Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Promiscuous TV

From TODAY, Plus

Monday November 17, 2008


Who’s to blame for teenage sex?

Yes, there’s sex on TV. But where are the parents?


Abigail Jones




When the world learned that 16-year-old actress Jamie Lynne Spears was pregnant, everyone paid attention. She was the little sister of a famous celebrity, and the star of an Emmy-nominated show that earned her a 2006 Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Award. Girls like her weren’t supposed to get pregnant.


But Spears did, and she was not alone. We also witnessed the very public pregnancy of 17-year-old Bristol Palin, daughter of Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin.


Critics and parents cried out for abstinence or condoms (depending on which side of that debate they were on), and many blamed pop culture as a bad influence (think Gossip Girl and Juno). The critics’ concerns seemed real. A 2005 Kaiser Family Foundation study determined that sex scenes on television doubled between 1998 and 2005, with prime-time television shows averaging nearly six sexual scenes per hour.


A recent groundbreaking Rand Corporation study confirmed what many suspected: There is a “prospective link” between the amount of sex teens watch on television and the likelihood that they will experience a pregnancy.


From 2001 to 2004, Rand researchers surveyed 2,003 girls and boys aged 12 to 17 about their television habits and other topics. Of the 718 teens who were sexually active at the time, those exposed to high levels of sexual content on television were twice as likely to experience a pregnancy within the three-year period of the study as compared to those with lower levels of exposure to such content. No previous study has ever associated teenage pregnancy with sexual content on television.


But do TV shows really cause teens to experiment sexually, or does television reflect what teens are already doing? I recently spent more than two years interviewing teenagers about their sexual and social lives for my non-fiction book, Restless Virgins: Love, Sex, and Survival at a New England Prep School.


My co-author and I chronicled the intimate experiences of seniors at Milton Academy, an elite prep school near Boston, Massachusetts, during the 2004 to 2005 school year (the same time as the Rand study). Though none of the students in my book experienced a pregnancy, a few had false alarms and almost all of them engaged in casual or extreme sexual behaviour, and treated hooking up as a form of social currency.


Some girls looked for personal validation while others wanted to have sexual experiences casually and without commitment, like Samantha Jones did on Sex and the City. One accepted a purity ring and lost her virginity two weeks later. Many guys took their cues from pornography, and believed that stories made the man and so, the man got all the stories.


The Milton students were bombarded by messages about safe sex, but very few of them talked with their parents about the physical and emotional consequences of their sexual choices. There emerged not just a gap but a generational chasm between what parents understood about their teenagers’ lives and what teens actually experienced.


So is TV really to blame? Partly. Yet pop culture changes dramatically and quickly; since the Rand study concluded its research, TV shows have grown even more sexual.


This season, Gossip Girl print ads showcase its high school characters in the throes of intimacy, alongside review quotes such as “Every parent’s worst nightmare”. Meanwhile, one of the opening scenes of the series premiere of 90210 featured a girl performing oral sex on a guy in plain sight of other students. (Compare that with the original 90210 of the 1990s, where it took David and Donna multiple seasons to have sex.) Adult viewers may be shocked, but today’s television shows are simply reflecting reality.


Teens today are growing up in a culture that’s saturated by sex. It’s in the clothes they wear, the magazines they read, the music they listen to, and yes, the TV shows they watch. What is at stake for sexually active teens? Pregnancy is only part of the risk. Today, one in four teenage girls has at least one sexually transmitted disease, and as of last year, nearly half of high school students in the United States have had sexual intercourse.


A recent congressional study found that abstinence-only programmes do not keep teens from having sex, nor do they increase or decrease the likelihood that a teenager will use a condom.


Rand researchers suggest that the media should emphasise more realistic depictions of teenage sex, and that parents should help their children interpret what they watch. Communication is a critical step, but that’s easier said than done, especially since an accurate depiction may just lead to even more sex on TV.


Even so, everyone must pay attention. Sexually-charged television shows affect the behaviour of teenagers. A parent’s fatal flaw is advocating for abstinence (many girls consider oral sex or even anal sex to be a form of abstinence), or assuming that his or her teen is not sexually active (no teen is immune to sexual desire or sexual pressure, even the most committed evangelical).


There is little we can do to change the media, so teens must be able to turn to their parents. If a parent is not there, these TV shows will take their place and many already have.



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