Study: Traditional views of sex on TV rare


LOS ANGELES, Calif. — Broadcast television by far depicts sex in the context of marriage as either "nonexistent or burdensome" while portraying adultery and pre-marital sex as acceptable and desirable, a new study by the Parents Television Council says.

"Today's primetime television programming is not merely indifferent to the institution of marriage and the stabilizing role it places in our society," said the Aug. 5 PTC report "Happily Never After: How Hollywood Favors Adultery and Promiscuity Over Marital Intimacy on Prime Time Broadcast Television."

"It seems to be actively seeking to undermine marriage by consistently painting it in a negative light."

Verbal references to non-marital sex "outnumbered references to marital sex by a ratio of nearly 3 to 1," PTC said, and scenes "depicting or implying sex between non-married partners" outnumbered similar scenes between married couples by nearly 4 to 1.

"Even more troubling than the marginalization of marriage and glorification of non-marital sex on television is TV's recent obsession with outré sexual expression," Tim Winters, president of PTC, said. "Children and teens are now exposed to a host of sexual behaviors that less than a generation ago would have been considered off limits for broadcast television.

"Behaviors that were once seen as fringe, immoral or socially destructive have been given the stamp of approval by the television industry. And recent studies show that children are influenced by those messages. Throughout much of the history of broadcast television, the networks adhered to a voluntary code of conduct which stipulated that respect should be maintained for the sanctity of marriage and the value of the home. Our report finds that not only are the boundaries no longer respected—they have been obliterated."

The watchdog group examined all scripted primetime entertainment programs which appeared on the major networks—ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and the CW—during four weeks last September and October for a total of more than 200 programming hours. Broadcasts of movies, news, sports, reality shows and game shows were not included in the analysis.

Among the findings:
• The Family Hour, the time slot between 8 and 9 p.m. Eastern set aside by the industry for the largest audience of children, contained the highest frequency of references to non-married sex. PTC found that Family Hour references to non-marital sex outnumbered references to sex in marriage by a ratio of 3.9 to 1. By comparison, during the following hour the references to non-marital versus marital sex averaged 2.5 to 1.

• Parents who rely on the V-Chip to block inappropriate content actually have a false sense of security, the study found. On ABC alone, 38 percent of programs airing during the Family Hour that contained sexual content did not receive the "S" descriptor (for sexual situations) to alert parents. And during the 9 p.m. hour, 71 percent of programs containing sexual dialogue did not carry a "D" descriptor.

"Every network had problems with the consistent application of "S" and/or "D" descriptors during every time slot," PTC reported.

• Among all networks, ABC had the most references to marital sex, but "many of the references were negative," the study revealed. References to non-marital sex, though, were "almost universally positive or neutral."

• On NBC, there were as many portrayals of adults engaged in sex with minors as there were scenes "implying or depicting sex between married partners."

"In the 1950s and '60s it used to be that you would never see married couples in bed together," Winter said, according to The Washington Times. "... You may have noticed that when you turn the television on now you still never see married couples in bed together, but for entirely different reasons. You'll see teenagers in bed with prostitutes, men in bed with their mistresses and teachers in bed with their students."

Michael Medved, a nationally syndicated talk radio host, said statistics show that the overwhelming majority of Americans feel satisfied and fulfilled by their marriages, but in this case art does not imitate life.

"The notion that sex outside of marriage is inherently more exciting, more important, more worthy as the subject of storytelling is a toxic message for parents and children alike," Medved said.

In its report, PTC quoted a 2005 study by Rebecca Collins that showed that "watching sex on TV predicts and may hasten the onset of sexual activity among adolescents." Additionally, a 2002 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation showed that older teens—15 to 17—are more likely to engage in sex after listening to sexually charged dialogue on TV.

"By the time they have reached their senior year in high school, three out of five young people in the U.S. today have had sex, and one in five of those has had sex with four or more partners, according to the 2001 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance," the nonprofit group said.

And according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children in the United States watch nearly four hours of television a day. By the time a child reaches age 8 he or she will have seen 58,400 scenes of sexual content, PTC said.

In light of the study, Winters said broadcasters must exercise greater responsibility when handling sexual situations during primetime hours. He suggested using less graphic visual content and favoring storylines that don't celebrate promiscuity, glamorize criminality or denigrate monogamy.

"The American people need to hold the networks and their local broadcast affiliates accountable for pushing questionable content into their homes over the publicly-owned broadcast airwaves," Winters said. "In addition, advertisers need to reconsider their role as underwriters of such material, and whether they want to continue associating their brand names and hard-earned corporate images with salacious sexual content."

To read the full report, visit