I originally went into this paper with the intent to write about the discrepancies between our sex saturated culture, and the lack of in-depth sex education in schools. I initially believed that our country was lacking in the area of sexual education. I had based this belief upon (among other things) the fact that many, if not all, schools seem hesitant to push the boundaries and actually educate children on sex and sexuality. The lack of a formal unified sexual education curriculum in our country seemed (to me) like a major failure, especially in light of the serious problems that sexual ignorance can cause.
However, after doing some initial research on the topic, I realized that there is much more to a sexual education than what a child learns in school. Which led me to eventually realize that we are all getting a massive amount of sexual education in unexpected places (whether we want to or not). And sexual education can (and does) take place at any age. It is through the media, in all its various forms, that Americans are getting the bulk of their sexual education from.
In the 1950's, it was absolutely unheard of for sex or sexuality to be discussed or even mentioned on TV. When I Love Lucy began in 1951, it showed scenes of the couple in the bedroom together, but it depicted them sleeping in two separate beds. The network (CBS) attempted to avoid controversy on the show by ignoring the sexual nature of the husband and wife relationship, even though the leading actors had a baby during the filming of the show, and the baby was written into the script. CBS would not even allow the actors to use the word “pregnant” - even while Lucille Ball was visibly pregnant. This reluctance to discuss or even hint at sex was a feature that was typical of the time period. Now, almost 60 years later, sex and sexuality are much more common on television.
Modern television shows of today address issues of rape, teen pregnancy, sexual reassignment surgery, trans-gender people, drag queens, and live births, to name a few. With the popularity of cable television and its widespread use, the variety of programs that teach us about sex is astounding. While most of these shows do not specifically attempt to educate young people about sex or sexuality, they may have an educational effect on viewers. At the very least, these shows create awareness of some of the issues that crop up in modern sex and sexuality. Below are a few examples of TV shows dealing with these various issues.
In addition to television programming about sex and sexuality, there are a wealth of commercials and public service announcements that directly address sex-related issues. The most beneficial commercials for children are the ones that provide information on hotlines for reporting child abuse, suicide prevention, and where to get health services.
Rape and Sex Crimes: “Law & Order SVU”
Teen Sex and Pregnancy: “16 & Pregnant” & "Glee"
Gender Differences/Transgender: “Being Chazz" & "Sex Change Hospital"
LGBT: “The L Word”, “Queer as Folk”, “Modern Family”
However, there is a danger in relying on television for information about sex and sexuality: Just as networks in the 1950's were hesitant to be honest about sexuality for fear of offending viewers, modern TV networks have a tendency to slant their perspectives to garner higher ratings. The end result is that some television programs will involve what is claimed to be a show about sexuality, but is actually just a show about stereotypes. Never the less, TV shows can still educate, even when they only feature the most common or clichéd characteristics.
There is the same type of danger of being exposed to sexual stereotypes in movies as there is in television. Movies have a distinct advantage of being longer than the average TV program, and thus are able to explore sexual issues more in depth. The main regulatory system in movies is the MPAA rating system, which is designed to protect children from being exposed to sex, violence, language, graphic images, and so on. There are some nuances in the rating system due to our societal standards, as evidenced by the fact that children can watch movies with mild violence, but not with suggestive language. Despite the shortcomings of the rating system, there is still a chance that a person will learn something about sex or sexuality after being exposed to a good movie.
As I discussed in a previous web event, there are plenty of movies that adequately cover topics of sex and sexuality. Although there are certain age restrictions for many of these kinds of movies while they are in theaters, there are plenty of other opportunities for young people (and old) to directly access movie content by obtaining DVDs, or by accessing an internet-based movie database, such as netflix, hulu, itunes, or even youtube. Although movies also have the possibility of reinforcing stereotypes or misrepresenting important concepts, one cannot ignore the potential that movies have to educate us about sex and sexuality.
Another source of entertainment where sexual information can be (and often is) gathered is in literature. There is a variety of literature that entertains us while it teaches us about sex and sexuality. Even books that are specifically geared toward younger people often contain references to sex that inform and educate young readers. At one point in time, young readers may have had an easier time getting access to books that discuss sexual topics than they had getting access to movie theaters, but the advent of the internet is changing the way that literature and movies are being distributed, and with the growing popularity of e-readers, kindles, nooks, and ibooks, literature is becoming even more accessible.
The music industry has a powerful voice that has the ability to affect all audiences. Lyrics of popular (and unpopular) songs often contain references to sex and sexuality. There are many songs that inform listeners about romance, self-respect, self-esteem, sexual exploration, safe sex practices. Although these lyrical messages are not aimed directly at educating listeners, (and some educate in the wrong ways) the fact that they are delivered in a song means that they may have a subtle, informative, and (depending on the song) lasting effect. As I mentioned above, the rise of the Internet is changing the way that our entertainment is spreading; almost every kind of music in the world is available online, in just a few short clicks.
The largest and most significant source of sexual education in American entertainment (and perhaps all across the globe) is the Internet. The Internet has the power to do what school districts (and even parents) cannot do – answer the most explicit and specific questions about sex and sexuality. The search engine has become the solution to many of the problems that we face involving sexuality. Internet searches can be done privately, take relatively little time, and offer a variety of sources of information. Whether the question is about sexual behavior, hygiene, health, or anything else, the Internet seems to have the answer.
Aside from answering questions about sex, the Internet is also a great place to connect with organizations that provide sex-related support services. Whether it is medical information to help diagnose a venereal disease, or a map search for the nearest counseling center or abortion clinic, the Internet enables people to privately conduct research and locate services that might otherwise cause them embarrassment. Organizations like plannedparenthood.org and HIVtest.org offer information about sex and sexuality that can save lives. This is a very powerful form of sexual education. Even though parental restrictions on Internet use may curb some of the access to many of these websites, there is a wealth of age-appropriate information about sex available for teens, like kidshealth.org, gURL.com and stayteen.org.
A child's access to the Internet can be restricted or controlled (to some extent) by parents. The level of control must be monitored closely for young children to avoid exposing them to material that may be too graphic, depending on age and maturity. The level of access that a child has (or that a parent allows) will determine the amount of sexual content that will be available. For younger children with questions about sex, there are websites out there for parents to use, that will help them educate their children, such as thenationalcampaign.org, mayoclinic.com, and kidshealth.org (they have a parents site and a kids site).
Inevitably, some older children will find a way to access the internet without restriction. And some interactions that a child can potentially encounter online can be sexual and dangerous – and worse, parents may never learn about it. For a list of disturbing facts about kids and Internet use, see netlingo.com's cyber safety statistics (http://www.netlingo.com/tips/cyber-safety-statistics.php). The important thing to note is that most kids have access to computers, and although there is a wealth of positive information for educational purposes, this information requires great discretion. Also, the fact that I am writing this paper for a public online forum is another example of not only the many ways to educate people, but of how far knowledge can reach through the internet.
As I mentioned earlier, I used to think of sex education as something that was (barely) taught in schools. As I have learned more about how education works in both traditional and nontraditional ways, I have come to understand that the learning process is often driven by factors outside of the classroom. The mere fact that schools are reluctant to teach an in-depth, uniform curriculum that includes sex, sexuality, and related issues, does not mean that American people are not being educated on sex. It just means that the education has been hiding in the various forms of entertainment that we enjoy.