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More Sex on TV, But Safer, Too

The friends of Friends and the denizens of Dawson's Creek may be doing it more than ever, but television is doing a significantly better job of emphasizing that the sex be safe, according to a Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation study released last week in Los Angeles.

While two-thirds of TV shows include some sexual content, about the same as two years ago, the number of those shows that mention safe sex has risen to 26%, from 14% four years ago, according to the study, which has been conducted every two years since 1998.

"It's encouraging to see this trend toward greater attention to safer-sex issues on TV," says Kaiser Vice President Vicky Rideout, who oversaw the study. "This generation is immersed in the media, so, when Hollywood makes safer sex sexier—whether it's abstinence or protection—that's all to the good."

Said a CBS spokesman, "It's certainly nice that they recognize the progress, because it's a responsibility we take seriously." CBS is part of Viacom, which runs safe-sex public-service announcements on its air. No other broadcast network chose to comment.

Sex by teenagers and young adults has significantly decreased. The 1999-2000 study found that 9% of sex occurred between teenagers, but last year's revealed that only 3% of instances involved teens. Depictions of young adults having sex dropped to 14%, from 23%.

The study found that 61% of sex on TV was between established couples last year, vs. 50% in 1999-2000. And sex between those who have just met dropped to 7% in 2000-01, from 16%. In such scenes, alcohol was involved only 11% of the time, drugs only 1%.

Still, one in seven programs, or 14%, show or imply sex, up from 10% two years ago and 7% in the 1997-98 study. One-third of shows include "sexual behaviors," and two-thirds talk about sex. Four years ago, a little more than half of all shows included sexual content.

In compiling the study, the foundation looked at one week of programming from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. on nine broadcast and cable channels—ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, PBS, Lifetime, TNT, USA and HBO—and on WB affiliate KTLA(TV) Los Angeles. Programming judged as sexual was any activity or dialogue with sexual intent.