Making the Case for Responsible Sex : Television: The Center for Population Options increasingly advises standards-and-practices staffers. Tuesday, the center will give awards.


It’s been nearly 12 years since writer Dan Wakefield battled unsuccessfully to persuade NBC that the adolescent characters on the series “James at 15” should use birth control during an episode in which they were to make love.

Never mind that words such as condom or diaphragm were verboten: Wakefield was forbidden to even imply the concept of birth control, or to allow the character of James to say he wanted to be “responsible.”

But although the networks still forbid producers of commercials and most public-service announcements from appearing to support contraception or contraceptive devices, the AIDS epidemic and an explosion in teen-age pregnancy rates have prompted network executives to allow discussion of birth control and sexually transmitted diseases on some entertainment programs. And as network censors and producers alike search for tasteful and informative ways to grapple with these difficult issues, they are turning increasingly to a little-known advocacy group that for years has been quietly lobbying for just such changes.


The Center for Population Options, which celebrates its 10th anniversary Tuesday with an awards ceremony for television programs whose portrayal of sexuality and family planning issues the organization considers outstanding, is dedicated to preventing unwanted teen-age pregnancies.

An outgrowth of the population control movement of the 1960s and ‘70s, the organization offers research and counseling to youth organizations, schools and government about teen pregnancy and adolescent sexuality. Its Los Angeles-based Media Project serves as a research center and a sort of subtle but firm pressure group aimed at bringing the messages of responsible sexuality to television, radio and film.

“The standards-and-practices people who were writing safe sex out of scripts a few years ago are now coming to us for help working it in,” said Marlene Goland, director of the group’s Media Project.

Prime-time series “still aren’t as good as we would like them to be,” she said, “but when sex is depicted with teen-agers, most of the quality shows do make an effort to depict safe sex.”

The reasons are as unfortunate as they are clear: According to the Journal of Adolescent Health Care, one of every four 15-year-old girls in the United States is sexually active, compared to one out of seven in 1971. Ten percent of all teen-age girls become pregnant every year, and one in seven sexually active teen-agers contracts sexually transmitted diseases.

During the last two years, the Center for Population Options has been asked to assist in the making of three “Afterschool Specials” for ABC, plus “Schoolbreak Specials” at CBS and series such as NBC’s “The Hogan Family” and Fox’s “21 Jump Street.”


Al Rabin, supervising executive producer of the NBC soap opera, “Days of Our Lives,” said that the organization has been pivotal in changing that program’s approach to teen-age sexuality. In 1986, he participated in a seminar on sexuality and television sponsored by the center and the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.

“We were about to do a story line (about sex) without dealing with the issue of teen-age pregnancy because that’s the way we always functioned,” Rabin said. The then-teen-age character of Jennifer Horton was going to have sex, but “we were not going to deal with the issue of virginity, we were not going to deal with the issue of birth control and we were not going to deal with the issue of safe sex,” Rabin said. “We ended up dealing with all of those issues.”

Not everyone thinks the Center for Population Options is pushing a proper point of view. Gregory Mueller, spokesman for the conservative newsletter “TV Etc.,” said he thinks the organization’s message is well-intentioned but may serve more to encourage teen-age sexual activity than to temper it with responsibility and restraint.

“This is an old argument between conservative groups and the more liberal groups,” Mueller said. “I think sex is a private thing that ought to be dealt with in the family. I don’t think it’s something to be dealt with in a soap opera.”

Judith Senderowitz, founder and executive director of the Center for Population Options, disagrees.

“The standard criticism against groups like ours is (that) if you tell kids about it or mention it, they’ll do it,” Senderowitz said. “But saying (that discussion of contraception and safe sex should be banned from TV) is like saying, ‘Because we don’t think you ought to ride motorcycles, don’t sell motorcycle helmets.’ If the kids are going to be riding motorcycles, we’ve got to get them to wear helmets so they don’t crack their heads open.”