STARTING POINT: Turning the tables on TV sex


This article originally appeared in Issue# 46

Ultimately, the issue of sex in the media is not only one of personal morality but also one of ethics in a capitalistic society. The consumer economy is designed to maximize profits. And sex sells. So as long as we have 'marketplace forces' dominating the media industry (thanks to deregulation), we're going to have sex, and lots of it, in our entertainment media.

Some will want to protest the increasing amount of sex in media by boycotts or recommending that television be turned off. The problem is that with millions of viewers, a boycott by thousands does not make much of an impact overall. The second action is unrealistic escapism. Children who grow up in TV-less homes only lose in the end by not learning as they grow how to clarify their own value system within a cultural milieu dominated by the mass media consumer economy.

Both actions are also negative energy. What can be done that is positive? Is there anything constructive about all this sex in the media? I think so.

Many adults find it hard to initiate conversation with children about sexual matters. Mass media can provide the opportunity for dialogue, allowing us to integrate talk of sexual values and conduct into everyday conversation, where questions can be explored, values communicated and misinformation corrected.

This is not to excuse the producers of mass media entertainment from the responsibility of examining scripts and scenes for exploitation, stereotypes or unnecessary violence. Or our speaking out when we believe a producer has crossed a socially acceptable line. But it is also important for viewers to examine whether they are teaching their children to evaluate media messages critically. In the end, what the media communicates to our kids about sex is less influential than what we communicate to them.

Some Further Questions on this Topic

  • Do kids see the same television as adults? Probably not. Adults come to the viewing experience with more life experience and thus can "read" more into media plots and scenarios than children do. In evaluating television and media content, it is important to keep in mind each child's developmental level and thus, their point of view.
  • Kids can handle honesty, even if it includes explicit sexual information. What is more deceiving perhaps is the unreality of many media messages about sex, the emotionless "posturing" in relationships and the psychological and physical violence that resolves so many plots. As we examine the issue of sexuality in today's media, we might ask ourselves if personal and societal violence is not of equal concern as sex?

Many Thanks... the Center for Population Options in Washington, D.C., whose $5,000 research grant got this issue underway. Staff members Marlene Goland and Joan Garrity were particularly helpful. high school drama and media teacher, Elizabeth Flynn, who spent a month of her sabbatical from the Metro Separate School Board in Toronto with us, providing valuable insights into the adolescent experience with media and popular culture.

Author Bio: 

Elizabeth Thoman, a pioneering leader in the U.S. media literacy field, founded Media&Values magazine in 1977 and the Center for Media Literacy in 1989. She is a graduate of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California and continues her leadership through this website, consulting, speaking and as a founding board member of the Alliance for a Media Literate America (AMLA).