New Study Confirms Sex is Popular
A story making the rounds in last week's news cycle is that there's a lot of sex on TV. The odd thing is the note of concern with which the news is delivered. No one is decrying the increasing popularity of cooking on television, or the rise of clean-your-junk-out-of-the-spare-bedroom-you-schlub reality TV. But strangely, sex is singled out. Admittedly, there are two important factors that sex doesn't share with these things. The first is that sex, particularly the sort of glossed-over poorly-managed sex that's depicted on television, can have significant consequences: it can, for instance, create life (for sufficiently small values of "life"—I hear you really need a few months if you want something cuddly), strengthen emotional bonds, and swap any number of microbes. But a lot of things on television have consequences that are glossed over. People drive recklessly, shoot guns, fight, and say things so unimaginably vicious to one another that they might well trigger one of the other aforementioned activities if uttered in real life. But what's important to remember is that people watch television to escape from the monotony of their daily lives. Thus television should be, to borrow from Hitchcock, like life with the boring parts removed. Television doesn't show us people donning condoms before sex* for the same reason that we don't see them balancing their checkbook before going shopping: it's boring. But overspending, particularly given the recent reform of bankruptcy laws and our lack of national health care, is probably at least as damaging to one's long-term emotional and physical health as an ill-advised one-night stand. In short, television glosses over consequences because consequences are boring. In fact I have it on good authority that one of the central tenets of screenwriting is to make sure the stakes for the protagonist in any conflict are as high as possible, given the subject matter. High stakes, like a line of cocaine, make consequences fade into the background.** The second thing that makes sex special is that it's controlled by a part of our brain that we don't really consider to be "us," in the sense that we probably wouldn't say "it was decided by us that Britney Spears appears particularly fertile." In contrast to the sincere desire of thinking liberals, that part of our brain usually exhibits racism, ageism, class-ism, size-ism, looks-ism and any number of other frowned-upon -isms. And, lest we forget (in all but a vanishingly small percentage of the population), sexism. That part of our brain also urges us to engage in all sorts of odd activities ranging from the mildly inappropriate to the punishable by hard time. This reptilian brain factor, rightfully so, both scares us and fascinates us. Obviously apart from not being boring, drama—even television drama—must be dramatic. And what, pray tell, do we as humans find dramatic? Well, certainly not a bunch of robots acting in their carefully premeditated rational self-interest. What we crave are human emotions, the interplay of human frailty and virtue, and—for men—explosions and car chases and fistfights. Passion, temptation, risk, revenge—all the sorts of things we secretly wish would happen in our own lives, except when they actually do happen, at which point they're just stressful and we wish they'd be over with already (cf. the Ancient Chinese Curse™). I don't think it's particularly disingenuous of television producers to give us what we want. I think the rise of sex and sexual situations on television—the inevitable commentary from various moral scolds notwithstanding—reflects a natural and ultimately healthy coming to terms with what makes us human. Plus we get to watch really hot people pretending to get it on. *The only popular series I know of that consistently makes a point of the characters' using condoms is the Showtime series Queer as Folk, something I doubt the aforementioned moral scolds would take much comfort in. **You're right, I've never done a line of cocaine. But that's what I hear, anyway.