Safe Sex

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Safe Sex

Sex can be considered "safe" if it avoids the risk of one person infecting another with a sexually transmitted disease (STD). Some individuals and groups maintain that the only sex that is 100 percent safe is no sex—that is, abstinence. But since STDs are usually passed on through bodily fluids (genital herpes is an exception, being transmitted by skin-to-skin contact), any form of sexual expression that avoids one partner's exposure to the body fluids of another can be reasonably described as "safe." Although this definition would include such practices as mutual masturbation (once known as "heavy petting"), the most common contemporary definition of the term "safe sex" involves the use of a latex condom to avoid the spread of STDs; such devices have been shown to be 98-100 percent effective.

Safe sex is a vital necessity in the modern age, and has been so ever since the 1980s, when medical science first identified the virus that causes AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome), a fatal disease with no known vaccine or cure. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that STDs constitute five of the ten most common infectious diseases reported in the United States: AIDS, syphilis, gonorrhea, hepatitis-B, and chlamydia. Further, there are some 12 million new cases of STDs reported in the United States every year.

One of the early efforts to increase public awareness of STDs in the age of AIDS was made by Otis R. Bowen, Secretary for Health and Human Services during the Reagan administration. In a 1987 press conference, he claimed that "When a person has sex, they're not just having it with that partner. They're having it with everybody that partner has had it with in the past 10 years." Bowen's observation made its way into the popular culture quickly. It was picked up by the news magazines, appeared in public service advertisements, and even showed up in television dramas like L.A. Law.

When it comes to depictions of sexual activity, however, television entertainment programs are contributors to the STD problem much more frequently then they are part of the solution. A 1999 study by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation showed that 67 percent of prime-time television programs contained verbal or visual references to sex, but only 10 percent made any mention of safe sex or contraception. Within the program sample studied, 88 scenes were identified portraying or implying sexual intercourse, and not one contained any depiction or mention of safe sex. These results were consistent with similar studies performed in 1986, 1993, and 1996: there was considerable sexual activity portrayed on television, but very little mention of STD prevention by any of the sexually involved characters.

There have been a few notable exceptions to this trend. In 1989, an episode of the situation comedy Head of the Class caused a stir when one of the characters, a teenage boy, asks his teacher whether he should have intercourse with his girlfriend. The teacher (portrayed by Howard Hesseman) advises the boy not to have sex, but, if he must, to be sure to use a condom. In the late 1990s, several shows on the WB network, including Dawson's Creek and Felicity, showed characters discussing sex with disease prevention raised as an issue; similar scenes have also been seen on the UPN network's popular show Moesha.

If discussion of condoms is rare in network television shows, it is unheard of in the advertising that pays for those programs. Neither the major networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, or Fox) nor the largest independents (WB and UPN) will accept paid advertising for condoms, even during late-night shows. The networks' concern is that such advertisements would cause offense in the more conservative areas of the country, and also that some advertisers of more conventional products would not wish to have their advertisements preceded or followed by a condom commercial.

Local network affiliates, however, are allowed to accept condom advertisements, and several have done so. In August of 1998, CBS affiliate stations in New York and Los Angeles broadcast condom advertisements for the first time, and were followed by Boston a month later. The advertisements were protested by the conservative American Family Association, but the stations continued to run them.

The networks have been more open to the airing of public service announcements (PSAs) for AIDS prevention, which often mention condoms. In 1994, the networks (along with many cable television channels) began broadcasting a series of PSAs sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control. Although Fox and NBC showed the six advertisements without alteration, ABC felt obliged to add this tagline to each: "Abstinence is the safest, but if you do have sex, latex condoms can protect you." CBS was willing to air five of the PSAs, but drew the line at one that featured a counselor infected with AIDS and an "800" number to call for more information.

Just as concern about safe sex rarely shows up in television programs, it is also generally absent from the movies Americans watch. One exception was Pretty Woman (1990), in which prostitute Vivian Ward (Julia Roberts) offers a choice of condoms to her "date," Edward Lewis, played by Richard Gere. More recently, the 1997 sex farce Booty Call features two women's insistence on condom use by their men as a central plot element.

Condoms are also becoming more common in the last place where one might expect to find them—XXX adult films. In 1998, porn star Mark Wallice reportedly tested positive for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. This is not unusual in itself, but it has been alleged that Wallice had tested positive more than a year earlier, and had concealed that fact while continuing to have unprotected sex in films, apparently infecting several of his female co-stars in the process. Consequently, pornography is likely to be showing a lot more latex in the future.

Another unlikely source for safe sex advocacy was Kate Shindle, the 1997-1998 Miss America. Unlike her predecessors, who generally shied away from controversy, Shindle used her many public appearances to discuss AIDS and its prevention through safe sex practices. This caused the cancellation of some of her speaking engagements, but Shindle was undeterred, delivering her message in any venue where she could reach an audience. "To me," she said, "the most important thing is saving lives."

—Justin Gustainis

Further Reading:

DiClimente, Ralph J., editor. Adolescents and AIDS: A Generation in Jeopardy. Newbury Park, California, Sage Publications, 1992.

Edgar, Timothy, Mary Anne Fitzpatrick, and Vicki S. Freimuth, editors. AIDS: A Communication Perspective. Hillsdale, New Jersey, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1992.

Lowry, Dennis T., and Jon A. Shidler. "Prime Time TV Portrayals of Sex, 'Safe Sex' and AIDS: A Longitudinal Analysis." Journalism Quarterly. Vol. 70, No. 3, Autumn 1993, 628-637.

Nourse, Alan E. Teen Guide to Safe Sex. New York, Franklin Watts, 1988.

Patton, Cindy. Fatal Advice: How Safe-Sex Education Went Wrong. Durham, Duke University Press, 1996.

Peters, Brooks. Terrific Sex in Fearful Times. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1988.

Preston, John, and Glenn Swann. Safe Sex: The Ultimate Erotic Guide. New York, New American Library, 1986.

Scotti, Angelo T., and Thomas A. Moore. Safe Sex: What Everyone Should Know about Sexually Transmitted Diseases. New York, Paper Jacks, 1987.