What turns me on, turns me off?: Usage of media texts by adolescents for sexual identity exploration.

(A graduate school psychology final paper, edited for posting, with link containing the full paper.)

When the audience for the media and its content is children, research into the mass media typically focuses on two mediated “sins”: violence and sex.  Regarding sex, the concern is that the depiction of sex in and by the media will cause children to think about and engage in more sex than they would were they not expose.  However, this is only one possible relationship the audience can have with media texts.  The media may indeed inadvertently teach norms to a viewing public, but the viewing public may also seek out the media for a variety of reasons.  In their usage of the media, the audience may satisfy some desire, need or simple curiosity, and in gaining this satisfaction they may in turn think, feel or behave in a certain way other than had that gap not been filled.  Media usage is another means of approaching the relationship between young viewer, sex in the media and effect on attitudes and behaviors, and such a relationship may be rather prevalent among adolescents as they negotiate their sense of self as a sexual being.


This conception of an active audience using the media and/or its content to satisfy some gap is at the core of the uses and gratifications (UG) theory of mass media.  Conceptually the flipside of the concern that the media will affect all viewers the same way, the UG theory would predict that adolescents in the process of sexual identity negotiation would seek out and use those media that are perceived as being advantageous sources of sexual information or other sexual gratifications.  Receiving these gratifications may then influence the adolescent’s senses of identity, of sexuality, of sexual identity, and thus may in turn impact attitudes and possibly even behaviors.  Hence, the theory is that mediated sexual information/entertainment (MSIE) is selectively sought, interpreted, and utilized as adolescents explore their sense of sexual self.  This literature review investigates the research that shows the uses adolescents make of the mass media in terms of sexual data, and the gratifications and possible effects they experience from this usage.

When research began on the mass media, they were concerned primarily with the possibility that the media could influence the audience, for good or ill, with the conception of the audience as a passive mass of individuals who are so similar that there would be little to no variation in the aftereffect of being exposed to some mediated message(s).  Since the 1960s, this concept of the audience has been challenged, replaced largely with the idea of an active user of the media who routinely in some situations, while instrumentally in other situations, seeks out the media for the gratification of some need or desire, be it consciously known to the user or just a subconscious motivation.  This shift removes some of the “power” from the media, as the reasons for and satisfactions from using the media dwell within the individualized audience, who has expectations of what is to be gained from consumption coupled with socially and psychologically influenced motivations to direct their consumption attitudes and behaviors.  Any effects from subsequent exposure are thus mediated by the internal process of the user, as the user acts as a gatekeeper, taking in certain messages to use in everyday circumstances while turning back others.

The active audience concept is a central postulate of UG theory.  This activity could be goal-oriented and instrumental, where a new motivation requires different media consumption to satisfy a need; or it could be habitual and ritualized, a behavior that has become routine due to the consistent gratification obtained from the media use.  Either way, audience activity before, during and after use is a fundamental aspect to understanding UG, and are reflected in the user’s selection of a media text, the interpretation or involvement the user has with the text, and the means in which the text in utilized in the user’s everyday life.  Selectivity suggests that prior to exposure the user has made decisions regarding a need, and that the selection of a media text is to satisfy this need using learned or acquired expectations as to how well the media text will gratify this need.  Involvement during exposure can involve decoding, interpreting, and thinking and talking about messages, in attempts to comprehend/organize/structure messages to enjoy the gratifications as they occur.  Utilization or appropriation after the exposure indicates that the media had some psychological and/or sociological utility for the individual in his or her everyday life.  These three dimensions of audience activity, as a means of employing the UG theory, provide insights into understanding the relationship between MSIEs, adolescents, and an adolescent’s sexual identity and/or sexuality.

From a developmental perspective, adolescence is an important period of negotiating an identity, be it personal or social, as well as working on their interpersonal relationships through issues of intimacy and sexuality.  During this period, an adolescent develops a stable sense of what they like/dislike in many domains.  One of the domains focuses on sexual attitudes and behaviors: what turns them on; what turns them off; who are they attracted to; how do they express this attraction; when are they ready for sex.  It is a period of uncertainty that drives information-seeking as a means of constructing a more stabilized sense of a sexual self, and one potential source of information is the media.


Theorists see adolescents as active media users, selecting media according to their personal tastes and needs as they pursuit information about the possibilities life has to offer, and as they represent their emerging identities, including their burgeoning sexuality, to themselves and others.  In fact, the identity formation process is seen by some as key to understanding how adolescents select, interpret and incorporate media texts, and MSIEs in particular, in their everyday lives (ex. Media Practice Model by Steele and Brown).  Hence, the formation of a sexual identity, involving the negotiation of a level of sexuality, can influence the reasons an adolescent uses media texts, how media texts are interpreted, and how the information from media texts are incorporated back into the adolescent’s sexual identity.

