USA Today, December 22, 2003

    Parents: Talk to teens about TV's casual sex

    By Bruce Kluger

    I just spent the past two hours reading 226
    plot synopses for TV's Friends. According to
    my calculations, during the course of the
    show's 10 years on the airup to and
    including the most recent episodethe
    character of Rachel (played by Jennifer
    Aniston) has had some sort of sexual
    relations with about 20 men. Of those, at
    least five were actual partners (including a
    fellow Friend), while the remainder were
    divided among sexual fantasies, flashbacks
    and flings (the latter of whose ultimate
    outcomes still remain murky).

    No doubt diehard Friends-ophiles will challenge my methodology here, but
    whatever the precise number, I think we safely can say that Rachel is an especially
    friendly Friend.

    Television has come a long way since Gidget giggled at extra attention from a boy,
    and husbands and wives bunked in separate beds. TV always has reflected cultural
    shifts in our society, and Friends is just one example of the way in which the
    modern sitcom holds that electronic mirror up to the fallout from the sexual
    revolution. On television, as in real life, intimate relations nowadays are not only
    acceptable among the unmarried, but, in most circles, considered a vital criterion by
    which we select lifelong partners. It's a new era.

    Like millions of red-blooded straight guys, I wouldn't mind being on Rachel's hit list,
    and I can nurture that giant leap of fancy simply by turning on NBC every Thursday
    night. That's because by 9 p.m., my kids, 8 and 4, already are in bed. But what
    about the parents of teenagers, many of whom enjoy sitting down to TV with their
    kids as a way of bonding?

    "I'm definitely embarrassed watching Friends with my daughter," my friend Leslie,
    the mother of a 15-year-old, told me. "I don't like to laugh at the sex jokes with her
    sitting right next to me, and I also can't stop wondering how she's perceiving it all."

    In other words, is TV sending a dangerous message about sex to kids?

    The answer, the experts say, is yes. According to a host of studies compiled by, a new content-based rating system devoted to educating parents
    about the portrayal of sex, violence and profanity in popular entertainment, TV
    presents an average of eight "sexual incidents" during the 8 p.m. "family hour."

    Furthermore, a survey last year by the Kaiser Family Foundation of 15- to 17-year-
    olds found that 72% of them believe that sex on TV influences the behavior of their
    peer groups. This, PSVratings concludes, may account for the fact that the United
    States has the highest rate of teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted
    diseases in the industrialized world.

    Bottom line: Yuks aside, TV actually may be teaching teens that sex has no
    consequences. Suddenly, the "situation comedy" isn't so funny anymore.

    "We become what we behold," said media theorist Marshall McLuhan. As parents,
    we have good reason to fret about our kids' beholding so much carefree hanky-
    panky across the dial.

    As anyone who ever has raised a teenager knows, turning off the TV is a futile
    endeavor; the kids will just watch at someone else's house. Rather than act as
    gatekeepers to the maelstrom of messages streaming into their living rooms,
    proactive parents may want to serve instead as interpreters, helping their children
    sortand make sense ofTV's provocative prime-time bombardment.

    Case in point: When the bawdy Britcom Coupling crossed the pond in September to
    begin its doomed NBC run, alarm bells went off in media-watchdog circles. Some of
    the more extremist organizations went overboard in their condemnation of the show
    (the chronically uptight Parents Television Council asked visitors to its Web site to
    file indecency complaints with the Federal Communications Commission). But
    cooler heads prevailed. The National Institute on Media and the Family, for
    instance, issued a news release calling on parents to "speak candidly with their
    children about sex and sexuality."

    Citing the rampant coupling on Coupling, institute President David Walsh reminded
    grown-ups that "teenagers need to learn the reality of sexual activity from their
    parents, not from Hollywood."

    Interestingly, not all controversial content coming off the tube is sexual in nature,
    nor is it confined to just teens. Sometimes, uninvited messages lurk in the most
    unexpected of places.

    For example, when VeggieTales, the popular children's video series, was released,
    I glanced at the packagingwith its colorful cast of smiling, anthropomorphic cukes
    and tomatoesand assumed the tape was about nutrition. I booted up a copy for
    my kids, but no sooner had the plot kicked in than one of the characters began
    invoking a passage from the Bible. Immediately removing the tape, I reread the
    packaging. Not one mention there of religion. In fact, it was only when I researched
    the series online that I discovered the production company's Christian roots and its
    goal "to introduce families to God and the Bible" to "enhance the moral and spiritual
    fabric of our society."

    Don't get me wrongthat's a noble mission for believers. But in my house, religion
    is a very personal matter, and in this instance I felt more than a little resentful at
    having been led down the vegetable garden path only to wind up in the garden of

    Although animated fresh produce espousing God is a far cry from Jennifer Aniston
    bed-hopping her way through 10 seasons on the air, both scenarios present a
    fundamental and disturbing notion: Somewhere along the line, somebody else has
    decided what's OK for our kids to watch. Now it's up to us as parents to frame that
    information accordingly.

