Media and sex

The media has come to dominate our lives and the information we receive. From advertising, newspapers, television, and the internet, most of us tend to encounter some form of media in our average day.

Sex in the media has always been something of a controversial subject. Books have been banned, newspaper articles and cinema censored, television programmes complained about, and so on. How much we are exposed to sex in the media depends on where we live, how society perceives the portrayal of sex at any point in time/history, and government control.

If someone wants to send out a message they will use some form of media, and how effective the message is will depend on how much control they have of media broadcasters. This control could be financial, where a person or organisation is able to afford the fees charged by the broadcaster, or it could be political, where a person or organisation is able to use media through contacts and allegiances. Cultural influences can dictate how the media is produced to appeal to the widest possible audience. Media can also be used to send a message to the masses time and time again until it becomes ‘normal’ and accepted by the widest range of people possible, which will in turn become acceptable to society, at least to some extent.

Media companies, and those who appear in media productions, have a significant influence on fashion, music, ideas, attitudes, education, language, and many other aspects of the world around us – all influenced and changed through the use of media.

The portrayal of sex in the media is influenced by social attitudes at the time, and controls put in place by governments to censor what the population can and cannot see. Not all portrayals of sex need to be explicit. In many forms of media, innuendo can be used just as effectively as explicit description or imagery.


Television brings sound and images right into the home, and has been subjected to stringent controls by just about every government in the world. Whether you live in a liberal society, or a heavily censored society, television brings you news and entertainment in some form.

In the USA, television content provided by terrestrial broadcasters was subject to a code of conduct agreed by members of the ‘National Association of Broadcasters’ (NAB). The code of conduct was established in 1951, and forbade “profanity, obscenity, smut and vulgarity” and a total ban on “anatomical detail” being broadcast to the one million or so television sets in the US in 1950. By the late 1950s there were approximately fifty million televisions in the US. Official regulation was enforced by the ‘Federal Communications Commission’ (FCC), which has the right to censor material and prohibited ‘obscene and indecent’ material.

Under the FCC rules of the time, material was defined as obscene if “the average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find that the material appeals to the prurient interest; that the material describes or depicts sexual conduct in a patently offensive manner; or taken as whole, the material lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value,” and indecent material was defined as “patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium and describes sexual or excretory activities and organs.”

An example the effect of the NAB code of conduct and the FCC regulations on television in the 1950s was that TV broadcasters could not show a married couple in a single bed, they had to be depicted in twin beds.

As the world progressed into the ‘swinging sixties’, television broadcasts were still highly regulated, and showing a navel was considered unacceptable and provocative. In the series ‘I Dream of Genie’, Barbara Eden’s character was permitted to show her midriff, but not so much that her navel was exposed. There was a slackening of regulations later in the 1960s when bikinis were allowed.

The first interracial kiss on television in the USA is often attributed to an episode of ‘Star Trek: Plato’s Stepchildren’ which was broadcast in 1968, when Captain Kirk kissed Lt Uhura. However, this kiss was not the first to appear on US television. In 1966, David McCallum kissed Asian American actress Victoria Young in an episode of ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.: The Her Master’s Voice Affair’.

In the UK, the first interracial kiss was seen on the ITV soap ‘Emergency Ward 10’ in 1964 between the characters Dr Farmer and DR Mahler.

Despite the concerns of regulators and producers that showing different races kissing on television would cause outrage, there was very little negative response from the public.

Nichelle Nichols who played Lt Uhura in the series recalled the reaction of viewers to the kiss “We received one of the largest batches of fan mail ever, all of it very positive, with many addressed to me from girls wondering how it felt to kiss Captain Kirk, and many to him from guys wondering the same thing about me. However, almost no one found the kiss offensive.”

Broadcasters and producers in the US started to become a little more daring in portraying sex and sexuality, and showing more of the human body on television in the 1970s. Bralessness was acceptable in programmes such as ‘Charlie’s Angels’ which reflected the fashion of the time, and nudity was creeping in after the ‘watershed’. Variety shows, comedy (such as ‘The Benny Hill Show’), and drama all saw the boundaries of what they could and could not show, say, and do moved. Regulators and industry organisations started to become more flexible in what could be shown on the small screen.

Although basic forms of cable TV had been available in the US and in the UK, the 1980s and 1990s saw the spread of satellite and cable television that reached millions more viewers. The portrayal of sex on TV became a fight for viewers and the valuable advertising revenue that came with them. It seemed as though sex, in some form or another, was shown, talked about, or part of a story line of many popular programmes. Sex was in the news and documentaries started to be produced about subjects that had previously been considered ‘taboo’, such as ‘Fetishes’, and ‘Sex and Shopping’ in the UK.

Clothing of TV celebrities and characters started to become more provocative – even in children’s programming – and their sexual antics became news, promoting the idea of celebrity with sex. Cartoons were produced that were primarily aimed at an adult market (such as ‘The Simpsons’, ‘King of the Hill’, and ‘South Park’), and featured sexual content and issues. Sexual language also started to find its way into TV programming, often through ‘magazine’ type programmes (such as ‘The Word’, ‘The Girlie Show’, and ‘Something for the Weekend’) aimed at the youth of the day.

Drama didn’t escape the ingress of sex, infidelity, homosexuality, and all manner of sexual activities which has only previously been seen in the cinema, or in more arty programming. Mainstream drama series such as ‘Queer as Folk’, ‘This Life’, and ‘The Buddha of Suburbia’ portrayed ‘normal’ people in complex sexual relationships.

Those who had cable or satellite could subscribe to specialist adult channels such as ‘The Adult Channel’ and ‘Television X’ which showed non-hard-core adult content. Those who could afford specialist receivers were able to tune in to hard-core adult channels from satellite providers in Europe and other parts of the world.

During daytime and evening television broadcasts, soap operas would portray sexual relationships and tension presented as being in everyday situations, some of them specifically aimed at a younger audience (such as ‘Beverly Hills 90210’, ‘Melrose Place’, and ‘Dawson’s Creek’). For the older audience, there were soap operas portraying the fantasy lives of the rich (‘Dallas’, ‘Knots Landing’, ‘Falcon Crest’, and others) whose characters liked to indulge themselves in complex sexual situations.

