Skip to main content
Article thumbnail
Location of Repository

Sex and Sexuality: A Content Analysis of Soap Operas on British Television

By Rami Al-Sayed


Over the last decade soap operas shown on British television have been constantly facing severe criticism from the public, politicians and the press for allegedly containing ‘too much sex’; and in the context of rising teenage pregnancies and the spread of STDs and HIV in the UK, concerns over the role of television’s sexual content in general, and that of soap operas’ in particular, in potentially influencing young people’s perception, attitudes and behviours are most accentuated. The overall objective of this study is to comprehensively identify and analyse, using the method of content analysis, the amount, frequency, type, nature and contexts of sexual activity portrayed across a four-week sample of British and Australian soap operas shown on the UK‘s five main terrestrial channels: the sample analysed include the three most popular British soap operas, Coronation Street (ITV), EastEnders (BBC One), and Emmerdale (ITV), the UK‘s soap operas most popular with teenagers, Hollyoaks (Channel 4) and its late night spin-off Hollyoaks in the City (Channel 4), and the two day-time Australian soap operas, Neighbours (BBC One) and Home and Away (Channel Five). The study also provides a comprehensive quantitative analysis of, first, some of the important thematic aspects and contextual elements of soap operas‘ portrayal of sex and sexuality, such as themes of sexual intercourse and other behaviours, accompanying behaviours and outcomes of sexual activity, and, second, the attributes and general profiles of all characters involved in sexual activity. Furthermore, the study aims to identify whether or not soap operas contain safe-sex messages and any references to sexual Risks and Responsibilities (R & R) and provide a detailed analysis of soap operas‘ treatment of the various aspects of safe-sex and sexual risks and responsibilities. \ud The main findings in this current research clearly indicate that day-time and prime-time soap operas: (a) contain relatively moderate amounts of sexual portrayals, compared with post-watershed serialised drama programmes and general TV programming, (b) rarely portray overt and explicit intimate sexual behaviours, (c) rely primarily on narrative devices in their portrayal of sex and sexuality, (d) place primary and substantial emphasis on sexual activity, and (e) dedicate substantial numbers of portrayals and storylines to highlight sexual risks and responsibilities and disseminate safe-sex messages. For instance, in some soap operas, Coronation Streets and EastEnders, around four out of every ten scenes with sexual content revolved around sexual Risks and Responsibilities

Publisher: University of Leicester
Year: 2011
OAI identifier:

