SALT LAKE CITY — In a bright-pink tank top, a light-haired girl crosses the student parking lot of West Beverly Hills High School. She walks past a Bentley and a blue mini-cooper before she stops suddenly as she spots a friend nervously entering his SUV.
"Oh my (goodness), there's Ethan," she says.
She checks out her reflection in a nearby car window, and from the way she fusses with her hair, it's clear she wants to impress him. Smiling broadly, she begins walking toward the teenager's car. Ethan, however, is in no position to say hello. His attention is focused on another teenage girl, who is performing a sex act on him inside the SUV.
The scene is from an episode of the redux "90210," airing Monday nights during the first hour of prime time on the CW network.
Sex-scenes, even sleeping in the same bed, were once verboten on any hour of network television, but they are now everywhere, even during prime time, when many children are watching. That will only increase this fall with new shows like ABC's "Charlie's Angels" retrofit (summed up by one critic as "beautiful women, skimpy costumes, skimpier plots") and "Pan Am" (about 1960s flight attendants and described by one critic as "far sexier than NBC's more provocatively titled 'The Playboy Club'") Fox's "The New Girl" (a teacher gets dumped by her live-in boyfriend and moves in with three unruly and raunchy guys who teach her about life and love), NBC's "Free Agents" (about professional colleagues who have a one-night stand and try to keep their relationship professional despite constant sexual tension between them) and of course the show with the most provocative title, "The Playboy Club" (set in – where else? – a Playboy club).
A recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that the number of sex scenes on TV has nearly doubled from 1998 to 2005. Similarly, a report from the American Academy of Pediatrics said, "more than 75 percent of prime-time programs contain sexual content." Studies indicate that the more teens watch sexual content on TV, the more likely they are to be involved in risky behavior.
This is one reason why so many parents are concerned.
"It's one thing to discuss sex and violence on television within the larger context of the culture wars ... but it's a another thing altogether to be faced with these issues while you're sitting in front of the TV with your child," said then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama in a 2005 press release addressing the increase of sexual content on television.
Many parents agree. TV watch-dog groups like the Parents Television Council boast 1.5 million members and are growing stronger and more aggressive, launching recent campaigns against programs like MTV's "Skins" and NBC's "The Playboy Club."
"The FCC's broadcast decency law says you can't be indecent before 10 o' clock at night," said Tim Winter, president of the PTC. "After 10 p.m., you can be, but before 10 p.m., you are not allowed to be indecent. As long as that's the law we want it enforced."
Of course, defining what qualifies as indecent can be a difficult task. The FCC's current definition is any "language or material (on broadcast television) that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory organs or activities."
The problem with the definition? "Contemporary community standards for indecency are hard to define," said NYU law professor Amy Adler, an expert on obscenity law. "I think our culture has come to tolerate sexual imagery in mainstream places that we would have considered pornographic some 30 years ago, and the standard continually evolves."
Whether indecent or not, there is no denying the amount of sexual content on television has increased.
Yet, networks maintain that there are still plenty of family-friendly programs on TV, citing shows like "The Biggest Loser," "Extreme Home Makeover," "American Idol" and others. Yet, even some of those shows are seeing increases in sexual content, according to Melissa Henson the former director of research for PTC and its current director of communications.
"They had Lady Gaga on for the finale performance on 'American Idol,' and she had a performance that outraged many 'American Idol' fans," Henson said. "Here, you have a show that is basically branded as a family show, and even those programs are letting family audiences down with too much inappropriate content. You'd be hard-pressed to find an hour on television on any major network on any night when you'd feel comfortable watching with your children."
The History of Sex and Television
The rise of sexual content on TV was not an over night phenomenon; rather, it occurred gradually over the second half of the 20th century.
"It's the frog and the pot of water. If you put the frog in hot water, it jumps out. But if you put it in cold water and then slowly turn up the heat, it slowly boils to death," Henson said. "It's the most cliche analogy in the world, but it's part of what's going on here."
In the 1950s, sex was nonexistent. Married couples like Lucy and Ricky on "I Love Lucy" slept in twin beds (even though Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were real-life husband and wife), and they couldn't use the word "pregnant" on the air even though both the character and the actress clearly were. During the 1960s, married couples Herman and Lily Munster ("The Munsters") and Darren and Samantha Stevens ("Bewitched") were allowed to share a bed. But they weren't allowed to do anything in bed but talk. And over on "I Dream of Jeannie," Barbara Eden could bare her midriff, but could not expose her belly button.
Things started changing significantly during the 1970s. In 1972, the title character in "Maude" could not only say the word "pregnant," she could also say the word "abortion" when she chose to have one. Series like "Charlie's Angels," "The Love Boat," "Fantasy Island" and "Three's Company" created a whole new television genre: "Jiggle TV." The 1980s brought provocative prime time soap operas "Dallas," "Dynasty," "Falcon Crest" and "Knots Landing" and Steven Bochco's edge-of-the-envelope-pushing dramas "Hill Street Blues," "L.A. Law" and "NYPD Blue," all of which were expressly created to bring "more adult fare" to network television (including the appearance of a male character's bare backside, which was considered "taboo toppling" at the time).
By the 1990s cable television possibilities like HBO, Showtime and MTV had changed the standards of acceptability forever. Or at least, had reduced expectations. The list of toppled taboos during the past two decades includes the first lesbian kiss ("L.A. Law," 1991), first gay kiss ("Dawson's Creek," 2001), first teen orgy ("Without a Trace," 2004), first threesome ("Gossip Girl," 2009). Partial – and sometimes not-so-partial – nudity is commonplace, and sex scenes leave little to the imagination. Shows like Spike's "Blue Mountain State," ABC's "Cougar Town," FX's "Nip/Tuck" and "Rescue Me" and Starz' "Spartacus: Blood and Sand" feature scenes that can't be comfortably described in a family newspaper.
