If you view, will you do? This sex survey says…

teen girl on sofa with laptop

…well, what do you reckon? My guess is that you’d put your money on the answer being ‘yes’. Many people fear that today’s youth are getting to see sexually explicit material (SEM) of varieties and in ways which are a far cry from nicking your Dad’s copy of ‘Playboy’; that they’re seeing more, sooner, and that this encourages them to do ‘it’. Unsuitable ‘it’ too.

Most research on SEM and its influences on sexual behaviour has focused on associations with sexually transmitted infections and sexual aggression. A research team from The Netherlands, where they have a more open attitude to sex than here in the UK,  wanted to look at other aspects of sexual behaviour and the use of SEM by young people. They did a cross-sectional online survey of 4,600 teens and young adults (aged 15 to 25)  who responded to adverts for the survey on various online and offline youth media and on electronic blackboards at school. Men were under-represented, with 1,402 men to 3,198 women.

naked man with laptopParticipants answered questions about how often they used SEM, what type of SEM and how they accessed it, as well as questions about their sexual behaviour. The researchers took into account factors which have already been shown to be influential, such as educational level, religious beliefs, and aspects of sexual and social relationships. They wanted to know what other factors are significant.

Here’s what they found:

  • 88% of men and 45% of women had used SEM in the past 12 months
  • Women used softcore SEM significantly more often than men and men used hardcore SEM significantly more often than women
  • Both men and women preferred to access SEM on the internet, followed by TV and DVD/videos
  • Frequency of using SEM was significantly associated with sexual behaviour, especially adventurous sex and sex involving money or some other kind of payment
  • Associations were found between SEM consumption and a range of sexual behaviours but these associations were modest, accounting for between 0.3 percent and four percent of differences in sexual behaviors

The authors concluded that

…SEM consumption influences sexual behaviours. The small to moderate associations that emerged between SEM consumption and sexual behavior after controlling for other variables suggest that SEM is just one factor among many that may influence youth sexual behavior.

Indeed it seems that other factors such as personal disposition, and particularly sexual sensation seeking, probably play a more important role in young people’s sexual behaviour.

Some limitations to bear in mind:

  • This type of study can’t tell us that using SEM causes the behaviours studied; it can only reveal associations
  • It relied on self-reported information, which can be subject to errors in what people remember, even assuming they are doing their best to answer honestly and accurately
  • The sample wasn’t representative so the results may not be generalizable. The people who responded to the invitation to fill in a questionnaire about sex may have been more likely to be sexually active and perhaps more inclined towards sexual experimentation than their peers overall. Results might also be different in a culture which is less open about sex
  • The variables studied may have an influence the relationship between SEM and behaviour but this couldn’t be teased out

It’s interesting that this research seems to have been published without much media attention. I suspect that if its conclusions had been that SEM encouraged sexual experimentation it would have been picked up on. Research that feeds our fears is just more sexy somehow, isn’t it? Rather more excitement was generated a couple of weeks ago, with the news that

Entire school year groups have seen porn, children’s watchdog says

according to The Telegraph, which had the Elf Mother in a state of high alert when her young grandaughters asked to use her computer that day! Come to think of it, when I was their age the children’s TV soap ‘Grange Hill’ was considered by my parents and many others to be unsuitable viewing (too much swearing and bad behaviour). There’s nothing new in assuming that viewing leads to doing, but this study doesn’t provide much evidence for it.


Hald GM, Kuyper L, Adam PCG, and de Wit JBF. Does viewing explain doing? Assessing the association between sexually explicit materials use and sexual behaviors in a large sample of Dutch adolescents and young adults. Journal of Sexual Medicine Published online April 25 2013 http://doi.wiley.com/10.1111/jsm.12157

Press release 25 April 2013 http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2013-04/w-sem041813.php

Entire school year groups have seen porn, children’s watchdog says. The Telegraph 3rd April 2013.



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Sarah Chapman

My name is Sarah Chapman. I have worked on systematic reviews and other types of research in many areas of health for the past 17 years, for the Cochrane Collaboration and for several UK higher education institutions including the University of Oxford and the Royal College of Nursing Institute. I also have a background in nursing and in the study of the History of Medicine.

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