Doing It in Prime Time
In a recent episode of Fox's raunchy new sitcom The War at Home, Dave, a father of three, can't decide which is more troubling: that his 16-year-old daughter may be sleeping with her boyfriend or that she raided Dave's marijuana stash. He goes with the pot. Not a big surprise from a character who in the show's first episode introduced his wife to the audience with this bit of flattery: "Did you check out the rack? Nice, huh?"
Like charity, sex education these days begins at home, typically in front of the same box that brought kids Barney and Sesame Street. Nothing drives more prime-time plots or creates more controversy than sex. Characters on virtually every coming-of-age show, from the spiritually infused 7th Heaven to the tarted-up teen soap The OC, lost their virginity last season (or are on deck to lose it this season) in what has been dubbed in TV land the "very special episode." In The OC, whose angst-ridden rich kids and edgy music have made it a huge hit, one high school junior lost his innocence to the mother of his ex-girlfriend. The ex, meanwhile, moved on to bisexuality--temporarily. This season, she found her way back to her true love's bed for a ratings-grabbing deflowering. On Desperate Housewives (the third-highest-rated prime-time show among teens), one of the residents of Wisteria Lane does it with her teenage gardener. Rory Gilmore, the smart and independent conscience of Gilmore Girls, had her "special moment" last season when she committed adultery with her married ex-boyfriend.
If it seems as if there's a lot more sex on TV than there was even five years ago, it's an illusion, says Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University. "What's increased isn't the sex, which has gone about as far as it can go, but the amount of time everyone spends talking about it, especially in its fetishized manifestations," says Thompson.
More sex or less, the result is the same, critics say. "Television's message is that teens must be having sex to be normal," says Melissa Caldwell of Parents Television Council, a conservative television watchdog group. "They watch these shows and say, 'Everyone on TV is sexually active; I should be, too.' "
Rather than dismiss the sex-saturated programs, many parents view them as an opportunity. "There are a lot of issues out there, and TV can be a good way to bring them up," says Nell Alano, who lives in Los Angeles and routinely watches Everwood with her teenage son and daughter. Everwood is centered on the relationship between a small-town doctor and his son, and between the son, Ephram, and his girlfriend, Amy, who recently slept together.
Small-screen sex. Amy's decision means less than the fact that she had to make one. The mere mention of sex on TV increases the chances that teens will engage in it earlier. A survey in 2002 by the Kaiser Family Foundation of 15-to-17-year-olds found that 72 percent of them believe that sex on TV influences the behavior of their peer groups. But the same study found that 1 in 3 teenagers had discussed a sexual issue with a parent after watching something racy on TV. And of that group, 60 percent said they also learned how to say no to a sexual situation that made them uncomfortable.
That may be the best parents can hope for from Hollywood, which is determined to tell stories that teens want and steer clear of the message business. Perhaps more important is the message teens have for the adult world: As Julia Backson, a 14-year-old freshman at Staples High School in Westport, Conn., puts it: "It's television. I just kind of watch it. I don't take it as an example. I know it's just TV."
This story appears in the October 17, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.