Sexually Explicit Media and Young People's Sexual Health Outcomes: Kirby Summit 2021 Findings

Sexually Explicit Media and Young People's Sexual Health Outcomes: Kirby Summit 2021 Findings

By Amy Peterson, PhD | September 2, 2021
Senior Research Associate, ETR

Conversations about sexually explicit media are all over the news. Sexually explicit media (SEM), which includes pornography, is media (videos, images, writing, etc.) created with the intent to sexually arouse the viewer. With a growing number of youth and young people owning smartphones, online SEM is now easily accessible. Concerns about this access have led to policy changes across the country, yet not all experts believe SEM use is the health crisis that some make it out to be. 

At ETR’s annual Kirby Summit, we set out to understand the research on the role of SEM on young people’s sexual development, attitude, and behaviors. We looked at the research studying the relationship between SEM and young people’s outcomes.  

Lessons Learned from the 2021 Kirby Summit

SEM use is difficult to study with adolescents because it’s illegal in most countries for youth to access it. That means that this research comes with limitations. For example, we can’t always tell from the research whether it’s young people’s SEM use or their situation (family, peers, romantic partners, etc.) that influences their behaviors and attitudes about sex.   

It is also difficult to study young people’s SEM use because definitions of SEM, by youth and researchers, can vary widely across research. Without a consistent understanding of SEM, it is challenging to accurately assess SEM use among youth and interpret its role in influencing young people’s attitudes and choices.  

What Can We Conclude? 

Knowing these limitations, we concluded that the evidence is largely unclear on whether SEM use influences later sexual health outcomes among young people. However, we found that there is limited-to-some evidence that SEM use may influence sexual risk behavior and, among young men specifically, sexually aggressive behaviors (you can read our full brief here). 

These studies, however, cannot tell us whether SEM use causes these behaviors. Instead, SEM use and sexual health in adolescence appear to have a complex relationship where both are developing in related ways over time. More information is needed to help us understand this relationship and whether some young people are more vulnerable to the influence of SEM than others. 

How Can Educators Support Young People’s Questions about SEM?  

Sex educators across the country tell us that, regardless of what the research says, young people have questions about SEM! Even when sex education doesn’t cover SEM as a topic, young people are aware of it and want to know how to manage what they see in or hear about SEM.  

Media and porn literacy are one way sex educators aim to support conversations with youth about SEM. These strategies help youth critically assess what they see in media, whether it’s pornography, films, tv, music videos, or ads. Not all literacy programs are alike, however. In order to remain sex positive, we need programs that help young people sort through the harmful messages that they may see in SEM while reassuring them that sexual exploration is a normal and healthy part of growing up. We also need to affirm young people’s sexual, gender, and cultural identities since SEM, like other media, can reflect sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, and ableist themes. We join others in the field as we explore ways to better support youth through sex-positive literacy programs. 

We’d like to thank all the folks who have contributed to this work over the last year through our Kirby Summit activities. We’ll be sharing additional findings from the Kirby Summit work, including what young people say about SEM, in the coming months!


Amy Peterson (she/her/hers), PhD, is a Senior Research Associate at ETR where she manages the Kirby Summit, an expert convening aiming to improve sexual health policies, programs, and research on young people’s sexual health through transdisciplinary perspectives. Her interests include studying the role of systems of power on young people’s sexual health and translating research to inform policies and practices. She can be reached at amy.peterson@etr.org.

Sign up for the ETR Health Newsletter.

Social Media :

  • YouTube
  • LinkedIn
  • Twitter
  • Facebook