By JAMILA RIZVI
What do all of these television couples have in common?
A sexually transmitted infection, that’s what.
In fact, statistically speaking, they wouldn’t just have one. No, no. The chances are that with all the super steamy sex these characters have been having over the years, each one of them has a veritable Arnott’s Biscuits type assortment of diseases.
Take a moment, if you will and think about how many times Carrie and Big have sex over the six seasons of Sex and the City; sex with each other and sex with someone else.
This isn’t a judgement thing – all power to them both, I say (although I will never forgive Big for leaving her at the altar. Tool.)
But. BUT. In amongst all that passion and lust, all of Big’s dark brooding man feelings and Carrie’s endless sexual not-so-private reflections in a major NYC newspaper – how come nobody ever stopped to reach for the condoms.
When Meredith Grey and Dr McDreamy were desperately ripping off each others scrubs in the on-call room before having a heated argument and bounding off for angry revenge sex with a random scrub nurse – how come neither of the Grey’s Anatomy characters could spare a moment for contraception? You’re DOCTORS for Christ’s sake, don’t you care about STIs?
A study by the UK Department of Health recently analysed more than 350 drama and comedy television shows that are popular with young people, to try and discover if any of the characters cared about preventing the spread of STIs. Shows analysed included the aforementioned Grey’s Anatomy but also Lost, Desperate Housewives and Australian made dramas like Home and Away and Neighbours. The researched found that only:
7 percent of the sex scenes included discussions of safe sex. Of the 102 encounters of actual sex, three couples used condoms, and 13 per cent of sexual encounters where contraception was not featured dealt with any kind of consequence, such as pregnancy or contracting a sexually transmitted disease (STD).
Of the 99 instances of unsafe sex, nine characters regretted their behaviour, according to the study. Further, the study says that nearly 37 percent of youngsters turn to television for guidance on sex and relationships, and almost 50 percent of young adults say they would feel more confident about using condoms if they were discussed more openly in the media.
Even in shows that are praised for their ‘real life’ approach to the challenges of sexual relationships – like HBO’s new hit series, Girls – don’t seem to think condoms are worth mentioning unless they didn’t work.
Girls is all about authenticity and depicting sex as it really is and not in the glossy, perfect, my-boobs-are-perky-even-when-I’m-on-my-back and nobody-ever-smacks-their-head-accidentally-on-the-bedside-table kind of way.
And yet by my count, there are barely any episodes that mention contraception in the everyday sort of way – other than those where a character has an unwanted pregnancy, or gets an STI. (Having said that, props to Girls for giving it a damn good go and doing a better job than any other show on TV).
It seems that the only time television series characters do discuss condoms or any other kind of contraception, is when that contraception has failed.
Discussions of condoms breaking or being out of date or the Pill failing to be effective – they manage to make it into the script – but not the awkward normality of having to press pause on the passionate stuff in order to open a new box.
And that has consequences.
It isn’t some tiny percentage of Australian teenagers who fail to use condoms when they have sex – it’s the majority. In fact more than 30 per cent of young people told a Victorian survey that they didn’t use a condom last time they had sex.
More than half of those who are on the pill, don’t bother with condoms. And a fifth of those surveyed say they don’t use condoms because they don’t ‘like them’.
Okay so condoms aren’t sexy. They’re slimy and rubbery and that’s before you event get started.
Let’s face it: they can be kind of gross.
And if you’re a teenager trying all this out for the first time, you want it to be like you see it in the movies.
But if you’re having sex with a partner and one of you has previously been having sex with someone else, then condoms are a rather EXCELLENT item to have around. Also, if you think sex might be fun but babies might not be, then contraception suddenly becomes less icky and more INCREDIBLY USEFUL (not to mention revolutionary for the rights of women, but I digress….).
And while teenagers are bombarded with safe sex information from teachers and parents, it seems that many of them have a woeful understanding of the risks associated with STIs and the ones who do, aren’t paying much attention.
So could TV and movies be the answer?
In 2012 Senator John Faulkner indicated that the Government would consider introducing new rules about smoking in TV and film production, as a condition of funding support. The United Kingdom have investigated similar rules.
And if these sort of content rules could work to deter and de-glamourise smoking, why couldn’t they be applied to encourage safe sex and well, make safe sex sexy?
I’m not a big fan of government intervention to such a micro and extreme level unless there is a pretty demanding reason. In particular, the idea of inhibiting those in the creative arts from telling the stories they want to tell, in the way they want to tell them, really doesn’t appeal.
After all, you rarely see a scene where a character goes to the toilet, the more mundane parts of life do need to be edited out now and then. But I think when it comes to safe sex and the messages we’re sending young people from a medium they obviously look to – TV – we can do better.
This is a call that television producers and Hollywood should be able to hear and respond to on their own.
Teenagers need to see safe sex as something that goes without saying, that is an unremarkable but fundamental part of adult’s sex lives. When use of contraception is always edited out – it makes teens feel like it’s an optional extra. And when condoms are used on TV and they generally fail – well you’d forgive a young person for assuming that’s what always happens.
Would it be so difficult, to script a little scene between Barney and Robin on How I Met Your Mother, that included the line “Hey babe, can you grab a condom while you’re up checking that Ted hasn’t had another existential crisis?”
Or as the President and Mrs Bartlett brush their teeth together in an episode of The West Wing, Jed Bartlett could throw in a casual “sweetheart you forgot your pill” as he reaches for the official White House floss (is there official White House floss? There should be).
Blair and Chuck on Gossip Girl could take a trip to a high-end supermarket to buy some gold plated, diamond studded condoms designed for heightened Upper East Side pleasure?
Seriously, it’s NOT HARD PEOPLE! I’ve never even BEEN a TV producer and I can come up with this kind of GOLD for your plot lines in mere minutes! Think what you could do, Hollywood?
There were 5,000,000,000 quality tested, professionally produced condoms were made last year.
Why on earth couldn’t a couple of them end up on our TV screens and NOT break.