Cover Story

Television programs from the 2001-2002 season included references to safe-sex issues twice as often as programs from the 1997-1998 season, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation study, "Sex on TV 3: Content and Context." About a quarter of shows with talk about or depictions of sexual intercourse alluded to safe sex, compared with 14 percent in the earlier season. More than a third of shows with sexual content involving teen characters contained references to safe sex, compared with 18 percent four years ago.

To reach those results, a research team led by psychologist Dale Kunkel, PhD, a communication professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, examined more than a thousand programs, including movies, talk shows and reality shows, for messages concerning sexual patience, the possible consequences of unprotected sex and sexual precautions. The results--presented at a February conference for entertainment leaders in Beverly Hills, Calif.--also showed that almost half of the episodes from teenage viewers' top 20 favorite shows alluded to safe sex when referring to sexual intercourse.

If the presence of safe-sex messages on television continues to increase, Kunkel says, so will the salience of the issue of sexual health for the public. "We know people's perceptions of reality are influenced by TV," says Kunkel, chair of APA's Committee on Children, Youth and Families. "It's not that one incident [on television] affects how you see the world, but the accumulation of similar types of messages."

The study also found the number of shows containing sexual content--about two-thirds--was almost the same as two years ago. Eight out of 10 episodes from teenagers' top 20 shows contained sexual content, including talk about sex, kissing or touching. One out of five included content relating to sexual intercourse. The study is available online at