USA Today, December 22, 2003
Parents: Talk to teens about TV's casual sex
By Bruce Kluger
plot synopses for TV's Friends. According to
my calculations, during the course of the
show's 10 years on the air—up to and
including the most recent episode—the
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
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
PSVratings.com, 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
sort—and make sense of—TV'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 packaging—with its colorful cast of smiling, anthropomorphic cukes
and tomatoes—and 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 wrong—that'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
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
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 sex—because the teens themselves are definitely
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 tv.yahoo.com.The 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.")