Americans’ Attitudes Toward Premarital Sex and Pornography Consumption: A National Panel Analysis
National panel data gathered in 2008 (T1) and 2010 (T2) from 420 Black and White US adults aged 18–89 years (M = 45.37, SD = 15.85) were employed to assess prospective associations between pornography consumption and premarital sex attitudes. Premarital sex attitudes were indexed via a composite measure of perceptions of the appropriateness of adults and teenagers having premarital sex. Wright’s (2011) sexual script acquisition, activation, application model (3AM) of media sexual socialization was used as the guiding theoretical framework. The 3AM maintains that sexual media may be used by consumers to inform their sexual scripts but that attitude change from exposure to sexual media is less likely when media scripts are incongruent with consumers’ preexisting scripts. Consistent with these postulates, the association between pornography consumption at T1 and more positive attitudes toward premarital sex at T2 was strongest for younger adults, who are less oppositional to premarital sex than older adults. Contrary to the position that associations between pornography consumption and premarital sex attitudes are due to individuals who already have positive attitudes toward premarital sex selecting content congruent with their attitudes, premarital sex attitudes at T1 did not predict pornography consumption at T2.
KeywordsPornography Premarital sex Sexual socialization Selective exposure 3AM
Spurred by the sexual revolution of the 1960s (Smith, 1990), American social scientists have devoted much effort in recent decades to identifying predictors of nontraditional or “permissive” socio-sexual norms and values (Alston & Tucker, 1973; DiMaggio, Evans, & Bryson, 1996; Elias, Fullerton, & Simpson, 2013; Thornton, 1989). Norms and values surrounding premarital sex have been of central focus, as proscriptions against premarital sex have traditionally been an important component of the socio-sexual worldview in the US (Attorney General, 1986; Elias et al., 2013; Linz & Malamuth, 1993). Adult United States residents have, in general, become more accepting of premarital sex overtime. For example, nationally representative data generated by the General Social Survey (GSS: Davis & Smith, 2010) indicate that, in the 1970s, 32.7 % of participants felt that premarital sex between adults was not wrong at all. In the 1980s, the figure increased to 40.6 %, increasing further in the 1990s to 42.6 %. Yet diversity of opinion remains. In the first 10 years of the 2000s (i.e., 2000–2010), for example, 25.3 % of participants said premarital sex between adults was always wrong, 8.4 % almost always wrong, and 19.0 % sometimes wrong.
One factor that recent studies suggest may influence norms and values about premarital sex is viewing pornography (Carroll et al., 2008; Lam & Chan, 2007; Lo, Neilan, Sun, & Chiang, 1999; Lo & Wei, 2005; Lou et al., 2012; To, Ngai, & Kan, 2012; Wright, 2013a).1 While valuable, this body of literature is limited by one or more of the following: a preponderance of cross-sectional designs, a lack of exploration of boundary conditions for associations, an emphasis on adolescent/emerging adult participants, and a reliance on localized, convenience samples. The present study addressed each of these limitations. First, the study utilized a two-wave panel design that allows for an assessment of the temporal sequencing of the pornography consumption–premarital sex attitudes association. Second, age was explored as a boundary condition of the association. Third, the age range of participants was wide (18–89 years old). Fourth, national probability data were utilized.
Pornography and Sexual Socialization: Theory
Wright (2011; Wright, Malamuth, & Donnerstein, 2012) has developed a sexual script acquisition, activation, application model (3AM) of sexual socialization that explains how consumption of sexual media can impact attitudes and behaviors. A central tenet of the 3AM is that sexual media influence occurs through the provision of scripts (Huesmann, 1986). Scripts are socially constructed guidelines for human behavior. Scripts indicate what is behaviorally normative and acceptable. Scripts also portend the outcomes of various behaviors.
According to the 3AM, sexual media can provide consumers with scripts they were unaware of (acquisition), prime scripts they were already aware of (activation), and encourage the utilization of scripts by portraying particular sexual behaviors or general patterns of sexual behavior as normative, appropriate, and rewarding (application). Weinberg, Williams, Kleiner, and Irizarry (2010) maintain that pornographic scripts indicate the normativeness and appropriateness of premarital sex. Script application can occur at the level of personal behavior (e.g., deciding to personally engage in a particular behavior or pattern of behavior) or judgement (e.g., deciding that other people should be able to engage in a particular behavior or pattern of behavior). Accordingly, in the present attitudinal study script application would occur at the level of judgment (i.e., rendering a more positive evaluation of premarital sex).