Moving into the 2000s and television is a significant part of many people’s lives, including children who will often have their own TV in their room. The UK Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) expressed their concern in 2009, that ‘Children may find fiction and reality hard to separate, and learn behaviours quickly’ referring to children learning sexual behaviour from television. The deputy general secretary of the ATL , Gwen Evans, in an interview with the BBC said “Given that most children learn about sex from outside the classroom, it is vital that the peddlers of popular culture for children face their responsibilities with the same degree of care,” and Ralph Surman, a teacher, said “The long-term effect is that behaviours are mimicked and not seen as unacceptable, but part of the daily routine of life. I fear for the future of a responsible, caring society.”

During the 2000s there has been extensive research into the effects of how sex and relationships are portrayed on television and the effects these have on children. The consensus is that watching television significantly influences children’s view of the world and shapes their attitudes for the rest of their lives -in particular, social interaction, and perceptions of sex and relationships.

Subliminal messaging on television (and many other areas of media) is banned in many countries, including Australia and the UK, with severe legal penalties for producing subliminal programming.

The situation in the USA is different. Although there is no federal law against the use of subliminal, or covert, messaging in television broadcasts, industry regulators FCC did make the following statement in press statement on 19th September 2000 ‘The FCC has no formal rules on “The FCC has no formal rules on the use of “subliminal perception” techniques. In fact, the Commission appears to have addressed the issue only twice. In 1974, the agency issued a policy statement that the use of “subliminal perception” is “contrary to the public interest.” But policy statements are not enforceable rules. Nor would it be appropriate for the Commission to fine a person for failure to comply with a policy statement.’

The industry association the ‘National Association of Broadcasters’ (NAB) had a code of practice for its members from 1928, but this was abandoned in 1982. In 1990, NAB issued a “Statement of Principles of Radio and Television Broadcasting,” which very briefly mentions sexually orientated material and is not binding in any way on the organisation’s membership.

Television advertising does have some legislation or regulation concerning subliminal advertising. For example, the ‘Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ in Vol. 67 No.34 § 7.337 Of the ‘Federal Register’ issued on the 27th June 2002 states ‘You must not use malt beverage advertisements that use subliminal or similar advertising techniques. These prohibited advertisements include: the use of any device or technique that conveys, or attempts to convey, a message to a person by means of images or sounds of a very brief nature that cannot be perceived at a normal level of awareness.’

The definition of ‘subliminal’ according to the Oxford English Dictionary:

Definition of subliminal



  • (of a stimulus or mental process) below the threshold of sensation or consciousness; perceived by or affecting someone’s mind without their being aware of it.

The definition clearly defines what constitutes subliminal. Within the context of television, this would be the momentary flashing of an image or text which contains some kind of message, perhaps lasting one frame or less. Similarly, it could be a very brief word or sound which also contains a message or implies something the producers want to try to instil.

There are many examples of television broadcasts containing subliminal messaging (usually containing some kind of advertising in the US), and also a lot of hype and misinformed claims. An early example of subliminal messages being used is in the Daffy Duck cartoon ‘Wise Quacking Duck’ made in 1943, where Daffy spins a statue and the words ‘Buy Bonds’ are flashed onscreen for one frame.

There has been research into the effectiveness of subliminal messaging. Scientists at University College London showed that humans are programmed at a sub-conscious level. Professor Lavie who was part of the team said: “Negative words may have a more rapid impact. ‘Kill your speed’ should be more noticeable than ‘Slow down’. More controversially, highlighting a competitor’s negative qualities may work on a subliminal level much more effectively than shouting about your own selling points.”

Subliminal messaging is used by British illusionist Derren Brown to manipulate subjects to perform actions they wouldn’t normally do. For example in his television programme ‘The Heist’, Derren Brown used subliminal messaging as part of his manipulation of four people to conduct an ‘armed robbery’ which they believed to be real.

The technique of subliminal messaging does not necessarily work to full effect on everyone, but if someone is susceptible it can have a significant effect on thoughts, perceptions, and actions – especially if they are exposed to it frequently. Children are a good example. Children are learning, and taking in information from many different sources to process the world around them. Creating desire in children happens in adverts for children’s toys in the run-up to Christmas. Often we can see children replicating behaviour they have seen on television. If subliminal messaging were also used, then this would create a powerful combination of manipulation tools for those who wanted to influence young minds.

Manipulation of television viewers does not have to be subliminal to be effective. Regular exposure to storylines and programming containing sexual issues has risen dramatically since the first television sets were installed in homes.

Since the 1980s, the portrayal of love, lust, sexuality, and the more unusual side of sex have become part of our everyday lives, whether directly, or through innuendo. People can access porn in their own homes via satellite, cable, or DVD recordings, whereas years ago they would have had to go to specially licenced cinemas to find the type of material they were seeking.


Sex and cinema have shared a relationship since the late 1800s, when films featuring strippers, and hard-core pornographic films, were produced by filmmakers such as ‘Léar’ (whose real name was Albert Kirchner) and Eugène Pirou.

Full nudity, sex, and sexy sirens all found a market in the early 1900s. ‘Stag’ films (hard-core pornography), although illegal, found their way into men’s clubs and other locations where there was an all-male audience. Homosexual innuendo found its way into mainstream cinema in the 1916 Charlie Chaplin film ‘Behind the Screen’ in a scene where Chaplin played a worker who kissed another worker, who was a woman dressed in man’s clothing, and their on-screen boss thought they were homosexual.

In the US, there was public concern about the apparent lack of self-censorship by the growing movie industry, and the lack of a federal control body. This led to local censorship boards being established; the first of which was in New York in 1909 “The New York Board of Motion Picture Censorship”, which later went on to be “The National Board of Review” in 1915. Major filmmakers from all over the United States would send their films to the board to get the board’s ‘Seal of Approval’. This was seen as an attempt to show that the film industry could self-regulate, and to ward off any legislative film censorship.

In response to public opinion and pressure groups, in 1930 ‘The Motion Picture Production Code’ (also known as the Hays Code) was introduced. The code imposed regulations on filmmakers which were far more strict and straight-laced, and went far beyond self-regulation – some thought too far.