Suggested articles


  1. (1997). A content analysis of alcohol portrayal and drinking in British television soap operas.
  2. (2007). A Longitudinal Study Of Generic Alcohol And Tobacco Cues In Daytime Soap Opera Programs: Fall,
  3. (1991). Adolescents and ambivalence toward marriage: A cultivation analysis.
  4. (1995). Adolescents‘ uses of media for self-socialization.
  5. (2000). After the Death of Childhood: Growing up in the age of Electronic Media.
  6. (1987). Alcohol on Prime Time Television,
  7. (2002). Alcohol use and risky sexual behavior among college students and youth: Evaluating the evidence.
  8. (1999). Annual Monitoring Report No. 7, London: Broadcasting Standards Commission.
  9. (2009). Available at: [Accessed on 10,
  10. (2009). Baby-faced boy Alfie Patten is father at 13. [The Sun: Online13,
  11. (2007). BBC loses Neighbours. [MediaGuardian: Online,
  12. (2003). Broadcasting Standards Regulation. London: Broadcasting Standards Commission (BSC) and Independent Television Commission (ITC) Modleski,
  13. (2007). Catharsis and other heresies: A theory of emotion.
  14. (1999). Catharsis, aggression, and persuasive influence: Self-fulfilling or self-defeating prophecies?
  15. (1952). Content Analysis in Communication Research.
  16. (1980). Content Analysis: An Introduction to Its Methodology.
  17. (1999). Contributions of entertainment television to adolescents‘ sexual attitudes and expectations: The role of viewing amount versus viewer involvement.
  18. (1994). Cultivation theory and research: A methodological critique.
  19. (2002). Cultural Indicators: The Third Voice. In
  20. (2008). Dark Days in Albert Square.
  21. (2008). Dark Days in Albert Square. MediaGuardian Bibliography
  22. (2002). Daytime talk shows: Up close and in your face. In
  23. (1997). Daytime television talk shows: Guests, content, and interactions‘
  24. (1997). Death rates of characters in soap operas on British television: is a government health warning required?
  25. (2000). Deleted Expletives. London: The Broadcasting Standards Commission, BBC, the Independent Television Commission, and Advertising Standard Authority.
  26. (1995). Desensitization and resensitization to violence against women: Effects of exposure to sexually violent films on judgments of domestic violence victims.
  27. (1978). Differentiating sexual aggressives with penile measures.
  28. (2002). Does television exposure affect emerging adults_ attitudes and assumptions about sexual relationships? Correlational and experimental confirmation.
  29. (2009). EastEnders paedophile story cleared.
  30. (2001). Effect of seeing tobacco use in films on trying smoking among adolescents: cross sectional study.
  31. (1982). Effects of Erotica on Retaliatory Behaviour as a Function of Level of Prior Provocation.
  32. (1984). Effects of massive exposure to pornography. In
  33. (2002). Effects of Sex in the Media. In
  34. (2008). Emmerdale on EastEnders'
  35. Entertainment television as a healthy sex educator: The impact of condom-efficacy information in an episode of Friends.
  36. (2001). Ethnic Minority Group Representation on Popular Television. UK: Commission for Racial Equality.
  37. (1998). European soap operas: The diversification of a genre.
  38. (1968). Experimentally-induced ‗sexual fetishism‘: Replication and development.
  39. (2001). Gender roles on prime-time network television: Demographics and behaviors.
  40. (2008). Gender stereotypes and women's reports of liking and ability in traditionally masculine and feminine occupations.
  41. (2003). Gender, race, and aggression in newer TV networks‘ primetime programming.
  42. (1999). Girls, media and the negotiation of sexuality: a study of race, class and gender in adolescent peer groups.
  43. (2010). Government monitors sex scenes on television [Daily Telegraph:
  44. (2002). Growing up with television: the Cultivation Perspective. In
  45. (2008). Health Protection Agency
  46. (2007). Hollyoaks spin-off axed. [MediaGuardian: Online,
  47. (1976). How TV and film portrayals affect sexual satisfaction in college students.
  48. (1991). Identifying critical dimensions for discriminating among rapists.
  49. (1997). Ill Effects.
  50. (1992). In search of a discourse on aging: The elderly on television.
  51. (1988). Long-term exposure to violent and sexually degrading depictions of women.
  52. (1990). Making Sense of Television: The Psychology of Audience Interpretation.
  53. (1998). Mass Communication Research Methods.
  54. (2005). Mass media as a sexual super peer for early maturing girls.
  55. (2003). Mass Media Research: An Introduction, 7th edition.
  56. (2009). Media Effects:
  57. (1993). Media Exposure and the Sexual Attitudes and Behaviours of College Students. In
  58. (2000). Media Research Methods: Measuring Audiences, Reactions and Impact.
  59. (2002). Media Sex: What are the Issues. London: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  60. (1993). Media, sex, and the adolescent.