Pornography and Premarital Sex Attitudes: Research
Zillmann and Bryant (1988) published the results of an experiment involving college students and other adults. Some participants were assigned to view pornographic movies over the course of several weeks, others were not. Participants exposed to pornographic movies expressed more positive premarital sex attitudes than participants not exposed to pornography.
Corresponding to this finding, cross-sectional surveys of adolescents and emerging adults generally find that pornography consumers express more positive attitudes toward premarital sex (Carroll et al., 2008; Lam & Chan, 2007; Lo & Wei, 2005; Lou et al., 2012; To et al., 2012). One longitudinal study has been conducted with US adults of varying ages: Wright (2013b). This study employed three-wave panel data from the GSS’s first longitudinal study (T1: 2006, T2: 2008, T3: 2010). Prior pornography consumption predicted more positive subsequent attitudes toward teenage premarital sex. Accordingly, the following hypothesis is proposed:
T1 pornography consumption positively predicts T2 premarital sex attitudes.
Age as a Potential Moderator
Peter and Valkenburg (2011a, 2011b) recently illustrated how media sex researchers assume that the probability of mediated sexual social influence decreases with age. Contrary to this line of reasoning, Peter and Valkenburg (2011a, 2011b) found in a two-wave longitudinal study of Dutch adolescents and adults that T1 pornography consumption predicted only adults’ non-use of condoms and belief that when women say “no” to sex they really mean “yes” at T2. Regarding condom use, Peter and Valkenburg (2011a) argued that older individuals are more unaware of the risks of unprotected sex than younger individuals. Regarding women’s sexual behavior, Peter and Valkenburg (2011b) argued that older individuals are more likely than younger individuals to have encountered women who engage in token resistance to sex. In essence, Peter and Valkenburg argued that effects may be most likely among consumers whose pre-existing beliefs are in alignment with (or at least not in opposition to) the depiction of sex presented. This line of reasoning is consistent with the 3AM, which maintains that disharmony between consumers’ preexisting beliefs and media portrayals of sex decreases the probability of sexual socialization (Wright, 2011). From this perspective, age is a salient factor if it is indicative of consumers’ pre existing beliefs.
These postulates are directly translatable to the present study. Age is predictive of US adults’ premarital sex attitudes. Specifically, younger adults have less negative attitudes toward premarital sex than older adults (Elias et al., 2013). Consequently, from the perspective of Peter and Valkenburg and the 3AM, the association between T1 pornography consumption and T2 premarital sex attitudes should be stronger for younger adults. Stated formally:
Age moderates the positive prospective association between T1 pornography consumption and T2 premarital sex attitudes, such that the association is stronger for younger adults.
Selective Exposure to Pornography
A selective exposure perspective on media contends that, to avoid cognitive dissonance and maintain cognitive balance, media consumers avoid content that challenges their attitudes and seek out content that affirms their attitudes (D’Alessio & Allen, 2007). From a selective exposure perspective, if pornography consumers have more positive premarital sex attitudes, it is because people who already possess such attitudes gravitate to pornography, not because such attitudes are acquired from consuming pornography. Cross-sectional studies are unable to explore the temporal sequencing of pornography consumption–premarital sex attitudes associations and prior longitudinal studies have not explored whether prior premarital sex attitudes predict subsequent pornography consumption (Brown & L’Engle, 2009; Wright, 2013b). To redress this gap in the literature the following research question is posed:
Do T1 premarital sex attitudes positively predict T2 pornography consumption?
Data for the present study were generated by the GSS (Davis & Smith, 2010). Funded by the National Science Foundation, the GSS is the only ongoing, national, personal interview survey examining social beliefs and behaviors currently carried out in the US (The National Data Program, 2012). The GSS has traditionally sampled a new group of respondents at each data collection. Recently, the GSS added a panel component. The present article reports results from the GSS’s most recent panel study: T1 (2008), T2 (2010). Participants were 420 adults aged 18–89 who provided data at both T1 and T2 on the variables of interest to the present inquiry. Weight variable WTPANNR 12 was applied in accordance with GSS directives (GSS 2008 Sample Panel Wave 2, 2012).