The puritanical code was so restrictive that many filmmakers could not make films that challenged social issues of the time, or the reality of life in the real world. Under ‘Hays Code’ there could be no criticism of the law, portrayal of interracial relationships were banned, religious figures could not be the subject of comedy or ridicule, drug use could not be mentioned or eluded to, lesbian and gay was effectively only to be portrayed as being immoral and wrong, let alone ‘lustful kissing’. Under the ‘Hayes Code’, films were either approved or not depending on whether they were considered ‘moral’ or not.

There were a few changes to the Hays Code which relaxed some of the puritanical nooses that the film industry found ridiculously restrictive in telling human stories. In 1966 the ‘Hayes Code’ finally ceased and was replaced by ‘The Motion Picture Association’s’ a voluntary film rating system that is still in use in the USA today, as is the right of local authorities to ban the showing of movies.

In the UK, the ‘Cinematographic Act 1909’ was introduced and required cinemas to be licenced through local authorities, the act also gave the authorities power to censor films. In 1912, the British Board of Film Censors (BBFC) was formed by filmmakers of the time to self-regulate the content of their films and to bring consistency to the censoring process. The BBFC would rate a film either ‘U’ for universal viewing, or ‘A’ for adult viewing. It was (and is today) the local authorities who had the power to say whether a film can be shown in their area, although they generally accepted the rating applied to a film by the BBFC.

The censoring of films was based on the legal requirements of the 1909 Act, and the internal regulations of the BBFC, which included a range of criteria that were considered to be unacceptable by the board for each classification.  In some cases, the BBFC would recommend changes or cuts to films to make sure they met the BBFC requirements of certification.

In 1916, T.P. O’Connor was appointed President of the BBFC, and one of his first tasks was to give evidence at the ‘Cinema Commission of Inquiry’ in 1916 concerning the policy of the BBFC applied to the censorship of films. In his evidence, O’Connor cited forty three reasons for why scenes may be cut from a film, including The irreverent treatment of sacred subjects, Vulgar accessories in the staging, Unnecessary exhibition of under-clothing, Nude figures, Indecorous dancing, Incidents suggestive of incestuous relations, Scenes depicting the effect of venereal disease, inherited or acquired, Illicit relationships, Men and women in bed together, Bathing scenes passing the limits of propriety, and others. O’Connor’s list was strict and puritan, and was seen as necessary of the BBFC was to gain the support of the public and the official bodies of the time.

In 1920, London City Council made it a condition of cinema licences that they only show films that had been rated by the BBFC, which shows the regard the BBFC were held in at the time.

The influence of the BBFC on censorship changed with the advent of World War II. Censorship of films depicting political material passed to the ‘Films Division’ of the ‘Ministry of Information’.

Post-war, the BBFC sought to modernise their requirements for censorship, and the appointment of successful playwright Arthur Watkins as Secretary prompted the BBFC to form three basic principle for censorship. These were ‘Was the story, incident or dialogue likely to impair the moral standards of the public by extenuating vice or crime or depreciating moral standards?’, ‘Was it likely to give offence to reasonably minded cinema audiences?’, and ‘What effect would it have on children?’.

In 1951 the BBFC introduced a new category to accommodate more controversial subjects beginning to be depicted in films of the time. The ‘X’ certificate excluded children under the age of 16 from viewing an ‘X’ rated film. Max Ophuls’ 1951 ‘La Ronde’ a film about sexual encounters was certified as ‘X’ after cuts demanded by the BBFC were made. In 1956 dialogue cuts were made to Ingmar Bergman’s ‘Smiles of a Summer Night’ because the sex references were considered too risqué before being given an ‘X’ certificate.

In 1955 the BBFC refused to give the film ‘The Garden of Eden’ a certificate. The film was about a mother and daughter who decide to become nudists, and depicted nude buttocks and breasts. However, several local authorities decided that the film could be shown in their areas and the BBFC eventually gave the film an ‘A’ classification.

Changes in the BBFC’s censorship of films in the 1960s were prompted by changes in legislation. There had been successful challenges to the ‘Obscene Publications Act (1959)’, the most notable of which was the publication of D.H. Lawrence’s book ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’, which showed a shift in public attitudes to sex. In response, the Secretary of the BBFC stated ‘The British Board of Film Censors cannot assume responsibility for the guardianship of public morality. It cannot refuse for exhibition to adults films that show behaviour that contravenes the accepted moral code, and it does not demand that ‘the wicked’ should also be punished. It cannot legitimately refuse to pass films which criticise ‘the Establishment’ and films which express minority opinions’.

Dramas with what were considered to be portrayals of controversial subjects of the time started to find their way onto cinema screens. ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ which attempted to portray the gritty reality of live and abortion was granted an ‘X’ certificate in 1960. ‘Alfie’ by Lewis Gilbert was passed in 1966 despite concerns over the film’s abortion scene and moral infidelity. Nudity and sex was becoming more accepted in film, although there were cases of local authorities refusing to allow films to be shown unless cuts were made for a local certificate.

To reflect the changing attitudes of society, the BBFC made changes to the film rating system. The minimum age for viewing ‘X’ rated films was raised to 18. The old ‘A’ rating was split in two, with a new rating of ‘AA’ being introduced allowing children of 14 years or older to view certain films. The ‘A’ became a parental advisory rating, with parents being warned that content of ‘A’ rated films may contain material that parents may not want young children to see.

Changes to the rating system meant that films with more explicit material could be shown to an adult audience under the ‘X’ rating. Teenagers could see films with without being accompanied by an adult with themes that reflected what was seen as the earlier maturity of teenagers at the time.

The depiction of sex and sexual themes became more prolific in the 1970s, with films such as ‘Straw Dogs’, ‘A Clockwork Orange’, ‘Last Tango In Paris’, and ‘Emmanuelle’ finding their way on to British cinema screens, sometimes creating controversy – which seemed to do more to promote the films than get them banned from viewing.

In 1977 the ‘Obscene Publications Act’ was extended to include film. The major change was that the film would be rated ‘as a whole’ rather than on individual scenes. This was seen as enabling the censors to defend their rating of ‘serious’ films.

