “Stay Skinny” paired with “What Men Really Want.” [6]

The fascination with finding out what men really want also tends to keep female characters in film and television busy. A 2008 study of female leads in G-rated films found that nearly all were valued primarily for their appearance and were focused primarily on winning the love of a male character. [7]

Sex and Violence

Romance often has a darker side. As Graydon notes, the media infantilize women, portraying them as child-like, innocent and vulnerable. Being vulnerable is often closely linked to being a potential victim of violence. Kilbourne argues that ads like the Fetish scent ad (right) imply “women don’t really mean ‘no’ when they say it, that women are only teasing when they resist men’s advances.” The ad’s copy reads: “Apply generously to your neck so he can smell the scent as you shake your head ‘no.’” The obvious implication here is, “he’ll understand that you don’t really mean it and he can respond to the scent like any other animal.”

Kilbourne notes that sex in the media is often condemned “from a puritanical perspective—there’s too much of it, it’s too blatant, it will encourage kids to be promiscuous, etc.” But, she concludes, 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.”



[1] Hatton, Erin and Mary Nell Trautner. Equal Opportunity Objectification? The Sexualization of Men and Women on the Cover of Rolling Stone. Sexuality & Culture, August 2011.
[2] 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
[3] Featherstone, Lisa. Faking It: Sex, Lies and Women’s Magazines. Columbia Journalism Review, March 4 2002.
[4] Krassas, Nicole et al. Boxing Helena and Corseting Eunice: Sexual Rhetoric in Cosmopolitan and Playboy Magazines. Sex Roles, (44) 11-12, 2001.
[5] Buckingham, David and Sarah Bragg. Young People, Sex and the Media: the Facts of Life. Palgrave MacMillan, 2004.
[6] Malkin, Amy et al. Women and Weight: Gendered Messages on Magazine Covers. Sex Roles (40)7-8, 1999.
[7] Smith, Stacy and Crystal Allene Cook. Gender Stereotypes: An Analysis of Popular Films and TV. The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, 2008.