Friday, April 2, 2010

Sex Sells! Cultivating the Critical Eye through Education

Ever since last semester, when I was looking for helpful links for sex educators/education and found the Media Awareness Network, I’ve been thinking about how media literacy intersects with sex education. Why? Because mass media is, well, massive. It’s everywhere. It is full of messages about sexuality, in all different shapes and forms, and the people consuming these messages are just as diverse - more so, even!

Every time I open a magazine or watch television, I’m getting some kind of message about sex or gender. Take this ad, for example (found in New York Magazine):

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Sure, the advertisement’s overt message is about a specific shopping center. But there’s also a subtext to this image. What might you guess is the gender of the person portrayed here? The socioeconomic status? Ethnicity? I’d guess that the person is a white upper-middle class woman. What does this say about who engages in shopping? Women. But not just any women: this ad seems to imply shopping is the realm of the privileged, thus there's no need for them to bother appealing to people who have less privilege. Further, look at this woman’s stance. Is this a powerful posture? What does that say about how a woman (a white upper-middle class woman) “should” present herself? In my undergraduate days, one of my professors was teaching us to view media critically, and she pointed out that everything in advertising is intentional. No choice is arbitrary, because companies don’t just sell products anymore - they’re selling values, stories, ideals. In short, they are selling a particular culture (or perhaps, at least, the building blocks of culture).

Why is this important? Whoever they may be in terms of age, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, ability, etc., my (future) students will likely be consumers of media. I live in America, and it is likely that I will be teaching in America. Here, media is ubiquitous, and my students will be constantly bombarded with something that, in my experience, they are rarely taught to question. And while some media can be pretty empowering, much of it seems to be doing more harm than good. For example, take body image and self esteem. Constantly seeing perfect airbrushed or Photoshopped bodies could make any regular person feel inadequate, next to this literally unachievable ideal. Unhappiness or depression seem to go hand in hand with low self esteem, so I'd call that pretty harmful.

How does this all relate to education? Well, I don’t think I have the power to completely overhaul the media industry or the entire lexicon of cultural symbolism. So, I think the next best thing is to educate people to become critical consumers of media, with the hope that this will defuse some of the nasty effects of the constant bombardment of media's narrow cultural representations. And, really, it’s not even fair for me to say “next best thing” because this kind of education is not less important than activism: I also think that helping my fellow humans to become more critical thinkers and consumers will help them to be generally more empowered to think for themselves about what’s best for them, not what will help them to fit in. Call me biased, but I think this is really important.

So if media literacy education is important (and it is! ;-) ), then how would I go about actually teaching media literacy, especially that related to sexuality? Thankfully there are at least a couple of fantastic resources on the web to help me in this endeavor! (Those resources, and more, are included at the bottom of this post.)

For this kind of education, I love the idea of taking an experiential approach. For example… I could start off by showing a video advertisement, and then ask my students questions about it, like the following: What or who did you see in this ad? Who didn’t you see? How was the person in the ad portrayed? What does this imply about people like the person in the ad (e.g., if the person in the ad is a woman, what does the ad imply about women?)? How might it affect people watching the ad? What messages about sexuality/gender does this ad send? Why is it important to think about that? And so on… Depending on the students and subject of the overall class, it might be appropriate to conclude my questions with something like: How do the messages you noticed fit in with (or contrast with) societal messages about the same thing? What can you do about it?

Of course, I’d also want to make a habit of asking students: What was the point of the ad? Ultimately, the answer should always be the same: “To sell the product/service.” I think it’s so important to remember that always, companies are advertising in order to sell something to consumers. They are not looking out for the best interests of their customers; they are looking out for their own profit-making. This is a point I’d want to drive home to students, but in this context, the main focus should be on the education related to sexuality, gender, etc.

In my travels (possibly on the Media Awareness Network, or somewhere else - I’m not sure, but if I find it, I will post it in the comments), I saw another interesting idea for media literacy in sex education, which involves bringing in a bunch of magazines, scissors, glue, and paper, so that students can create their own advertisements via collage (which could appeal to visual & spatial learners!) By creating their own ads, students would have the opportunity to see how ads don’t just sell the product; they also sell a story, a culture. It could also be empowering for students to create their own messages of what they would like to see represented in the media, instead of just consuming what is already out there.

How might you go about educating about media literacy pertaining to sexuality? What are your general thoughts on this subject?

Thanks for reading!


More Resources:

Media Awareness Network - Resource for parents & teachers. Has K-12 lesson plans on various aspects of media literacy (e.g. bullying, body image, and gender portrayal).

Center for Media Literacy - Similar to Media Awareness Network. A site to help educate about media literacy, as well as provide resources to educators.

