- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 11, 2000

University of Michigan psychology professor L. Monique Ward was going over the results of her recent two-year study of young adults and their attitudes toward sex and the media when she was struck by one particular realization.

"I was surprised at how much 18- to 20-year-olds are still affected by media's messages about sex," Ms. Ward says. "When we first started our research, we assumed that 15-year-olds that largely hadn't started dating yet would have much of their reality shaped by the media. They don't know the difference sometimes [between media reality and real life] and don't have the maturity to make informed choices about sex.

"But 18- to 20-year-olds are at the pinnacle, so to speak, when it comes to dating and relationships. They're older, more mature, less naive. And they're still affected. That was a bit of a surprise."

Which begs a deeper question: What about the harder, coarser stuff out there? Ms. Ward's study focused on sudsy TV programs like "Friends" and soap operas, relatively mild fare compared with cable TV's "The Man Show" and "The X Show," both of which feature female porn movie stars in "advice-giving" comedy sketches. Porn stars are also appearing in music videos by artists like Kid Rock, Everclear and Counting Crows.

Then there's Cosmopolitan magazine, which routinely promotes articles on its cover that detail how to heighten sexual pleasure.

And of course, there's shock jock Howard Stern's radio or TV show.

If 18- to 20-year-olds' attitudes are shaped by TV characters like Ross and Rachel and Monica and Chandler, what is the impact of the anything-goes philosophy of pornography?

Many pro-family organizations are fighting back and winning skirmishes, like when the Kroger grocery store chain recently agreed to sell Cosmo in "blinder" racks to mask the prurient headlines. But how much is still getting through to children, and affecting their thinking, is still being hotly debated.

Future porn stars?

One of today's fashion statements among young people is a T-shirt that says "Future Porn Star" or "Future Pimp." Local stores like Commander Salamander and Up Against the Wall sell them, and Anhtu Lu, a local buyer for both stores, says both shirts have been good sellers since the line came out about five years ago.

"The novelty has kind of worn out," she says. "But they continue to sell well. Kids like things with that type of shock. It's something they've always done. It isn't anything more severe than that. It isn't going to encourage anyone to go out and become a sex offender or porn star. It's a sort of humor, that's the bottom line."

Chuck Hood, 22, who recently bought a "Future Porn Star" shirt at the Commander Salamander store in Georgetown, agrees.

"I find it humorous," says Mr. Hood, who recently moved from Greenbelt to San Diego to take a job with a local activist group called Progressive Campaigns. "It's just something other people can laugh at, a special look. It's not an attention-grabber; it's just something kind of funny to wear. I've only worn it one time since I got it, actually. It's big in the club scenes nowadays. It's an acceptable line of clothing to wear to the clubs when you go out."

Mr. Hood does agree the culture has become more obsessed with sex and violence, and the media does have an "overwhelming influence" on youth culture today.

"Everything you see on TV and magazines might be geared toward adults, but it influences us very, very much," he says. "Even shows like 'Jerry Springer.' People actually laugh at those shows, and it is kind of amusing, but at the same time, a lot of people take it seriously."

Ashley Mancuso of Potomac, a 17-year-old junior at Wootton High School, says most of her friends don't view sex as a big deal, probably because most of them have already had sex themselves, and she downplays the role of TV shows and movies that push sex.

"It's kind of like, 'Everybody's doing it,' " she says.

She has seen plenty of "porn star" T-shirts and calls them a "popular line." But she dismisses their shock value, saying that they are meant to be humorous.

"I think they're kind of funny," she says. "Older people kind of look at them weird, but kids like me, I guess we've seen so much of society, nothing really shocks us anymore," she says.

Recently, Ashley bought a T-shirt from the Playboy line at Commander Salamander, but she said she had never heard of the line before she entered the store.

"I just liked their clothes," she says. "I wanted something to go clubbing in."

Even young children wear the "porn star" T-shirts, often without understanding what they mean. Ann Simonton, director of Media Watch, a nonprofit organization in California that studies women's issues in media, tells about an 8-year-old who wore a "porn star" shirt.

"A woman came to one of my lectures, and she had been baby-sitting a young girl who was 8," Ms. Simonton says. "She was wearing that shirt and the woman asked her, 'Do you even know what that means?' She said, 'No, I don't know what it means, but it makes the boys like me more.' "

Sex as a game

Ms. Ward's study, which was published last fall in the Journal of Sex Research, examined the sexual attitudes of 314 men and women in the 18-20 age category and how they were shaped by the media. She found the more TV that viewers watched, the more realistic TV characters and their attitudes became in their view, particularly in the arena of sex.

"People who watched a lot of TV accepted the recreational notion of sex as game-playing and strategizing," she says. "Respondents were also more likely to assume that their peers were really sexually active and to buy into the notion that everybody is doing it. We found that those who watch TV a lot are more involved with it and that it shapes sexual attitudes and expectations."

Ms. Ward says the study also showed that young adults who watch a lot of TV agree with some of the stereotypical sexual roles, namely men as sexual predators and women as objects to be ogled by men.

On the other hand, Children Now, a nonprofit child advocacy group in California, surveyed teen-age boys and girls about the media's messages to boys about sex and violence, and found that many children are able to tell the difference between TV reality and their own reality.

Children Now President Lois Salisbury says the survey showed clearly that children are influenced by the media's messages about sex and sexual attitudes but that "listening to kids is pretty important. Teen pregnancy is down; there's a real changing pattern of sexuality, differing views. It's not a black-and-white picture. It may be that listening to kids is pretty important. If they say it's no big deal, maybe sometimes we should listen to them."

She also says more studies need to be done on how the media affects children's views of sexuality, since there have been numerous similar studies on violence.

The 'fundamental lies of porn'

Rick Schatz, president of the National Coalition for Protection of Children and Families, says we have become a "porn culture."

"There's a broad dissemination and invasion of messages or porn into the cultural mainstream," Mr. Schatz says. "We see that in pushing the envelope on TV, in movies, magazines, every venue of media and public discourse. Obviously we're seeing things on TV that five years ago we never would have seen. We've become to a great degree a porn culture. I don't mean that hard-core porn is lurking behind every magazine or videotape, just that the messages of porn are out there."

The messages, Mr. Schatz says, promote, "Sex with anyone under any circumstances. Second, women have only one value, and that is to meet the sexual demands of men. Third, everyone is involved in it. Fourth, the only sex that is exciting is outside of marriage. We believe those are the fundamental lies of porn."

Mr. Schatz says his group has done focus group research with teen-agers asking them what they think of porn's availability over the Internet. He says the response was overwhelmingly negative.

"They all said it was very destructive," he says. "Their exposure rates to porn materials is off the charts. People are running around saying it's hard to find porn and you have to be looking for it. They're either lying or they're misinformed."

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