How has pop culture and the media influenced our perspectives of love and sex?

At 14, I learned everything there was to know about romance from Taylor Swift and K-dramas.

Of course, my understanding of love and romance have evolved over time, but popular culture and the media were certainly the gateway to the expectations I had of romantic love as a teenager.

Romantic relationships are often discussed in tandem with sex and intimacy, and as we move towards a culture more open about discussing sex, much of what is shaping young people’s expectations of sex, as with romance, still comes from the media.

Now, technology has also exacerbated these perceptions too.

As society enters an entirely new age where the ways in which we meet, fall in love, and explore our sexuality are completely different from any generation before, we need to know how our perspectives of dating and sex have been shaped as well. 

The pressure of finding ‘The One’

A still from (500) Days of Summer, a film which commented on how our perspectives of romance was shaped by pop culture.

Modern society has popularised the concept of romantic love as being an ideal to pursue to the point where all our mainstream media is filled with it. Pop songs are often about falling in and out of love or about sex. Some of the biggest pieces of pop culture in the past decade have revolved around romantic relationships. Edward or Jacob? Betty or Veronica?

Through popular culture young people begin to shape what they want or expect from a relationship. When I was 13, I thought I would be dating and falling in love at that magical age of 17 – the way all the media I had been consuming had showed me.

By the time I was 17, I knew better—”in your life you’ll do things greater than dating the boy on the football team”—I had Taylor Swift to thank for that again.

I didn’t place my self-worth on being in a relationship at 17, but it was still a struggle. The way society conditioned us to expect and want romance, not having a partner felt like you were unwanted and something was wrong with you. I knew many people my age who were smart, strong and independent individuals, yet their self-esteem was deeply affected by the lack of a romantic partner or romantic attention. Hollywood certainly doesn’t help with convincing us that nothing is wrong with ourselves— after all, only thin, white, heterosexual and conventionally beautiful people get to have happily ever afters.

A Korean friend mentioned that the pressure to date was huge in modern South Korean society. Many young people date for the sake of keeping up appearances. This didn’t come as a surprise to me considering the country’s culture around image.

The pressure to conform to standards were further amplified by the saturation of heterosexual romances depicted by the country’s own pop culture — from K-Dramas all the way to K-Pop. Of course, most of modern society is obsessed with keeping up appearances, especially in the age of social media. But in a more homogeneous culture like South Korea, this problem of dating because of the pressures placed by the media (as opposed to truly finding a connection with someone) becomes much more prevalent.

Dating for the sake of dating, moving quickly from one partner to another— are people afraid of being lonely or afraid of appearing to be alone? Or is it a combination of both? Isn’t it better to be single and know what you really want as opposed to feeling emotionally hollow and unsatisfied in a relationship?

Dating & hookup culture

Still from A Bride for Rip Van Winkle

Technology has become integral in our everyday lives, and a lot of the way we meet and communicate with people is through social media. Finding someone to date is easy— in the Japanese film A Bride for Rip Van Winkle, the protagonist likens it to “being so easy—like buying something online.”

In an article for Vanity Fair about dating in the age of apps, the dating app Hinge reported that 30 per cent of surveyed women had been lied to about a match’s relationship status. A further 22 percent of men on Hinge used a dating app while on a date and 54 per cent of singles on Hinge reported feeling lonely after swiping on swiping apps.

These dating apps were meant to make it easier to ‘find someone’, but that perceived ease of accessibility to ‘all the fish in the sea’ has made us lazy after the initial connection is made.

Tinder has also earned a reputation of creating the current ‘hook-up culture’. The increased accessibility to potential sexual partners has given rise to young people becoming tempted to callousness, turning people into a numbers game instead of treating them like human beings. There’s nothing wrong with one-night stands or wanting to be sexy, free and single, but what dating apps like Tinder has created is a culture where desensitised, lazy people would rather settle for ‘fast food intimacy’—using the shortcut to sex as a band-aid for real intimacy.

