Lust-See TV: Small-Screen Sex and Its Discontents

By Gillespie, Nick | Reason, April 2003 | Go to article overview

Lust-See TV: Small-Screen Sex and Its Discontents


Gillespie, Nick, Reason


In an age of space shuttle catastrophes, Middle Eastern war, apocalyptic terrorism, and--perhaps most on point--declining rates of teen sex, the continuing interest in the quantity and quality of "lust-see TV" seems positively quaint, little more than nostalgia for a simpler time when a president's penis and not his war plans could dominate the nightly news.

Yet the Kaiser Family Foundation--one of the few nonprofit research groups that openly signals its imperial ambitions in its name--doggedly keeps at it. The good folks there recently released Sex on TV 3, the latest installment of their ongoing study of small-screen sheet slapping.

Kaiser's selfless dedication to the cause of counting televised sex acts is significant because it underscores a continuing confusion over the role and influence of popular culture, especially television. The ongoing study exemplifies the mistaken notion that such fare is a major influence on individual behavior and hence in need of regulation or reform, especially if we're talking about its effects on that most picked-over constituency in contemporary political discourse, "the kids."

The Sex on 71/series is best understood as a Girls Gone Wild franchise for the anxious-parent set, its high moral purpose masking its titillating content. Every two years since 1999, Kaiser, in collaboration with researchers at the University of California--Santa Barbara, pays students to interrupt their own Harrad Experiment by the sea for the good of mankind.

The students log the number and nature of sex-acts on over 1,000 shows appearing on 10 networks during a regular television season. (We await the inevitable study on the effects of coding TV shows on student sexual behavior.) Then comes the well-publicized report which inevitably-includes some bad news, some good news, and a self-aggrandizing claim of relevance and impact.

Here's the "bad" news this time around: Among teenagers' 20 favorite shows, 83 percent included sexual content, 49 percent included sexual behavior, and 20 percent included depictions or discussion of intercourse. Across all TV shows, 64 percent had some sexual content. The "good" news is that among teens' favorite shows, 45 percent of the episodes that either discussed or depicted intercourse made some mention of "safe sex" practices. And while 14 percent of all shows included sexual intercourse--up from in percent in 2001--overall sexual content on IV has remained relatively steady. …

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