One of the most controversial films to be released in the UK in the early 1980s was Franco Rossellini’s ‘Caligula’. Although the film had been produced in 1976, it had not premiered until 1979 in Italy.  When a print of the film was imported into the UK in April 1980, it was seized by Customs and Excise as being potentially obscene material.

The film was edited by the BBFC in order to comply with the Customs and Excise regulations and the Obscene Publications Act. Although the ‘edited’ version was legally compliant, it still failed to meet the criteria to be given a certificate for general release. The distributors were asked if they wanted to distribute the edited version to member’s only cinema clubs, but they insisted they wanted the film distributed nationally. To gain the ‘X’ certification, the BBFC made further cuts, which resulted in 11 minutes being removed from the film.

The press labelled the release of the film ‘the most controversial film of the 80s’ but the film met with little public support and poor reviews in its released edit. Even so, some local councils banned the film from being shown.

In 1982 the BBFC revised its film rating system. One of the main reasons the rating system was changed was to close a loophole in the law. Previously, member’s cinema clubs could show films that were unrated by the BBFC. But a new rating of ‘R18’ was introduced to permit and control the showing of sexually explicit films. Other changes to the rating system were ‘A’ changed to ‘PG’, ‘AA’ changed to ‘15’, and ‘X’ changed to ‘18’. In 1989 the ‘12’ rating was introduced to fill the gap between ‘PG’ and ‘15’.

The BBFC changed its name to the ‘British Board of Film Classification’

The limits of what the censors would allow in film were further expanded in the 1990s, often causing controversy.  In 1991, explicit fellatio passed for the first time in ‘Ai No Corrida’ (In The Realm of Senses). ‘The Lover’s Guide’ was passed as ‘18’ on video and classed as an education work. In 1995, the film ‘Kids’ by Larry Clark was described by some critics as ‘child pornography’ because the film focused on the day-to-day life of a group of sexually active New York teenagers. The film was passed in the UK after the BBFC had verified that all of the actors in more sexually explicit scenes were over eighteen years of age (complying with the ‘Protection of Children Act’). In 1997, the films ‘Crash’ and ‘Kissed’ were given an ‘18’ rating even though both films had caused controversy over their portrayal of fetishist sexual activity. In 1999 the film ‘The Idiots of Romance’ was passed ‘18’ even though the film showed brief penetrative sex.

Between 1999 and 2000 the BBFC embarked on a series of public consultations before changing the guidelines it used for film ratings.

European filmmakers started to push the boundaries of sexual acceptability in cinema in the 2000s. The resulting guidelines from the public consultation for an ‘18’ certificate stated that real sex may be permitted provided that the scenes were justified by the context of the film.

Even though the liberalisation of sex in film meant that many films passed for certification with few if any cuts, there were still controversies concerning the portrayal of sexual violence. The 2001 film ‘Base Moi’ contained a scene of rape in explicit detail.  Other significant decisions during the 2000s were explicit fellatio in the film ‘Intimacy’ – passed ‘18’ in 2001, in 2002 the French drama ‘The Pornographer’ passed ‘18’ with cuts to ejaculation scene, the French film ‘Maitresse’ (1976) which depicted number of sadomasochistic scenes passed with ‘18’ rating in 2003, the 2004 film ‘Nine Songs’ containing scenes of real sex passed ‘18’, ‘Closer’ was rated ‘15’ in 2005 resulting in complaints about the use of sexually explicit language in the film, ‘Shortbus’ passed ‘18’ containing real sex in 2006 as was ‘Destricted’ which contained frequent explicit sexual activity. In 2007 ‘The Heartbreak Kid’ contained a scene of a donkey about to penetrate a woman. A black triangle obscured the erection so a ‘15’ rating could be obtained. ‘Zoo’ a documentary about a man who had sex with a horse passed ‘18’ in 2008 with visuals of the man being penetrated by the horse, and in 2009 Lars Von Trier’s art-house horror film ‘Antichrist’ passed ‘18’ with explicit scenes of fellatio and penetration.

The censorship of cinema has changed dramatically in the past 100 years, with boundaries being pushed with each new revision of censorship guidelines, and the depiction of sex in many forms has become acceptable on our cinema screens. Subjects that would once have caused a public outrage if reported in the news media of the time hardly warrant a by-line in today’s press, let alone become front page news.


We are all exposed to advertising every day, whether in print or electronically, someone somewhere wants us to do something or buy something. ‘Sex sells’ is a term often heard, and is the mantra of companies and organisations that want to sell products they need us to aspire to. Being sexy, attracting the opposite sex, and being sexually active are all messages the advertisers know will grab our attention.

Ever since advertising was used as a way to get messages to the masses, advertisement producers have spent considerable resources on finding ‘keys’ to make us want their products. In testing advertisement effectiveness, researchers have found that use of the erotic is an excellent technique to communicate with the target market.

One of the earliest advertisements containing female nudity is often attributed to Pearl Tobacco in 1871, which featured a naked woman on the packaging.  Noticing the positive effect on their sales, the company (W. Duke & Sons) started to include trading cards featuring actresses of the day in their cigarette packs from 1885 onward, which is often attributed to them becoming a leading cigarette brand by 1890.

The use of sex in advertising can range from the very explicit or crude use of text and imagery, to more subtle messages through the use of innuendo and eroticism.

The regulation of advertising in the UK is by the ‘Advertising Standards Authority’ (ASA) which is the self-regulating organisation of the UK advertising industry. The ASA are a non-government organisation which is funded by a 0.01% levy on advertising revenue, and which produces a code of advertising practice. The ASA acts on complaints about advertising in a broad range of media and regulates broadcast advertising under a contract from Ofcom, the government approved regulatory and competition authority.

In the USA, the government’s ‘Federal Trade Commission’ protects consumers through the ‘Bureau of Consumer Protection’ and is the overall regulator. Each state within the US can impose their own laws on certain types of advertising, and have their own enforcement bureaus. So advertisers must satisfy federal laws and state laws. The ‘Advertising Self-Regulatory Council’ (formerly the ‘National Advertising Review Council’) is similar to the UKs ASA, in that it is the advertising industry’s self-regulation body which produces a code of conduct for advertisers and investigates, and make decisions about, complaints.

