Television has come a long way from the innocent days of the 1950s, when even married couples like Ozzie and Harriet slept chastely in twin beds, and when teenagers routinely settled for a good-night kiss at the end of a date.
Today, sex sizzles everywhere on the small screen. A study released yesterday by the Kaiser Family Foundation finds that two-thirds of all entertainment shows in the 1999-2000 television season include sexual content, up from about half of all shows in 1997-98. Yet only 1 program in 10 includes any reference to the risks and responsibilities of sex.
This results in what Victoria Rideout, vice president of the foundation, calls "a lot of missed opportunities" to help shape attitudes and behavior among adults and young people alike.
By far the most troubling changes in TV fare involve teenagers. The number of teen television characters involved in sexual intercourse has tripled in the past two years, from 3 percent to 9 percent.
As Ms. Rideout explains in a telephone interview, "Overall, the number of shows that have teen characters involved in
sexual situations has stayed roughly the same, but what the teens are doing does seem to have changed. They're more likely to be involved in advanced sexual encounters."
Yet the report, titled "Sex on TV," offers encouraging news, too. Programs with teenage characters in sexual situations, Rideout says, are now more likely to include a reference to the value of waiting to have sex or the importance of taking precautions if one is going to have sex.
Teenagers and sex make a volatile mix as youthful passion produces curiosity and experimentation. In a sex-saturated society, media images form only one way in which young people get information about intimate relationships. Parents and peers also play significant roles.
In the world of teenage sex, a fledging abstinence movement and slightly lower teen pregnancy rates offer modest but encouraging signs that attitudes and behavior may be changing slightly. Still, as the report points out, attitudes about sex aren't formed by a single incident. Instead, they are cumulative, drawn from a variety of sources and experiences.
Rideout and others at the Kaiser Family Foundation resist the temptation to tut-tut about the findings. Rather, they see television portrayals of sex as an opportunity to spur conversations and discussions.
As one encouraging sign, Rideout notes that 70 percent of parents say they've had conversations with their children about sex that were sparked by something they saw on TV. That, of course, requires parents to watch TV with their children - an option not always possible in many families.
Television producers have remained largely exempt from criticism about their portrayals of sex. No one expects them to return to 1950s-style depictions. Yet in the same way that tobacco and alcohol companies are being held increasingly accountable for the messages they send to young people, television executives also bear a responsibility to consider ways to create programming that encourages responsible behavior. No V-chip can screen out the steady barrage of prime-time passion.
In the future debate about sex on television, the report states, "it may well be more important to consider how sex is shown rather than simply how much it is shown."
Encouraging teenagers to postpone sex, and giving them a moral basis for doing so, will always be a responsibility that begins at home - but does not end there. Hollywood can play its part too, with occasional scripts that emphasize the importance of affection and respect.
As one change from the current steamy romps, producers might even consider tamer fare for young viewers: showing the awkward sweetness of a teenage couple's goodnight kiss on the front porch. What a novel idea for a script.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society