Sexing the Media

How and Why We Do It

by Debra L. Merskin (Author)
©2014 Textbook XX, 321 Pages


Sex in the media is one of the hottest topics of the day. We know that advertising, television, cinema, and other forms of communication use sex to sell us products and pump up story lines. The question is: why are sex and sexuality such effective tools for getting our attention?
Sexing the Media: How and Why We Do It is a textbook that explores answers to this question through historical, sociological, psychological, and ideological perspectives. It explores how media and other social institutions use sex and sexuality (the capacity to have erotic experiences and responses) to advance economic and ideological interests.Cinema, music, music videos, television programs, advertising, and the Internet are discussed as carriers of deliberately constructed messages that contribute to and support a master narrative that privileges heterosexuality and monogamy.
This interdisciplinary text includes contemporary case studies as examples that would be useful in courses in media, cultural studies, sociology, and psychology.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Figures
  • List of Tables
  • Preface
  • Organization
  • Acknowledgments
  • Section I: Foundations
  • Chapter 1. The Puritan Sex Ethic
  • A Brief History of Sex
  • Birds and Bees
  • Puritan Pleasures
  • The Puritan Sex Ethic
  • Learning about Sex
  • 18th-Century Sex
  • 19th-Century Sex
  • Discoursing Sex
  • 20th Century
  • 21st Century
  • Conclusion
  • Questions for Discussion
  • Chapter 2. Prelude to Passion
  • Why Sex?
  • Minding the Body
  • Brain
  • Henry Havelock Ellis (1859–1939)
  • Richard von Krafft-Ebing (1840–1902)
  • Sigmund Freud (1856–1939)
  • Alfred Kinsey (1894–1956)
  • William Masters (1915–2001) and Virginia Johnson (1925–)
  • Contemporary Theories of Male and Female Difference
  • What Do We Look For?
  • What Do We Want?
  • Conclusion
  • Questions for Discussion
  • Chapter 3. Sexing the Media
  • Children’s Media Use
  • Sexy Media Matter
  • Give It to Me Now
  • Embodying Sex
  • Boobs
  • Penises
  • How We Look
  • How and Why We Do It
  • Advertising
  • Primary Findings
  • Television
  • Primary Findings
  • Music Videos
  • Primary Findings
  • Music
  • Primary Findings
  • Magazines
  • Primary Findings
  • Cinema
  • Primary Findings
  • Internet
  • Primary Findings
  • Effects
  • Parental Involvement
  • Media Literacy
  • Conclusion
  • Questions for Discussion
  • Section II: Sexual Socialization
  • Chapter 4. Reviving Lolita: Sexualization of Adolescent Girls in Fashion Advertising
  • Ideology of the Sexualized Child
  • Reading Sexualized Images
  • Dis-Illusioning Images
  • Conclusion
  • Questions for Discussion
  • Chapter 5. Mirroring Violent Masculinity: Nike’s “Warriors” Campaign
  • Boys to Men
  • Putting on a Game Face
  • The Warriors
  • Uncanny Conclusions
  • Questions for Discussion
  • Section III: Transgressions
  • Chapter 6. Angels in America: Seeing through Victoria’s Secret
  • Angel Girls
  • Aphrodite’s Nighties
  • Where Angels Fear to Tread
  • Only the Shadow Knows
  • Re-visioning Angels
  • Conclusion
  • Questions for Discussion
  • Chapter 7. Catty: The Feral Feminine in Media
  • Animal Instincts
  • Ancient Ties
  • Women, Cats, and Popular Culture
  • Cat Eyes
  • Textual Analysis
  • Advertising Analysis
  • Maybelline Colossal Cat Eyes Mascara
  • Yves St. Laurent’s Opium
  • Conclusion
  • Questions for Discussion
  • Chapter 8. A Boyfriend to Die for: Edward Cullen as Compensated Psychopath in Twilight
  • Lovers with a Bite
  • The Nature of Psychopathy
  • The CP in Popular Culture
  • Twilight Time
  • A Thin Line Between Love and Hate
  • Missing Morality
  • Forever Young
  • Background Depression
  • Chronic Background Fear
  • A Boyfriend to Die for
  • A Stake in the Culture
  • Questions for Discussion
  • Chapter 9. But Where Are the Clothes? The Pornographic Gaze in Mainstream American Magazine Fashion Advertising
  • Fashioning Advertising
  • Selling It
  • More Than Dirty Pictures
  • Looking
  • Pornography in Advertising
  • Image Analysis
  • Summary
  • Questions for Discussion
  • Chapter 10. Homosexuality and Horror: The Lesbian Vampire Film
  • Censoring Sex and Sexuality
  • Homosexuality in Media
  • Homosexuality in Film
  • Scary Sexuality
  • The Monstrous-Feminine
  • The Abject
  • Taking a Bite out of Film
  • Dracula’s Daughter (1936)
  • The Vampire Lovers (1970)
  • The Hunger (1983)
  • Conclusion
  • Questions for Discussion
  • Chapter 11. Not So Pretty Woman: Prostitution and the John in Media
  • History
  • Why Prostitution?
  • Representations of Prostitutes in Visual Media
  • Positioning Prostitution
  • Cinema
  • Film Analysis
  • Implications
  • Questions for Discussion
  • Notes
  • Chapter 2
  • Chapter 4
  • Chapter 6
  • Chapter 11
  • Resources
  • Media Literacy
  • Websites
  • Books for Parents
  • Films and Documentaries
  • References
  • Appendix A: Euphemisms for Sex
  • Appendix B: Euphemisms for Female Breasts
  • Appendix C: Euphemisms for Penis
  • Index