In the early 1900s sex was mainly confined to the text of an advert rather than in overt imagery. Beauty products such as Woodbury’s Beauty Soap used the slogan ‘A skin you love to touch’ containing artwork of couples in romantic embraces and advice in the copy to use the product ‘just before retiring’. Palmolive used artwork of a woman in front of a mirror in a seductive pose with the line ‘Most men ask “Is she pretty?” not “Is she clever?”’ and in the copy of the advert ‘Often we marvel at her – the girl whose only asset is her beauty’.

In the 1930s romantic themes combined with artwork, and now photography, became more prolific in advertising. But these advertisements were not only aimed at women. Lifebuoy Health Soap produced advertisements aimed at men, which featured a romantic couple on a beach with the line ‘She thought it was love’ and in the copy ‘”The man of her dreams,” he seemed – out there on the sub-lit beach. But the first time they danced together – romance fled!’ and continued ‘How could she ever have thought she cared for him – a man who could be guilty of “B.O.”’. Advertisements from Palmolive continued in a sensual vein with the line ‘As you desire me’ and ‘Keep that schoolgirl complexion’ with artwork of sensual women in front of mirrors.

Throughout World War II, the ‘pin-up’ girl became popular in advertising as photography became more widely used. Products for men and women were adorned with images of romantic couples and girls in swimsuits. Stars, such as Rita Hayworth, Olivia De Havilland, Betty Grable, Lauren Bacall, Charlton Heston, Tony Curtis, and Gregory Peck started to feature in advertising in the 1950s, bringing the connection between sexual success and products closer together.

Throughout the 1950s advertisements continued to use sexy women and macho men to promote just about anything. If you wanted to be successful with the opposite sex then the advertisers would tell you they had the answer. Seaforth Shaving Lotion was quite direct in one of its 1951 adverts, with the line ‘Some say it’s sex, some say it’s Seaforth’, and the copy continued ‘Look what happened when you use Seaforth Shave Lotion! It’s brisk with “Come-Heather” aroma…the masculine aroma women like on men.’

With the sixties in full swing, advertisers appealed to liberalised society with advertisements featuring the perceived roles of men and women. In an advertisement for Score Hair Cream the line was ‘Get What you’ve always wanted’, featuring a picture of a male hunter being carried on a platform help by beautiful and bare midriffed girls. Women were portrayed as free, fun, mysterious, and sexy.

It was in the 1970s that sex and advertising really came together. With the advent of more sexual openness in film, and the effect the sixties had on a new generation, sex started to be everywhere. Playboy magazine was promoted from pornography to entertainment. A new generation of photographers had emerged with new and radical ideas. The ‘free love’ movement inspired advertisements featuring couples giving in to temptation. Slogans became more provocative, such as ‘All of us have the urge, but not all of us have the nerve’ from and advertisement for Simplicity sewing patterns, and which features a woman in a thong tied dress. Lee jeans produced an advertisement for men with the line ‘Get a leg up with Lee’. Nudity (both male and female, although not frontal) was used to sell products. Fashion magazines became more erotic, with pictures of semi-clad models adorning the pages, both in articles and features, and in advertisements.

One of the controversial advertisements of the 1980s was for Calvin Kline jeans when the company used 15 year old Brook Shield in print and TV advertising. The controversy concerned Shields saying “You want to know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.” Calvin Klein continued to push boundaries in advertising with the promotion of ‘Obsession’ perfume. Fully nude male and female model, stopping short of showing genitalia, adorned the pages of magazines. Even more conservative brands such as Nivea created controversy with fully nude models in advertisements for their moisturiser.

Nudity was becoming the norm, especially in fashion and accessory advertising in the 1990s. From beauty products to clothing, the male and female forms on display were shown as something for those who wanted to be noticed and successful with the opposite sex to aspire to. Calvin Klein created controversy again. This time with an advertisement for children’s underwear, that first appeared in New York Times Magazine on 21st February 1999 and was labelled as ‘kiddie porn’. The advert was never used again after the extensive outrage it created from readers.

The worldwide prominence of the Wonderbra in the ‘90s was heralded with the company’s ‘Hello Boys’ campaign, featuring Czech model Eva Herzigova. Even the older generation were targeted and encouraged to relight their sexual flames with adverts for Viagra, which resulted in sex and sexuality finding its way into advertisements for the revived generation.

Moving into the 2000s and it seems that there is hardly a subject that is taboo in the world of advertising. Sometimes sex is used directly, sometimes parodied, subtly, overtly, and any other way the advertising industry can find to get it in there.

It also seems like there is no product that is off limits to a little sexy advertising. There are (what we now consider to be) the more obvious products, such as lingerie, perfume, condoms, and so on, but even our food is becoming sexualised. Burger King promoted its ‘BK Super Seven Incher’ by showing a female model with the sandwich pointing at her open mouth with the line ‘It’ll blow your mind away’, an obvious reference to oral sex. Mobile phones, computers, detergents, binoculars, and even bottled water are a few of the products that have been brought to our attention through the use of sex in advertising. Children’s toy maker Lego also ran advertisements featuring a couple, with the woman showing her cleavage (which was pixelated using shapes similar to Lego blocks) and the line ‘Kids shouldn’t watch too much tv’.

The sole purpose of advertising is to make us want something – that is it. Advertisers will use whatever methods are available to them and whatever they can get away with to draw attention to their products. If they can create a controversy (and still stay within the law) all the better for them – free publicity. They want to create adverts that people will remember and talk about.

Using sex and sexuality to sell products works, and the advertising industry knows it work through market and scientific research. Researchers from the University of California conducted a study in 2011 into the effectiveness of sex in advertising and claim they discovered why sex sells.

Seeing an attractive man or woman in advertising excites the areas of the brain that make us buy on impulse, bypassing the brains control mechanism of rational thought. In the report ‘Watch your brain and watch your wallet’, published in the ‘Journal of Neuroscience, Psychology and Economics’, Dr Ian Cook writes ‘The findings support the conjecture that some advertisers wish to seduce, rather than persuade, consumers to buy their products.’

It has been said that advertising reflects the society of the time. Perhaps a more accurate description is that advertising reflects fantasy elements of society at the time and attempts to get the population to aspire to those elements. Advertisers like to create trends for their products, and in doing so will create false aspirations of what could be attainable, rather than reality. Advertisers are constantly selling us fantasies, and for most humans, sex plays a part in that somewhere along the line.


