As the television season starts winding down, I wanted to take a look at a few shows that have included a parent’s point of view about a teen having sex or thinking about having sex, and how well or badly the shows have dealt with parental communication and discussions about safer sex. I’ve seen a lot of bad this season, and unfortunately not too much good.
The very premise of this usually funny and sweet sitcom is strange from a sexual health point of view: a single father, George, discovers condoms in his daughter Tessa’s room, and so he moves the family from Manhattan, to the suburbs, in search of – what, exactly? A neighborhood where young people don’t have condoms, I guess? That sounds…risky. But, OK. Jump ahead a few months, and Tessa has a boyfriend; her friend gives her a box of condoms, lubricant, etc, which George finds again. This time, instead of moving her to Antarctica, he just frets about it a lot. But don’t worry, Tessa makes the “right” decision and doesn’t have sex. In the show, it really is the right decision for her at the time; but the show also presents a dichotomy between “right decision” (don’t have sex) and “wrong decision” (have sex) – never mind that it would be protected sex with a steady boyfriend. Meanwhile, make no mistake, George has an active sex life, with no inquiry into his use or non-use of contraception.
Aside from the Tessa/George plotlines, the show contributed another odd contraception “joke” in this exchange between two other parents:
Steven: You got your teenage daughter an IUD!
Dallas: That was to increase her cell phone reception.
Me: Whaaaa? First of all, that “punchline” is weird/unfunny. Secondly, what would be so wrong with getting your teenage daughter an IUD because she will likely become sexually active before she wants to become pregnant? Or like…because she wanted one? Half of all high school students have already had sex; most people begin having sex in their teens but don’t get married until their late twenties. Over 80% of teen pregnancies, and 70% of pregnancies among women in their twenties, are unintended. So I’m not sure what’s so shocking about providing a teenager with a nearly foolproof method of contraception. I’m not sure why, overall, Suburgatory is so shocked by contraception for teens or has built into its assumptions, that parents are afraid of contraception. Would it be so hard for anyone’s “serious heart to heart moment” in any episode to include a positive comment about condoms and birth control?
Hey, and all concerns about contraception aside, last night’s show involved Tessa letting a guy touch her boob because he took her out for fries. That was his request, and she agreed. The show wanted us to think it was sweet, I think. But from where I stand that’s transactional sexual activity – a much more troubling matter for a parent than having some condoms in your room.
Usually this show handles the story of Jimmy’s unexpectedly having a daughter, and Jimmy’s parents Virginia and Burt’s flashbacks to their own teen parenting, with humor and heart. But, I found a recent episode confusing and irritating. In it, maid Virginia finds a client’s teen daughter in bed with her boyfriend, about to have sex. The rest of the episode is about scaring the teens out of having sex by telling horror stories of teen pregnancy. Virginia insists that condoms do not work – she knows because they used one but still got pregnant. This is the episode’s A plot, and so in about 15 minutes of dialogue, no one mentions any other form of contraception; again it’s a dichotomy of no sex = good future, sex = bad future, even if it be protected sex with a steady boyfriend.
The episode ends with Virginia’s husband Burt admitting that he poked holes in the condom they used, taking it from “eroding confidence in condoms” to “a portrayal of reproductive coercion.” Not comforting.
…Oh, were you wondering if anyone ever brings up abortion as an option for teens who face unwanted pregnancy? If you watch much TV, you probably weren’t wondering – you knew that folks rarely deal with smashmortion on television.
This new show took on teen sex directly in a recent episode. Concerned that teens might be having sex, one character, Carlene, arranges a “Purity Fair” at church, using what is presented here as broad comedy but is actually a true depiction of the content of abstinence only programs. (See here, here, and here.) Another mother, Amanda, steps in to point out that the scare tactics are unreasonable and that Carlene is “demonizing sex.” Awesome so far. The minister puts a stop to the sideshow – also pretty awesome.
Sadly, the show’s resolution of this plotline is less satisfying. The two mothers agree that they will talk to each other’s children about premarital sex, hoping a family friend’s advice will be more welcome than a mother’s. So Carlene paints a lurid picture of her sexual adventures in high school and the reputation they earned her, and Amanda brandishes a gun and literally equates sex with death. Argh! Guys. How about discussing healthy relationships and the importance of honest communication with potential sexual partners. How about discussing the pros and cons of abstinence as well as the many other types of protection that are available. What great potential, squandered by the show.
Modern Family was the only sitcom that approached the matter with any grace: Dad Phil finds out teen daughter Haley is sexually active, and though he is saddened by how quickly she’s growing up, he ultimately conveys to her, in a very loving way, that he accepts her choices and trusts her. See the scene here (item four). We are left to assume that along with their trust in Haley, Phil and Claire have also given her the information and confidence she needs to prevent STDs and unwanted pregnancy – but at least they acknowledge and accept her choices, no matter how they personally struggle with them.
There are a number of other sitcoms that are about parents with teen or preteen children – The Middle; Parenthood; newcomer Bent; Two and a Half Men. I don’t know if these have addressed the topic or how well. I do know that without cultural change there is no behavioral change – so if we want honest communication and good choices around sex to be the norm for teens, TV had better start reflecting that.