Youth, Sex and the Media
It has been almost a truism that children need to be protected from sexually oriented themes in the media. It's assumed by many that this is so self-evident that it's a waste of time to even research the issue.
As a result of the findings of a number of studies, however, many of the beliefs about children and sex are being challenged. In fact, evidence now indicates that many of the widely held beliefs in this area have been the cause of some severe problems, both for youth and society.
Because of the cloud of emotion that surrounds the issue of sex in general, it has been difficult to do research or publish findings in this area -- especially when the research involves children and can threaten the deep personal feelings held by most adults.
Most research money comes from government agencies, and it's no secret that it's politically unwise to be associated with unpopular research findings, no matter how valid they might be.
In contrast, the subject of violence, which is now being widely researched, has not had the same type of opposition. In this regard it's interesting to note that research findings on sex appear to be much less contradictory and confused right now than research on violence.
What follows is a survey of opinions from those who have had considerable experience working with youth -- opinions drawn directly from research findings. (The research cited appears at the end of this essay.)
Is There A Sexual Revolution?
A national magazine, which undertook a study of the need for sex education in the schools stated that this country is presently in the middle of a period of "wrenching change" in the sexual attitudes and behavior of youth, and most of it is clearly without guidance, information, or control. (1) [These numbers refer to footnotes at the end of the second part.]
In a book called The Erotic Revolution Lawrence Lipton states that of all the changes sweeping the world today, the sexual revolution may well prove to be the most far-reaching and "deep-going" of them all. In a chapter entitled "America's Best Kept Secret," he says that a significant proportion of this country's population has broken with the old morality and is practicing the sexways of a new morality, with varying degrees of success. (2)
One child psychotherapist notes that the vast majority of today's youth reach adolescence with "bizarre sexual theories and anatomical confusions.(3) This general opinion is also shared by a great number of other professionals working with youth. (4)
Television, being the highly influential medium that it is, has been both part of the solution and part of the problem in the area of sex and youth. It has been part of the solution because it has helped to bring sexual topics out in the open (to the consternation of some viewers) where they have a chance of being faced and dealt with.
Research by the Kaiser Family Foundation reported in 2002 showed that 15 to 24 year-olds in the United States get most of their information about sex from their friends. This is followed closely by Sex Ed Courses. Parents rank third.
The question on the minds of most concerns HIV and how to protect themselves. However, this issue has been clouded by recent attempts to delete or downplay research findings on government websites that conflict with political ideologies.
According to The New York Times, since President Bush came into office, information that supports the effectiveness of condoms in the prevention of disease, as well as studies that show the use of condoms do not result in earlier sexual activity, has disappeared from government web sites.
For many years we gave a sort of tacit approval to the old idea that "what you don't know won't hurt you." This led H.G. Maw to quip that many would have the Scripture read, "The truth shall make you free -- except in matters pertaining to sex."
We paid -- and are continuing to pay -- a very high price for the silence in matters pertaining to the honest, straightforward presentation of sexual information. The "tripe and drivel" about sex that is presented to the adolescent is "dishonest, hypercritical and half-baked," according to one source, who then went on to say that our schizophrenic efforts to prevent adolescents from establishing contact with the real world, whether beautiful or painful, does nothing more than widen the gap between ourselves and them, and make effective adjustment to life more difficult. (5)
Radio and television have been very instrumental in opening doors to the discussions of some topics which were previously "taboo," but, as Allen and Martin point out, sex is not doing much better with the present "demand for performance" and "sexual jock" themes and pressures than it did under the previous "cloak of shame." (6) Both extremes have caused, and are causing some severe problems among youth.
The Price of Ignorance
C. E. Avery, writing in "Education Digest," contends that an existing state of sexual ignorance is responsible for two things: a significant contribution to inhuman tragedy" and the formation of "stupid and vicious laws." (7)
One aspect of the "human tragedy" relates to U. S. epidemic in venereal disease. Every day 2,000 teenagers are infected with a venereal disease. The basic problem is one of readily available, honest information.
Attempts to introduce educational programs about venereal disease in the schools have too often met with such reactions as "the parents would be outraged." In one high school where a simple VD education sequence was carried out, the incidence of syphilis dropped by about 50 percent among students, while in a similar area (because the students would be "shocked") the venereal disease rate rose over 700 percent during the same interval. (8)
A PBS 60-minute show on venereal disease, hosted by Dick Caveat and broadcast for the first time in October of 1972, represented the first time on national television that such a taboo" subject" was treated so openly and directly.
