Hollywood's Teen Sexploitation

You could see it coming in January, in the wake of the surprise box office hit Juno and the pregnancy of Jamie Lynn Spears. ABC's Deborah Roberts observed on Good Morning America that, “...teen pregnancy is the new hot topic in Hollywood....” 

As surely as gestation follows conception, Hollywood was going to cash in on teen pregnancy.

If conception took place in January, then Hollywood gestates a little more quickly than a human mother. By the end of June, NBC delivered its teen pregnancy “reality” show, The Baby Borrowers.  A week later, ABC delivered a drama, The Secret Life of the American Teenager.

The Baby Borrowers features unmarried teenage couples living in a house, taking care of real children as if they were parents.  Before the couples get the children, they live in the house together for two days, without chaperones, indulging in what one participant likened to a “honeymoon.”   Nevertheless, NBC is peddling the show as a public service, a form of “birth control,” because it shows teen viewers how difficult raising a child can be.

The Secret Life of the American Teenager makes no such pretense of social conscience.  The show is populated by a cast of characters with one thing on their minds.  Though Secret Life centers on a 15-year-old mother-to-be, the creator of the show, Brenda Hampton, told The Hollywood Reporter, “I don't have anything to say about the issue of teen pregnancy.  I'm just telling a story about a girl who happens to get pregnant.” Hampton says plenty about the supposed inevitability of teen sex, however, when a devout Christian boy who warns others against having sex gets busy with the school slut during the very first episode.

Critics have panned the shows, but ratings were good for both opening episodes.  If viewership remains strong, ABC and NBC will soon be fattening their bank accounts.  But have they thought how much their profits could cost society as a whole?

America has witnessed an uptick in teen birth rates in the past year, and social critics are blaming what they call the “Juno effect.”  A child psychiatrist told CBS that Juno and similar movies, along with pregnant, unmarried Hollywood starlets, “might have glamorized the idea of pregnancy” and removed the stigma.  Whether Juno was the principal cause or just a contributing factor, something persuaded a dozen or so high school girls in Gloucester, Massachusetts that it's okay to deliberately get pregnant.

Television shows depicting sexually active teens are likely to encourage teen viewers to become sexually active themselves.  Teens will abstain from sex only if parents and schools establish high expectations for them and teach them that sex outside of marriage is morally wrong.  Watching other teens engage in promiscuous sex, even characters on a TV show, will desensitize teens to moral considerations and reduce behavioral expectations.  Why shouldn't they do it if everybody else is?  Why shouldn't they do it if everybody expects them to? This is the prime reason that “comprehensive” sex education is a colossal failure.

If America sees teen sexual activity spike in the next year, no doubt the social critics will coin a new term, the “Secret Life effect.”  More teen sex will mean more STDs, more illegitimate pregnancies, more unwed mothers, more abortions, more innocence lost.  Hollywood may profit from exploiting teen sexuality, but real people will pay the price. 

Brian Fitzpatrick is senior editor at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the Media Research Center.