TV Isn’t the Major Culprit of ‘Teen’ Sex

<i> Mike Males is a writer and graduate student in social ecology at the University of California, Irvine</i>

Rick Du Brow is concerned with the possible corruption of “impressionable” youths watching “adult” shows containing sexual content and suggests these programs might contribute to rising rates of unwed and teen-age motherhood (“Sex on TV: The Children Are Watching,” Calendar, July 30). One suggestion from Du Brow was to schedule these shows at hours “kids” would not be watching.

But let’s not be so quick to blame young people.

Birth figures from the California Center for Health Statistics show that, for example, in 1990 there were 155,891 births to unwed parents in which the age of the parents was known. Of these, 115,201 involved two adult partners age 20 or older, 26,231 involved a teen-age partner and a partner 20 or older, and just 14,459 (less than 10%) involved two teen-age partners. That’s right--adults age 20 and older are involved in roughly 90% of all unwed births in the state, including 64% of births involving teen-agers. Every week in this state, adults over age 20 are involved in 600 unwed births among teen-agers; adults over age 25, in 135 such births.

If your reaction is, “Wait a minute, I thought teen-age girls and boys were having babies with each other,” you share a commonly held, understandable misimpression. Neither officials nor the media have publicized what decades of U.S. and California birth records through 1992 show: 70% of the partners in “teen” births are over age 20.


This is not the worst of the issue, however. When it comes to rape and sexual abuse, the male offenders who victimize children and young teen-agers average about 30 years old. Recent studies have found that for 60% of the so-called “sexually active” girls under age 14, their only sexual experience has been a rape. Overwhelmingly, these were committed by adult men. Two-thirds of all teen-age mothers were victimized by rape or sexual abuse while growing up by men averaging 27 years of age.

Men age 20 and older thus father a large majority of all “teen-age” births, both in and out of wedlock. Typically, the fathers are much older than the teen-age mothers. A substantial majority of the fathers involved with mothers of junior and senior high school age (age 11 to 18) are adult men of post-high school age. And adult men inflict the vast majority of all rapes and sexual abuses upon children and young teens. Similar statistics show adults account for large majorities of sexually transmitted diseases and nearly all AIDS cases in children and youths as well.

Assuming (as Du Brow does) that TV and movie sex influences real-life sexual behavior, we should be equally if not more concerned about adults (even those over age 30) viewing sexually oriented programs and movies than we are about “kids.” Switching these shows to later hours would not solve anything. The question from real-life behavior, then, is not whether “kids” should see these shows, but whether anyone of any age should see them.

I believe strong questions should be raised as to why the media rarely discuss these adult-teen and adult-youth sexual issues. Du Brow rightly argues that if irresponsible sexual behavior is shown, its consequences should be shown as well. Yet every year in the United States, some 700,000 “teen” pregnancies, as well as hundreds of thousands of rapes and sexual abuses inflicted upon young girls (and boys), occur by men over age 20.


The media have never publicly held adult men accountable. The consequences of the overwhelming reality of adult-teen sex are shown only occasionally and as aberrations (typically involving celebrities), when in fact they are the central issues in what we call “teen” pregnancy, “teen” AIDS and “teen” parenting.

It seems to me media critics have strong reason to criticize the broadcast media not only for their utter failure to cover this issue, but also for their documentaries, news programs and fictional programs, which inevitably imply that teen-age boys are the fathers in most “teen-age” births, while ignoring the enormous role of both rape and voluntary sex involving adult men in the sexual initiation and pregnancies of young girls.

For the teen mothers I have interviewed, their histories of sexual abuses and the sexual advances they received (again, predominantly from adult men) had far more influence on their thinking and behavior than anything they saw on the TV screen.

We also have great reason to be concerned about the example set by adult men influencing boys, who, as they age into late adolescence, imitate their elders’ pattern of sexual contact with younger females. Yet the media have spent far more time debating the effects of fictional media images upon youth behavior than the effects of real-life beatings and rapes inflicted upon young people, and the examples set, by adults.