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Sex-Ed With Friend

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You may have noticed a short article in your newspaper touting a study suggesting teens can learn important sexual education lessons from popular television sitcoms like (keep an open mind)… Friends.

The study, conducted by the think-tank pioneers at RAND Health (www.rand.org) and funded by the Kaiser Family Foundation (www.kff.org), hangs it’s belief on an episode of the popular series where the character Rachel becomes pregnant after having sex with another character named Ross.

Surprised at the news, Ross questions how it could happen because they used a condom. The “oops” moment is explained by repeating twice during the show “condoms are only 97% effective.”

Excited at the prospect of a sexual teaching moment in prime time, researchers at RAND got on the phone and called 506 teens that were part of a larger study and were regular viewers of Friends. Of those, 27% or about 137 actually watched the episode. Unfortunately only 65% (89 people) of those viewers were able to recall the plot included a scenario about a condom failing and the resulting unplanned pregnancy.

Of those 40% or 55 of those teens watched this particular episode with an adult, and a meager 10% (14 viewers) actually discussed the plot afterwards with an adult.

It’s from this group of 14 that RAND mines the golden nugget. When asked, these 14 are quoted as being “less likely to reduce their perceptions of condom efficacy after the episode.”

This survey has more media spin than a top-of-the-line Maytag washer.

The results of this study have newspapers heralding the fact that pop TV is finally teaching sexual values because 14 out of 506 regular viewers of a program—that is oft cited as one of the worst examples of sexual behavior—are convinced condoms are effective at controlling pregnancy.

Oddly enough this survey leaves me with some very different questions and conclusions.

How many kids watched this episode and decided a condom was useless? And what other negative sexual behaviors have been taught during the hundreds of episodes of Friends? How tragic that only one in ten teens feel comfortable speaking with an adult or has an adult available to discuss this important topic.

Yet there is one area where I strongly agree with what these number crunchers have come up with: Teens (and children) do learn about sex from media. That contradicts the many who claim young people see media purely as entertainment and that sexual portrayals don’t affect moral decisions.

But learning about sex is a far cry from considering television to be (quoting from the study’s conclusion) “…a healthy sex educator [that] can work in conjunction with parents to improve adolescent sexual knowledge.”

I’ve never doubted for a minute the idea that children can learn from television. But the concept that sexual topics on television are most likely to include moral messages that meet my family’s standards is false. In fact it seems sexual education is almost impossible to teach without including a subjective bias. That always leaves me wondering whose morals are being taught to my children.

Here are some of the questions most likely to arise in our family on the rare occasions we watch popular prime time television:

“Why do you think you shouldn’t have sex before you are married to someone?”

“What did those people do together that wasn’t responsible?”

“What consequences for having a sexual relationship were left out of that television program?”

A “healthy sex educator”? If that were the case, I shouldn’t have to intercept the many messages being thrown at my children during a typical half-hour situation comedy.

The RAND study confirms how difficult it is to claim television can provide an educational experience that is consistent and that provides the learning outcomes that were expected. With adult interpretation and guidance, a scant 2.7% of this group of regular teen Friends viewers is now confident they can have sex without a resulting pregnancy if they use a condom.

That’s hardly an achievement worth popping a champagne cork over. Or deserving of front-page coverage.

Unfortunately television is most often a prime source of what not to do, and that’s why I’m not being paid to write episodes of Friends. My Ross and Rachel would have made the boring choice to not have sex in the first place, and instead would have just remained friends.

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About the Reviewer: Rod Gustafson

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