The cultural battle over sex education is fought between the concepts of realism and traditionalism. The realists think traditionalist parents are unrealistic in thinking their children are never going to have sex. Traditionalists think the realists are fatalistic in assuming that everyone's kids are going to have sex.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that over a 10-year period from 1991 to 2001, the percentage of high school students who had engaged in sex dipped from 54.1 percent to 45.6 percent. That means that today, a sizable minority of teenagers are sexually active. Regardless of your side in the culture war, that's not a victory for realism. The number of teens having sex has declined because adults mustered the courage of their convictions.
Realism, sadly, is the only voice allowed in Hollywood. In three shows in an eight-day period, two sitcoms and a drama conjured teen-sex plotlines as an opportunity to paint sexual abstinence as unrealistic. Hollywood's message: parents, surrender to the inevitable desires of your children, and children, surrender to the expectations of your fatalistic culture.
In the September 30 episode of ABC's "Eight Simple Rules," the mother, a nurse, has been recruited to substitute-teach on sex education. She says: "Tomorrow I have to talk about contraception and the only thing the school will let me discuss is abstinence...I just think it's irresponsible to say that abstinence is the only option. I see teenagers at the hospital every day and they're in trouble already. They need to know about safe sex."
The next day, abstinence education is caricatured as a cheesy black and white videotape: "And thus Woody leaves, knowing with great pride that this is another night he did not have sex." The children laughed at the tape. A white boy unloaded his best attempt at hip-hop slang: "Dog be cold, saying hasta to a lady with such a fine cup set and booty like that." He added that anyone who'd stick with abstinence must be homosexual: "But I'll bet my money that dog be all swishy-swishy, playing for the other team."
ABC is not giving anyone an accurate picture. As a formal educational initiative, abstinence education is a new phenomenon, not a June Cleaver joke. The videotapes are in color, and convey a message incomprehensible to libertine Tinseltown: there are consequences of teen sex, even purportedly "safe sex." They tell kids that teens who get pregnant before they reach 15 have an 85 percent chance of dropping out of school. Condom usage is 85 percent effective in adults, but only 70 percent effective in teens. Teenage girls are more susceptible than adult women to contracting sexually transmitted diseases, which are on the rise. There is only a five- to six-day window in which a woman can conceive, but teens can contract a sexually transmitted disease at any time.
But all ABC can do is ridicule these programs, for laughs.
Teens could see Hollywood's "lesson" in the family hour. Another family-hour sitcom, CBS's "Still Standing," joined the discussion on October 6. When the son asks Dad for a condom, he gladly obliges, thinking it's just for show. Later, Mom and Dad catch the son with his girlfriend in his bedroom. The mom lectures: "You are way too young to be having sex...If you wait until you're mature and you're with someone you love and respect and who loves and respects you back, then it's special like it's supposed to be...It's just not the right time." After the nice lecture, the show then has a Hollywood ending: the son hands the condom back to Dad, but both parents insist he keep it, just in case.
On October 8, the CBS drama "Brotherhood of Poland, New Hampshire" featured an obnoxious daughter instructing her parents that teen pregnancy might be less of a problem "if kids could just get some counseling, but too often parents panic and simply preach abstinence."
When the parents catch the girl with a boy in their own bed, the mother says, "You are not going to convince us with well-thought-out arguments. You are 15 years old, you are a child living in this house, and we get to make rules without reason sometimes." But it quickly blurs into the Hollywood ending, with Mom getting fatalistic: "Your father and I remain strongly opposed to having sex," but "given that we can't control you....when the time comes we want you to be protected."
Now imagine if Hollywood applied that logic to other hazardous teen acts. We don't think you should smoke, but here's a pack just in case. We don't think you should drive drunk, but if you must, drive slow and here's a six-pack. Hollywood just can't sound a traditional note about sex. They can't stand sounding like their parents.