We conducted qualitative analysis of negatively toned newsprint coverage of sexual health topics published in the UK Press in 2010 to examine the representations of gender, risk and responsibility within these. It is evident that the way in which sexual health issues are framed and who is held responsible within the newsprint media could play an important role in shaping understanding and awareness of sexual health and illness. It has been suggested that the way in which sexual scenarios are portrayed in the media could be used by young people to fill gaps in understandings of sexual situations  and reinforce ‘norms’ they feel they should adhere to . In our analysis, men were framed as a risk to women, and their sexual health, whilst women were presented as being at risk, but at the same time responsible for patrolling sexual encounters, organising contraception and preventing sexual ill health; reinforcing gender stereotypes.
Within feminist literature, men’s power over women is apparent and studies have indicated that the media adheres to this, portraying men stereotypically, as physically strong and mentally dominant, especially in interactions with women [32, 33]. Hedley et al.  found such gender stereotyping within their study of popular films, where women were presented as powerless and passive, whilst men were depicted as ‘bad’. Similarly, a study of sexual messages in music found that men typically demonstrated aggressive and dominant behaviour, while women tended to engage in sexual and subservient behaviour and were commonly the victims of implicit, explicit and/or aggressive sexual advances . It seems that generally, studies have found a focus on men as ‘initiators’ or pursuers of sexual activity and on women as the ‘pursued’ [14, 22, 35]. This is supported by our analysis.
At the same time, the articles implied that women should be resisting and managing men’s sexual advances. This is a pattern found within other studies of television and magazine coverage, whereby girls are generally advised and encouraged to resist pressure to have sex [22, 36–38]. Thus, it seems that as well as female sexuality being coupled with being passive and vulnerable, it is also associated with responsibility . This is further evidence that there is a sexual double standard, where the sexual activity of young men is encouraged and tolerated, while for young women, it is discouraged, controlled, restricted, and subjected to condemnation and sanctioning if norms are violated [14, 40–43].
Our analysis highlighted a further contradiction: as well as being at risk and needing protection, women were presented as having responsibility for safer sex. Generally, boys and men were invisible in reports on teenage pregnancy, abortion and contraception within our sample, and there was little or no acknowledgement of male responsibility for contraception and safer sex practices. A number of other studies analysing gender roles within media coverage found similar commonplace framings of unsafe sex and its consequences as ‘women’s problems’ or concerns [22, 24, 44]. Conversely, conversations about sex amongst male characters on television have been found to centre on boasting about sexual prowess and pride in sexual performance with little consideration of risk or consequences . Attributing ‘blame’ or responsibility along gender stereotypes encourages the belief that the problem of, and consequently the solution to, prevention lies with the behaviours of a particular group, in this case women. It seems that burdening women with responsibility enables men’s lack of involvement and ignorance in relation to their own and their partners’ health and very much discourages engagement and equality in sexual health promotion [22, 25].
Attention has been drawn to the typical solution to male pressure and sexual relationships within sexuality education in the US: the encouraging and teaching of girls to abstain . Such a focus (often advocated by moral conservative and religious groups) was a common feature within articles on sex education in our sample. Whilst a few articles highlighted the need for better sex education for women and girls to enable them to make informed choices, most focused on the failures of such programmes, presenting them as contributing to women and girls being at risk, and blaming them for encouraging sexual activity, experimentation, unprotected sex and promiscuity. Our findings are consistent with other studies carried out in this area . In particular, a number of studies analysing the representation of the HPV vaccination in newsprint media found that, despite relatively positive descriptions of vaccination, there was a focus on infection rates amongst women and on risky sexual behaviours as a consequence of vaccination [15, 47]. Similarly, a number of articles portrayed the provision of emergency contraception as particularly ‘risky’ and responsible for promoting promiscuity, despite evidence to the contrary . There seemed to be a paternalistic ideology present within coverage, with a focus on the need to protect young girls from such policies/initiatives and prevent the sexual experimentation they would “inevitably” encourage. Focusing on discouragement and abstinence over access to information and contraception may work to reinforce traditional, stereotypical gender roles, and thus fail to acknowledge or challenge gender inequality .
The exception to the lack of focus on men, was in relation to articles on gay men, who were presented as a risk, at risk, and also failing to be responsible. There were suggestions that the widespread availability of antiretrovirals for HIV treatment had resulted in ‘cavalier attitudes’ amongst gay men. A number of UK community-based studies have reported increasing rates of sexual risk behaviour amongst gay men [50, 51], and some have questioned the link between awareness or use of antiretrovirals and high risk sexual behaviours . However, studies have found little association between the two [52, 53]. Also, we found that gay men were often not the main focus of articles, but were instead included as a bench mark against which rates in other populations were measured (the issue of STI infection among gay men in some ways was taken for granted and assumed to be widely known).
The findings of this research needs to be considered in light of its limitations. Firstly, this study included only newsprint media and is therefore not representative of the broader media’s role in the portrayal of sexual health and BBV issues. However, newsprint media does provide a widely used data source, and although there is a move towards digital news formats, there is no evidence that the reporting in them is vastly different. Also, the one-year time period was short and only represents a ‘snapshot’; preventing the measuring of trends over time. Despite such limitations, this piece of research comes from the first large-scale exploration of UK national newsprint media representation of all sexual health and BBV topics since the 1990s and provides valuable insights into the newsprint media’s role in shaping understandings of gender roles in relation to risk and responsibility in sexual health.