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Americans spend a great deal of time thinking about, talking about, and representing sex and sexuality. At the same time, however, considerable effort has gone into and continues to go into suppressing images, ideas, and talk about sex. News media are replete with stories of the latest transgression, sexual conquests, and hookups. Cinema is richly endowed with plots devoted to sexual awakenings, conquests, and curiosities. Television programs such as Cheaters stimulate viewer’s voyeuristic pleasures in seeing adulterers caught. Advertising has long used sex to sell, whether or not sex is related to the product or service. Even photographs that circulate in international news, such as the humiliation of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison, involve viewing sexual violations. The contradictory dynamic of what is, on the one hand, denial of sexual impulses and, on the other, almost constant public discourse about them is the focus of this book.

Sexing the Media: How and Why We Do It addresses this paradox by examining the psychological, historical, economic, and cultural theories that underpin not only how American mass media use sex as a creative device but also, most importantly, why sex (the biological distinction and the act of coitus) is used so widely, why it works so well, and how it influences the formation of individual and social identity. The goal is to go deeper than the ← xi | xii → obvious use of sex in media. “We need to understand why [certain] images are considered sexy, what they represent about arousal, sexual desire, and interpersonal relations, and how [media] harnesses these concerns to create … associations” (Schroeder & McDonagh, 2006, p. 220). This book explores how media and other social institutions use sex and sexuality (the capacity to have erotic experiences and responses) to advance economic and ideological interests. Cinema, music, music videos, television programs, advertising, and the Internet are discussed as carriers of deliberately constructed messages that contribute to and support a master narrative that privileges heterosexuality and monogamy. Sex is ubiquitous in contemporary popular culture as a “sex noise” that saturates the cultural landscape (Lambiase & Reichert, 2003, p. 274). This “pornocopia” of sexually implicit and explicit display no longer exists solely in the realm of what has historically been labeled “pornographic” as in magazines or movies; rather, it is “Something that has come above ground, that is linked in with the ‘straight’ communications and media industries as it is linked in with the private lives of an ever-increasing number of adults” (O’Toole, 1999, p. 374).

This approach is not taken as moralizing about pornography per se but rather to draw attention to the pervasiveness and potential impact on the quality of real relationships, as it exerts “a debilitating influence on people’s relationship with actual bodies and lovers, and infects our sexual imagination” (Schroeder & McDonagh, 2006, p. 224). This book is thereby not about pornography but rather includes discussions of how mainstream media content, for reasons having to do with intense competition for audiences, includes content that many regard as pornographic. The “limit[s] of representability” that Zizek (1989, p. 33) uses to describe mainstream love stories, dramas, or other content are blurred, and the going too far of pornography is now part of everyday communications. Instead this book incorporates psychological and sociological theories to help unpack questions about the use of sex to tell and sell as well as the implications of “contemporary pornographies” in real relationships (Williams, 2004, p. 6).