Sociological Images: Seeing is Believing - Blog with posts not always, but often, about some portrayal of sexuality. Lots of images and analysis of the meanings of those images. Keeping up with/reading archives of this blog may help train you to have a more critical eye toward media. (This blog is a personal favorite!)

Teen Aware: Sex, Media, and You - An interesting spin on sex & media - teaching abstinence via media literacy.

Teen Sexual Health workshop module on Media Literacy - One handy outline of a lesson an instructor could use to teach about sex & media.

Sex Ed Library: Sexuality and Media - Links to a few lesson plans on, well, sexuality and media. (Overall, Sex Ed Library is also a helpful resource for lots of sexuality education lesson plan links.)


  1. I love the idea of creating advertisements that target your own idea of who you are. I wonder how diverse the images would be, even in a fairly homogeneous classroom?

    As a male between the ages of 18-35, lots of ads are aimed at my "demographic," including this incredibly sexist and transphobic one from dockers

    I think I went on a 10 minute rant about this ad in one of my classes because the messages it sent about "manhood" pissed me off so bad.

  2. Hi Olivia,

    As an educator who uses media as an alternative teaching method, I have become aware of how blind I am to the subtle messages in much of the media I use. There are subtexts that I am not even aware exist.

    We talked about this in class last semester. What I know I need to do is to present my lesson plans and specifically the media I am using to other educators or just other people to get their impressions.

    I need some guinea pigs to view my materials before using them, is what I am saying!

    I am acutely aware that my students and I live in a world manipulated by profit. Selling images is the way to make money. And while many of us know this is the method behind advertising, films, books, magazines and the internet, we go through our days without paying attention.

    So those of us who are aware are still being manipulated. How do we then help our students?

    As I said in my opening, my first responsibility now that I am aware is to seek counsel as I prepare my own materials. I do not want to inadvertently support a bias or promote an ideal that is not in my students’ best interests.

    In working on some lessons plans in another area of my life, I asked for some help in becoming more skilled in preparing my materials. I was introduced to The Media Education Lab at Temple University. Their site explains that: “"Media literacy is the process of asking questions about what you watch, see, listen to and read.”

    Here is the site:

    Right here in our own backyard is a collection of professionals and materials to help us help ourselves which will ultimately help us help our students.

    Many of their programs are designed to teach students to create their own media, learning the specific skills needed in a particular medium. Through this process the students also learn about the power of images and how to be responsible in their creations.

    The Media Education Lab has a workshop on copyright use! Take a look Ryan – I am curious as to what you think about this information.

    As an educator I am aware that my own biases and assumptions will be integrated into the teaching and that these may interfere with the learning. So if I am manipulating my students into increasing their knowledge, skills and attitudes I must be sensitive to how my use of media may either interfere with this or create harm in the process.


  3. Sex and the Media

    Wow, I really enjoyed reading your blog. I found this topic very interesting and controversial. I professionally believe companies who use media to market are excellent business professionals. Mall’s mostly, use women in their ads, due to women shopping more. Let’s face it, companies use what sells, and sex, socialized genders, and socialized norms sell.

    When critiquing the media it’s important to remember the goal of most agencies and companies are bottom line profits. If any type of legal media is used to create profit -businesses are doing nothing wrong. However, all media messages should not have all viewing audiences. The responsibility of determining what a child, teenager can watch is solely the responsibility of the parent.

    I do feel that media is often misused with the intention of manipulating individuals into identifying with core profit making ideas from companies and/or gaining the individuals support.. However, Media was never meant to teach values and morals. Parents, Caretakers and Guardian’s are responsible for teaching morals and values, media challenges core belief systems, ideologies and the cultural norms of some groups. Again, I strongly believe it is the responsibility of the parent to place value on watching media, determining quality media, granting permission to engage in media. Here are some resources who also feel that parents

  4. Every semester in the sexual health issues class that I teach, at least one group picks the topic "sex in the media" to present in class. Every time someone presents on the issue it is different. It is one of my favorite classes. The discussion is fantastic and the students are amazing at the messages that they receive on a daily basis, especially gender roles.

    The media education foundation has amazing videos that I use to programs and classes. Three that address this topic specifically are...

    Spin the Bottle: Sex, Lies and Alcohol

    Dreamworlds: Desire, Sex & Power in Music Video

    Generation M: Misogyny in Media & Culture

    The best part of the MEF website is that they have ideas for lessons and discussion questions as well (listed under study guide).

