Solenne Tauty and Philippe Martin

In a joint INED-INSERM (French National Institute of Health and Medical Research) study of how sexual health is handled in television series for young people, the INSERM epidemiologist Solenne Tauty and INED-INSERM researcher Philippe Martin analyzed material related to sexual health in 65 episodes of 6 recent series (2015-2020) diffused on Netflix and popular with young people. Tauty and Martin recently answered questions on the study.

(Interview conducted in December 2022)

How are questions of sexual health treated in the Netflix series you studied?

Netflix is the VOD (video on demand) platform most heavily used by young people aged 15 to 24 in France, who represent nearly a quarter of its audience whereas they only account for 12% of the country’s population. Given that sexual health is a major theme for that population category, several series produced and diffused on the platform include content on it. Though the aim is primarily to entertain, these series also contain what could be called “sexual health promotion messages” in that information, advice, or positive representations may lead viewers to reflect on their representations, norms, and behaviors. 

These messages, most of which are delivered by characters aged 16 to 18, concern recurrent themes such as sexual harassment and violence (19%), protection against sexually transmitted infections (18%), and contraception (15%). However, when certain sensitive questions such as risky behaviors and gender norms come up, some of the information may be incomplete or misleading. 

What’s the frequency of sexual health promotion messages in the series?

Over the 65 episodes, we observed 62 sexual health promotion messages, most of them (50 of the 62) diffused in two series whose overall script was oriented toward “sexual health.” Given the synopses of these series, it was already expected that they would discuss sexual health. On the other hand, there were very few sexual health promotion messages in the other series (between 0.5 and 0 messages per episode), which is quite surprising given the audience targeted and the importance of these issues at those ages. 

How might these series actively promote sexual health?

The Netflix series directly handling sexual health may help people talk about complex subjects. Sharing experiences and identifying with characters could have a positive influence when it comes to managing events in their lives by young people who watch or have watched the series. However, by playing down sexual health problems or making them seem laughable, the messages could also have the opposite effect, thereby bolstering stigmatization and discrimination. Some young people might also not feel concerned or represented and are therefore not receptive to this type of content. Additional research could evaluate how these messages are perceived by young people in terms of their level of knowledge and positive sexual health behaviors.