Does watching sex on TV predict teen pregnancy? This was the question the nonpartisan, nonprofit research organization, the RAND Corporation, asked back in 2001. Their findings were released about a month ago. What were they?
Teens who were exposed to high levels of television sexual content were twice as likely to experience a pregnancy compared with those with lower levels of exposure.
To many this is no news flash. Most people understand that the media influences sexual beliefs and behaviors. But this study was the first of its kind, demonstrating a prospective link between exposure to sexual content on television and the experience of a teen pregnancy.
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How Was the Study Done?
Researchers interviewed a group of 2,003 12 to 17 year-olds by telephone in 2001, and then conducted a follow up interview with the same group in 2002 and 2004. Participants shared information about how frequently they watched 23 TV programs that were popular with teens at the time of the survey. In the final analysis, teens who had watched the most sexual content on television during the three-year study period were two times more likely to have been involved in a pregnancy than those with the lowest levels of exposure.
RAND behavioral scientist Anita Chandra, lead author of the study, emphasized:
“We don’t think that [TV] is necessarily more significant than some of the family and neighborhood factors that can lead to teen pregnancies. But even when we removed all the other factors, we still saw a compelling link between a high exposure to sexual content on television and teen pregnancies.”
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What Does The Study Show Us?
Some experts question whether the study has established a causal relationship. Laura Lindberg of the Guttmacher Institute said, “It may be the kids who have an interest in sex watch shows with sexual content. I’m concerned this makes it seem like if we just shut off the TV we’d dramatically reduce the teen pregnancy rate.”
She is right: media cannot be blamed for everything. The root of unsafe sexual behavior is not in the media but in our personal thirst for such behavior. Mass media is marketed, like many things, on a supply and demand principle: sexual content on TV exists because people want it.
However, the study does raise some flags and prompts us to ask some important questions.
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Do We Live in an Over-Sexualized Culture?
If there is one thing we can gather from this study, it is this: It is very easy to nurture our sexual impulses through media and entertainment. From magazines to television to movies to the Internet, it is easy to find suggestive material, nudity, and sexual conversations. Our environment shapes our beliefs, and sensuality is the mother tongue in the environment of American media.
I personally spend quite a bit of time speaking to those who are being influenced by pornography, but pornography is only the tip of the sexual iceberg of which media is comprised.
Shows like Desperate Housewives, Sex and the City, and Gossip Girl are well-known for their sexual themes. But the theme of casual consensual sex is rampant in many shows, such as Friends or Grey’s Anatomy. You can watch Bret Michaels have his pick of supermodels on Rock of Love, or watch Flavor Flav bring female contestants into his mansion to compete for his love in Flavor of Love. You can see high school sophomores losing their virginity in Friday Night Lights, or kick off the new 90210 with a scene of oral sex.
Moreover, it seems that one after another teen role model falls into the trap of wanting to be portrayed in a sexual light. Miley Cyrus has apologized twice to her fans for provocative photos. Vanessa Hudgens of High School Musical fame also apologized for the nude photos that popped up online in 2007. Seven years earlier, it was 17 year-old Jessica Beil who posed for racy photos in Gear magazine.
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Sexuality on Tap
When we have access to as much sexual stimuli as we want, the net result is not greater pleasure, but less. We see the law of diminishing returns at work: the more we titillate ourselves, the closer we get to the plateau of pleasure, followed quickly by the decline.
Biologically speaking, we are geared to desire sex much like we are geared to desire food. Sex is wholeheartedly good and exciting. Unfortunately, the growing volume of sensual imagery in our culture amounts to nothing more than visual foreplay. Sooner or later, we want a release, an outlet.
The sexuality-on-tap culture in which we live doesn’t train us to desire marital commitment. Why is this a problem? Because sexuality is designed to connect us to another person, yet we live in a world that lacks real connectivity. The field of neurobiology is showing us this with increasing frequency: during orgasm our brain actually signals the release of powerful bonding hormones. We psychologically bond with the people, activities, or things that are associated with our sexual releases.
The result? We are surrounded by sex, but nobody’s happy.
What is the answer? To paraphrase Tim Gardner: The big ‘O’ of sex is not Orgasm, it is Oneness. When we shoot only for the pleasure of orgasm we run into a ceiling. When we aim for oneness that lasts a lifetime, we will find it, and pleasure will be “thrown in” to the mix.
We live in a culture that pays lip-service to the oneness of commitment, but all the while our divorce rates continue to remain high. Highly-sexualized media trains us to wet our appetites for more sex and better sex, while no one is trained to make loving, sexually-vibrant marriages last a lifetime. We are trained to believe that better sex is linked to better bodies and greater stamina; as a result, more and more women hate their bodies, more guys turn to porn and fantasy to get their sexual fix, and we see so many desperately lonely people.
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What Can Be Done?
Individual decisions must be made about media for sure. Turning off the TV and censoring what we see on the Internet and in movies is a good start. But more is needed.
We need to wet our appetites for the best sex ever—the kind that comes as a result of faithful commitment to another person. Young men don’t need a lecture on how to repress their sexuality: they need to be trained by godly men to channel their sexual desires in the right direction, towards marriage. Our culture needs to relearn the art of chivalry, earning the privilege of the marriage bed. Young men need to see the choice before them: Do they want to live the passionate, sensual life of the Song of Solomon, or do they want to run from lover to lover, harboring fantasies of mass media harlots that only leave them lovesick?
Renowned feminist author Naomi Wolf has spoken out against sexual media and pornography. Her words about healthy sexuality are appropriate here:
I am not advocating a return to the days of hiding female sexuality, but I am noting that the power and charge of sex are maintained when there is some sacredness to it, when it is not on tap all the time. In many more traditional cultures, it is not prudery that leads them to discourage men from looking at pornography. It is, rather, because these cultures understand male sexuality and what it takes to keep men and women turned on to one another over time—to help men, in particular, to, as the Old Testament puts it, “rejoice with the wife of thy youth; let her breasts satisfy thee at all times.” These cultures urge men not to look at porn because they know that a powerful erotic bond between parents is a key element of a strong family. . . .
I will never forget a visit I made to Ilana, an old friend who had become an Orthodox Jew in Jerusalem. When I saw her again, she had abandoned her jeans and T-shirts for long skirts and a head scarf. I could not get over it. Ilana has waist-length, wild and curly golden-blonde hair. “Can’t I even see your hair?” I asked, trying to find my old friend in there. “No,” she demurred quietly. “Only my husband,” she said with a calm sexual confidence, “ever gets to see my hair.”
When she showed me her little house in a settlement on a hill, and I saw the bedroom, draped in Middle Eastern embroideries that she shares only with her husband—the kids are not allowed—the sexual intensity in the air was archaic, overwhelming. It was private. It was a feeling of erotic intensity deeper than any I have ever picked up between secular couples in the liberated West. And I thought: Our husbands see naked women all day—in Times Square if not on the Net. Her husband never even sees another woman’s hair.
She must feel, I thought, so hot.