"It's become downright ubiquitous," Winter told USA Today last year. "Families are under siege, teenage girls are under siege. You don't know what the cultural impact will be down the road."
Many, including politicians, parents, and religious groups condemn this rise of sex on television for moral reasons and the added burden it places on parents.
There are those who, like Paul Levinson, a professor of communications at Fordham University, make persuasive arguments that increased sex on TV could even be a positive.
"It sounds radical, but this is healthy for popular culture," Levinson said in an article last year in USA Today. "Mainstream TV has been frozen in a very puritanical position by Congress, the FCC and the Supreme Court — all who don't seem to understand the First Amendment. Sex is part of life. If people are offended, there's a simple remedy: Don't watch."
Andrea Press, a professor of Media Studies and sociology at the University of Virginia, added that shows like the notoriously racy "Desperate Housewives" can project a progressive feminist message, depicting women in control of their sex lives.
Still others speculate that increased exposure to sex on television has contributed to the well-documented multi decade decline in teen sex, pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections by providing adolescents with a socially acceptable sexual outlet.
Not everyone is buying these arguments in favor of the increased sex on TV — especially not the Parents Television Council.
"I've heard these arguments as well, and I am not persuaded by them," said Henson. "There are a couple of studies that have come out recently that refute the idea that this content is the cause of any decline in teen sex or pregnancy."
Hansen pointed to a 2004 study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics (Journal of Pediatrics) that found "watching sex on TV predicts and may hasten adolescent sexual initiation," and a 2008 study, also in the Journal of Pediatrics, that linked "exposure to sexual content on television and the experience of a pregnancy before the age of 20."
The American Academy of Pediatrics echoed these published findings in its policy statement on sex and the media, stating: "although early sexual activity may be caused by a variety of factors, the media are believed to play a significant role."
The Push Back
These studies raise concern about the long-term effects that sex on TV could have on American society, including the Parents Television Council (PTC) and its team which focuses on combating lewd content on television. And just as sexual content grows on TV, so too does the effectiveness of the PTC. Take for example the PTC's most recent battle with MTV over their program "Skins."
"It wasn't just that 'Skins' was an explicit show; it was kid actors playing high school aged children, engaged in all kinds of risky behavior," said Winter. "We found a video with the creator of Skins saying, 'What I deliver is kids to advertisers.' Then, he'd go out and say 'This is an adult show rated TV-MA. This is not for children.' We found the hypocrisy, and then we launched a campaign."
It started with 350 pre-preemptive letters to advertisers before the show's premier. They followed that up with a number of phone calls and emails to parent groups and members making them aware of the nature of the show's content.
When the show actually premiered it had high numbers, and when PTC saw the list of advertisers backing the show, it was disconcerting. But they had a plan.
"We reached out with clips of the most graphic scenes and sent them via email to the corporate advertising contacts and emailed the corporation's board of directors. We sent out all we could to alert parents," said Winter.
The morning after each episode, they would analyze the show, report on its content and send it to the advertisers. "We had all hands on deck, emailing out to our members, saying 'Here's who aired last night, and this is who underwrote the shows," said Winter. "We stuck to our game plan every single week. We could see every week, we went after one advertiser this week, and they were gone the next week, another advertiser, gone the next week. After 10 to 12 weeks of episodes, there were an awful lot of movie previews and promos for Viacom, who owns MTV, but there were few if any major advertisers." The show was eventually discontinued. They have now set their sights on NBC'S "Playboy Club," sending a letter last week to NBC affiliates condemning the network's new show.
"I assume you must be unaware of how damaging the pornography industry is to our society, to our families and to individuals. Otherwise, how on earth could you, in good conscience, agree to broadcast in your community a program that glorifies and glamorizes this insidious industry?" read the letter dated July 25, 2011. "I am referring, of course, to NBC's plans to air 'The Playboy Club' this fall, and am writing to urge you, on behalf of the Parents Television Council's 1.3 million members, to preempt the program in your community ... If you proceed with plans to air this series in your community. Be assured that the Parents Television Council will be carefully reviewing every episode and will urge its members to file complaints with the Federal Communications Commission about any content that may be in violation of broadcast decency laws."
While many parents support the PTC's efforts, not everyone is on board with all their initiatives.
"They have a powerful influence. Obviously they have a right to express their views, and some of their concerns about the quality of TV are founded," said Marjorie Heins, founder of the Free Expression Policy Project, a free speech research and advocacy group. "But I think (the PTC) is misguided to continually ask the government to step in."
Heins believes the PTC's push for FCC regulations on broadcast programming is not a sustainable long-term solution to poor programming on TV.
"We most certainly need to deal with the problems of poor programming in mass media, but not with some Government censorship agency to decide what's going to be permitted. That's all very subject to political pressure and the popular cultural moral views," said Heins. "Government censorship is not going to accomplish anything. It's going to end up censoring things that are valuable. It's not going to help our children deal with sexuality or violence. The answer to these problems starts in the home, the school, the community and especially community media — nonprofit development of better programming in the community and nationwide. The moderated market place of ideas, not driven purely by profit, but also a healthy infusion of public support for programming that's creative and original."
Contributing: Joseph Walker, Deseret News