On Tuesday night, one of television's most recognizable gay characters, Kurt on Glee, lost his virginity. In doing so, he taught a lot of teens about sex.
Which is why media watch groups were up in arms. The Parents Television Council (PTC) said the show's "celebrating teen sex constitutes gross recklessness." "Teen sex is now more prevalent on TV than adult sex and Glee is only playing into that trend," said PTC president Tim Winter in a statement in advance of the episode. "Research proves that television is a teen sexual superpeer that can, and likely will, influence a teen's decision to become sexually active."
Really? Actually, yes, according to research by Rebecca Collins, a senior behavioral scientist and research director of the Health Promotion and Disease Prevention program at the RAND Corporation in Los Angeles. In her two frequently cited and large-scale studies of teen media consumption and sexual behavior, Collins found that teens who watched the most TV with sexual content (90th percentile) were twice as likely to get pregnant within a three-year span as those who watched the least (10th percentile). In a separate analysis, she found that teens who watched a lot of sexualized TV are more likely to initiate sex in the following year than teens who watched less.
But that's not the whole story: Collins and her team found that TV shows that include sex, but also include discussions about contraception and unintended pregnancy, as well as the emotions surrounding sex, can help educate teens about the risks and consequences of their behavior. And, when watched with parents, such programming can also spur family discussions about a subject that many parents are too scared to broach. "Parents may be able to mitigate the influence of this sexual content by viewing with their children and discussing these depictions of sex," Collins wrote.
And studies show that teens want to talk with their parents about sex. Parents hold equal sway with the media when it comes to educating teens about safe sex: a 2004 Kaiser Foundation/Seventeen magazine national survey of 516 teens found that kids learned about contraception from parents, schools and the media equally. And given that many sex education programs have been whittled down to abstinence only, with one-third of teens not receiving basic instruction on contraception in school, the "media have arguably become one of the leading sex educators in the United States today," according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
That's important considering that while 75% of prime time programs contain sexual content, only 14% of such episodes mention the risks or responsibilities associated with having sex. Among that 14% was Tuesday night's Glee.
The episode was about teens losing their virginity, to be sure, but the focus wasn't sex — it was the preamble to sex. Seventeen-year-old Kurt spent most of the hour-long episode discussing with his longtime beau, Blaine, what sex meant for their relationship and for his own emotional state, along with practical matters like condom use. Rachel, meanwhile, also lost her virginity in the episode, to devoted boyfriend Finn, and only after similar discussions about the emotional fallout and safe sex.
(Interestingly, cheerleader and non-virgin Brittany's sexual experience was treated as a punch line, when she described her first time "at cheerleading camp. He just crawled into my tent. Alien invasion." But no media watchdog has commented on what basically sounded like a coercive situation, if not full-fledged assault.)
Kurt's and Rachel's first times, which both ended up being positive, tend to reflect the real-life experiences of teens their age, who have waited to have sex for the first time. A recent report from the National Survey of Family Growth found that 90% of girls who first have sex between the ages of 17 and 19 use contraception, compared with only 59% of girls who are 14 or younger. As Healthland's Sora Song reported earlier this year:
Among teen girls who lost their virginity at 14 or younger, 18% said they "really didn't want it to happen at the time," double the rate of teen girls who waited until age 18 or 19. About 30% of younger teen girls said they "really wanted it to happen at the time," compared with 52% of girls who had sex at 18 or 19 for the first time.
Overall, the report found, American teens are having less sex and using contraception more often when they do it for the first time. In 2009, the teen birth rate hit an all-time low. So contrary to what Collins' studies would have predicted, while sexual content in the media is up, teen sex is down.
Who knows why, but isn't it possible that shows like Glee, which depict teen sex realistically, are actually a good influence — or at least not a bad one? In case you missed it, here's how Jim Poniewozik described the episode over on TIME's Entertainment blog:
This, not any "Will they do it?" debate, was what made his storyline for me: in its own way, [Kurt's] fight with Blaine in the parking lot was as much a statement as his coming out itself. It's his way of asserting that to him, being gay is not simply defined by sex, it's defined by love. ... [B]eing gay does not in itself settle your identity, it's simply one more step in figuring out what your identity is ultimately going to be, where you fit in.
Rachel and Finn's will-they-won't-they, meanwhile, hung on Rachel's insecurity as a performer — it is a Rachel story, after all — but also on their often-unspoken realization that there are forces that may push them apart after graduation. ... [I]t rooted the decision in their larger story: it's one way they can be together that's still in their control.
That feels real. It's what teenagers do: try to exert some control over a bewildering world that is out of their control. (As an adult, you eventually accept the futility of that arrangement.) That world often includes sex. And, as far as researchers like Collins are concerned, TV shows that realistically depict teens' choices, struggles and efforts toward self-discovery are, educationally speaking, a good thing. Rather than engaging in public handwringing, therefore, maybe the members of the PTC could sit down with their kids and just tune in.