Hump the Shark

New study confirms the obvious: Lots of preachy sex on TV


In an age of space shuttle catastrophes, imminent war, apocalyptic terrorism, and—perhaps most on point—declining rates of teen sex, the continuing interest in the quantity and quality of "lust-see TV" seems positively quaint, little more than nostalgia for a simpler time when a president's penis and not his war plans could dominate the news.

Yet the Kaiser Family Foundation—one of the few nonprofits that openly signals its imperial ambitions in its name—doggedly keeps at it, the Warren Beatty of research groups. The good folks at Kaiser are on the verge of releasing Sex on TV 3, the latest installment of their biennial study on small-screen sheet-slapping. The first of these appeared in 1999; it and its sequel are available online, but the latest installment, monitoring programs from October 2001 through March 2002, is not yet widely available, other than via press accounts such as this one.

Kaiser's determination, if not its actual research, is significant because it underscores a continuing confusion over the role and influence of popular culture, especially television, on kids. The biennial study exemplifies the mistaken notion that such fare is a major factor on individual behavior and hence in need of some sort of reform, especially when it comes to that most abused of constituencies in contemporary political discourse, "the kids."

Sex on TV is best understood as a Girls Gone Wild franchise for the anxious-parent set, a document whose high moral purpose masks its titillating content, contemporary social science's answer to Clarissa. Every two years, Kaiser, in collaboration with researchers at University of California-Santa Barbara, pays graduate students to log the number and nature of sex acts on over 1,000 shows appearing on 10 networks during a regular television series. (Strangely, no one has studied the effects of coding TV shows on grad student behavior.) Then comes the well-publicized report, which inevitably announces some bad news, some good news, and a self-aggrandizing claim of relevance and impact.

Here's the "bad" news this time around: Among teenagers' 20 favorite shows, 83 percent included sexual content, 49 percent of them included sexual behavior, and 20 percent included depictions or discussion of intercourse. Across all TV shows, 64 percent had some sexual content. The "good" news is that among those favorite teens shows, 45 percent of the episodes that either discussed or depicted intercourse made some mention of "safe sex" practices. And while 14 percent of all shows included sexual intercourse—up from 10 percent two years ago—overall sexual content on TV has remained steady.

And the self-aggrandizing claim to relevance? As Kaiser's Vicky Rideout, the study's director, told The Cincinnati Enquirer, Sex on TV draws "Hollywood's attention to the impact that sexual content has on young people (and) the opportunity they (producers) have to play a positive role."

Well, not quite. What it actually suggests is that Hollywood plays no great role in kids' choices. Just as Portnoy's Complaint failed to turn liver into anyone's lover, Dawson's Creek has not proven to be the small-screen equivalent of Spanish Fly. As the Kaiser TV team—and everyone else in America—will attest, there's no question that over the past decade or so, kids have been exposed to far more sexual content than they used to be, on the tube and elsewhere. What's more, everyone will agree that most of this content is presented in glamorous fashion.

Yet this has not created a generation of sex-crazed adolescents. The percentage of high schoolers who have engaged in sexual intercourse declined from 54 percent in 1991 to 46 percent in 2001. We know this, incidentally, courtesy of another set of researachers at Kaiser, folks who work in the foundation's "Reproductive and Sexual Health" program. Similarly unrelated trends also hold for violent TV and youth crime: as the former has increased, the latter has declined.

Some myths die hard, though. The idea that popular culture is (or should be) didactic in any simple sense of the term is one of these myths. Garry Marshall, the creator of Happy Days is famous for claiming that requests for library cards "zoomed" a whopping 500 percent after an episode in which Fonzie used one. (Strangely, Marshall was not puzzled by the lack of a dramatic increases in shark-tank jumping incidents after the Fonz pulled off that particular stunt.)

The proper response to Marshall's hilariously overblown, wildly self-aggrandizing, and completely undocumented assertion—and to the mindset behind Kaiser's Sex on TV series—is a polite "Sit on it."