  61. Ofcom (2005b) Consulting with Young People on the Proposed Ofcom Broadcasting Code. London: Office of Communications.
  62. Ofcom (2005c) Language and Sexual Imagery in Broadcasting: A Contextual Investigation. London: Office of Communications.
  63. (2001). Personality, individual differences, and preferences for the sexual media.
  64. (1989). Physiological desensitization and judgments about female victims of violence.
  65. (2006). Policy Research (ippr) (2006): A Press Release: Sex education in primary schools needed to cut teenage pregnancy and unprotected underage sex [23,
  66. (1989). Pornography and men‘s sexual callousness toward women. In
  67. (1991). Pornography and Rape: Theory and Practice.
  68. (2000). Pornography and sexual aggression: are there reliable effects and can we understand them?
  69. (1984). Pornography and Sexual Aggression.
  70. (1982). Pornography, sexual callousness, and the trivialization of rape.
  71. (1998). Portraying older people in advertising: Magazines, television, and newspapers.
  72. (1988). Predicting laboratory aggression against female vs. male targets: implications for research on sexual aggression.
  73. (1989). Prime time portrayals of sex, contraception and venereal diseases.
  74. (1987). Public Secrets: EastEnders and Its Viewers. London: The British Film Institute.
  75. (1985). Quantity and quality of sex in the soaps.
  76. (2005). R18 Material: its potential impact on people under 18. London: Office of Communications (Ofcom).
  77. (2004). Representing young people‘s sexuality in the ‗youth‘ media.
  78. (2001). Research on sex in the media: What do we know about effects on children and adolescents?
  79. (2003). Role of media in influencing trajectories of youth smoking.
  80. (1999). Sex and Sensibility. London, Broadcasting Standards Commission.
  81. (1995). Sex and the Mass Media. Menlo Park, CA: Kaiser Family Foundation.
  82. (2000). Sex and the media: a shifting landscape. In
  83. (1993). Sex content on soaps and prime-time television series most viewed by adolescents. In
  84. (2002). Sex Crimes: Patterns and Behaviours,
  85. (2006). Sex in Consumer Culture: The Erotic Content of Media and Marketing. London: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  86. (1991). Sex in prime-time television:
  87. (1981). Sex on the Soap Operas: Afternoon Delight.
  88. (1981). Sex on the soap operas: patterns of intimacy.
  89. (2003). Sex on TV 3: A Biennial Report. Menlo Park, CA: Kaiser Family Foundation.
  90. (2005). Sex on TV 4. Menlo Park, CA: Kaiser Family Foundation.
  91. (1999). Sex on TV: A Biennial Report. Menlo Park, CA: Kaiser Family Foundation
  92. (1977). Sex on TV: A content analysis.
  93. (1998). Sex-related alcohol expectancies as moderators of the relationship between alcohol use and risky sex in adolescents.
  94. (1986). Sexual arousal in response to aggression: Ideological, aggressive, and sexual correlates.
  95. (1984). Sexual arousal to nonsexual violence and sadomasochistic themes among rapists and non-sex-offenders.
  96. (1983). Sexual arousal to rape depictions: Individual differences.
  97. (1966). Sexual fetishism: An experimental analogue.
  98. (1978). Sexual intimacy and drug use in TV series.
  99. (1980). Sexual Intimacy on Commercial TV during Prime Time.
  100. (1996). Sexual Messages on Family Hour Television: Content and Context. Menlo Park, CA: Kaiser Family Foundation.
  101. sexual refusal, and sexual aggression: Testing a narcissistic reactance model of sexual coercion.
  102. (2002). Sexual Teens, Sexual Media: Investigating Media’s Influence on Adolescent Sexuality.
  103. (2002). Sexual Teens, Sexual Media: Investigating Media’s Influence on Adolescent Sexuality. London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  104. (1993). Sexuality in Adolescence,
  105. (1995). Sexuality: A Content Analysis of Soap Operas
  106. (2002). Sexuality: A Content Analysis of Soap Operas BSC
  107. (2003). Sexuality: A Content Analysis of Soap Operas Hansen,
  108. (1969). Sexuality: A Content Analysis of Soap Operas Holsti, O.
  109. (2010). Sexuality: A Content Analysis of Soap Operas Papadopoulos, L.
  110. (1996). Sexually explicit media, gender differences, and evolutionary theory.
  111. (2002). Shaking the tree of knowledge for forbidden fruit: where adolescents learn about sexuality and contraception. In
  112. (2002). Soap box or soft soap?: Audience attitudes to the British soap opera. London: Broadcasting Standards Commission.
  113. (1989). Soap opera portrayals of sex, contraception and sexually transmitted diseases.
  114. (1981). Soap Opera Viewing: The Cultivation Effect‘
  115. (2003). Soap Opera.
  116. (1994). Soap Operas and Sexual Activity. Menlo Park, CA: Kaiser Family Foundation.
  117. (1985). Soap operas viewing motivations and the cultivation process.
  118. (2009). Social Cognitive Theory of Mass Communication. In
  119. (1986). Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social Cognitive Perspective. Englewood Cliffs NJ:
  120. (1977). Social Learning Theory. Englewood Cliffs NJ:
