Television has come a long way from the innocent days of the 1950s, when even married couples like Ozzie and Harriet slept chastely in twin beds, and when teenagers routinely settled for a good-night kiss at the end of a date.
Today, sex sizzles everywhere on the small screen. A study released yesterday by the Kaiser Family Foundation finds that two-thirds of all entertainment shows in the 1999-2000 television season include sexual content, up from about half of all shows in 1997-98. Yet only 1 program in 10 includes any reference to the risks and responsibilities of sex.
This results in what Victoria Rideout, vice president of the foundation, calls "a lot of missed opportunities" to help shape attitudes and behavior among adults and young people alike.
By far the most troubling changes in TV fare involve teenagers. The number of teen television characters involved in sexual intercourse has tripled in the past two years, from 3 percent to 9 percent.
As Ms. Rideout explains in a telephone interview, "Overall, the number of shows that have teen characters involved in
sexual situations has stayed roughly the same, but what the teens are doing does seem to have changed. They're more likely to be involved in advanced sexual encounters."
Yet the report, titled "Sex on TV," offers encouraging news, too. Programs with teenage characters in sexual situations, Rideout says, are now more likely to include a reference to the value of waiting to have sex or the importance of taking precautions if one is going to have sex.
Teenagers and sex make a volatile mix as youthful passion produces curiosity and experimentation. In a sex-saturated society, media images form only one way in which young people get information about intimate relationships. Parents and peers also play significant roles.