Sex Ed on TV: How We Do It vs. How They Do It

TELEVISION CITY—Considering how important sex is in the lives of, well, everyone, but especially in the lives of teenagers, one might think that some major broadcast or cable network would have tackled the issue of sex education by now. After all, in the U.S., 250,000 teens aged 15-17 become pregnant each year—more than double the rate of any other developed country—with New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, Texas and Mississippi (all bastions of "abstinence-only ed") leading the pack for pregnant teens according to a 2005 study.

So all hail those brave U.S. networks who ignored conservative and religious scorn to present the information America's teens need to survive the sexual minefield known as adolescence. Step up to receive your statuettes!

<Cue crickets chirping>

Yup, that's right: There's not one single network show, even on cable, that deals honestly on a regular basis with the questions teens—even 18- and 19-year-olds—have about the myriad aspects of their sexuality.

Except maybe one: Skins.

For those who haven't seen it, MTV's Skins is one hell of a show—and apparently a bit different than the British show of the same name after which it's patterned. It stars actual teenagers, most of whom have never been in a TV show or movie before, dealing with sex in their own (scripted) ways. If there's one drawback, it's the  stereotyping of the main characters: Tony, the player; Stanley, the over-sexed nerd; Tea, the lesbian (who may actually be bi); Shelly, the most uninhibited of the group (she's flashed her tits at Stanley a couple of times, and main squeeze Tony has nicknamed her "Nips"); Cadie, the confused druggie with the clueless parents; Chris, who's making it with one of his teachers (one recent episode had her "hiding" him under her covers during a camp-out, and it was obvious he'd licked her Down There); and Abbud, the Indian kid they haven't figured out what to do with yet (big surprise there, eh?).

Somewhat more familiar to older readers, especially if they live in Southern California, will be the kids' parents: GenX'ers (or not much older), a few of whom are obvious social climbers, who have no problem with the kids drinking or taking drugs as long as they maintain their cool—and keep the cops away from the door.

As one might expect from the above description, the series has sent religious conservatives scrambling to decry the show's "messages," and they got particularly bent out of shape about one episode where Chris pops a few "little blue pills" and spend the entire show sporting an erection; plus, there's a scene where he's shown from the back walking down a city street completely naked. "Child pornography!" they screamed—and a few of the sponsors (Taco Bell, GM, Foot Locker, Subway) listened ... and ran.

"Be careful when you go hunting for information about Skins lest your spouse conclude you've developed an interest in child pornography," writes Marybeth Hicks for conservative site "It portrays teenagers—several played by actual teens, not older actors—engaging in all manner of immoral, illegal and unethical situations. The show is built around story lines that glamorize promiscuous sex, sexuality exploration, drug and alcohol abuse, illegal activities including selling drugs, disrespectful attitudes toward adults, graphic language, hypersexual attire, profanity and more."

In other words, it depicts relatively normal teens. So of course, according to Hicks, "It's every parent's nightmare."

One of the prime movers against the show is a familiar one: Parents Television Council, founded by Brent Bozell and currently led by Tim Winter.

"PTC has asked U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and the judiciary committees of both houses of Congress to investigate the show, since the use of underage actors in graphic sexual situations may violate several anti-child pornography laws," Hicks reports. "It appears MTV and its owner, Viacom, may realize this and are attempting to mitigate their exposure (pun unintended) by editing future episodes.But as PTC President Tim Winter has noted, the company doesn't have to distribute the seedy sex scenes to have committed crimes. Merely filming teens in sexual situations may be enough to violate several federal and state laws."

Of course, that would require that there actually be "sexual situations" (aka "actual persons engaged in actual sexually explicit conduct," as the 2257 regs define it) in the show, and there aren't. When any pair of kids is shown getting ready to "do the deed," the show quickly cuts to the aftermath, with perhaps an actress shown from the back putting on her blouse being as "explicit" as this show gets. (However, whether the production company, in order to shield itself regarding depictions of simulated sex in the show—Tea is shown simulating "jilling off" to a picture of Audrey Hepburn—has filed its 2257A letter with the attorney general is an open question.)

