You wouldn’t normally associate molestation, rape or prostitution with humor, but a recent study from the Parents Television Council found that these themes are often portrayed in a humorous light on primetime TV with female characters.
What’s worse? The younger the female character, the more likely the scene was to be humorous.
The study, Teen Sexual Exploitation: The Prevalence and Trivialization of Teen Sexual Exploitation on Primetime TV, analyzed all scripted programs during the November and May sweeps periods of the 2011 and 2012 television seasons. In the study, sexual exploitation included sexual violence (molestation and rape), sexual harassment, sex trafficking, prostitution, pornography and stripping.
Some of the major findings of the study include:
- A scene was more likely to include sexual exploitation when the female characters were underage (23.33%)
- Sexually exploitative topics targeting underage girls were more likely to be humorous (42.85%) compared to adult women (33.02%)
- Overall, 37% of all sexual exploitation observed during the study was intended to be humorous
- Pornography (66%) and stripping (65%) were the two forms of sexual exploitation most likely to be written into scripts as punch lines
Here is an example of one of the humorous clips the researchers noted from the show Family Guy:
“This girl is perfect if you want to buy a sex slave, but don’t want to spend sex-slave money.”
Poking fun at serious issues like sex trafficking is no laughing matter, especially given research that reveals that humor can reinforce unhealthy and inaccurate stereotypes and desensitize audiences to serious social issues.
“If media images communicate that sexual exploitation is neither serious nor harmful, the environment is being set for sexual exploitation to be viewed as trivial and acceptable,” said researchers of the study. ”As long as there are media producers who continue to find the degradation of women to be humorous, and media outlets that will air the content, the impact and seriousness of sexual exploitation will continue to be understated and not meaningfully addressed in our society.”
The study also pointed out that media images can be a powerful force in shaping sexual decisions and behaviors of developing youth. While the study didn’t delve into any examples of teens and sexual decision making, this would be a very interesting area to study, particularly given two recent shows I have been watching this summer.
First there is Switched at Birth, the highest-rated show debut for ABC Family to date. In one of the most recent episodes, one of the main characters, a 17-year-old girl named Bay, has sex with her boyfriend for the first time.
Take a look:
What does a teen watching take from this scene? That sex is romantic, sweet, playful, fun and risk-free.
What doesn’t a teen learn from this scene? That there are consequences to having sex like getting pregnant or contracting an STD and that using a condom could protect you from both.
If media messages like this one shape sexual behaviors for real teenagers, then there is a huge opportunity to portray safe sex practices on popular TV shows like this one. There is a moment in the scene above where Bay says “hang on” and reaches for something in her back pocket. I thought for a second that she might pull out a condom and provide a real teaching moment for audiences, but instead she pulls out her cell phone, turns it off and says “Good-bye world.”
Now let’s look at The Fosters, another ABC Family show that premiered this summer. In this show, one of the characters Jesus, a high school aged boy, has sex with his girlfriend Lexi for the first time.
Take a look:
While there is no talk of condoms or consequences in the scene of their first time, the consequences of not using a condom plays out throughout the rest of the episode. Lexi worries about getting pregnant and what her parents will think if they find out. Eventually she takes the morning after pill and decides that she is not ready to have sex. This is a powerful example for teenage viewers about the consequences of having sex.
Holly Smith, a survivor of child sex trafficking who was first sexually assaulted at the age of 11-years-old, made a statement in regards to the study’s findings that is notable given these two scenes. She says:
What’s most disturbing is that when these assaults occurred I had no idea that I had been assaulted. I thought these acts were part of teenage dating. I literally had no idea that saying no was an option; I never saw a girl say no on television and be respected for her decision.
Smith’s statement is a prime example of why it is so important for media images to depict safe sex practices and not poke fun at serious issues like sex trafficking. In The Fosters, Lexi says no, and her boyfriend respects her decision. The only other example I can think of where this happens is 90210. Donna Martin remained a virgin until the 7th season of the show and was respected for her decision to not have sex time and time again. When she finally did decide to have sex, the first thing she did was give her boyfriend David a condom. Now that was a great TV show!
We need more TV shows and movies to use their story lines to create teachable moments for the impressionable teenage viewers who are tuning in each week. Maybe if we did this more often, teens would be less likely to engage in risky behaviors and more likely to be prepared when they decided to have sex.
What do you think?
Also, can you recall any TV or movie scenes with teenagers where safe sex practices were being portrayed? Got any examples of ill-humored jokes where teens are being sexually exploited? Please share in the comments!
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