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Will a 'Summit' Help Soaps Give Up Sex? : Television: Advocacy group meets in Santa Monica to urge daytime dramas to be a force for social change in America.

October 22, 1994|DANIEL HOWARD CERONE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The U.S. Surgeon General, Jane Fonda, Miss Universe from India and a host of governmental and health-care authorities have assembled in Santa Monica this weekend to confront what they perceive to be a powerful social force for change in America: soap operas.

Writers, producers and network executives behind all 10 network daytime dramas are hearing a parade of experts lobby them to incorporate story lines that "will affect U.S. attitudes toward reproductive behavior."

Population Communications International, the advocacy group behind what has been billed as the first "Soap Summit," teaches Third World countries how to produce soap operas as a means to promote population control and empower teens and women, the primary consumers of soaps. Follow-up studies in such countries as India, Egypt, Mexico and the Philippines have shown the group's effectiveness in changing attitudes toward child bearing and in reducing birth rates.

Now, PCI has brought its mission to America.

Sonny Fox, chairman of Population Communications International, believes that there is a bountiful "supply" of services available to prevent unwanted pregnancy--prophylactics, health clinics, hot lines--but that there is not enough "demand" for them.

"Why aren't these supplies being used more often by women and men?" Fox said. "Usually for religious, cultural, sociological and, in many cases, sexist reasons. What we want to do is deal with those attitudes and those motivations that will make people want to reach out and avail themselves of these services."

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U.S. Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders was scheduled to kick off the affair Friday night. In her speech, an advance copy of which was made available, she implored the daytime drama people to help reduce teen pregnancy by educating girls and young women--teaching them how to say no to sexual advances and portraying the potentially negative consequences of early sex, such as an unwanted or ill-advised pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases such as AIDS.

Closed-door lectures were planned for today by a host of other concerned authorities, including Eloise Anderson, director of the California Department of Social Services, and Dr. Allan Rosenfield, dean of Columbia University's School of Public Health and United Nations adviser at the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, Egypt.

"I have come to feel that if we don't solve the population growth problems, we will not be able to solve any other problems that face this country--from poverty to migration to environmental destruction to improving women's health," said Fonda, who is scheduled to close the "Soap Summit" at the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel tonight.

PCI uses soap operas as a vehicle to deliver its message because viewers tend to get emotionally involved in the characters, whose lives are played out over years. Another reason they are important: "Their audience is at home during the day," Fonda said. "They're not at school. They're not working. They are women and girls. This is the target audience."

Soaps have never been a model of sexual restraint, and a new study released Friday in conjunction with the weekend event indicates that there are fewer inhibitions in daytime television than ever before.

The Michigan State University study, commissioned by the Kaiser Family Foundation, found an average of 6.6 sexual incidents per hourlong episode of five popular soap operas examined in August and September. "Days of Our Lives" led the list with 11.4 incidents per hour of sexual activity, which is defined as everything from long kisses to heavy petting, married and unmarried intercourse, rape and portrayals of prostitution.

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"Nobody is blaming anything on (soap opera producers)," Fox said. "We're not saying they're terrible people. We're saying: You are very important people, you have an immense audience, and we need your help."

Not everyone has given a stamp of approval to the "Soap Summit," however.

"A soap opera promoting population control is an oxymoron," said Sandra Crawford, an editor at the Media Research Center, a conservative group that seeks to bring balance to what it sees as the liberal biases of Hollywood entertainment.

"As conservatives," she said, "we would like to see that the best way of avoiding sexually transmitted disease and unwanted pregnancy is not to engage in premarital sex. Now, is a soap opera about to do that? I don't think so. When a story line calls for premarital sex, and it's sweeps week, and you've got to get the ratings up there, you bet you're going to see a lot of condoms being used, but I have doubts you'll see characters abstaining from sex, which is definitely the most effective means of fighting unwanted pregnancy and AIDS."

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