Column: The might of the media

By Dan Mollison

Want to know more about Britney Spears’ sex life? Maybe you’d like to see Spears’ husband, Kevin Federline, naked in the shower. Or perhaps you’d be more interested in watching Spears discuss her favorite sex positions with some of her entourage. All of this was available to you – and anyone else in America – if you tuned in to the teen role model’s reality TV show, “Britney & Kevin: Chaotic,” which premiered on national television in May but went off the air in June.

Sex is everywhere in the media. We’re exposed to it so often that we don’t even think about it anymore. A study recently released by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation revealed that television shows are getting even sexier – and our teenagers may be paying the price for it. The media has unimaginable power in shaping how teens view themselves and the world around them, and the time has come for the media to help their teen audience by reframing how sex is presented in their programs.

The study, which was conducted to explore how often teens are exposed to sex in the media, found that 70 percent of all television programs include sexual content; these shows averaged five sexual scenes per hour. This is a drastic increase from 1998, in which 56 percent of shows included content that averaged 3.2 sexual scenes per hour. Additionally, 70 percent of the 20 most-watched shows among teens contained sexual content, and 45 percent of the 20 shows depicted sexual behavior. Yet, while sex on TV has been escalating, inclusion of references to “safer sex” issues – such as waiting to have sex, using protection, or the possible consequences of unprotected sex – have leveled off in recent years.

The effects of this overexposure to sex are unmistakable. When we’re flooded with so many images of sexual activity, the importance and magnitude of sex becomes trivialized to us. For teens, it makes sex seem more acceptable and more like the “adult” thing to do. And watching a role model like Britney Spears flaunt her sexuality only strengthens this image for teens.

While the study did a great job of pointing out how pervasive sexual images in the media have become, it fails to address the real problem that the media poses for teens. The issue isn’t the amount of sexual references there are in television; rather, it’s how these sexual encounters are being represented. Sex is often shown on television as a casual and fun experience that comes with “no strings” or consequences attached. Not to say that this isn’t a lifestyle that some could pursue with satisfaction, but others who choose this lifestyle might be masking some serious emotional issues without realizing it.

The media could best use its power to help teens by reframing sexual content to reflect a healthier model of sexuality. This might include emphasizing safe sex in television shows, featuring characters that are mature and talk openly with each other about sex before they have it, and even some discussion of how sex within the context of real loving relationships is more emotionally satisfying than casual sex. It’s not like this reframing of sex would make boring TV, either. I could certainly see characters in a drama similar to Sex and the City having a conversation in which they talk about their past sexual experiences while emphasizing the joy they have found in responsible sex afterwards. Such a television show would certainly offer teens a much more positive model to base their view of sexuality on than, well, Britney Spears.

Even with the strong influence of media on our society, though, the ultimate responsibility to educate teens lies in the hands of parents and the organizations that teach sexual education. We’ve seen what happens when we let the media do the job of talking to teens about sex; now we need to offer teens more comprehensive sexual education. Stay tuned for my next article, in which I explore how increased comprehensive sexual education would help teens.

Dan Mollison is a junior in LAS. His column appears every Wednesday. He can be reached at [email protected] dailyillini.com.