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The Young & the Randy : Networks Build Plots Around Teen-Age Sex

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On Fox’s “True Colors” Sunday, 18-year-old Terry Freeman (Claude Brooks) was ridiculed by his family for being a virgin. By the end of the show, his non-virgin girlfriend made it clear to him that he wouldn’t be for much longer.

On NBC’s “Blossom” Monday, 15-year-old Blossom Russo (Mayim Bialik) debated “going to second base” with her boyfriend.

On ABC’s “Roseanne” Tuesday, 16-year-old Becky Connor, (Lecy Goramson) asked her mother to help her get birth control pills.

On PBS’ “In the Shadow of Love: A Teen AIDS Story” tonight, a high school senior is engaging in unsafe sex with her boyfriend while researching a report on teen-agers with AIDS. On Thursday afternoon, ABC will broadcast the same program as an “Afterschool Special.”

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On ABC’s “Doogie Howser, M.D.” next Wednesday, 18-year-old Doogie (Neil Patrick Harris) will experience making love for the first time.

“It is happening all over the dial. I guess this is TV virginity week,” said “True Colors” executive producer Michael Weithorn.

Thirteen years ago, NBC caused a minor sensation when teen actor Lance Kerwin lost his virginity in “James at 15.” The network was so uneasy about the scene that it squelched writer Dan Wakefield’s effort to have the girl deliver a line about being “responsible"--a reference to the then-taboo subject of birth control.

During this premiere week of the 1991-92 TV season, references to condoms are commonplace. Indeed, tonight’s “In the Shadow of Love: A Teen AIDS Story” not only addresses the very real risk of getting pregnant or contracting disease during intercourse without them, but also is underwritten by Trojan brand condoms.

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Not surprisingly, reaction to this new candor is mixed.

“In prime-time television, demand is following supply,” said Terry Rakolta, founder and president of Americans for Responsible Television. “The networks are leading, not following how we think. They aren’t mirroring society. I don’t know any mothers who would advise their daughters to do what they want when it comes to sex. Most parents would try to lead them away from it. It will be very interesting to see how the networks handle this issue and which advertisers want to put their name to it.”

In August, just days after the first reports that Doogie Howser and his girlfriend Wanda (Lisa Dean Ryan) would consummate their teen romance on the first episode of the show’s third season, Steven Bochco Productions and ABC received several letters from concerned parents.

“I am not a raving, angry viewer, but I do select carefully and have taught my children the same, and they are children at this point in each one’s life,” wrote Kathleen Gallagher, a mother of three teens from Crestwood, N.Y. “Therefore, I react with concern that the writers, producers and directors find it necessary to present Doogie as sexually active in an upcoming episode.”

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The message to millions of impressionable and often lonely teens will be that everyone is “doing it,” including Doogie Howser, and that intercourse will somehow relieve that loneliness, Gallagher predicted.

Sitting at his computer terminal a la Doogie at the end of each “Doogie Howser, M.D.” episode, Bochco himself answered Gallagher’s letter. The same letter went out to several other concerned parents who urged Bochco to let his young doctor retain his virtue.

“With all due respect, I maintain that virginity, or its loss, is not the only--or even the most important--aspect of role modeling,” Bochco wrote. “What about ethics? What about honesty? What about taking responsibility for one’s behavior? . . .

“The fact is that most young people lose their virginity far earlier than Doogie, who is now 18. The issue, I think, is not whether Doogie loses it, or even when he loses it, but rather, are he and his partner emotionally prepared to deal with the consequences of the act? And is the act itself merely a physical one, or representative of a deeper, more complex emotional involvement?”

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As a parent himself, Bochco defended the episode as an opportunity for children and parents to watch together so that they might be able to discuss a little more candidly the concept and consequences of intercourse before teens are confronted with the choice.

Gallagher was not persuaded.

