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Saddest Ghost Lamp

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Less Sex. More Bullshit.

Hey--did you know that the Kaiser Family Foundation just came out with a study showing that depictions of sexual intercourse on television are down by three percentage points over the past three years? And that, on average, the depictions of sexual behavior on TV are less explicit than they were in 2002? Good news, huh? I guess Janet Jackson's nipple really got the job done, and those soulless bastards running Hollywood finally got the message about what American families in the Heartland want to see on television.

Well, that's one way of looking at it. The Washington Post looked at it this way: "Television More Oversexed Than Ever, Study Finds." The Los Angeles Times: "Television Awash In Sex, Study Says." The Chicago Sun-Times: "Sex Scenes on TV Nearly Double."

The reason for the breathless prudishness is that the Kaiser Family Foundation writes a good headline-grabbing press release. "The number of sexual scenes on television has nearly doubled since 1998, according to Sex on TV 4, a biennial study released today by the Kaiser Family Foundation," the Foundation wrote. "The study found that 70% of all shows include some sexual content, and that these shows average 5.0 sexual scenes per hour, compared to 56% and 3.2 scenes per hour respectively in 1998, and 64% and 4.4 scenes per hour in 2002."

Here's what the release didn't say: In studying an average week of television--including HBO, a movie service that a vast minority of Americans subscribe to--Kaiser defined a "sexual scene" as any scene containing "any depiction of sexual activity, sexually suggestive behavior, or talk about sexuality or sexual activity." Sexual activity, by the study's lights, would include a "passionate kiss" as well as "physical flirting"--which would encompass, the study says, "a woman licking her lips provocatively while looking suggestively at a man."

Talk about sex or sexual activity includes, according to the study's methodological overview, "any reference to illegal sex acts" and any dialogue that referred to "reproductive issues" or "sexually transmitted diseases."

In other words, when a Dateline NBC story on Natalee Holloway speculates that she could have been raped--that's a sexual scene. When a husband gets home from work and kisses his wife--sexual scene. When a female character mentions that she's on the pill--sexual scene. When a character complains in passing about how they haven't had sex in months--sexual scene. And if you're lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a woman licking her lips--well, sir, you've just watched yourself a sexual scene. Hope you enjoyed it.

The study naturally lumped all of these wildly divergent and often perfectly bland references to sexuality in with the traditional ass-shots of David Caruso and found that "sexual scenes" have nearly doubled and 70 percent of shows have sexual content.

Funny how "sexual scenes" gets shortened to "sex scenes" by headline writers.

As I mentioned above, when you look at things that normal people think of as "sex scenes" and "sexual content," the study found that there are an average of 2 scenes depicting "sexual behavior" each hour, down from 2.1 in 2002. When it comes to actual sexual intercourse, 11 percent of shows contained sex scenes, down from 14 percent in 2002. The number of sex scenes logged was down dramatically--147, versus 200 in 2002. And television is more chaste than it was in 2002--the average level of explicitness of sexual behavior depicted, based on a subjective 4-point scale, was .9, down from 1.1 in 2002.