Civil Liberties

Lust-See TV

Small-screen sex and its discontents.


In an age of space shuttle catastrophes, Middle Eastern 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 nightly news.

et the Kaiser Family Foundation—one of the few nonprofit research groups that openly signals its imperial ambitions in its name—doggedly keeps at it. The good folks there recently released Sex on TV 3, the latest installment of their ongoing study of small-screen sheet slapping.

Kaiser's selfless dedication to the cause of counting televised sex acts is significant because it underscores a continuing confusion over the role and influence of popular culture, especially television. The ongoing study exemplifies the mistaken notion that such fare is a major influence on individual behavior and hence in need of regulation or reform, especially if we're talking about its effects on that most picked-over constituency in contemporary political discourse, "the kids."

The Sex on TV series is best understood as a Girls Gone Wild franchise for the anxious-parent set, its high moral purpose masking its titillating content. Every two years since 1999, Kaiser, in collaboration with researchers at the University of California-Santa Barbara, pays students to interrupt their own Harrad Experiment by the sea for the good of mankind.

The students log the number and nature of sex acts on over 1,000 shows appearing on 10 networks during a regular television season. (We await the inevitable study on the effects of coding TV shows on student sexual behavior.) Then comes the well-publicized report, which inevitably includes 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 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 teens' favorite 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 in 2001—overall sexual content on TV has remained relatively steady.

And the self-aggrandizing claim to relevance? Study director Vicky Rideout tells The Cincinnati Enquirer that Sex on TV draws "Hollywood's attention to the impact that sexual content has on young people [and] the opportunity [producers] have to play a positive role."

Well, not quite. What it actually suggests is that Hollywood plays no great role in kids' most important life choices. Just as the best-selling 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, whether on the tube, at the movies, in music, or in video games. What's more, everyone will agree that most of this content is presented in a glamorous fashion.

Yet this social reality 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 researchers at Kaiser, folks who work in the foundation's suggestively named "Reproductive and Sexual Health" program. Similarly out-of-sync trends also hold for violent TV and youth crime: As the former has increased, the latter has declined.

Myths die hard, though, and the idea that popular culture is didactic in any simple sense of the word is one of those myths. So is the related belief that we can direct behavior via culture, a delusion that comforts worrywarts and flatters creators. For an example of the latter, consider the case of Garry Marshall, creator of Happy Days. He's famous for claiming that requests for library cards zoomed a whopping 500 percent after an episode in which Fonzie used one.

While it's unlikely that the Fonz had that effect, he does provide the proper response to claims about TV's power over audiences' minds, whether hilariously overblown like Marshall's or soberly documented like Sex on TV's: "Sit on it."