Monday, December 8, 2008

Sex Edutainment

Last week, The Common Man was driving home with The Boy, when his interest was piqued by an NPR story about teen sexuality, pregnancy, and television. And since teen pregnancy has been in the news a lot this past year (with, for instance, the success of Juno (good movie, by the way), the pregnancies of Sarah Palin's daughter and of Brittney Spears' sister, and the alleged "pregnancy pact" in Massachusetts), The Common Man listened closer. It seems the RAND Corporation has discovered that "teens who watch programs that contain a lot of sexual content are twice as likely to be involved in a pregnancy."

This is not to say that television is the cause of teen pregnancy and increased sexuality, of course, just that young people who like to watch shows where the characters obsess about sex and relationships tend to be interested in wanting those same things for themselves. And as Josh Schwartz, the creator of the CW show Gossip Girl, points out teens have been having sex and getting pregnant, "long before Gossip Girl … and long before there was even television." But popular culture is a driving force that stimulates demand, and it is worth asking the question of what role television (and film, and fiction) have played in the decisions teens make.

Back when The Common Man was The Awkward Teenage Boy, his father used to tell him about how he had never had a "girlfriend" in high school, per se, but that he had gone on dates with a lot of girls. That going steady, and officially beginning a relationship was a major step. The Common Man has no way of verifying if that's true or not, aside from anecdotal evidence. But kids today (and when The Common Man was in school) seem to be driven to find a significant other, such that monogamy was the norm. And when anyone is in a relationship, there is an inherent pressure to deepen the commitment and to "go further," to build trust and try new things, that often ends in sex.

And popular culture has certainly bought into this obsession. Characters find and woo their one true love, spend a few episodes (or a few seasons) exploring that relationship, have heartfelt and conflicted debates about whether they should have sex, and then have teh sex. Then, some time later, the couple breaks up, and it the characters both go on to significant and meaningful monogamous relationships with another character (hell, Dawson's Creek got SIX FREAKING SEASONS out of messing with this formula). And, of course, the current craze over Edward Cullen and the Twilight series of books and movies have the same underlying themes, as the female lead must decide whether to become a vampire and deepen her commitment to her undead boyfriend.

But it's silly to blame popular culture for teen pregnancy at this point. After all, teen birth rates (a silly term, who gives birth to teens?) have essentially been halved since 1957, according to the Guttmacher Institute. And during that time, popular culture has been working its sex-crazed, pro-monogamy mojo to the extreme. It's true that shows have been increasingly catering to a teen and tween audience, but it's not like teens didn't watch LA Law and Dallas, and Sixteen Candles and Say Anything in the past, shows and films the dealt with adult themes and crazy sex-having.

Indeed, teens that do choose to have sex today are better educated about the repercussions and apparently more careful about using contraception, and still fewer teens are having sex than during the sexual heyday of the 1970s and '80s. So, NPR, RAND Corporation, and morality activists everywhere, stop your hand-wringing and give some credit to today's teenagers, who on the whole seem to be able to make relatively good decisions regarding their sexuality. Most are smart enough to distinguish what they see on the tube from reality, and they should be encouraged to keep developing that skill. Let them watch what they want, but monitor it, and have informative, frank discussions with them about sex and what they see in the media.

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