Sex on Television, More Or Less

ABSTRACT - Are sex and violence substitutes for each other? There is no precedent or reason to think that they are. Yet they are frequently linked. While they are both emotional issues, they are distinct issues. The concern with television violence is derived from the possibility that it increases crime and delinquency. There is consensus in society that any such effects are undesirable. In contrast, there is no such societal agreement about the effects of television sex. Commercial television is the most conservative of the mass media when it comes to sex. There is no "real sex" on TV, only innuendo.


William S. Rubens (1978) ,"Sex on Television, More Or Less", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 05, eds. Kent Hunt, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 415-418.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5, 1978      Pages 415-418


William S. Rubens, National Broadcasting Company


Are sex and violence substitutes for each other? There is no precedent or reason to think that they are. Yet they are frequently linked. While they are both emotional issues, they are distinct issues. The concern with television violence is derived from the possibility that it increases crime and delinquency. There is consensus in society that any such effects are undesirable. In contrast, there is no such societal agreement about the effects of television sex. Commercial television is the most conservative of the mass media when it comes to sex. There is no "real sex" on TV, only innuendo.

Some of the problems involved in discussing sex are well illustrated by a recent story in the New York Times. College biology students were asked to invite their parents to a seminar on pornography. After several pornographic films had been shown, one of the mothers volunteered that she had seen a porno flick before when her husband had brought one home. Shocked, her daughter the student blurted out "Mother!" Suddenly realizing what she had done, the daughter lamely explained to the class, "Well, after all, they are my parents."

When Dr. Wells asked me if I would be willing to serve on this panel about sex and TV, he also asked if I would address the question a lot of people have been asking lately: will sex fill the void created by the reduction of television violence?

As a researcher it was natural for me to think about the implications of the question before addressing myself to the answer.

This question is like the old saw, "Have you stopped beating your wife?" It seems to imply that sex and violence are functional equivalents in programming Beach one can simply replace the other. This assumption has little basis in fact. Also, the question as posed confuses two issues which must be kept separate: sex and violence. Just for the record, I want to state at the outset that I am opposed to the latter and in favor of the former. Finally, the question does not define what is meant by "sex" on television.

In my opinion, there is no sex on television. However, I've heard from people who watch the same programs I do who think they're saturated with sex.

I will cover some of these issues, try to answer the question that was intended, and discuss some research concerns I have with respect to sex on television Band conclude with a discussion of network policy.


First, what about the assumption that sex and violence are substitutes for each other? There is no precedent suggesting that they are. If we look at theatrical movies, we can infer that sex and violence have escalated at the same time. Many movies show explicit sex and explicit violence as well. However this has not been the typical pattern in television. On TV, most of the action-adventure programs have little to do with sex and much of the so-called sex on TV occurs in comedies.

Furthermore, protests over television sex started some time ago when complaints about violence were also increasing. In other words, if those complaints reflect an increase in sex on TV, this increase took place before the reduction of action-adventure shows this season. Finally, the programming this season does not support the argument that sex takes over where violence leaves off. Action-adventure shows were replaced with all kinds of programs: new nonviolent dramas like "Man from Atlantis" and "Lou Grant," variety shows like "Redd Foxx," and all kinds of comedies B including "Soap." Neither the new programs nor the networks' policies in replacing violent programs show any uniform pattern.

I think that all these developments show that there is no reason to think of sex and violence as functional equivalents. The content of television programs and the directions programming is taking are determined through complex processes which affect sex and violence independently.


Sex and violence on television are emotional issues. Rational debate about them has been further impeded by the catch phrase "sex and violence" which lumps the issues together as if they were more or less the same. Indeed, the phrase is sometimes run together as though the two were one word: "sexanviolence." But for the broadcaster they are very distinct issues.

The concern with television violence is derived from the possibility that it increases crime and delinquency. The networks have reduced the amount of violence in their programming even though it has not been established that TV has actually affected crime or delinquency.

NBC maintains a panel of distinguished social scientists to advise Standards and Programming on potential harmful effects. Also, the networks' Broadcast Standards departments systematically supervise programming and attempt to eliminate portrayals of potentially harmful actions.

There is consensus in the society that any such effects are undesirable; no rational person would argue that there is merit in teaching or causing someone else to inflict harm on others and to act violently. As a result, broadcasters have the responsibility to act in a way which minimizes the chances of any such harmful effects.

In contrast, there is no such agreement about sex on television. Some people feel that sex is a legitimate topic for television to handle. Others feel that showing or discussing anything sexual on TV is in bad taste B or "filthy." But the opinions of both groups are based on moral value judgments. And as far as perceived consequences are concerned, people generally agree that violence is anti-social and has harmful consequences, but there is no such consensus about sex.

In addition , there is no evidence that TV viewing affects sexual behavior and attitudes. There is little research on this issue, but NBC has collected some relevant data. As you may know, we are in the process of reporting on a 3-year longitudinal study on the effect of TV exposure on the behavior of children and teenagers.