The history of music dates back a long time, with humans being able to make noises with their voices 60,000 years ago, and the oldest known flute to be at least 42,000 years old. Today, music is part of most people’s lives in one way or another, from the distant tribes making their own music, to people in the ‘developed’ world listening to music on in-car entertainment systems.

Songs are known to have existed (and notated) 3200 years ago, with the oldest known song being a hymn discovered on the northern coast of Syria in the mid-1990s. It is difficult to estimate when the first references to sex were made in music, but historians know that bawdy humour was used as entertainment at least 2000 years ago.

In more recent history, burlesque kept audiences entertained in theatres and music halls from the mid-1800s, with seductive dancers and suggestive songs. The age of jazz dawned in the roaring twenties and was often associated with loose morals and the relaxed social attitudes of the day, and the youth engaged in ‘immoral’ dancing.

The 1930s was the age of the Great Depression and an era when lavish Hollywood musicals were made, with stars like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. It was the Swing Era, with big band sounds like Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington, and Tommy Dorsey providing a release from the crippling poverty that many people experienced in the US. In the late ‘30s the Jitterbug was a fast dance style popular in the black clubs of the time and later adopted by white teens.

In 1940 Swing was still going strong and was to remain popular until the emergence of crooners like Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Perry Como, often fronting the ‘Big Bands’ of the era, became the popular mainstay of music. Glenn Miller and the Big Bands of the time continued to be popular through the war period and into the early 50s. Jazz and blues also found a renaissance and became more popular with artists such as Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday becoming household names. Most of the popular music at the time didn’t reference sex directly. War and an uncertain future were the themes of the day, with most music reflecting a more romanticised view of relationships, with a few exceptions.

Moving into the 1950s much of the world was still recovering from the aftermath of a devastating world war. The youth of the day wanted freedom from the effects of death and destructions, and the older generation wanted to build a safer society for the future. Music exploded in the 1950s, moving away from the clean-cut, girl and boy next door image, into a rampaging, loud and free beast of sound. The lyrics got sexier, the dancing got sexier, and the performers became the dream idols of teens. Elvis Presley emerged, complete with swinging hips and curled up lips. The sex symbol was well and truly in the public spotlight. Rock ‘n’ Roll had arrived.

Memories of the war were put to the back of people’s minds as much as possible, and as the economy started to get back in shape, so did optimism about the future. Rock ‘n’ Roll reflected a new passion for life and living, and has often been attributed to rebellion of the teenaged and sexual freedom. However, perhaps sexual freedom was more of an illusion created through music than a reality of life. Attitudes to sex and relationships were still very conservative, although there was more freedom to date; engaging in sex and overly enthusiastic petting was still taboo outside of marriage.

The early baby boomers were starting to come of age in the 1960s and were ready to make their mark on history’s timeline. There is a perception that everyone was involved in a massive shift in attitudes and culture during the 1960s. The reality is, that although it was a period of significant change, the ‘Swinging Sixties’ and the ‘Permissive Society’ took time to find their way out of the major cities, and ‘the establishment’ was slow to change to the times.

Not only were the 60s host to several significant changes in music, it was also a decade where the culture of the pop star started to take hold of people’s imagination. The 60s brought the British music scene to the world, with bands such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, and singers such as Adam Faith, Dusty Springfield, and Cliff Richard. In the states, as well as the return of Elvis after a spell in the US army, Jerry Lee Lewis, Frankie Avalon, and others from the late 50s Rock ‘n’ Roll scene, Motown brought black rhythm & blues to teenage culture shooting bands such as The Supremes and Gladys Knight and the Pips to stardom. Along with the bands came the explosive and raunchy sound of James Brown with fast, rhythmic dancing and sexually provocative lyrics.

As the 1960s progressed social issues such as civil rights, women’s rights, and the war in Vietnam became the focus of folk artists of the time, such as Bob Dylan and Jan Baez. Protests against the establishment were commonplace as the young wanted a free society of equality, peace and love, trying to buck a system that was still conservative. The counterculture began to take hold, including experimentation with psychoactive drugs, free love and the rise of the hippie culture. Music became the powerful voice of a generation, anthems were born and music festivals brought the like-minded together.

Acid and psychedelic rock, both highly influenced by the drug scene, emerged in the late 1960s, bringing artists such as Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Pink Floyd, and The Beatles started to change style in the love and peace age. Music promoted ‘doing your own thing’ and oneness at the same time and embraced free love, or music could take you on a journey of self-discovery, or discovering others who happened to be around at the time. With the wide availability of ‘The Pill’, sex became less of a problem. At no other time in history had music, sex, and freedom been so closely joined.

The rapid pace of change continued into the 1970s. The James Brown classic ‘Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine’ was released in 1970. The heavy drug culture of the late 1960s took its toll on three major music stars in 1970 and 1971, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin both died in 1970 as a result of their drug habits, with Jim Morrison following in 1971. All of them were 27 years old when they died.

Throughout the decade of the 70s music diversified. The protest songs and artists of the 60s became less prevalent as the decade progressed and a divide started to show in music popularity. Rock music continued to grow in various forms, from the psychedelic inclined, to softer rock offerings, to the shiny glitz of glam rock. Reggae found popularity largely thanks to Bob Marley. But it was disco that was to dominate most of the decade.

The initial disco following started in New York and Philadelphia and offered a fun and glamorous alternative to the domination of rock and folk of the 1960s. Dance clubs started to spread and previously unknown artists started to feature in the music press, including George McCrae, Carl Douglas, The Bee Gees, KC and the Sunshine Band, Gloria Gaynor, Van McCoy, and a female artist who was to become known as ‘The Queen of Disco’ – Donna Summer.

With its strong Latin and funk influence, disco provided an ideal platform for a variety of dance styles that just about anyone could take part in, from ‘The Bump’ to the infamous ‘Hustle’.  Disco was everywhere, on the radio, in the clubs, and on TV where the young (and sometimes not so young) could listen to and watch exotic dancing by scantily clad dance troupes such as ‘Pans People’ interpreting the music and lyrics in their own seductive way.

