Sexuality Education and Pregnancy Prevention (cont.)

Moderator: Why is nudity and sexuality on TV such a big deal in America, but not Europe?

Langrall-Folb: I think it's a combination of many things. The results are astounding. First of all, Europe has always been somewhat more open with regard to nudity and sexuality, and that may come from having experienced two devastating wars. It reduces you to a different place. That's my own personal speculation. We do see that in a country like the Netherlands, which is reputed to be a very open society with regard to nudity and sexuality, prostitution is legal, as is marijuana and hash, and it's under controlled circumstances, but we look at the Netherlands and we look at the teen pregnancy rate, which is about nine times lower than the U.S. I think it's many different variables that play into that, one being that the government sponsors long-term broad-reaching media campaigns that encourage, not abstinence until marriage because they know that's unrealistic, but rather safe sex or no sex. There is a generation of teenagers now that have grown up with this mantra, "Safe Sex or No Sex." Literally these kids feel that it's their duty as a citizen of the Netherlands to protect themselves as well as their partner. When you look at teen birth rate in the Netherlands compared to the U.S., out of 1,000 women ages 15 - 19, the U.S. has about 52 births out of 1000. In the Netherlands, same number, they have four births. We're just so off the scale, and we wonder if this country were more open about sexuality, not only in media but also in the schools, because in the Netherlands, anything goes. They can talk about anything. The teachers are not restricted at all. There really is no sexuality education curriculum, because you can talk about it anytime you want. You can talk about it in sociology class, health, biology -- in religion class, they talk about it a lot. I visited Christian schools in Amsterdam that were very open and forthcoming about any topic of sexuality. I asked the head master if his sexuality education curriculum differed from what would be considered a public school, and he chuckled, and said we all have sex the same way so why would it be different. There are condom machines in the school bathrooms, on the street corners, in subway stations, in restaurants, just freely available. Young people have access to family-planning services and healthcare services freely available to them. It's a societal attitude about sexuality and could be perceived to be more open, but appears to us to be more healthy. Young people are not taught that sex is the forbidden fruit. It's not used as a teasing topic on TV, but rather a normal part of being a human being. The other interesting thing about Europe is that with all the information they have, with all the accessibility they have, consequently, that the young people in Holland wait two to three years longer to become sexually active than they do in this country. The average age of first sexual encounter in the U.S. is between 15 and 16, and in the Netherlands, it's between 17 and 18. Clearly the young people of Europe take the information they're being given about sexuality and take it very seriously when they make a decision about their own lives. In this country (personal opinion), I feel young people are frustrated at being told you're not old enough to know this and you're not old enough to do this. They want to prove to us that they are old enough, and they go out and prove this, but now they don't have the information so they wind up pregnant, or they wind up with an STD, or worse.

Moderator: There has been a drop in teen pregnancies in the past few years. Has TV played a role in this, either negatively or positively?

Langrall-Folb: I would love to be able to say I have data on that and I would love to say yes, it's played a positive role. My personal opinion is it has, because if you think about it, in the last ten years, we've started to see condoms being mentioned on TV, or safer sex slowly becoming more normalized in a young person's life. A large percentage of the reason why the teen pregnancy rate has dropped is because young people are using contraceptives more. Just from viewing and from watching TV, you can see that it has become more normalized on TV, as well as in society and elsewhere. We still have a very long way to go.

Moderator: In what ways do the media reinforce or tear down sexual stereotypes? Are there certain ethnic or gender-related stereotypes that you frequently observe?

Langrall-Folb: TV, you have to understand, is drama. It's theater; it's pretend. Theater has to do with stereotypes a lot because to get the point across, you need the character to be way over the top. There's always going to be some degree of stereotyping on TV. I think that TV has made some great attempts at crossing over and portraying different characters and different roles. We see it in commercials now. We see it in the programming, the Mr. Mom's and sort of crossing those old stereotypes. I feel that sometimes TV is the last industry to catch up with some of the trends, for whatever their reasons are, be it fear of advertisers or backlash from the public. There have been incredible examples and pioneers in TV over the years. Norman Lear really broke down some barriers on TV by addressing subject matter that had never been addressed before in entertainment TV, like oral contraception, racism, many issues he dealt with. I find it interesting that some of the subject matter that he was able to portray in the 1970's is almost taboo today. I don't know of a situation comedy today that would tackle the subject of abortion.

Moderator: To what extent are advertisers responsible for what we see on TV programming today?

Langrall-Folb: The networks will tell you that they very much are in control of what we see on TV today, specifically in regard to sexuality and sexual health messages. I am constantly being told, we would show condoms or we would discuss protection or contraception or pregnancy prevention, except the advertisers will get very upset and will remove sponsorship of the show. If we show a condom, we lose sponsors, which I don't doubt is true. The advertises are living in fear of public outcry or boycotts of their product. Our research shows us that the general public is not nearly at offended as seeing condoms on TV as the advertisers think they are. That's part of our work, to conduct more outreach to advertisers and to educate them on the issues and the importance of portraying some of this in an effort to reduce teen pregnancy and the abortion rate. We're trying to do that now by conducting more research about public opinion or mentioning contraception on TV. It strikes me as quite odd that an advertiser will sponsor a show that exploits sex but will be terrified to sponsor a show that mentions contraception.