The teenage portion included some questions on the boys' sexual behavior and attitudes. Therefore, we were able to analyze whether teenage boys who watched a lot of TV programs with sexual overtones of any kind were more likely to "neck;" "go all the way," or have more liberal attitudes about such matters than boys who watched very little of these kinds of programs. We found that television viewing had no measurable effect on such behavior or attitudes. Even if we had found an effect there would be people who would argue for the philosophy, "make love, not war."

Since there is no moral consensus and since there is no scientific evidence of harmful effects, it is the responsibility of the broadcaster to analyze carefully what the controversy is all about. We can begin by asking what is this "sex on TV" that many people seem to get upset about?


Earlier this year, Eli Rubinstein and other researchers at the State University of New York at Stony Brook published the findings of the first content analysis addressing the issue of sex on television. After analyzing 61 prime time programs the authors reached this conclusion (I quote):

"The major finding was that physical intimacy appeared most often in less sensuous forms than one would expect from the public criticism of the portrayal of sexuality on current television programming."

If "sex on TV" means "showing people having sex," the finding was clear: there isn't any sex on TV. TV shows couples kissing and embracing, sex is discussed in a restrained manner, and there is innuendo B but never actual sex.

These findings appeared to be surprising to the Stony Brook researchers; they aren't to me. There is little doubt that commercial television is the most conservative of the mass media when it comes to sex. Every variation of sexual activity has been shown in recent theatrical movies and has been described in recent books, and not far behind are Playboy, Penthouse, and Hustler, which rank among the nation's best-selling magazines.

If there is no "real sex" on TV, it is important to clarify what critics of TV "sex" are complaining about. One reason Rubinstein and his co-researchers expected real, sensuous sex on TV is that, as they point out, polls indicate that a clear majority of the American people think there is too much sex on TV and that many find "scenes of sex" more objectionable than violence on television. But the poll questions were as vague as the "Is sex going to replace violence" question: they do not clarify what people regard as "television sex," what they do and do not object to.


Critics of sex on television tend to assume that it is a firmly established fact that most Americans are critical of television sex. I deny that facts about attitudes concerning sex on TV have been established and I deny that the available data suggest that most Americans are critical of TV sex.

Among the few sources of information on this subject are a TV Guide poll, the mail we get, and public statements by organizations. First, in April 1976 a TV Guide poll found that 58% of the respondents answered "yes" to the following: "In your opinion, is there too much emphasis on sex on TV?" Most researchers would agree that this is a classic example of the biased question. It uses emotional, value-laden words, its terms are vague and undefined, and it presents the respondent not with both sides of the issue, but with only one choice, tempting him into yea-saying. So the question is predestined to elicit a biased response and, in our judgment, is not an accurate gauge of public opinion on the issue.

However, even an accurately worded question would probably not he a good measure of opinions on this issue. There is hardly any subject more difficult to investigate than sexual behavior and attitudes, and it is unlikely that any one question can produce valid results.

This problem illustrates a favorite maxim of mine. Just because you ask a question and get an answer does not mean you have obtained information.

I can ask a question about virtually any topic. But it does not follow that the answers I get reflect genuine opinions on the issues I am trying to ask about. Surveys about sex attitudes probably fit this description better than almost any other topic.

The people who will not cooperate in a survey have different attitudes from those who will. This was a problem with the Kinsey report and has been a problem with all sex studies since, up to and including the Hite Report.

Consider, for example, Redbook Magazine's recent study on male sexuality, entitled "What Sex Means To The Man You Love." They printed the questionnaire in their magazine and asked their readers to hand the questionnaire to "the man you love" to fill out and send in. Mind you, the woman is not to peek at his answers.

Now let's look at some of the questions:

"How do you think your degree of sexual satisfaction compares with other men's? In the past few months who has been your main sexual partner? With how many other women have you had sexual relationships since your present relationship began? And finally: Please describe in some detail the most enjoyable sexual experience you've had."

Apart from the issue of self-selection, to believe that all 116 such questions get answered without underclaiming or overclaiming, strains my credulity. I guess this is what the statistician means by a "minimum likelihood" event.

However even when carefully done, the subject of sex presents special problems. For instance a study reported in Psychology Today found that a sample of college students B usually considered a very liberated group B experienced a surprising degree of blockage and embarrassment when questioned about the sexual activity of their own parents. As with the shocked girl in the New York Times story, the thought that their very own parents are still having sex seems to overwhelm some members of this presumably laid-back generation.

So as a researcher I have to remain highly skeptical over the ability of research to overcome the problems of response and non-response biases and extract the full truth on this emotional and guilt-laden subject of sex.

Viewer mail and public statements by organizations do not help much in an assessment of public opinion either. Organizations, whether small or large, are not representative of the public and neither is viewer mail. During the whole of last year, NBC received only 3,300 complaints about sex or morality on TV, less than 2% of the total letters received. Many of these letters are not about sex per se but are about sex in combination with sacrilege or with ridicule of prominent figures. This number also includes 900 letters from organized write-in campaigns.

