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Last weekend, Jim Carrey's "Yes Man" hit movie screens nationwide. Thousands of moms and dads let their teens see it because it was rated PG-13. But Carrey's character, in a rather graphic scene, receives oral sex from a willing elderly woman. It's played for laughs, but it's hardly funny. The Motion Picture Assn. of America, the organization that assigns ratings to movies, has essentially put its stamp of approval on this flick for anyone over the age of 13. The MPAA is asleep at the wheel.
This type of entertainment fare isn't harmless. A meta-analysis of research on kids and media published Dec. 4 sized up 14 studies on sexual behavior. All but one found that adolescents exposed to more sexual content initiated sexual behavior at a younger age. This arrived on the heels of a Rand study that found that the teens who are most exposed to sexualized TV programming (the 90th percentile and above) were almost twice as likely to either get someone pregnant or become pregnant before the age of 20 as those in the 10th percentile and lower.
What will we do about this? Sure, parents need to be more diligent about monitoring what their kids watch and talking to them about what they have already seen. But equally important, the MPAA needs to completely overhaul the way it rates movies for sexual content.
The MPAA actually appears to have been responsive to calls for it to be more conscious of on-screen smoking. I would posit that parents are just as concerned about their children's sexual health. The parents I know don't want their kids catching a sexually transmitted disease. They don't want their teens dealing with an unwanted pregnancy. And they really don't want them racked with lifelong guilt because they imitated something they saw on screen.
ABC News broadcast a revealing story in May in which a woman in her early 20s admitted how the "Sex and the City" series influenced her teen behaviors. "Carrie smoked, so I smoked. Samantha looked at hooking up with random people as not a big deal, so that's what I did too," she explained. Watching the program, she said, "made it a little easier to justify my behavior."
That's exactly the reason why the MPAA must revamp the way it evaluates films. This year, a long list of films rated PG-13 contained the type of sexualized material that should have squarely landed them a restricted (R) rating, including "The Love Guru," "The Women," "Vicki Cristina Barcelona," "Meet the Spartans" and "You Don't Mess with the Zohan." What parent can trust a system that says these movies are OK for 13-year-olds?
MPAA, you can do better than this. Have the courage to give hormone-soaked movies an R rating, or at least give parents specific information about what our kids are being exposed to. We really do care about our kids -- and not just that they don't puff Marlboros.
Bob Waliszewski is director of Focus on the Family's www.pluggedinonline.com