Too Much Sex on TV, Say Kids - And Ratings

PORTLAND, Ore.—Sophomore Janelle (not her real name) and a few friends at De La Salle North Catholic High School in Portland were chatting about one of Britney Spears' latest videos tied to the release of her new album. In the video, the pop icon does pelvic gyrations against a wall, and aging pop queen Madonna is on the other side matching her moves.

The video ends almost with an open-mouth kiss between the singers, but Madonna vanishes. Another track on the album—“Touch of My Hand”—is an ode to masturbation. And in another video for the song “Breathe on Me,” Spears performs a shockingly suggestive dance sequence with two female dancers.

One of Janelle's friends liked what she saw. The others thought it was “okay, but a little out there.” Fifteen-year-old Janelle said she doesn't like Spears, whose fan base is really much younger. It's her 7-year-old sister who adores the pop icon and knows all of her lyrics by heart. But what about the sex? Isn't that too much?

“Well, yeah,” she replied flatly. “I guess. But everything has sex in it.”

Sex, it seems, has become so ubiquitous in entertainment that it is as unremarkable as fast food. A British study released in November found that two-thirds of 9- to 17-year-olds thought there was “too much” sexual content in programs they had seen, though 64% kept watching anyway. The young subjects were described by researchers as “media savvy,” “cynical” and “not the naïve or incompetent consumers they are frequently assumed to be.”

One 12-year-old boy interviewed by the researchers remarked after watching Spears' “I'm a Slave 4U” video: “She's selling us her looks, basically. I think she's not got anything between her ears—and her voice isn't really that good, either.”

“There is a sense here that sex is used to compensate for other deficiencies,” one British researcher remarked to the newspaper The Independent.

It might be the same sense that drove American viewers to change the channel when NBC's new show “Coupling” (dubbed by the network as “‘Friends’ but raunchier“) and Fox's ”Skin“ (set in the pornography industry) aired this fall. Both shows, heavily touted, were dropped for low ratings.

But it's hard to conclude that the sexual content alone was what viewers rejected, since prime time is so saturated with sex and some shows still survive. A Kaiser Family Foundation report released earlier this year revealed that 71% of prime-time shows contain sexual content. Of the top 20 shows geared to teen-agers, 83% contained sexual content, 20% of them dealing with sexual intercourse. On average, teen shows had six or seven scenes per hour with sexual content.

It is not just the quantity of sex that has increased. In the cable wars, programmers are breaking boundaries while competing for viewers. ”They keep pushing the envelope," said Melissa Caldwell, director of research and publications for the Parent Television Council.

The result is a creeping coarseness. Homosexual themes, once taboo, are commonplace, and there is a growing focus on fetishes. The most popular prime-time show, with about 26 million viewers, is CSI (Crime Scene Investigation). Besides lingering over grotesquely maimed corpses, several episodes have featured murders tied to bizarre sexual practices—at a fur fetishists convention, for example, where investigators lifted evidence from a bunny costume.

In a section on the Ninth Commandment, the Catechism of the Catholic Church subsection titled “The Battle for Purity” criticizes “voyeuristic explorations of the human body in certain advertisements” and “the solicitations of certain media that go too far in the exhibition of intimate things” (No. 2523).

Caldwell cites Nielsen-ratings data that CSI is commonly watched by more than a million 2- to 11 year-old children while another million 12- to 17-year-olds tune in.

Another Nielsen-ranked Top 10 show watched by thousands of children—CBS' “Without a Trace”—recently broadcast group teen sex during prime time. The Parent Television Council has urged viewers to flood the Federal Communications Commission with complaints about the show, but Caldwell said the FCC has a “history of complete inaction enforcing indecency laws. They're just terrified of being accused of infringing freedom of speech.”

Not Just TV

The sex messages children consume viewing an average 28 hours of TV weekly are reinforced by other entertainment. The FCC released findings in October that 81% of “undercover” 13- to 16-year-olds were able to buy R-rated movies on DVD, 83% purchased explicit-labeled recordings and 36% could purchase tickets to an R-rated film at a theater.

That data fits with a study for the Canadian Teachers' Federation released in mid-November that found half of sixth-grade students have seen R-rated material. By the time they reached grades seven and eight, the number climbed to three-quarters.

Even the Christmas catalog for Abercrombie&Fitch clothiers, geared at 10- to 13-year-olds, portrays overt group sex, teen nudity, men kissing and has a “sexpertise” column advising on “sex for three” and recommending readers “go down” on a date at the movies.

Nothing is safe from sex—entertainment marketed to children as young as preschool is laced with raunchy content. The loveable old Dr. Seuss reader The Cat in the Hat was scripted into a new movie by former “Seinfeld” writers and stars Mike Myers (of Austin Powers). Jokes include the cat lusting over a picture of the children's mother.

But is all-sex, all-the-time entertainment for kids impacting their behavior?

A 2003 Common Sense Media poll found that 88% of parents of young children think the amount of sexual content in media contributes to children becoming sexually active at younger ages. Something has to account for the fact that now half of teens in grades nine through 12 have had sex. And teens account for up to 25% of cases of sexually transmitted diseases, though they are only 10% of the population.

Robert Thompson, professor of television and pop culture at Syracuse University, thinks the impact of what kids watch is overstated.

“Television doesn't make children want to have sex, biology does,” he said. Thompson thinks the lack of regulation has allowed “television to mature as an entertainment” and become more “sophisticated.”

“Different people will disagree about what is appropriate for their kids to watch, which is why you would never want to codify it in legislation,” he said.

The Parents Television Council argues that the entire commercial advertising world is based on the opposite assumption—that viewers will imitate what they see.

But Thompson does share a view with the Parent Television Council, which wants pressure brought to bear on Hollywood through government regulation—both think ultimate power is with the consumer.

You can wait for the FCC to regulate or Hollywood to change its mores, Thompson said, “but your children will be grown” by then.

More than half of American kids have a television in their bedroom. “You don't tell kids they can't drink and then put a mini-fridge stocked with booze in their bedroom,” Thompson said. “Parents should treat the television set like the liquor cabinet.”

Again, the Catechism has something to say about the situation. Emphasizing that parents have a right and duty to educate their children, it goes on to say: “The home is well suited for education in the virtues. This requires an apprenticeship in self-denial, sound judgment and self-mastery—the preconditions of true freedom. … Parents have a grave responsibility to give good example to their children” (No. 2223).

As Thompson said, parents should stop being hypocritical. “If 95% of Americans really think television is that bad, then they should stop watching,” he said. “Like a lot of other parenting, nobody ever said it would be easy.”

Celeste McGovern writes from Victoria, British Columbia.