“Mr. Bochco seemed to go around the issue but I don’t think he addressed it,” she said in an interview. “This isn’t about loss of virginity. It’s about loss of virginity among youth. If I watch ‘Knots Landing,’ I have no problem with the sex. I’m not a prude. But I watch ‘Doogie’ with my girls. I wish that Mr. Bochco had let him explore his relationship with Wanda for another year and then maybe lose his virginity.

“I want my children to know that their own physical expression of love is going to be very special, very treasured, very important and not something so casual.”

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Eighty-six percent of American boys who have reached Doogie’s age are no longer virgins, according to statistics released by the Studio City-based Center for Population Options. The average age that males lose their virginity in the United States is 15.7 years, while the average female sheds her virginity at 16.2 years, said Vanessa Poster, a senior program associate with the center.

“It’s going to happen, and shows that handle the issue responsibly, emphasizing how to protect yourself from pregnancy and disease, deserve praise, not criticism,” Poster said.

The current rash of teen sexcapades was kicked off when dark-haired Brenda, played by Shannen Doherty, slept with sallow-cheeked Dylan in the season-ending episode of Fox’s “Beverly Hills, 90210" last spring. Her parents found out about it when the series resumed in July, as she thought briefly that she might be pregnant.

“I didn’t know it was a big deal when we did it,” said creator and supervising producer Darren Star. “It took me by surprise that parents could actually be shocked to know a 17-year-old girl might be having sex with her boyfriend with whom she had been going out for over a year. I think maybe parents have their blinders on. This is rather harsh, but parents seem to be a little hypocritical.”

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Star finds it revealing that Brandon, Brenda’s twin brother, lost his virginity to an old girlfriend in the fourth episode of “Beverly Hills, 90210" last November and not one eyebrow was raised.

That may have been due in part to lower ratings then, Star acknowledged, but he added: “I think there may also have been a little bit of a double standard there. With Brandon, a boy is losing it, but Brenda’s a girl. What really upset parents I think was that she was glowing afterward.”

Parents who believe teens aren’t sexually active are living in a fantasy world, according to Star.

“We got a number of letters from parents who were basically upset that we suddenly gave their teen-agers permission to have sex,” he said. “I think that’s carrying the power of TV a little too far. Kids have to get their morality and their values from their parents and if things are so shaky that one hour of TV is going to turn that around, that’s a reflection of how shaky the family is.”

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Instead of swimming against the tide by protesting these shows, Poster suggests parents take advantage of “teachable moments” to broach normally taboo subjects with their children.

“Regardless of how parents feel about what is presented in a show, they can use it as an opportunity to teach their children their own values,” she said. “Parents who don’t are going to be parents with kids who have teen-age pregnancies and sexually transmitted disease.”

For the most part, loss of virginity is going to remain an activity of older teens on TV this fall. NBC’s Blossom may have gone to second base--she made a point of keeping her decision private--but her virtue will remain intact at least for another year. And Kevin Arnold will learn to drive a car this season, but won’t get into the back seat on “The Wonder Years.”

But in reality, teens are experimenting with sex at far more tender ages than their TV counterparts, and ignoring that fact in prime time is insane, argues Peggy Charren, founder of the venerable lobbying organization Action for Children’s Television.

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“These old, white, three-piece-suited males who never get pregnant are the ones who keep saying ‘The public’s not ready,’ ” she said.

In some ways, network TV is still Neanderthal when it comes to prime-time entertainment, she says. A protagonist has been able to empty his .45 into a bad guy without network censors batting an eye for decades, but amorous young characters are still forbidden to trip each others triggers when it comes to physical love.

“The public’s ready for prime-time commercials for vaginal sprays that foster disease, but they’re not ready for the mention of condoms, which prevent pregnancy and disease. That’s the mentality. And that’s nuts,” Charren said.

As for Gallagher, she said that she will watch Doogie lose his virginity next Wednesday, but she’s not sure that she is going to let her teen-agers stay up for it. That doesn’t mean they won’t eventually get to see it.

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“I may tape it,” she said. By next fall, her girls may be ready.


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