Participant characteristics at baseline (T1) were as follows. Participants were 45.37 years old on average (range = 18–89; SD = 15.85). Men comprised 50.8 % of the sample (coded 0); women 49.2 % (coded 1).White persons comprised 87.0 % of the sample(coded 0); Black persons 13.0 %(coded 1).Regarding marital status, 57.8 % were married, 23.7 % never married, 12.7 % divorced, 3.3 % widowed, 2.5 % separated. For parsimony and ease of analytic presentation, participants were classified as not married or married. Results were parallel when marital status was dummy coded into four categories (comparison group = married persons). Participants had completed 13.77 years of education on average (range = 6–20; SD = 2.63). Participants attended religious services several times a year on average (scale: 0 = never attend religious services, 8 = attend religious services more than once a week; range = 0–8, M = 3.35, SD = 2.76). On a political orientation scale ranging from 1 = extremely liberal to 7 = extremely conservative, participants identified as ‘moderate’ on average (range = 1–7, M = 4.15, SD = 1.35).
The study’s primary measures are described below. Measurement consistency was established via test–retest reliability. Construct validity was established via convergent associational tests (DeVellis, 1991).
Pornography consumption was assessed with the following question: “Have you seen an X-rated movie in the last year?” (no = 0, yes = 1). This item has been employed in numerous studies (Buzzell, 2005; Jaffee & Straus, 1987; McMillen & McMillen, 1977; Winick & Evans, 1994; Wright, 2012, 2013a; Wright & Randall, 2014). At T1, 26.5 % of participants indicated they had viewed a pornographic movie in the prior year, 27.6 % at T2. Regarding test–retest reliability, pornography consumption at T1 was strongly correlated with pornography consumption at T2 (r = . 56, p < .01). Regarding construct validity, theory and prior research suggest that the conservative and religious should be less likely to consume pornography (Linz & Malamuth, 1993; Wright & Randall, 2012). Correspondingly, the more conservative(r = −.13, p < .01) and the more religious (r = −.18, p < .01) were less likely to consume pornography at T1.
Premarital Sex Attitudes
There’s been a lot of discussion about the way morals and attitudes about sex are changing in this country. If a man and woman have sex relations before marriage, do you think it is always wrong (1), almost always wrong (2), wrong only sometimes (3), or not wrong at all (4)? What if they are in their early teens, say 14–16 years old? In that case, do you think sex relations before marriage are always wrong (1), almost always wrong (2), wrong only sometimes (3), or not wrong at all (4)?
Descriptive statistics for attitudes toward adult premarital sex were as follows: T1 range = 1–4, M = 3.10, SD = 1.20; T2 range = 1–4, M = 3.14, SD = 1.15. Descriptive statistics for attitudes toward teenage premarital sex were as follows: T1 range = 1–4, M = 1.51, SD = 0.83; T2 range = 1–4, M = 1.51, SD = 0.81. Although the mean levels of attitudes toward adult and teenage premarital sex were relatively constant overtime, there was substantial interindividual change. Correlation analyses revealed that attitudes toward adult premarital sex at T1 left 60 % of the variance in attitudes toward adult premarital sex at T2 unexplained and attitudes toward teenage premarital sex at T1 left 80 % of the variance in attitudes toward teenage premarital sex at T2 unexplained.
Participants who expressed more positive attitudes toward adult premarital sex expressed more positive attitudes toward teenage premarital sex at T1 (r = .33, p < .01) and T2 (r = .33, p < .01). The items were averaged to obtain an overall premarital sex attitudes index at T1 (range = 1–4, M = 2.30, SD = 0.84) and T2 (range = 1–4, M = 2.32, SD = 0.81). Regarding test–retest reliability, premarital sex attitudes at T1 were strongly correlated with premarital sex attitudes at T2 (r = .65, p < .01). Regarding construct validity, theory and prior research suggest that the conservative and religious should hold less positive attitudes toward premarital sex (Linz & Malamuth, 1993; Wright, 2013a). Correspondingly, at T1 the more conservative (r = −.34, p < .01) and the more religious (r = −.44, p < .01) were less likely to express positive attitudes toward premarital sex.
Hierarchical multiple regression analysis was employed to test H1 and H2. Change in R2 was used to assess the significance of the overall association between T1 pornography consumption and T2 premarital sex attitudes (H1) and the interaction between T1 pornography consumption and T1 age on T2 premarital sex attitudes (H2) (Aiken & West, 1991). A hierarchical logistic regression analysis was carried out to test RQ1. Change in χ2 was used to assess the significance of the association between T1 premarital sex attitudes and T2 pornography consumption (Rose, Chassin, Presson, & Sherman, 2000).
