What Responsibility Does the Media Have Around Safer Sex?

The Vancouver Sun has an article today about the potential impact of the mainstream media on safer sex practices in which they quote an editorial by researchers at the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania:

The media is influencing their normative beliefs about sex: whether or not they think everyone around them is having sex, kids like them are having sex,” Bleakley says. “Risk and responsibility accounts for a very small proportion of the sexual content that’s out there, whether it’s teens being portrayed or shows that teens watch. Using a condom, having someone get pregnant and have to make those decisions, transmission of an STI \’ those things just don’t really come up.

There’s some evidence of the influence of movies and TV shows when it comes to shaping attitudes towards sex. For example, the article describes an episode of Friends that centered on condom failure and a Rand Health survey that showed that 2/3 of adolescents who saw the show recalled its safe sex message. Further, youth who watched the show with an adult and talked about it were “more likely to absorb the message that condoms are effective but not foolproof.”

While it’s clear that youth don’t simply absorb the messages from TV shows and movies uncritically, it seems to me that there is a way in which seeing fictional characters engage in safer sex conversations, realistic relationship issues, or grapple with pregnancy, miscarriage, and abortion can create opportunities for the sorts of talks that sex educators have been advocating for years. And yet, I’m sure that some people will argue that TV and movies are about entertainment. That their purpose isn’t to teach or provide role models. That it’s a fantasy, not an accurate portrayal of reality.

I’ve written before about how some people develop unrealistic expectations because of how porn portrays sex and I think there are some real parallels here. The more we show the fantasy world in which sex always happens easily, nobody ever has an STI or gets pregnant if they don’t want to, never has a problem getting hard or getting wet, or never needs to talk about how their needs aren’t being bet, the more of a shock it can be when reality dumps a bucket of ice water on us. And yet, when movies are too realistic, they cease to provide the escape from reality that many people want at the end of a busy week.

I don’t think it would be hard to integrate useful messages into a story line. Heck- given how boring a lot of TV is, I would think that writers would be glad to break some new ground. Sure, some topics would be more controversial than others, but TV thrives on the buzz that controversy generates. I could come up with a whole stack of sex-positive messages or plotlines for them without breaking a sweat.

Does anyone out there want to hook me up with a TV writer? I’d be glad to be a consultant…

Dr. Charlie Glickman

Charlie Glickman is the Education Program Manager at Good Vibrations. He also writes, blogs, teaches workshops and university courses, presents at conferences, and trains sexuality educators. He’s certified by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists, and loves geeking out about sex, relationships, sex-positivity, love and shame, communities of erotic affiliation, and sexual practices and techniques of all varieties. Follow him online, on Twitter at @charlieglickman, or on Facebook.

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