Freud’s theory of repression and drives, Foucault’s (1978/1990) repression hypothesis, Mulvey’s (1975) male gaze theory, Rubin’s (1984/1993) sex/gender system, and Butler’s (1990) notion of heteronormativity and gender as performance are theoretical foundations. The ideas of theorists such as Carl Jung, Stuart Hall, Jacques Lacan, and Roland Barthes among others are also included. As such, sex and its representation are viewed as acts of consumption in a capitalist economy. ← xii | xiii →

In this book I describe how the media, among many social institutions, function as pivotal places for learning about sex and sexuality. Empirical findings are presented regarding common beliefs about gender and sex as well as historical and legal realities related to expressions and prohibitions. Representations of transgressive sex (adultery, bisexuality, bondage/domination/submission, transgenderism, and animality) are discussed in individual case study chapters as speech acts that perpetuate status quo beliefs about human relationships. A wide range of sensitive topics is included such as homosexuality, masturbation, taboos, sexual religious imagery, and other issues related to the symbolic re-presentation of sex.

Part of the motivation of this book is a concern with the increasingly graphic representations of women, girls, men, boys, and people of color. I’m worried about the increasingly pornographic environment in which we live. Movies, television programs, magazines, and the Internet are filled with images and information that inform our dominant visual culture. I wonder if a child views culturally sanctioned publications and sees violence, S&M, and stereotyping associated with glamour, will the child be any less affected in his or her view of the opposite sex in real relationships? Are beauty and success defined not only by the achievement of a hyper-thin look but also a hyper-sexual one? If sex sells, as we hear it does, what precisely is being sold? Pornography is designed to market women’s bodies directly to men. Is using women’s bodies to market a product any less insidious? I think not.

The media, especially the Internet, are of utmost importance as sources of learning when an adolescent has questions about what might be a potentially embarrassing aspect of his or her developing sexuality and identity. If schools widely offered comprehensive sex education, which has proven to aid young people in navigating the waters of development, many of the media images would seem silly, incomplete, and even offensive. However, lack of comprehensive sex education fuels curiosity about that which is regarded as taboo, hence unintentionally perhaps contributing to uninformed exploration. Sex sells everything from skin cleaners and lipstick to laptops. Yet, research demonstrates that if ads, or movies, or television programs are too sexy, people don’t remember the product or the program (Perloff, 1993). What happens in our brains that overrides our ability to cognitively process what we hear and see when it involves sex?

This book is not a call for censorship, but rather for recognition that hypersexual media, a “logic of pornography,” is ubiquitous and we need to understand why (Schroeder & McDonagh, 2006, p. 219). This logic, as discussed in the chapters ahead, “include[s] the sale (or circulation) of sexual ← xiii | xiv → expression, the commodification of human bodies, and the (persistently) stereotyped portrayal of male and female roles”(p. 225). What I suggest is that, as a society, we need to take all forms of visual communication seriously and cast a wider net in terms of what material qualifies as pornographic and examine the implications. It is only a step, but it seems clear that we can benefit by moving toward a healthier mental and physical environment by identifying these socially sanctioned materials. Furthermore, recognizing positive, informative representations of sex and sexuality is also important.

This book is an interrogation into why a society that, by some accounts, considers itself sexually repressed spends so much time and attention, dedicates so much page space and so many images, to talking about sex. This book is about exploring these inconsistencies, about the widespread representations of sex in U.S. media and the lack of open discussion in homes, classrooms, and legislative assemblies. While Americans spend more than $10 billion per year on pornographic videos and DVDs, “somewhat paradoxically … Americans are also seen as highly puritanical in … [their] approach to sexual matters” (Siegel, 2002, p. 389). We don’t know how to think about, talk about, or deal with sex in America and this lack of understanding is reflected in media culture that is saturated with it.

