How Hollywood Favors Adultery and Promiscuity Over Marital Intimacy on Prime Time Broadcast Television
Today’s prime-time television programming is not merely indifferent to the institution of marriage and the stabilizing role it plays in our society, it seems to be actively seeking to undermine marriage by consistently painting it in a negative light. Nowhere is this more readily apparent than in the treatment of sex on television. Sex in the context of marriage is either non-existent on prime-time broadcast television, or is depicted as a burdensome rather than as an expression of love and commitment. By contrast, extra-marital or adulterous sexual relationships are depicted with greater frequency and overwhelmingly, as a positive experience. Across the broadcast networks, verbal references to non-marital sex outnumbered references to sex in the context of marriage by nearly 3 to 1; and scenes depicting or implying sex between non-married partners outnumbered scenes depicting or implying sex between married partners by a ratio of nearly 4 to 1.
Even more troubling than the marginalization of marriage and glorification of non-marital sex on television is TV’s recent obsession with outré sexual expression. Today more than ever teens are exposed to a host of once-taboo sexual behaviors including threesomes, partner swapping, pedophilia, necrophilia, bestiality, and sex with prostitutes, to say nothing of the now-common depictions of strippers, references to masturbation, pornography, sex toys, and kinky or fetishistic behaviors. Behaviors that were once seen as fringe, immoral, or socially destructive have been given the imprimatur of acceptability by the television industry — and children are absorbing those messages and in many cases, imitating that behavior. PTC analysts examined all scripted prime-time entertainment programs on the major broadcast television networks (ABC, CBS, CW, Fox, and NBC) during four weeks at the beginning of the 2007-2008 television season (September 23-October 22, 2007) for a total of 207.5 programming hours, recording all manner of sexual content including not only on-screen depictions of obviously sexual behavior (couples depicted during coitus), but implied sex, discussions of sex and sexuality, innuendo, visual references to strippers, pornography, and the like.
Across the broadcast networks, references to adultery outnumbered references to marital sex 2:1.
Although the networks shied away from talking about sex in the context of marriage, they did not shy away from discussions of masturbation, oral sex, anal sex, manual stimulation, sex toys, bondage or kinky or fetishistic sex - there were 74 such references during the study period.
The Family Hour — the time slot with the largest audience of young viewers, where one might reasonably expect broadcasters to be more careful with the messages they are communicating to impressionable youngsters – contained the highest frequency of references to non-married sex as opposed to references to sex in marriage, by a ratio of 3.9:1. During the 9:00 and 10:00 hours, the references to non-marital versus marital sex averaged 2.5:1.
Visual references to voyeurism (a third party present, watching or taping while sex takes place), transvestites/transsexuals, threesomes, kinky sex, bondage and sado-masochism, and prostitution outnumbered visual references to sex in marriage by a ratio of 2.7:1.
Content descriptors, which are intended to alert parents to inappropriate content and work in conjunction with the V-Chip to block such content as parents may find unsuitable for their children were often lacking or inadequate. Every network had problems with the consistent and accurate application of the “S” and “D” descriptors.
Of all the networks, ABC had the most references to marital sex, but many of the references were negative. References to non-marital sex, by contrast, were almost universally positive or neutral.
In 46 hours of programming, NBC contained only one reference to marital sex, but 11 references to non-marital sex and one reference to adultery.
References to incest, pedophilia, partner swapping, prostitution, threesomes, transsexuals/ transvestites, bestiality, and necrophilia combined outnumbered references to sex in marriage on NBC by a ratio of 27:1.
On NBC, there were as many depictions of adults having sex with minors as there were scenes implying or depicting sex between married partners (a 1:1 ratio).
Fox broadcast only one reference to marital sex in 24.5 hours of programming, but 18 references to non-marital sex and five references to adultery.
Throughout much of the history of broadcast television, the networks adhered to a voluntary code of conduct which stipulated that respect should be maintained for the sanctity of marriage and the value of the home; that divorce should not be treated casually or justified as a solution for marital problems; that illicit sex relations should not be treated as commendable; and sex crimes and abnormalities should be viewed as unacceptable program material. Even with the limitations of the NAB Code of Conduct, television writers were able to tell relevant, meaningful stories that explored the vast expanse of human experience.
Today’s television programming is squarely on the opposite end of that spectrum. Sexual content on television is predominantly extra-marital; the institution of marriage is regularly mocked and denigrated; adulterous relationships are treated sympathetically; and criminal sexual behavior such as sex with minors or prostitutes fuel story lines on many popular series.
Broadcasters, knowing television’s ability to influence behavior, could be more careful in their treatment of sexual situations during prime-time hours when impressionable children are in the viewing audience, opting for less graphic visual content, and favoring storylines that don’t celebrate promiscuity, glamorize criminality, or denigrate monogamy. The American people should hold the networks and their local broadcast affiliates accountable for pushing questionable content into their homes over the publicly-owned broadcast airwaves.
Advertisers, too, must be held accountable for the messages they underwrite with their advertising dollars, and the social cost of supporting those messages. Sponsors unquestionably do have a say in broadcast content. When all is said and done, the broadcasters’ audience is not the American television viewing public — it is corporate America, and the networks’ success as a business depends upon their ability to sell their product to advertisers. As long as advertisers are willing to associate their brand names and corporate image with salacious sexual content, networks will continue to produce it. Only when corporate sponsors band together in the name of responsible entertainment can we expect to see meaningful change from the broadcast industry.
It is too late to put the genie back in the bottle — and no one is advocating a return to the halcyon days of Father Knows Best, but television can and must do better… because our children are watching.
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