  5. Topics on sexual consumerism are always a good reminder for me to think critical. Olivia, this was a wonderful blog, complete with processing questions. Marketers carefully analyze the value of sexuality in sales. This is guided by profit. However, this can lead to some people becoming offended. Overt sexual messages do not sell to all demographics. Even though sexual content in the media may not be accurate, it can be used a springboard to start conversation about sexuality education. I found it interesting and uplifting when Dove started their campaign for real beauty. The models were not flawless as is typically seen. You can check out their campaign at
    Of course, the campaign is not without it's own biases, but it's a start.
    Thanks for sharing

  6. Teaching the content of sex and the media to high school students is always interesting and I am grateful to you Olivia for posting this and to all of you who posted resources. I have been starting to revamp my health course and rewrite curriculum and I am so excited to have some resources to work with.
    I agree with Alice about the Dove Campaign - though not flawless, it's a good start and it's been getting students' attention. If anyone has any other resources, please feel free to pass them along!!

  7. Thanks Olivia for posting the great resources. I browsed the sites and was excited to see and read some of the lesson plans that are available on this topic. I first became interested in the topic of body image and sexuality through my undergraduate studies (sociology & women's studies) but I will admit that I have slacked off on some of my critical thinking skills when it comes to observing ads. I think this is because I have thought about body image and media so often in the past that I have it ingrained me to know it's always about selling a product.

    The first source you posted, Media Awareness Network, had several lesson plans on body image and media. I was impressed with the lesson plans posted on their website because of the targeted grades the plans were designed for - ranging from grades 3-12. One lesson plan on gender and media's role was written for 6th and 7th graders!
    I can't even imagine how my life would have been different if I had been taught about this issue in 6th or 7th grade. So this excites me that there are education tools out there that are designed to reach youth at a younger age and start critical thinking skills earlier. However I am a little sad that I had to get all the way to college to learn these skills regarding media, gender and sexuality. I do look forward to having the opportunity to teach on this topic someday...someday!

    Here's another lesson plan I found on body image and the media. It's similar some of the lesson plans resources already posted on this blog.
    Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) "Exploring Media Messages" lesson plan :


  8. Certain people who are part of the media are starting to become aware of some of the harmful effects the media can have on self esteem, body image and sexuality. Using these individuals as examples or role models can be a useful teaching tool.

    Jamie Lee Curtis did a photo shoot for More Magazine in 2002 in which the photos were untouched to show her real body. You can view the photo at

    Jessica Simpson’s new show on VH1 the price of beauty looks at the extremes women go to around the world to be beautiful In a recent episode in Paris she met with a French model who suffers and almost died from anorexia and is now using her disease to help educate others about the dangers of eating disorders and media images and expectations. She ran this ad campaign at the 2007 fashion week in Milan.


  9. Sadly, just yesterday I was taken by media messages. My friend (who's a mix of puerto rican and white) is marrying an African American man. We were looking at wedding decorations and all of the couples were white men and women. She said how frustrating it was to even find something that would work as part of a biracial couple. Honestly, I didn't even notice that all the couples were white until she pointed it out. Then it made me think that not only are they missing out on different types of couples (hetero/homo/poly) but also the wide array of ethnicities (things are not just black and white!).

    It's some what limited but here is at least a site that acknowledges biracial couples

    I love the collage idea..why not take it even further and have students send their "ads" and observations to the companies using sex to sell products. There might not be a change but at least a few people made someone at the company think about the messages they are sending.

    Also, I was watching this late last night

    It made me think about sexual messages in the media and how "protecting" children from sex education in schools really isn't protecting them at all.. look at all the negative images in the media that create a sex education


  10. Olivia, that was an EXCELLENT blog! I find myself constantly dissecting this concept and the more education I receive on the subject, the more critical I become.

    I was in Las Vegas, staying at the Wynn Hotel. One morning I woke up and turned on the television. I ended up choosing to watch a thirty minute film on the hotel itself. The film showed the amenities, restaurants, etc that the hotel had to offer. I ate my breakfast and enjoyed learning about the hotel, since it is a place that I visit frequently, and yet still have not fully explored its territory. Afterwards, I thought nothing of it and started my day.

    The next morning I repeated my routine. I chose to watch the same film after ordering the same breakfast. But this time I had noticed something different. The guests viewed in the thirty minute film were all white. Now, for those of you who do not know about the Wynn Hotel, it is a five star, luxurious hotel ( The owner, Steve Wynn, owns most of the expensive, renown hotels in Las Vegas i.e. the Bellagio. Until this second morning, I had nothing negative to say about these hotels. But the fact that this film was enforcing that the only guests welcome to stay at these hotels were white men, with their model-like wife/girlfriend made me furious. Thirty minutes is a long time to show ONLY caucasian people. And the thing that made me most angry is that I didn't even notice this fact the first time I watched the film. What does that say about me?!?!?

    Whether talking about sex, race-whatever... We need to educate people to have a critical eye when receiving messages. Just like Olivia said, the media is EVERYWHERE! There is no escape. So for all of those parents who don't allow their children to listen to the radio or watch television, they need to ask themselves-is this the answer? Perhaps, if they spent more time trying to teach their children how to perceive these messages, their children might be better off.

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