People in general value connection and intimacy in their relationships, but we also fear being alone. Technology, media and especially social media can aid in forming connections that lead to greater intimacy. Ideally, this means many people can fall in love with the help of technology and social media, and many have found lasting love meeting someone online.

But it is also true that the media can also have a polarising and negative effect on relationships. Couples formed through dating apps have to learn how to communicate and set boundaries once they move their relationship from online to the real world. Relationships can fall apart because of the lack of effort to communicate and create real intimacy when they can no longer rely on texting.

The fear of being alone coupled with the convenience that technology brings means many of us are spending our time engaged in the mediated, curated reality of social media as opposed to being truly engaged and building healthy relationships with each other.

Expectations of sex

Image via Jezebel

“Pop culture and the media really influence girls my age—we’re growing up, finding out who we are and what we want to be. We’re becoming comfortable or uncomfortable with our own bodies, and it definitely plays a role in how we feel about ourselves,” said Lily, a teenager interviewed for the book Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers, by Nancy Jo Sales.

While the internet has provided a safe place for people to bond from different parts of the world over shared interests, its unlimited boundaries have also created unsafe spaces. The anonymity of the internet has facilitated and exacerbated our society’s inherent misogyny. Comments made about female bodies range from being rude (fat-shaming) to downright disgusting (reducing women to nothing but sex). Girls and women internalise this harmful vitriol about their body image and self-esteem. It is only reinforced by men who expect their partners to strive towards looking more like the standard of beauty set by the media and cut them down when they don’t.

The accessibility of internet pornography has also warped our expectations of sex. Many young people still do not have access to proper sex education besides basic biology classes and turn to pornography to find out what sex is. The problem with pornography is that it doesn’t depict the basics of safe sex, such as how to protect yourself from STDs and unwanted pregnancy. Nor does it foster any healthy expectations of sex. Everyone is entitled to their own kinks and preferences when it comes to sex, but let’s not pretend that much of what is depicted in pornography is respectful when it comes to treating anyone that isn’t a cisgender white male. Women are frequently degraded, negative racial stereotypes of men and women are reinforced and lesbian and gay sex is fetishised and depicted in ways that are deeply problematic and harmful.

It’s just another day for women receiving unsolicited “dick pics” and texts like “noods pls” on social media or dating apps. This would be the online equivalent of sexual harassment but as the lines blur with the rise of social media, more and more women find it easier to shrug off this dehumanising and misogynistic behaviour as just part of the norm.

We have to address this kind of misogynistic behaviour and how these unhealthy expectations of sex is toxic for both men and women, and how it trickles down to the younger generation.

It’s on us to change the narrative

Technology can be amazing. We have an entire generation that can use tools that allow for greater convenience and control over one’s sexual experiences, expression and preferences. The ease to communicate with others around the world also is extremely powerful. But it also is easy to blame pornography, technology and pop culture for warping our expectations and perspectives on romance and sex. But really, it is really only part of a much bigger issue.

Misogyny, racism, the dehumanising of LGBTQ people and toxic masculinity are at the root of most problems when it comes to unhealthy depictions of romance and sex in the media, and how we use technology.

The people who drive popular culture have to be more responsible in their representation of healthy relationships, women and diverse sexualities. Similarly, those who create the tools that enable us to make connections with others locally and around the world need to ensure that users can feel safe.

What the media and popular culture choose to depict and not depict ultimately reflect the issues that face society and reveal oppressive bias. We as a society have to open our eyes to these issues and examine how our perspectives on dating and sex have become shaped due to media and technology. And only by understanding how these depictions of love and sex can we begin to let go of these toxic narratives that drive society and begin to establish more healthier depictions of romance and sex in this modern landscape.

Supported by the City of Melbourne through a community grant, this story is part of a year-long PEER Project which aims to help international students build healthy community, explore and find peer-support on issues around identity and gender, discuss common struggles and stereotypes, and gain the confidence to navigate current and future relationships.

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