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Birds & Bees

Don't Let TV Be Your Teenager's Main Source of Sex Education

April 30, 2001|KATHLEEN KELLEHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Last month, a sophomore at a Baltimore County, Md., private school secretly videotaped himself having sex with a 15-year-old girl and then played it for his junior lacrosse teammates. A day later, a varsity player borrowed the tape and showed it to his teammates.

Once it was discovered, school administrators canceled the lacrosse team's season, expelled the sophomore and suspended about 30 students who had watched. The scandal reportedly shook the county's private school community to its core, compelling administrators, teachers and parents to ask why none of the boys involved had the moral sense to object or to reach for the eject button.

Shocked?

You shouldn't be, says Deborah Roffman, a Baltimore-based sex educator. Add it to a list of children's inappropriate sexual behavior: oral sex among middle-schoolers, fifth-graders freak dancing (body grinding) and kindergartners imitating Britney Spears.

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The videotaping incident happened against a cultural backdrop where children increasingly and at ever-younger ages are being sexualized, eroticized and exposed to torrents of inappropriate messages about sexuality. "They are seeing sex ad nauseam without context, without adults standing next to them and saying, 'Let's talk about what we just saw and what it means,' " says Roffman, author of the new book "Sex & Sensibility: The Thinking Parent's Guide to Talking Sense About Sex" (Perseus). "Children do not have the ability to interpret it. You can't fight the influences, but you can teach children how to be critical viewers and listeners."

Sexual references-per-hour of prime-time television were three times higher in 1999 than in 1989, according to the Parents' Television Council. No oral sex references were made in a month of television in 1989, compared with 20 in 1999; references to masturbation increased 700%. By adolescence, a child has watched roughly 15,000 hours of television, estimates the National Institute on Media and the Family.

How sex plays is more disturbing, says Roffman. Reportedly, the sophomore in the videotaping incident was inspired by a scene from the movie "American Pie" in which a young man records himself having sex with a young woman and shows it to his friends. "What I found so disturbing about the videotaping incident is that there were reports that there was laughter among the boys," says Roffman, who wrote about the incident for the Washington Post.

"Here is this girl being dehumanized, and they think it is funny. They applied a selective brand of amorality in a situation where there was enormous group pressure."

The pervasive "boys will be boys" attitude is a dangerous, self-fulfilling prophecy, warns Roffman, who adds that many social forces lead boys to toss out their moral compass when it comes to girls and sex. "Increasingly, sex is portrayed on television and in movies as dehumanizing and demeaning--the meaning is literally taken out," says Roffman. "The message again and again is sex is recreation."

Witness MTV's "Undressed," in which barely dressed teenagers have sex while their parents are gone, and "Temptation Island," a show in which couples arrived on an island, were split up and remixed into different pairs to see which relationships would survive the onslaught of, well, temptation.

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Capitalizing on the voyeuristic genre's popularity, UPN has a show called "Chains of Love," in which a man or woman is handcuffed to four people of the opposite sex, one of whom is chosen at the end for a weekend together. (Whatever happened to "The Dating Game"?)

"There is no such thing as a safe family viewing hour," grouses Debra Haffner, a sex educator in Norwalk, Conn., and author of "Beyond the Big Talk: Every Parent's Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Teens" (Newmarket Press, 2001). "TV should not be the sex educator of children," she says."Parents should control what their children watch and hear."

When Haffner's 15-year-old daughter wanted to see "Temptation Island," Haffner agreed to it--if they watched it together so that Haffner could explain it. ("I told her this is a show about sex in your 20s," recounts Haffner).

"Middle-school children have to be trained in media literacy before you let them watch things alone," she says.

Research linking behavior to what people hear and see is equivocal, says Roffman. But most sex educators agree that there is a relationship. The biggest problem for kids, Roffman explains, is parents who can't set limits. "Yesterday, I had a mother who said to me, 'I have an 8-year-old daughter who wants to dress like Britney Spears, and I don't know what to do,' " says Roffman. "That this mother considered that that was a viable option to allow her 8-year-old to dress up like someone who is clearly a sex object is grossly inappropriate developmentally."

Our culture is at cross-purposes: Sex and sexualized youth are rife in the media and on the Internet, yet sex education in schools is becoming narrower, says Roffman, and, repeatedly, children report that parents explain very little about the subject.

"Children will act out and push the envelope for only one reason: because they want someone to say, 'Enough,' " says Roffman. Unfailingly, parents must interpret the culture of sex and provide a filter of values until "you know your voice is in [your child's] head."

"It is time," says Rothman, "for everyone to wake up and smell the garbage."

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Birds & Bees is a weekly column on relationships and sexuality. Kathleen Kelleher can be reached via e-mail at kellehr@gte.net.

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