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Erotica runs rampant

Ever-stronger sexual content is showing up across the landscape of mainstream media: in network TV, in movies, even in catalogs.

By Arts and culture correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 1, 2002


This Sunday, a team of Playboy Playmates will compete in a special episode of NBC's reality TV show "Fear Factor," timed to pull viewers away from the Super Bowl half-time show on Fox.

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At Christmas, a 15-year-old California girl received a "fun gift" from another teen: a makeup bag, part of a new teen line from the hard-core pornography publisher Hustler, complete with an embroidered logo and a tag touting the magazine.

In November, ABC TV aired a "Victoria's Secret Fashion Show" so explicit the network decided it should blur out areas of the models' bodies.

Pornographic images, erotic paraphernalia, and raunchy sexual talk are reaching a near-saturation point in the daily lives of Americans, through television, movies, magazines, and the Internet, say a growing chorus of expert voices. And the target market is an increasingly younger audience.

The prevalence and commercialization of extreme sexual behaviors and attitudes is hard for youngsters still figuring out male-female relationships, says media expert John Forde, who hosts a PBS television show that examines TV advertising. How can they put a violent sex toy in perspective when they are still worrying about their first kiss? he asks.

"Erotica has gone completely mainstream," says Jane Buckingham, president of Youth Intelligence, a New York-based think tank that tracks youth trends.

From the sex toys used by star Jim Carrey in his recent film "Me, Myself & Irene," to clothing catalogs so graphic that Abercrombie & Fitch stores must ask for adult IDs to sell them, the environment for youths has become sexualized in ways that used to be considered extreme, Ms. Buckingham says.

She points to what she calls "porn chic" as the easiest evidence: lewd sexual phrases and imagery on jewelry and clothing; print and TV ad campaigns that suggest rape or group sex; and explicit sexual references to pornography in teen films such as "Scary Movie" and "Not Just Another Teen Movie."

The influx of this imagery has increased dramatically over the past decade, she adds, and includes using younger models. "Now that pornography has become acceptable, anything goes."

Accompanying this is a trend toward more and more explicit sexual environments in film and TV. In a recently released biennial report, the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 2 out of every 3 TV shows include sexual content, up from one-half of shows just two years ago. The many examples cited include characters on ABC's cancelled "Two Guys and a Girl" using the Kama Sutra, an ancient Eastern sex manual.

A study released Monday by the Parents Television Council found that the number of "raunchy" sexual references on cable TV shows has more than doubled in the past two years. These occur more than twice as often as on network TV shows.

Several factors have contributed to erotica working its way into mainstream American media, says legal expert Bruce Taylor, president and chief counsel for the National Law Center for Children and Families:

• The number of state or federal prosecutions for violations of obscenity laws over the past decade, stopped almost completely when the Community Decency Act of 1996 was struck down as unconstitutional.

• The rise of the Internet as an easy way to deliver explicitly sexual material to a wide, undifferentiated market.

• The expansion of the entertainment marketplace from a few networks to a vast world of satellite, cable, video, and pay-per-view options.

It all boils down to money, says Mr. Forde, host of the PBS show "Mental Engineering," which will run its own counter-programming on Super Bowl Sunday.

Immediately following the game, Forde's show will analyze the underlying messages of the Super Bowl ads. The goal of advertisers "is to win, and if they pass the [social] cost of [pornography] on to others, that's of no consequence to them, because they are concerned solely with profit," he says.