Third variables that may confound the pornography viewing premarital sex attitudes association (age, education, ethnicity, gender, marital status, political orientation, religiosity) were assessed at T1 and entered in the first step of all analyses. These potential third variables are suggested by previous research (Braun-Courville & Rojas, 2009; Brown & L’Engle, 2009; Lo & Wei, 2005; Wright, 2012, 2013a; Wright & Randall, 2014). The T1 measure of the T2 outcome variable was also entered in the first step of all analyses, so as to assess interindividual change in the outcome variable overtime (Little, Card, Preacher, & McConnell, 2009). The combination of multiple covariate inclusion as well as inclusion of an earlier assessment of the outcome variable makes for a conservative test, as predictors must not only explain variance above and beyond that explained by the covariates, but also variance above and beyond that explained by the prior assessment of the variable. To facilitate coefficient interpretation and reduce multicollinearity, all interval variables were mean-centered and all dichotomous variables’ low value = 0 (Aiken & West, 1991).
Pornography Consumption Predicting Premarital Sex Attitudes
Hierarchical multiple regression analysis predicting T2 premarital sex attitudes
T1 marital statuse
T1 political orientationf
T1 premarital sex attitudesg
Moderating Role of Age
Premarital Sex Attitudes Predicting Pornography Consumption
Hierarchical logistic regression analysis predicting T2 pornography consumption
Nagelkerke R2 change
95 % CI odds ratio
T1 marital statuse
T1 political orientationf
T1 premarital sex attitudesi
As Americans are less accepting of teenage premarital sex than adult premarital sex, the association between T1 pornography consumption and T2 attitudes toward teenage premarital sex was explored separately. Additionally, since the binary nature of the pornography consumption measure limits its variability, a composite T1+T2 pornography consumption index was employed to predict T2 premarital sex attitudes (range = 0–2 M = 0.54, SD = 0.79). As the premarital sex questions are present-based and the pornography consumption questions are retrospective (i.e., pornography consumption in the prior year), such analysis is at least quasi-longitudinal.
Consistent with the main analyses, in hierarchical regression models inclusive of the covariates, both the T1 measure of pornography consumption (β = 0.15, p < .01) and the T1 +T2 measure of pornography consumption (β = 0.19, p < .01) were associated with an interindividual increase in positive attitudes toward teenage premarital sex at T2. Likewise, the T1 measure of pornography consumption marginally interacted (R2 Change = .01, p = .07) and the T1+T2 measure of pornography consumption significantly interacted (R2 Change = .01, p < .05) with T1 age to predict attitudes toward teenage premarital sex at T2.
Also consistent with the main analyses, in a hierarchical regression model inclusive of the covariates, the T1+T2 measure of pornography consumption was associated with an interindividual increase in scores on the composite premarital sex attitudes index at T2 (β = .12, p < .01) and interacted with T1 age to predict scores on the composite premarital sex attitudes index at T2 (R2 Change = .01, p < .05).
Implications of the present study are as follows. First, the present study appears to be the first panel exploration of pornography consumption and premarital sex attitudes to analyze both the possibility of sexual socialization and selective exposure. Supporting a sexual socialization perspective, prior pornography consumption predicted interindividual overtime change in premarital sex attitudes. Contrary to a selective exposure perspective, prior premarital sex attitudes did not predict interindividual overtime change in pornography consumption. This result is consistent with recent panel studies exploring alternative attitudes and behaviors (Peter & Valkenburg, 2008, 2010, 2011b; Wright, 2012; Wright & Randall, 2014). The lack of selective exposure in this communication context may be because motives such as stress reduction, boredom relief, masturbatory stimulation, fantasy, sexual arousal, loneliness alleviation, and curiosity are more powerful drivers of pornography consumption than the desire for attitudinal corroboration or avoidance of attitudinal threat (Wright, 2012).
Second, the results align with experimental research carried out by Zillmann and Bryant (1988), who found that showing college students and other adults pornographic movies increased their positive attitudes toward premarital sex. Congruity between the more internally valid experimental design and the more ecologically valid longitudinal survey design increases confidence that a particular consumption–attitude association is causal (Hald, Malamuth, & Yuen, 2010).
Third, following Peter and Valkenburg (2011a, 2011b) and calls for exploration of individual differences that moderate pornography consumption–attitudes associations (Hald et al., 2010; Malamuth, Hald, & Koss, 2012), the present study explored the moderating impact of age. Consistent with the 3AM premise that lack of discrepancy between consumers’ preexisting beliefs and sexual depictions enhances the likelihood of effects, the association between T1 pornography consumption and more positive T2 premarital sex attitudes was strongest for the youngest adults. In their explorations of pornography consumption, condom use, and women’s sexual behavior, Peter and Valkenburg (2011a, 2011b) found that associations were strongest for older participants. Thus, the moderating effect of age may depend on the outcome in question.