Hollywood got in on the disco act and produced the film ‘Saturday Night Fever’ in 1977. John Travolta played a young man who looked forward to the weekends, when he could forget about his dead-end job and forget reality to become the king of disco for a few hours. This epitomised how many saw their lives. Work though the week just for the weekend and forget about everything for a few precious hours.

The club scene provided and escape from the tedium of daily life. Getting ready to go to the ‘disco’ became a ritual, buying and wearing extravagant clothes and the preening and grooming became part of the excitement.

Along with the music and the discothèques came drugs (mainly among the affluent and famous), a sub-culture of cocaine and other drugs that were used to enhance the experience of the music, dance, and pulsating lighting.

The combination of freedom, music, lighting, and especially dancing, promoted a feeling of sexual freedom that became reality for many young people. Sex and hedonism was there for the taking. Celebrities were seen in the famous nightclubs of the time, with one of the most famous ‘hang-out’s being Studio 54 in New York where people who had money and influence would indulge themselves in drugs and sex whenever the fancy took them. Other famous clubs of the time included ‘Xenon’, ‘The Loft’, and ‘Paradise Garage’ all based in New York.

There was another music culture gaining a significant following in the late 1970s. The fast, aggressive sound of punk rock started to appear in 1974.

At the end of the 70s the disco scene has all but burned itself out. Hedonistic lifestyles were taking their toll on club goers; record companies were unable to remain viable due to a massive slump in record sales. In the late 70s and early 80s there was a period of acquisition and consolidation of record labels resulting in the majority of music being left in the hands of four major corporations.

With the rise of punk in the late 70s, music directly challenged the establishment. Often seen as vulgar and offensive, hard-core punk called for rebellion and ‘anti’ just about everything in society. Although the rise of punk rock is often thought of as being ‘left-wing’, the ideologies of the punk movement covered the whole political spectrum – including apolitical.

The ideology of the punk movement encompassed ant-racism, anti-sexism, and anti-homophobia, contrary to how much of the mainstream press portrayed the punk movement at the time. The public were shocked at the fashion and body modifications of punk. The use of the swastika was seen by many as a direct insult, but in fact, the swastika in punk fashion was usually crossed out, showing the movement’s opposition to fascist regimes.

Sex was seen as a fundamental right of anyone to do what they wanted, regardless of race, sexuality, or gender. The lyrics, the fashion, and the attitudes of the punk movement prompted sexual freedom, and often included references to the fetish scene. Just about anything that was considered ‘taboo’ by mainstream society was seen as acceptable in punk culture.

The lyrics of punk music resulted in radio and TV stations banning the broadcast of many songs. The most notable of the era in the UK is the Sex Pistols song ‘God Save The Queen’ which was released during the Silver Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II in 1977. Despite the main broadcasters refusing to play the song, it reached number two in the UK national charts.

Punk artists found it almost impossible to get deals with the main music corporations. This resulted in a ‘do-it-yourself’ attitude to music production and distribution, which saw the rise of the independent record label, independent distribution, and cartels of companies working together to get music into record shops, bypassing the major labels. Indie (as in ‘independent’, and not the genre) was the way to get music to the public through an alternative network, and was used by artists producing a range of genres.

The 1980s, having moved away from its punk roots, New Wave became a genre in its own right and the use of electronic instruments such as synthesisers and drum machines became more prevalent. The MTV channel started broadcasting in the US on the 1st August 1981 with the concept of using music videos and ‘Video Jockeys’ in a similar format to radio stations of the time. Although the concept the ‘music video’ had been around for some time, airtime was limited to music programmes on mainstream television.

From the wide-encompassing genre of New Wave came more specific genres which reflected the musical influences of the performers. Synthpop was used to describe a range of music from artists such as The Human League, New Order, Depeche Mode, and other artists who used heavily synthesised sounds. Gender-bending fashion became a statement of the New Romantics who used electronic instruments to create pop music, Duran Duran, Ultravox, and Spandau Ballet were popular New Romantic artists of the 80s.

In the USA, the emphasis was more on pop music from artists such as Madonna and Michael Jackson. The ‘Second British Invasion’ between 1982 and 1986 meant that British musicians found success in the USA as New Wave and Synthpop performers and promoters recognised the value of quality music videos early on. MTV had a need for well-produced video material, and the British performers provided it.

The promotional value of the music video started to be recognised by the major labels, and as the decade moved on record companies apportioned large budgets in an attempt to produce professional and unique material, often resulting in ‘mini-movies’. Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ video cost $500,000 to make and lasted for nearly fourteen minutes when it was released on the 2nd December 1983.

The advertising adage of ‘sex sells’ found its way into music video production. From the performers looking sexy and seductive, to models draped over the video set, sex was being suggested as part of being a success – the mantra of the 80s.

Through the 80s, 90s, and into the 2000s, sex in music video has become ‘normalised’, whether it is the thrusting antics of singers, or the more pornographic material that (so far) has been censored from general broadcast. Thrusting gyrations and over-the-top portrayal of sexual themes were (and still are) used to sell hard, with the record companies knowing that a video that is talked about is great free publicity – especially if an established or ‘manufactured’ artist produces inferior music.

In the 80s there were ‘sexy’ videos such as ‘Cold-Hearted’ by Paula Abdul, ‘Centrefold’ by the J. Geils Band, Madonna’s ‘Like A Virgin’ and ‘I Want Your Sex’ by George Michael. In the 90s there was ‘(Hit Me) Baby One More Time’ by Britney Spears, ‘Vogue’ by Madonna, and many hip-hop videos featured scantily clad women dancing (or moving) to crude lyrics.

The trend continued into the 2000s with more conservative artists adopting sex as a theme for their videos, including Kylie Minogue (‘Spinning Around’), Enrique Iglesias (‘Sad Eyes’), and Chris Isaac (‘Wicked Games’). Madonna created controversy with her video for ‘Justify My Love’, and Christina Aguilera got a lot of attention when the video for ‘Dirty’ was released.

As videos became more explicit, broadcasters had to take action, which resulted in some videos (such as Madonna’s ‘Justify My Love’, and Rammstein’s ‘Pussy’ – which featured real hard-core sex) being banned, others only broadcast after the ‘watershed’, and others requiring editing before broadcast.