If we take sexual identity formation as the motivation to select certain media texts over others, then the first pathway to analyze is the selection of media over others.  Numerous studies have shown that as children age into adolescents, they begin to spend less time watching television with their families and more time alone when they consume media.  The shift from television to music consumption is theorized to occur because music is more youth-focused, reflecting their concerns about sex and identity more than the content of television.  Music thus not only gives adolescents sexual information and potential experiences, but by consuming it alone the MSIE allows the adolescent to struggle with the issue of sexual identity formation in privacy, before unveiling the results of experimenting to the world.

That is not to say music is the only MSIE used for this process, and that television is not used at all.  One reason adolescents will select television shows if they identify with characters similar to themselves and/or facing similar situations as themselves.  Being able to find a role model from which one can learn about sex may influence the selection of a media text, yet it is likely not the sought gratification.  As with the selection of music, other media texts may be sought to gain either sexual information or sexual entertainment, or both.  Sexual information can entail any information used to construct one’s sexual attitudes and behaviors.

Perhaps an even more informative medium is the Internet, allowing adolescents access to a variety of information, both factual and fictional, that is at their control for access and amount.  Not only is sexual information available, but other sexually-oriented gratifications can be obtained through the possible consumption of erotica and pornography found online as well as the development of romantic relationships that could become sexual, either online or offline.  The Internet is a frequent source of sexual information, as such knowledge acquisition can be seen as beneficial, a means of increasing knowledge and intimate relationships, as well as viewing sexually-explicit material for other sexual gratifications.

Both gathering sexual information and seeking sexually-explicit material for the purpose of sexual gratification can be interpreted as a process of exploring possibilities, of understanding what it means to feel, think, and behave in certain sexual ways as one attempts to negotiate all these possibilities into a stable sense of preferences.  However, having even an initial conceptualization of what these preferences are can also impact how subsequent exposure to the media can be actively interpreted, which can also then impact utilization of the acquired self-knowledge, which may influence further media choice.  Hence the next part of the cycle to explore is active interpretation post-selection, during exposure.

junoDifferences in how a media text is interpreted can be due to a variety of factors, such as gender, race, developmental stage, interest in sex and life experience.  These differences can result in individualized different interpretations of the meanings of media texts, even to the point of not reading the “preferred” or intended message.  Or individual differences in motivations and life stage can produce readings unique to this combination of factors, such as earlier maturing teenage girls viewing the media as a “super peer” to answer their awkward questions. This interest in MSIE thus lead to greater exposure, but more interestingly the earlier maturing girls perceived greater sexual permission from this “super peer” than the later maturing girls did.  This finding indicates that those girls who, because of their developmental stage, showed more of an interest in exploring and understanding their sexuality were also more likely to interpret MSIE as supporting their burgeoning sexual identity by promoting norms that were more sexually permissive.

While not dictated by a pubertal development stage, Brown, White and Nikopoulou categorized girls into three types of media users that reflected their interest in and experience with sex: Disinterested, Intrigued and Resisting.  Disinterested girls see such content as irrelevant to their current, non-sexually active lives, and thus do not even seek it out, or label such depictions as “gross” should they happen to see it.  Intrigued girls were fascinated with the world of sex, love and relationships, and were thus interested in learning about this world and finding models as to how to approach these possibilities from media texts.  These girls glamorized depictions, softening and even feminizing male celebrities to be safe and distant love interests as they transitioned from being sexually inexperienced to sexually experienced.  The final group, the Resisters, dealt with sexual relationships in their lived experiences, and thus had the perspective of reality with which to compare the media texts.  As a result, they tended to critique the portrayals they saw as fantasy and sexist.

The above examples show how intertwined selection and interpretation can be, and how both can be dependent upon the user’s experience with and interest in sex, which can be dictated by their developmental stage and at what point they are in for their sexual identity formation.  But the intertwining also incorporates utilization of what is learned and gratified, often times being a reflection of identity as much as it is an exploration of it.  This can be seen with teenagers using media to find out about other similar people, thus getting a sense as to what is socially acceptable and unacceptable in relationships, and applying this information to how they perceive and engage with their romantic and sexual partners.  This utilization assists in a process of self-reflection, in attempting to fit these same cognitions and behaviors into one’s own life in the hope of emulating those perceived as role models.

