Sex and the City Characters Influence Interpersonal Communication About Sexual Health

“What would Samantha and Miranda do?”

New research suggests that may be the question viewers of HBO’s Sex and the City may be asking themselves when it comes to discussing sexual health issues with partners.

The Ohio State University study was led by Assistant Professor of Communication, Emily Moyer-Gusé, as well as by grad students Adrienne Chung and Parul Jain. The research revealed that after watching characters on Sex and the City discuss sexual health topics viewers were twice as likely to communicate about sexually transmitted diseases with those close to them.

“One of the powerful things about entertainment programming is that it can get people talking about important issues that they might not otherwise talk about,” said Emily Moyer-Gusé.

243 college students with an average age of 20 years old were divided up to watch three different versions of the same Sex and the City episode.

The first version showed Samantha and Miranda discussing HIV and chlamydia with friends, doctors, and sexual partners. The second version had content about STDs, but had no discussion between the women. And the third version had no STD content whatsoever.

After watching the show, participants were given a questionnaire which measured their identification with the characters, as well as their plans to discuss STDs with those close to them. At this point, there was no noticeable difference in the answers relating to their intentions. But when surveyed again two weeks later, 46 percent of those who had viewed the first version said they had discussed the issues with their partner. Also, only about 21 percent of those who viewed the second version and 15 percent who viewed the third version had this discussion.

“That’s a pretty substantial behavioral effect after watching just one episode of a TV show,” Moyer-Gusé said.

The researchers realized the main factor influencing this behavior was whether or not participants identified with the characters. This was because they felt they had shared the experiences with Samantha and Miranda.

“Those who identified with the characters were less likely to find faults with the story and were more likely to feel like they could talk about their sexual history, just like they saw on the program,” she said.

The results of the study applied to both men and women who watched the program.

“While women probably watch Sex and the City more often than do men, it didn’t seem to bother the men in our study to watch the episode,” she said. “They had reactions that were very similar to what we found in women viewers.”

The study was published in the June 2011 issue of the Journal of Communication.

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