With the audience of MTV and other music channels being young (often 12 years old and under), music videos which contain sexual content are seen by children at a vulnerable time in their lives. According to a paper for the ‘Association for Consumer Research’ by Basil Englis of Rutgers University entitled ‘Music Television and Its Influences on Consumer Culture, and the Transmission of Consumption Messages’ ‘…young teenagers are highly motivated to acquire a “personal style”: individual and yet acceptable to the peer group. “Personal style” is often the focus of music videos and can be characterized by preferences for distinct groupings of products and types of language and behaviour. Elements of personal style include clothing and fashion, make-up and hair styling, as well as patterns of values and behaviour.’

In an article by Drs Anthony Ford-Jones, Joseph Brant Memorial Hospital, Burlington, Ontario; Peter Nieman, Alberta Children’s Hospital, Calgary, Alberta, entitled ‘Impact of media use on children and youth’, the authors concluded that watching certain programmes may encourage irresponsible sexual behaviour in children, and that music videos can have a significant impact on young viewers, ‘…the potential negative impact of explicit music lyrics should put parents and paediatricians on guard – paediatricians should bring this up in anticipatory guidance discussions with teenagers and their parents. At the very least, parents should take an active role in monitoring the music their children are exposed to.’

In addition to the rise of sex in music videos and the explicit sexuality of popular performers, the industry has seen independence shrink significantly. In 2012, there were only three major labels in the world, each controlling a stable of sub-labels. Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment, and Warner Music Group control the market, and make sure they maintain their position through purchasing competitors, or pushing them to the outskirts of mainstream music. With such power, the companies are able to exert influence on what is, and is not, heard and shown.

The celebrity influence

Whether entertainers, sports stars, film stars, or other influential figures in the limelight, celebrities of some description seem to be everywhere. At one time, the lives of celebrities were tightly controlled by agents and publicists and the public rarely got to hear of any wrongdoing. With the advent of mass communications, celebrities are able to communicate directly with the public, and the mass media can find and get a story about someone famous to millions of people in a few minutes.

It was not so long ago that a ‘celebrity’ was someone who did something meaningful that brought them to public attention. Nowadays, it seems that ‘celebrity’ has become something of an occupation in itself. There are people on the ‘celebrity’ circuit who seem to have done nothing at all of interest.

The exposure of so-called ‘celebrities’ has influenced the young in our society, and many see becoming a ‘celebrity’ as a prime focus of their life without doing anything other than being in the ‘right place’, looking pretty, and possibly being outrageous in some way.

Some with over-whitened teeth and face tan look more like a clown than a real person that people may think of as an idol, but such is the way that many celebrities are presented.

How celebrities look and how they act is mimicked by the young, especially teenagers who are highly influenced through targeted advertising. This behaviour is often referred to as ‘celebrity addiction’.

The British Psychological Society published information on a study by Hayley Gilman of the University of Keele, the conclusion of which is that children are highly influenced by advertising featuring celebrities they like, even at a subconscious level.

This may not be so concerning if the celebrities the children are interested in are positive role models. If sensational or illegal behaviour such as alcohol abuse, drug abuse, infidelity and other sexual encounters, and so on, is reported in the media, this influence on the young can lead to anti-social or problem behaviour. It can also lead to confusion. On one hand the young are learning from parents and peers, and on the other, they are seeing people they consider to be successful and aspire to be like behaving to the contrary.

Marketing and advertising now also play a significant role in the image of celebrities. Product placements in music videos, celebrity sponsorship, celebrities advertising products on television, radio, and print media, and the projection of the overall image of the celebrity are used to sell young people products and ideas.

It is not only the young who are manipulated through the use of celebrities and their media image. Just about any age is the target of advertising and marketing using celebrities which appeal to the desired demographic.

Celebrity endorsement has been around since media reached the eyes and ears of the public. In the 1940s stars were featured in cigarette adverts and Bob Hope advertised American Express. Using celebrities to advertise products took off in the mid-90s. Now, if you go to a music event, you will probably see some kind of ‘sponsorship’ of the artist’s tour somewhere.

In an interview in the New York Times, Eli Portnoy, a branding strategist said “The reality is people want a piece of something they can’t be. They live vicariously through the products and services that those celebrities are tied to. Years from now, our descendants may look at us and say, ‘God, these were the most gullible people who ever lived.’ “

Advertisers have special tools they can use when choosing a celebrity to market their latest product. The ‘Davie Brown Index’ was developed by the company ‘The Marketing Arm’ to quantify consumer perceptions of celebrities. The index has several measures to help the marketer or advertiser appeal to certain demographic profiles, which include age, gender and ethnicity, and includes major celebrities through to minor, reality TV pseudo celebrities.

Whether a celebrity is performing live, on video/film, exposing their personal life through the ‘celebrity’ media, or advertising a product, this influences what society comes to accept, especially the young. The more outrageous a celebrities behaviour is, the more media attention they get.

Madonna has used this to great effect during the course of her career. Being overtly sexual has resulted in music videos being banned, an excellent promotion tool – getting people to want to see something they can’t on mainstream media. Her personal life became of interest because of her alleged sexual appetite, and she has been the face of many products, including Dolce & Gabbana, Louis Vuitton, Gap, her own books and perfumes, and the controversial Pepsi ad in 1989 that was banned and never shown (good marketing for Madonna and Pepsi).

Janet Jackson is another artist that has tried to use sensationalism to promote her career. During the halftime show at Superbowl in 2004 when performing with Justin Timberlake she exposed her breast with a nipple shield in a feigned ‘accidental’ ripping of her costume. The incident went on to cause controversy in the US, with some commentators describing the incident as a breakdown of decency and morality. Complaints received by the FCC also raised questions about the regulating of free speech and censorship in the US. Jackson then went on to release the album ‘Damila Jo’ which contained explicit material went to number 2 in the album charts. One critic called the album ‘the aural equivalent of hard-core pornography’, which only served to boost exposure for Jackson.

2 thoughts on “Media and sex

  1. Pingback: Back in 1969, Dr Richard Day made some astonishing predictions about where the world would be today | Henri's Web Space

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