Fourth, the results suggest that associations between pornography consumption and attitudes toward premarital sex may be more cross-culturally consistent than previously thought. For example, it has been suggested that the effects of pornography are different for Americans and Asians. While this may be the case for attitudes toward sexual aggression (Abramson & Hayashi, 1984), the results of this and other studies suggest correspondence for premarital sex attitudes (Lam & Chan, 2007; Lo et al., 1999; Lo & Wei, 2005; Wright, 2013a; Wright, Bae, & Funk, 2013).
Fifth, the correspondence between the present study’s national sample results and the results of localized, convenience sample studies of pornography consumption and premarital sex attitudes increases the confidence that can be placed in these studies (e.g., Lam & Chan, 2007; To et al., 2012).
Last, the results support the argument that pornography consumption engenders attitudes antithetical to traditional sexual values (Attorney General, 1986). However, it should be noted that not all would consider such influence untoward. Malamuth and Impett (2001)point out that some people may see such an effect “as a positive step to a generally relaxed approach to sexuality” (p. 283). In sum, evaluating pornography’s influence on premarital sex attitudes “negatively or positively will probably depend on certain personal values” (p. 283).
Limitations and Future Directions
Future studies can expand or improve upon the present study in several ways. First, multi-item, continuous assessments of pornography consumption should be utilized (e.g., Lo & Wei, 2005; Peter & Valkenburg, 2006). The GSS measure of pornography consumption has been employed in studies across decades and has been found to predict a variety of sexual attitudes and behaviors in both cross-sectional and longitudinal research (Buzzell, 2005; Jaffee & Straus, 1987; McMillen & McMillen, 1977; Winick & Evans, 1994; Wright, 2012, 2013a; Wright & Randall, 2014). Additionally, a number of pornography studies have classified participants into dichotomous nonconsumer/consumer categories (e.g., Kjellgren, Priebe, Svedin, & Langstrom, 2010; Wingood et al., 2001; Ybarra, Mitchell, Hamburger, Diener-West, & Leaf, 2011). However, the pornography–premarital sex attitude associations in the present study were modest, and theory (Wright, 2011) and research (Zillmann & Bryant, 1982) suggest that multi-item, continuous assessments may find larger associations.
Second, additional experimental and longitudinal studies of pornography consumption and premarital sex attitudes are needed. For most social scientists, the three criteria necessary to establish causality are covariation (fluctuations in the independent variable are associated with fluctuations in the dependent variable), temporal sequencing (fluctuations in the independent variable temporally precede fluctuations in the dependent variable), and non spuriousness (the association between the variables of interest is not due to a third variable) (Wright, 2011). The consistency and size of the cross-sectional survey literature leaves little doubt that pornography consumption and premarital sex attitudes covary. This and other longitudinal surveys (Brown & L’Engle, 2009; Wright, 2013b) have addressed the question of temporal sequencing and Zillmann and Bryant’s (1988) experiment addressed the question of confounds. Confidence in casual claims increases with replication, however, so additional longitudinal and experimental studies are desirable. Given that these studies were carried out in the US, longitudinal and experimental studies conducted in other cultures and cross-culturally comparative studies would be especially valuable. Future US studies should sample American Indians, Alaska Natives, Asians, and Pacific Islanders, as these groups were not represented in the present data.
Finally, additional moderation analyses are needed. The 3AM suggests a number of potential moderators, including consumers’ perception of whether pornography is more a reflection of reality or more mediated fantasy, motivations for viewing pornography (e.g., for entertainment, for information), degree of identification with actors and actresses in pornography, and level of dependence on pornography for sexual information. Analysts employing primary data should consider exploring these variables.
Purposes for scientific sex research can be theoretical, applied, or some combination of the two. At the theoretical level, the purpose of the scientific study of sexuality is to understand humans’ sexual beliefs or behaviors. Understanding in and of itself is seen as an end. At the applied level, the purpose of the scientific study of sexuality is to understand humans’ sexual beliefs or behaviors so as to enhance sexual health (broadly defined). The goals of this paper were theoretical. Attitudes toward premarital sex have been and continue to be an important indicator of sociosexual norms and values in the US and there remains much variability in Americans’ premarital sex attitudes. The purpose of this study was to enhance understanding of how consuming pornography may affect this sociologically important attitude. Following Thornton and Young-DeMarco (2001), discussion of the sexual health implications of premarital sex was considered outside the scope of this study. But it is acknowledged that some researchers who study premarital sex attitudes list pragmatic motivations (e.g., Elias et al., 2013).
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