"[O]ne of the show's actresses, Sophia Black-D'elia (who plays one of the show's lesbian characters), was reported to have argued, 'It's what teens are doing. It's the way teenagers believe [...]'," Hicks writes, then opines, "There's the bogus justification for corrupting an entire generation: It's what kids are already doing."

"Corruption" was also the theme of a similar screed by another Townhall regular, Rebecca Hagelin.

"The truth is, the show is designed to tantalize, seduce, and corrupt children with a skewed version of reality," Hagelin charges. "And responsible adults do find it painful when other adults degrade teen life as nothing more than a sensualized, drug-filled world, devoid of either morals or consequences."

Um ... Becky? Aside from the fact that your description is woefully inaccurate, it's a TV show, fer chris'sakes! It's fantasy. It ain't The 700 Club. It's just that this fantasy more closely resembles reality than anything Pat Robertson has talked about for years.

And the show does have its defenders, even among the conservative media.

"[T]he kids on Skins seem sad, lonely and disturbed, each in his or her own distinctively troubled way," writes the Washington Post's Ruth Marcus. "They manage to make sex seem like a dreary, transactional chore—a sex-for-pills exchange is arranged to engineer a loss of virginity—and drugs and alcohol seem like, well, drugs and alcohol, unpleasantly disorienting and prone to induce vomiting. The parents are either checked out or margarita-mixing enablers—enough to make your children appreciate you. In theory, anyway. There is nothing in the lives of these characters that teenagers want to emulate—or, if they do, they are already in a heap of trouble."

And of course, one can always count on Dr. Marty Klein, author of America's War on Sex, for the rational view.

"Referring to TV showing a naked 17-year-old’s butt (running down the street away from the camera) as 'child porn' is cynical posturing," Klein writes on his blog, Sexual Intelligence. "It proves that the PTC has no real interest in children. ... America’s child porn laws—among the strictest in the world—are meant to protect children from being exploited by selfish or damaged adults. Claiming that such laws criminalize an honest look at the lives of teenagers just perpetuates the teen isolation, adult ignorance, and family fragmentation the PTC and child safety advocates claim to oppose. Describing bare teen butt or a storyline about teens using erection drugs as child porn trivializes how the creation of real child porn damages actual, living children."

But leaving aside the question of whether a show depicting teens following their natural sexual instincts can be considered "corrupting," one might reasonably ask what religious conservatives (or conservative religionists) are doing in the way of sex education to counter the displays they don't like? That is, aside from Hagelin's prescription to, "For the sake of our children, take two minutes and contact the companies still advertising on Skins. Let them know it's got to stop... And of course, make sure you tell your own teens that you will not support child abuse by allowing the show into your home"?

<Cue crickets chirping>

Actually, no, it's worse than crickets chirping; these people are doing everything in their power to make sure people (and particularly teens) remain as ignorant about their sexuality as the mythical Adam and Eve in Eden.

"While women may want love and marriage, they don't expect it," writes National Review editor Kathryn Jean Lopez in a Townhall column titled, "Contraception Is Not the Solution." "Justice Sandra O'Connor wrote in the Planned Parenthood v. Casey opinion that women had 'organized intimate relationships, and made choices that define their views of themselves and their places in society, in reliance on the availability of abortion in the event that contraception should fail.' And why wouldn't they? Who, nowadays, encourages them to want more? We've come to expect less for and from ourselves, and for and from one another. In part, it's the fruit of the contraceptive pill. New York magazine recently observed in a cover feature: 'The pill is so ingrained in our culture today that girls go on it in college, even high school, and stay on it for five, 10, 15, even 20 years.' That, of course, has had all kinds of fallout: a false sense of freedom, security. And it has ravaged women's fertility, as it seeks to mute exactly what women's reproductive power is all about."

Translation: "The Pill' and other contraceptive devices have allowed women (and teens) to choose to have sex while simultaneously choosing not to get pregnant—and that's a Bad Thing because women are naturally baby-makers—"what women's reproductive power is all about"—and choosing not to be one means they've chosen "to expect less for and from themselves." Patriarchy, anyone?