Newsweek said the program was "One of the most daring experiments yet in broadcasting and in paramedicine," and "Saturday Review" hailed it as "one of the most significant events in the history of television as a medium for education, enlightenment, and raised consciousness. (9)
This PBS special, "VD Blues, " and the local follow-up programs developed by over 100 local stations around the country sparked over 225,000 telephone calls from viewers seeking VD information. Throughout the country public health officials and private physicians reported that there was a surge of over 50 percent in inquiries, examinations and detected and treated cases. (10)
According to PBS, "VD Blues" was designed to attract young viewers and "explore through comic skies, factual presentations, songs, and commercial parodies the nature of syphilis and gonorrhea, their symptoms and treatment, and the myths surrounding them." (11)
But "VD Blues" had its critics -- those who thought that a discussion of VD did not belong on television and that such topics were best handled by parents in the home. Not only is "the home" not a major source of sex information for most young people, but most parents are ill-equipped to broach the subject in an honest, unemotional, and non-threatening way.
According to author Marjorie Heins (Not in Front of the Children: Indecency," Censorship, and the Innocence of Youth), the suppression of sexual information, and our well-meaning but misguided obscenity laws end up doing young people more harm than good. She says that, "Obscenity laws do not allow children to learn to confront and deal with real-world issues..."
Sources of Sex Information
It's interesting to note that many responsible writers and educators maintain that sex information is not best left to parents -- even adequately prepared parents (l2) -- or even to the churches.(13)
First of all, neither seem to be doing the job. Manley cites figures that indicate that 72 percent of boys and girls receive their sex knowledge from sources other than their parents, school, or church. (14) In a 1960 study among 600 teenagers who came into venereal disease clinics in New York it was learned that 64 percent received all their sex information from peers. (15) The same source for "sex education" has been found to predominate among teen-age unwed mothers.
Some writers have stated that not only are parents not the primary source for information for their children on sex, but at the present time it's probably the best idea for them not to assume the major responsibility.
Dr. Mary Calderone, a former director for the Sex Education and Information Council of the United States, has stated this in speeches before various educational groups around the country. Her view, which is frequently enunciated by others, is that in our present society leaving the teaching of sexuality primarily to skilled people who are not emotionally involved can safeguard the parent-child relationship. (16)
A big part of the problem with parents is that they cannot easily communicate their thoughts about sex, since they have learned emotional attitudes from their childhood that are difficult to change. Even though they may want desperately to composed and unembarrassed in talking with their children, this is typically not the case, and subsequently many things not intended are communicated.
For many parents, therefore, it may be that the best role is not the communication of facts about sex, but the communication of some basic moral attitudes.(17)
Should the topic of human sexuality for young people be left to the churches?
A sex-is-sin theme is often taught in such a way that the resultant attitudes cannot suddenly be changed after marriage. Divorces and other social problems are known to result when normal sex impulses are linked closely with sin, so that even normally accepted sexual behavior falls under its ages.
A minister quoted in "Changing Times" on "Today's Children and Sex" states: "I deal almost daily with unwed mothers and hasty marriages due to [the) lack of sex education.(18) It appears that what youth don't know is hurting them.
Even with the general availability of birth control devices today, government figures indicate that 42 percent of all brides under 20 are pregnant, and 14 percent of all births are illegitimate.(19)
Some sources put the teen-age pregnancy at marriage rates much higher than 42 percent. In this regard it should also be noted that two out of three teen-age marriages end in annulment, separation or divorce.(20) For marriages in the over-20 age category the dissolution rate drops to about one in four.
Many professionals conclude that, all things considered, the schools should be the primary place for imparting sexual information to youth. One study, in fact, found that almost all responsible authorities agreed that the schools should assume this responsibility.(21)
According to a survey by the Kaiser Foundation in 2000, more than 80% of parents feel that schools should teach students how to use condoms and other contraceptives, as well as how to talk about protection with partners.
But, public education has had some major problems in this area and few schools have any real programs in sex education. Administrators have held to a rather timid and conservative attitude in this area, even though the majority of educators in one survey thought the schools should have a definite role in sex education (22)
A Gallop Poll as far back as 1965 indicated that 69 percent of adults in the country "approve of schools giving courses in sex education." In addition, nearly half of the 69 percent approved sex education that would include a discussion of birth control. (23) As we've noted, since 1965 that percentage has risen to 80%.
The most frequent reasons given in one survey on why schools were not active in this important area were (1) lack of qualified teachers and (2) a fear of public reaction.(24) The small but vocal religious and civic groups that have opposed the teaching of sex education often carry more weight than their actual number should justify.
At least two writers have speculated that possibly school administrators somehow feel they must wait until they have a full, 100 percent agreement on sex education. (25)
Of course, in the meantime, sexual information and attitudes are still primarily coming from peer groups and the mass media.
Old Values Crumble
Despite all arguments to the contrary, any perceptive person who works closely with youth today knows that the strong behavioral controls imposed over most young people by parents and churches are largely a thing of the past.
For many years society tried to control sexual behavior in youth by citing the traditional negative consequences of sexual experiences, such as premarital pregnancy, venereal disease, and community disapproval. Although these negative consequences are still preached, young people know that their actual "scare value" has vastly diminished.
In part II, we'll look more into the issue of old and new values.
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