Along with using media to negotiate internally, the media can be used to negotiate externally, to display one’s experimenting with a variety of sexual identities to gauge others reactions to it, whether or not it is acceptable and useful in moving through the world, in a way similar to trying out a new haircut or wardrobe.  Studies of adolescents’ bedrooms have shown how they will take symbols (i.e. posters, clippings, collectibles, etc.) from various media sources and display them as a way of promoting their constructions of self.  A similar process occurs when adolescents create webpages or blogs.  On such a site, the adolescent can promote a constructed identity through bricolaging and juxtaposing various media texts they have chosen to represent their preferences and hence themselves.  Thus, not only are adolescents using media texts to construct and represent themselves, but they are also using the medium of the Internet as a way of experimenting with the social acceptability of their identity.  Websites and blogspheres have become virtual bedrooms, so why not also discuss another bedroom-common topic, sex?

Analyses of such sites have found that discussions of sexuality and depictions from sexual media are frequently incorporated into this presentation.  In one study, sex was a topic of intimate disclosure for 16% of the girls and 5% of the boys, while romantic relationships were mentioned by 30% of the girls and 17% of the boys.  For girls, these disclosures occur in places like the introductory biography, where girls will commonly describe their relational status, in their journals or blogs that represent a virtual diary of events in their lives, in their original writings, and in the pictures of male celebrities the girls fancied romantically, if not also sexually.  As identity theorist Erikson contended, part of the identity formation process appears to be the need for feedback from the social environment that is, in a way, helping with the construction; validation and legitimization that one will not be completely ostracized for one’s identity appears play a role in the final outcome of the formation process.  Expressing oneself online and receiving responses from others, both negative and positive, can help to steer the adolescent through these waters of development.

Similar to the use of webpages and blogs to explore sexual identities may be the creation of sexually explicit fan fiction.  Fan fictions are stories or artwork created by someone unrelated to the original production of the media text, hence a “fan”, to be a furthering of the media text, such as by exploring sexual relationships not depicted in the original text.  Any type of sexual relationship can be explored, such as homosexual pairings between heterosexual characters (known as “slash“, such as Kirk/Spock), explorations of incest or other taboo practices, or just exploring a more intense heterosexual relationship between two heterosexual character who may or may not have shown such a predilection in the original text.

These fan fiction can be displayed at an adolescent’s home page, a blog, or at a website devoted to such collections (e.g. http://www.fanfiction.net).  Oftentimes, if the author includes a biography, they will mention why they have created the fiction, which could be due to a romantic and/or sexual interest in the actors and/or characters.  It may be that, similar to how male celebrities may serve as transition objects for girls’ maturing sexuality, creating and thus dictating the sexual activity of celebrities and characters they find attractive may provide the means for exploring and experimenting with their own burgeoning sexuality in a safe environment.  If this is one reason for the creation, and then subsequent consumption, of such fiction, it again indicates media texts will be selected based on the intentions one has for it, such as sexual information, sexual experiences, and the exploration of sexuality and sexual identity.  Again, interest in specific media texts, due to the actors or characters, influence the selection, and then these media texts become the materials used by the adolescent to create an original writing that represents their developing sexual identity, and the display of these original works can then be displayed for validation from others in the form of reviews and comments.

The uses an adolescent has for the media, such as sexual information, sexual experience gratification and the exploration of their sexual self, can create an active audience member at all stages of engagement with the media text, as predicted by uses and gratifications theory.  The engagement the adolescent has with the media not only reflects a stage of identity and sexual development, but can also impact subsequent developmental processes if the media text is incorporated into their experimentation and presentation of their sexual self.  There does appear to be a reciprocating model in operation to understand the relationship between an adolescent, her or his sexual identity, and the MSIE.

However, there must be some point on the circle at which the adolescent first emerges into this feedback loop.  There should be a location in the model that would activate the circle, such as the initiation of pubertal development spurning interest in sex which leads to seeking sexual media in the hopes of confirming one’s developing sense of sexuality.  Do all adolescents enter the circle at the same location?  What influences the activation of the circle?  Does the individual ever leave the circle after entering it, or does this feedback loop just continue on as one’s identity may never be a complete construct?

While these are major theoretical items to be addressed, they could be addressed in more basic empirical studies, such as further investigation of individual differences in selection, interpretation and incorporation, as well as a more thorough documentation of the motivations behind the active engagement with MSIEs, such as fan fiction creation and consumption.  There are many possible avenues of research open to explore the circle of uses and gratifications of MSIE.  While the circle may be a closed circuit, the possibility for future research on the subject disappears over the horizon.

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