Few people would disagree that there is more sex on television. But according to new research by the Kaiser Family Foundation, sex on television today is safer, with more mentions of abstinence, and more relationship sex, rather than one-night stands.

One in four (26 percent) TV shows with talk about or depictions of sexual intercourse also included some reference to safer sex. That’s nearly double the rate found four years ago (14 percent), according to the Kaiser study.

Among shows with sexual content involving teen characters, one in three (34 percent) included a safer sex reference, double the rate found four years ago. Kaiser also found that of the top 20 shows teens watch, nearly half (45 percent) of the episodes that included a reference to sexual intercourse also included a reference to a safer sex topic.

“From a public health perspective, it’s encouraging to see this trend toward greater attention to safer sex issues on TV,” Vicky Rideout, a vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation who oversaw the study, said in a release. “This generation is immersed in the media, so when Hollywood makes safer sex sexier—whether it’s abstinence or protection—that’s all to the good.”

Dale Kunkel, communications professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and a team of researchers also examined network and cable shows, according to the Washington Post. Kunkel and his team found an almost equal rise in the three messages they were looking for—waiting to have sex, taking precautions with sex and getting into trouble because of sex.

The Post noted that although TV shows are talking more about abstinence and condoms, they are also showing more sex. Writers and producers argued that it’s not whether they show sex, it’s how they depict sex, and that, they said, will changes teenagers’ attitudes about sex.
But are teens getting the message?

Kaiser reported that more than half the teens it polled said they’ve learned something important about safe sex from television.

Jane D. Brown, communications professor at the University of North Carolina, told the Post that, in developing countries, birth control messages embedded in TV scripts have been shown to persuade increasing numbers of women to limit the number of children they have.

Others seemed skeptical about the effects that positive sex messages are having.

Tracey Allen, a community educator with Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri, told the Kansas City Star that she was surprised the percentages for more positive sex messages were so high.

Allen, who gives sexuality talks to about 5,000 teens every year, said that when the subject of sex on television comes up, her students don’t bring up the cautionary messages.

“Usually they just say that (the characters) are having sex,” Allen told the Star.

But sex educators agree that the most important thing is that parents should watch television and talk about these issues with their children.

One-third of teens reported talking to their parents about sex based on something they’d seen in the media, Kaiser reported.

Victoria Rideout of the Kaiser Family Foundation told the Star, “It can be an easy way in for parents to talk about something that’s difficult to bring up, whether you agree with what you saw on TV or not.”

Jodi Mathews is BCE’s communications director.

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