  121. (1985). Speaking of Soap Operas.
  122. (1995). Talking about sex: common themes about sexuality in the prime-time television programs children and adolescents view most.
  123. (2005). Teenagers and the Media: A Media Analysis of Sexual content on Television. Crisis Pregnancy Agency:
  124. (1989). Television and conceptions about sex roles: Maintaining conventionality.
  125. (1995). Television and Gender Representation.
  126. (2005). Television and Positive Aging in Australia:
  127. (1988). Television and Social Control. Aledershot, UK: Avebury Sex and Sexuality: A Content Analysis of Soap Operas Zillmann,
  128. (1990). Television exposure measures and the cultivation hypothesis.
  129. (1991). Television viewing and Adolescents‘ sexual behaviour.‘ In
  130. (1991). Television viewing and early initiation of sexual intercourse: is there a link?
  131. (1987). Television violence and children‘s aggression: Testing and priming, social script, and disinhibition predictions.
  132. (1995). Television, Ethnicity and Cultural Change.
  133. (1985). Television, Sex Roles and Children. Milton Keynes:
  134. (1998). Television: A Media Student’s Guide.
  135. (1991). Television‘s mixed messages: Sexual content on All My Children.
  136. (1998). Ten things wrong with the ‗effects model.‘ In
  137. (1980). Testing hypotheses regarding rape: Exposure to sexual violence, sex differences, and the ‗normality‘ of results.
  138. (1980). The acquisition of sexual information by young people.
  139. (2002). The Content Analysis Guidebook.
  140. (2006). The content and function of gender selfstereotypes: An exploratory investigation.
  141. (2009). The controversy over teen father Alfie Patten: Who's the daddy? [,
  142. (1983). The Disappearance of Childhood,
  143. (1973). The effect of easy availability of pornography on the incidence ofsex crimes: The Danish experience.
  144. (1984). The effects of multiple exposures to filmed violence against women.
  145. (2009). The Ofcom Broadcasting Code. London: Office of Communications.
  146. (2004). The portrayal of older people in prime time television series: The match with gerontological evidence.
  147. (1987). The Question of Pornography: Research Findings and Policy Implications.
  148. (2001). The Television Genre Book. London: The British Film Institute.
  149. (1994). The TV Soap Opera Genre and Its Viewers. Aberystwyth University [Online], available at: [Accessed on 7,
  150. (2003). The Watershed: Providing a Safe Viewing Zone. London: The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Broadcasting Standards Commission (BSC) and Independent Television Commission (ITC).
  151. (1993). Theoretical Overview. In
  152. (2009). There's alcohol in my soap: portrayal and effects of alcohol use in a popular television series.
  153. (1997). Tobacco and alcohol use behaviours portrayed in music videos: a content analysis.
  154. (2009). Together We Can End Violence Against Women and Girls: a Strategy. Available at [Accessed on 24,
  155. (1999). Too Old for TV? London: Age Concern.
  156. (2008). Transportation and transportability in the cultivation of genre-consistent attitudes and estimates.
  157. (1990). Understanding Television.
  158. (2003). Understanding the role of entertainment media in the sexual socialization of American youth: A review of empirical research.
  159. (1981). Update: Physically intimate and sexual behaviour on prime-time television,
  160. (1987). Use of pornography in the criminal and developmental histories of sexual offenders.
  161. (2001). Viewers and family Viewing Policy. London: British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Broadcasting Standards Commission (BSC), Independent Television Commission (ITC).
  162. (1998). Violence on Television: An analysis of amount, nature, location and origin of violence in British programmes.
  163. (2003). Violence on Television: Distribution, Form, Context, and Themes. London: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  164. (2006). Virtual cultivation: Online worlds, offline perceptions.
  165. (1991). Watching Dallas: Soap Opera and the Melodramatic Imagination.
  166. (2009). Website: . Statistics on the UK‘s ethnic minorities, the 2001 census are available at: [accessed on 10,
  167. (2007). Weekly viewing summary port=weeklyterrestrial [Accessed on 4,
  168. (2009). What is Coronation Street?: A brief History of the Series.
  169. (1991). Women and Soap Opera: A Study of Prime Time Soaps.
  170. (2002). Would that really happen? Adolescents‘ perceptions of sexual relationships according to prime-time television.
  171. (2002). Young People and New Media: Childhood and the Changing Media Environment.
  172. (2002). Young People and Sexual Content on Television. London: Broadcasting Standards Commission.
  173. (2003). Young People, Media and Personal Relationships, London: Broadcasting Standards Commission.

To submit an update or takedown request for this paper, please submit an Update/Correction/Removal Request.