The mass media—television, music, magazines, movies and the Internet—are important sex educators. Yet, the media seldom have been concerned with the outcome of their ubiquitous sexual lessons. Typically, those who own and create communications media have been more concerned with attracting audiences and selling products than they have been in promoting healthy sexuality. Most are driven by profit margins, not social responsibility, and are not in the business of promoting healthy sexuality. If irresponsible sexual behavior attracts audiences, then that is what will be produced.
Could the media be healthier sex educators? Absolutely. Will they do it? That's less clear.
Young people in the United States today spend 6-7 hours each day, on average, with some form of media. A majority have a television in their bedroom; all have access to music and movies. Computer and Internet use is diffusing rapidly. By 2010, it is expected that most homes with children in the United States will have access to the Internet. It is not clear, however, when and if the current "digital divide" between lower and higher income families and between those who are less literate or non-English-speaking and those who are literate or English-speaking will disappear.1
The media-saturated world in which children live is a world in which sexual behavior is frequent and increasingly explicit. Gone are the "I Love Lucy" days of single beds and polite pecks on cheeks. Youth today can hear and see sexual talk and portrayals in every form of media.
Adolescents rank the media with parents and peers as important sources of sexual information. This may be because the media are better at depicting the passion and positive possibilities of sex than its problems and consequences. Despite increasing public concern about the potential health risks of early, unprotected sexual activity, only about one in 11 of the programs on television that include sexual content mention possible risks or responsibilities. Sexually transmitted diseases other than HIV and AIDS are almost never discussed, and unintended pregnancies are rarely shown as the outcomes of unprotected sex.2 Abortion is a taboo topic, too controversial for commercial television and magazines. Homosexual and transgendered youth rarely find themselves represented in the mainstream media. Although a few youth-targeted programs, such as "Dawson's Creek," have recently included gay characters, what some have called "compulsory heterosexuality" prevails.3
The clash between the media's depiction of sexual relations and the real-life experiences of youth contributes to their difficulties in making healthy sexual decisions. Although we still have much to learn about how the media influence young people's sexuality, evidence is accumulating that besides imparting basic information about sex, the ubiquitous and risk-free media portrayals, coupled with inadequate alternative models from other sectors, encourage unhealthy sexual attitudes and behavior.4
Government regulation of media content is unlikely and probably the least desirable remedy, so two strategies for working with the media hold greater promise. A number of groups, including the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, Advocates for Youth and the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, have been working with Hollywood scriptwriters and television and music producers as well as magazine editors to encourage more sexually responsible media content. As a result of these efforts, hit shows like "Felicity" have included sensitive portrayals of homosexual youth, have provided explicit lessons in how to put on a condom and have portrayed teenagers postponing sexual intercourse, apparently with no decline in audience interest. Additionally, magazines such as Teen People and YM have produced excellent articles on such relevant topics as adolescent pregnancy and contraceptives.
The second strategy available to sex educators is the Internet, which has the advantage over other media of allowing any group to make their information and point of view available relatively inexpensively. Children soon will take for granted that they have access to almost any information and any form of entertainment in one place at any time they want it. At this point, unfortunately, it is easier to find sexually explicit, unhealthy sites than it is to locate those that promote sexually responsible behavior in an equally compelling way.
A number of comprehensive sexuality education websites for young people have been launched. Some of the earliest, such as Columbia University's www.goaskalice.columbia.edu, were established to provide college students with easily accessible health information and to offer sexual health information. A number of the current sites that focus on sexual health include sections for users to send in questions that a panel of experts will answer. Most of these also include a "frequently asked questions" (FAQ) section, since teenagers often share similar concerns (e.g., www.sxetc.org, the site run by the Network for Family Life Education at the Rutgers University School of Social Work).
Sites typically include other features that might attract teenagers to learn more about specific topics, such as "Sex: What to do?! Did your first time get you into a sticky situation?" and "Four birth control methods not recommended for teens" (Planned Parenthood Federation of America's www.teenwire.org). Others, such as the American Social Health Association's www.iwannaknow.org site, also include chat rooms in which teenagers can discuss sexual concerns with their peers. The iwannaknow.org site's chat room is monitored by an experienced sexuality educator who can stop inappropriate talk and solicitation or interject accurate information.
At this point, we know little about who has access to such sites and how they are used, but they have promise. A major hurdle will be making sure that youth are aware of and can find the "good" sites. We also have to be careful that the good is not thrown out with the bad, as concern about protecting children from the risks of websurfing increase. According to a recent national survey of young people (10-17 years old) who regularly use the Internet, one out of five said they had been exposed to unwanted sexual solicitations while online in the past year. One in four reported having inadvertently encountered explicit sexual content.5 Unfortunately, current screening devices are as likely to block sites containing information about breast self-exams, for example, as they are to block the many sites depicting bare breasts.
It is unlikely that the media, including the Internet, will shift toward a healthier depiction of sexuality anytime soon. Nonetheless, it is important that those concerned continue to push for healthier representations in commercial media and to create alternative portrayals and sources of information whenever possible. In the meantime, the most effective strategy may be to help children learn how to navigate this remarkable ocean of information, ideas and images. In some countries, such as Canada and Australia, media literacy is taught at all grade levels and throughout the curriculum, so children learn early that all media are constructed, convey a particular set of values and, in general, are designed to sell products. The need for media literacy is beginning to gain adherents in the United States as well. For example, a number of states have included media education in their public education standards. Children who know more about how the media work, how images are constructed and the potential effects of media exposure should be less negatively affected by media use and should be more able to find what they are looking for without being ambushed by unwanted, unhealthy sexual material or by predators.
In short, the media are important sex educators today and will continue to be in the future. Therefore, efforts both to encourage the media to present a healthier view of sexuality and to create, promote and make accessible healthier sources of sexual information should continue. Most importantly, children should be armed with the navigational and analytic tools they'll need to be able to create sexually healthy lives—despite what most of the media teach.