Discussions about the psychological foundations of how sex and the human mind operate serve as the foundation for analyzing articulations of and about sex. How minds and bodies respond to sexual cues in our visual, aural, verbal, and written environments and how, through a cultural studies lens, we are manipulated because of our psychological vulnerabilities to sexual cues is examined.

From origins in cave drawings through art, music, theater, and mass media, sex is a topic of discussion and source of inspiration. Narrative, genre, social learning, cultivation, accumulation, myth, and stereotype theories guide the inquiry. Some of the questions explored include the following:

 If Western societies, and the United States in particular, are so sexually repressed (as we are led to believe), why do we spend so much time representing it?

 What aspects of sex and sexuality are typically represented in the media? Are these positive or negative portrayals?

 What impact does mass communication have on the sexual realities of our lives?

 Can media be a place to learn about healthy sexuality? ← xiv | xv →

A serious discussion of this important topic is long overdue. The need to shine light into the shadows of secrecy about sex, particularly now, is perhaps best expressed by Gayle Rubin (1984/1993, p. 3):

The time has come to think about sex. To some, sexuality may seem to be an unimportant topic, a frivolous diversion from the more critical problems of poverty, war, disease, racism, famine, or nuclear annihilation. But it is precisely at times such as these, when we live with the possibility of unthinkable destruction, that people are likely to become dangerously crazy about sexuality. Contemporary conflicts over sexual values and erotic conduct have much in common with the religious disputes of earlier centuries. They acquire symbolic weight. Disputes over sexual behavior often become the vehicles for displacing social anxieties, discharging their attendant emotional intensity. Consequently, sexuality should be treated with special respect in times of great stress.

Sexing the Media is intended for undergraduate and graduate students, scholars, and anyone interested in understanding what is perhaps the most fundamental human urge simultaneously expressed and repressed in life and in art. We wouldn’t be here without it.


First, about the title of this book: Sexing the Media: How and Why We Do It. The double entendre is intentional. Not only is having intercourse called doing it, but including sex in media content is intentional. Furthermore, sexing because sex is often included in media content that has little or nothing to do with sex, for example, advertisements for products that have nothing to do with sex but use bodies to attract attention. Sexing is also evident by the inclusion of a love or sex scene in a film whose plot has little or nothing to do with sex. Thus, sexing is part of the production process. The “ing” ending communicates it is an active process, an activity, a deliberate decision on the part of writers, editors, producers, directors, copywriters, art directors, and other communication professionals.

Technically called intercourse or coitus, euphemisms for sex range from humorous to violent. Euphemisms aid us in tiptoeing “around what makes us uneasy and have done so for most of recorded history” (Keyes, 2010, p. 4). American culture is full of references to sex: shag, screw, do the nasty, wild thing, fuck, get it on, bang, and others. The euphemisms (a word or phrase that is substituted for another one that might offend or suggest something unpleasant or inappropriate) are many (see Appendix A). ← xv | xvi →

Keyes (2010) calls these “the verbal equivalent of draping nude statues” (p. 4). Body parts, body wastes, and sex help us to discuss difficult or unpleasant topics and can even mask what we are speaking about. Saying a couple “slept together” is a polite way of saying that two people had sex but without images of naked bodies or penetration. Forbidden concepts or acts, things considered dangerous or off limits, are often encased in euphemistic language. Typically, “what is taboo is revolting, untouchable, filthy, unmentionable, dangerous, disturbing, thrilling—but above all powerful” (Burridge, 2004, p. 199). By using these alternative words or phrases, users can keep a distance from the objectionable or forbidden. There are, for example, approximately 1,200 terms for vagina, 1,000 for penis, and 800 for copulation (Allan & Burridge, 1991, p. 96).


XX, 321
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2012 (June)
heterosexuality monogamy interdisciplinary text interdisciplinary
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 321 pp., num. ill.

Biographical notes

Debra L. Merskin (Author)

Debra L. Merskin (PhD, Syracuse University) is Associate Professor of Media Studies at the University of Oregon. She is the author of Media, Minorities, and Meaning: A Critical Introduction (Peter Lang, 2010).


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