But what do we expect from a society (and government) that just last April allocated $125 million in federal funds for the failure that is "abstinence education"—who knew that 10 percent of the "abstinent" kids still managed to get STDs?—while the new Republican-dominated House voted just this month to cut off all funds to Planned Parenthood, which is the only source for contraceptives and obstetrical care for millions of teens, the poor and others without health insurance? (Let's see if the Dem-heavy Senate can manage to stop this bill from passing in that chamber!)

Meanwhile, "across the pond," British TV just got done running a four-part series that actually does address the problems and questions teens have about their own sexuality, with surprising (to Americans, anyway) candor and not a hint of moralizing.

"Sex is part of every teenager's life," begins one description of the series. "They think about it, they worry about it, and a lot of them do it. This new series offers a frank exploration of the love and sex lives of today's teenagers—presenting solutions to the emotional and physical problems many of them experience. Fronted by Dr Rachael Jones, social worker Ruth Corden, and resident sex coach [and sex-toy salesperson] Joanna Wierzbicka, the series revolves around visitors to the Sex Advice Shop walk-in clinic, where the team is on hand to offer young people, and sometimes their parents, support and professional advice. With 18-year-old Billie JD Porter acting as the show's roving reporter, no subject is off limits, from teen pregnancy to sexual performance and genital health, as the series shines a spotlight on issues that young people care about and experience in their love and sex lives."

Among the "problems" handled by the clinic have been a mom's sexually active 17-year-old daughter who "fell pregnant by accident last year," and the mom wants the clinic staff to convince the daughter to start taking contraceptive pills to prevent it from happening again; a 17-year-old lesbian who is "keen to learn some more tricks to pleasure girls," so the staff shows her some explicit photos of two gals in action; a 19-year-old guy who gets some tips on bondage; and a 20-year-old drag queen who's nonetheless still a virgin and "scared to lose his virginity."

In other words, not exactly Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood—and though it aired at 10 p.m. when the real youngsters are supposed not to be watching, the show has been taking some heavy criticism for (you guessed it) "corrupting the youth."

"I spoke with Dr. Lisa Nolland, the web consultant for Anglican Mainstream, a U.K.-based organization 'committed to the traditional biblical teaching on marriage, the family and human sexuality'," wrote Marcia Selegstein, a frequent contributor to the American Family Association's OneNewsNow "news" site. "Dr. Nolland described some of the visual images. They are as bad as you could possibly imagine. Shown are close-up shots of glamorized genitalia, heterosexual and homosexual couples engaging in pretty much every kind of sex you can imagine, individuals trying on various sex toys, and a demonstration of how to whip and spank. Yes, the couples are really having sex and no, they don't have clothes on."

Take that, Skins detractors!

Even more rational critics, however, aren't pleased with the series.

"Following the programme, sex educators have come together to write a letter of complaint to Channel 4's commissioning editors, citing inaccurate statistics, misleading information and an unrelenting focus on techniques and products (from sex toys to the voyeuristic sex technique videos in the programme, commercialisation is everywhere)," writes The Guardian (UK)'s Reni Eddo-Lodge. "One example of those misleading stats—the often repeated statistic that 63% of girls aspire to be glamour models—stems from an unscientific survey carried out by a now-defunct PR company."

"What is visible is the increasingly blurred line between sex as pleasure and sex as performance," she continues later. "The Joy of Teen Sex doesn't quite differentiate between the two. There is frank, honest advice about sexual health problems and contraception, but there are also questionable investigations into the performance aspects of sexuality, such as vajazzling and glamour modelling—activities that may boost self-confidence, but have little impact on physical sexual pleasure. And it's precisely this blurry line between appearance and reality that really needs to be addressed when talking to young people about sex. Only very vaguely did The Joy of Teen Sex touch upon the apparently taboo subjects of peer pressure, pop culture and pornography as a means of sex education, and the chronic problem of unrealistic expectations that these factors bring. Both mentions were by young people, and not by the doctors or sex coaches."

In other words, while the show did provide some valuable real-life sex advice to teens (and young 20s), it was commercialized to the point that the education may have been lost among the product placements, and failed to address important sex-ed-related subjects.

Good thing American sex-ed TV shows don't follow that format!

<Cue crickets chirping>