Prime Time TV Portrayals of Sex, Contraception and Venereal Diseases

By Lowry, Dennis T.; Towles, David E. | Journalism Quarterly, Summer 1989 | Go to article overview
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Prime Time TV Portrayals of Sex, Contraception and Venereal Diseases

Lowry, Dennis T., Towles, David E., Journalism Quarterly

Study indicates increase in rate of sexual behavior and no portrayal of possible consequences.

Public health statistics indicate that the rate of teen pregnancy in the United States is the highest of any country in the industrialized world, with more than one million teens becoming pregnant each year.1 Early in 1988 there were more than 58,000 diagnosed cases of AIDS in this country,2 along with a Public Health Service estimate that as many as 1.5 million people have been infected with the human immunodeficiency virus.3

A recent study of university students' AIDS awareness by McDermott et al. revealed that television was the students' primary source of AIDS information. However, this study also revealed some major health information gaps on the part of the students: "... 31.7% did not relate risk of contracting AIDS with indiscriminant sexual behavior ... [and] 21.1% did not relate the avoidance of casual sex with control of AIDS' risk."4 A survey of 1400 Cleveland parents revealed that they consider television to be, next to themselves, the greatest source of sexual learning for their children; however, only 13% of these parents thought their children received accurate information from television.5 These findings raise questions about the amount and kind of information television is presenting about sex, contraception and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

Since the mid-seventies, communication scholars have devoted a number of studies to the topic of sex on television. One of the first content analyses dealing with this topic was Franzblau, Sprafkin and Rubinstein's study of how sexual behavior was depicted on 1975-76 prime time programs.6

Other studies soon began to appear in the literature. Sprafkin and Silverman, for example, reported a sharp increase in the amount of sexual content on prime time between 1975 and the 1978-79 season.7 Not surprisingly, content analysts soon turned their attention to the portrayal of sex in afternoon soap operas. For example, Greenberg, Abelman and Neuendorf concluded that, "Soap operas have more sexual content than do prime-time programs, but the types of intimacies portrayed differ."8 Lowry, Love and Kirby studied soap operas from the 1979 season and found 6.58 sexual behaviors per hour, with about three-fourths of them occurring between unmarried partners.9

In 1978, Fernandez-Collado et al. suggested that researchers should measure the consequences of sexual behaviors on television, as well as the behaviors themselves.10 Nevertheless, almost no subsequent studies have done this. Thus, from a public health perspective, the research literature reflects a lack of information about how prime time TV discusses and portrays contraception and STDs.

Apparently one of the first scholarly studies analyzing TV portrayals of sexual behaviors, contraception and sexually transmitted diseases from a public health perspective was Lowry and Towles' analysis of soap operas from the summer of 1987. This study concluded:

The transcending message on soap operas concerning sex is that it is primarily for unmarried partners. Yet, though contraception is seldom mentioned, pregnancy is rare. Even though life on most of the soap operas takes place in the sexually fast fane, no one ever comes down with a sexually transmitted disease.11

While there were no references to pregnancy prevention or STD prevention in the random sample of 15 afternoons analyzed by Lowry and Towles, a supplemental random sample of 15 more afternoons did produce one scene where birth control was discussed and another scene where "safe sex" was mentioned and a woman gave a package containing a condom to a man. The best available scholarly evidence, however, seems to support Planned Parenthood's charges that television "is putting out an unbalanced view about sex which is causing more problems for teenagers and society."12


An underlying assumption of this study is that all television is to some extent educational television, in that attitudes, values and various types of coping behaviors are always being taught.

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