    That's where the good news comes in: Kids are a lot smarter than we give them
    credit for being. In the case of sex on TV, studies show that with the right amount of
    parental guidance, teens can tease positive lessons from all that flesh-flashing on
    the tube.

    Last year's Kaiser Family Foundation study found that one in three teenagers said
    they'd discussed a sexual issue with their parents as a result of having seen some
    sort of lusty activity on television. Of this group, 60% said they had learned how to
    say no to a sexual situation that made them uncomfortable, while 43% had
    discovered ways to discuss safer sex with their current or future partners.

    "This survey points to the incredible power of TV in teens' lives," said Kaiser Vice
    President Vicki Rider. "We're not saying TV causes teen pregnancy, and we're not
    trying to get sex off TV. But we are saying that we need to pay attention to the
    messages TV is sending about sexbecause the teens themselves are definitely
    paying attention."

    Sex on the Dial

    In 1949, the most sensual thing television had to offer was a warm family meal with
    The Aldrich Family or the Lone Ranger gently stroking Silver’s mane. Then
    someone remembered that sex sells. Bruce Kluger takes a look back at TV’s steady
    march from the den to the bedroom.

    I Love Lucy (1951): Wacky redhead and Cuban hubby sleep separately, but late-
    night nookie is evident: Little Ricky arrives in ‘53. Primetime hanky-panky is born.

    The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961): On screen smooching and MTM’s Capri pants
    light fire beneath TV cohabitation. But still those twin beds.

    Peyton Place (1964): Extramarital trysts abound in sleepy New England town in
    red-hot nighttime soaper. Mia Farrow becomes a star as nation christens sexual

    Bewitched (1964): Forget the witch-marries-mortal business. The real
    breakthrough? Finally a double bed.

    I Dream of Jeannie (1965): TV bottles sex—literally. Shapely wish-granter
    Barbara Eden is male viewer fantasy, though network prudes make her hide her

    Star Trek (1968): Sex in the intergalactic workplace: Captain Kirk and Lt. Uhuru
    boldly go where no one has gone before, sharing TV’s first interracial kiss.

    M*A*S*H (1972): Korean War zone surgeon Alan Alda practices mouth-to-mouth on
    frisky nurses between patients. Who says you can’t mix business and pleasure?

    Charlie’s Angels (1976): Fawcett, Jackson and Smith add fresh jiggle to time-worn
    detective show genre. Curious plot note: a man still calls the shots.

    Dallas (1978): The “Me Generation” finds perfect formula for turn-on TV: Money,
    power and sex. Former Jeannie “master” Larry Hagman shines as TV’s oiliest

    The Golden Girls (1985): AARP goes PG-rated: Rue McLanahan becomes poster
    girl for saucy seniors everywhere.

    Moonlighting (1985): Sexual tension drives Willis-Shepherd relationship in sassy
    detective romp—but only temporarily: they do the deed halfway through season two.

    Married With Children (1987): Katey Sagal and Christina Applegate introduce
    new concept to sitcom brood: the horny Mom and slut daughter. Culture police go
    apoplectic; ratings soar.

    Baywatch (1989): Lithesome lifeguard squad (Erika Eleniak, Pamela Anderson)
    woo male viewers with bouncy beach scenes and barely-there attire. Heavy panting

    Beverly Hills 90210 (1990): Underage rich brats grab TV’s sex baton, led by pouty
    bad girl Shannen Doherty. Nation’s parents age overnight.

    Twin Peaks (1990): David Lynch’s weird mystery show earns cult status when teen
    minx character (Sherilyn Fenn) ties cherry stem with tongue. Men everywhere weep.

    Seinfeld (1992): All you need is self-love: Jerry and the gang devote entire
    episode to discussion of "mastering one’s own domain.” Legendary laughs.

    N.Y.P.D. Blue (1993): Quick glimpse of David Caruso's bare butt ushers in era of
    prime time skin. (Co-star Dennis Franz soon follows suit. Ew.)

    Ellen (1997): TV welcomes first leading lesbian: Degeneres bursts from closet amid
    mega-media fanfare. America cheers, show is canceled. (Will and Grace joins TV’s
    gay parade the following year.)

    Friends (2001): Move over Madonna and Britney: Jennifer Aniston and guest star
    Winona Ryder share big, wet kiss in viewer blockbuster.

    Coupling (2003): Bawdy Brit import tries to ape Friends, but scripts swap wit for
    chronic talk of porn and threesomes. Show is axed after episode four. Sitcom

    (Photograph of Jennifer Aniston and Matt LeBlanc from following correction ran in USA
    Today on12/26/2003: "Monday's Forum commentary misstated the usual airing time for airing time for the TV
    show Friends. It normally airs at 8 p.m. ET on Thursdays.")