It is interesting to learn what kinds of things these critics object to. There are very rare instances in which many letters and public complaints express dissatisfaction with a specific program or program segment. An example of this is criticism of a scene in an NBC movie, "Born Innocent," and the current furor over ABC's "Soap." In fact, numerous groups and individuals around the country were taking positions criticizing "Soap" even before it went on the air.

Most of the complaints, apart from these few specifics, are about everything on TV that could be construed as being related to sex: pretty girls in bikinis, jokes and innuendoes in comedies and on talk shows, as well as dramatic treatment of topics such as rape. All these things are seen as "filth" and "permissiveness" on TV, which is perceived as endangering the "moral fiber" of this country.

But there are other voices. Some months ago I attended a seminar conducted by the Institute on Human Behavior dealing with sexuality and television. Basically it was the purpose of those running the conference to exhort the producers and networks' Program and Standards people to take a more forceful and perhaps more enlightened position in dealing with sexuality. The Institute urged more realistic portrayals of themes such as homosexuality, sex and the aged, and sex education for children.

It quickly became clear that the Hollywood creative community would be willing to incorporate these topics thematically into their programs. It became equally clear that this was not the problem. The resistance to frank portrayal of sexuality in TV rests with concerns of church groups, of affiliates, and of advertisers about offending American sensibilities and tastes, albeit minority tastes.

Thus the situation clearly reflects the lack of consensus about sexual issues in this society. The debate about sex on TV mirrors the society's own debates about the changing moral standards concerning sex. TV finds itself in the crossfire between opposing viewpoints.


As sexual behavior and values have changed, television has changed. But it has not changed faster than society. TV is not and does not want to be a trendsetter of the sexual revolution. In fact, it lags behind the prevailing attitudes. And there is no reason to assume that the networks will alter that basic policy in the future. The reason is that this country's system of broadcasting has a built-in set of checks and balances which prevents programming from over-stepping the boundaries of what most people consider good taste. Programming decisions result from a complex interplay of many forces, which does not favor the emergence of radical trends.

Let's take a closer look at this interplay. The participants are the three networks with their program departments, broadcast standards departments, and, of course, their managements. Then there are the producers, affiliates, and advertisers B and last, but certainly not least, there is the viewing public.

The "viewing public" itself, as we have seen, is by no means of one mind on the issue of sex on TV. Attitudes toward sex, as exemplified in a Gallup question on "whether standards regarding the sale of sexually explicit material should be stricter than they are now" vary by age ... by sex.., by education ... and by region of the country. For example, Gallup found 53% in the South favoring stricter standards, versus only 36% in the West. TV Guide's loaded question applying specifically to television, showed similar differences.

Reflecting these differences within the viewing public in the entire array of network affiliates B themselves a vital element in the system of checks and balances governing television content. These affiliated stations are charged by the Communications Act with license responsibility for what they air. They represent a broad spectrum of political ideology, regional variation in taste and viewpoint, reflecting their close contact with their respective communities. As a general tendency, in the matters we're discussing here, we find there is commonly more concern about violence in the Northeast, and more concern about sex in the South.

A second factor in the interplay of checks and balances is the force of competition among the three networks Ba factor which favors innovation. Today, one network appears to be giving viewers more cheesecake and making greater use of sexual overtones. Within the networks, we have program departments and broadcast standards departments with conflicting views over how innovative television should be. The people in these departments have different values and therefore often come up with different answers. The same is true of the network managements and producers.

A case in point is the different opinions about "Soap" mentioned earlier; it is a very complex question whether another network would have carried "Soap" or not.

From the first proposal of a program concept until the final edit of an episode, all these people B writers, producers, directors, network management, programmers, and editors B exert an influence. As a result, "Soap" done by another network B and a whole different set of people B would not have looked exactly the same.

But network managements not only take into account the views of their own executives and suppliers, they are also very sensitive to public reaction, including that of the critics and pressure groups. Similarly the advertisers, too, listen to the public, the critics and the pressure groups. In general, advertisers exert a conservative influence on the network management, since they do not want to see their product advertised in a program which might possibly annoy many viewers. Clearly, compromise is necessary to effectively balance the variety of views.

No wonder, then, that television has been slow to change with the times. The creative forces which press for innovation are nearly always restrained by conservative forces. Let me give an example: a few years ago, ABC was offered an innovative program. The network did not want to risk anything at that point so the program was offered to CBS and they scheduled it. "All In The Family" became a hit B and also became the precursor of a host of programs with social messages, with the result that today we hardly think of "All In The Family" as the innovative program it was.

Other examples which justify network decisions to put innovative programs on the air despite opposition from some viewer groups include NBC's development of "Laugh-In," which was put on the air with the full foreknowledge that some viewers might be concerned. There were indeed some protests, but the majority of the viewers welcomed the innovation, and incidentally "Laugh-In" became a hit. NBC's "Saturday Night Live" went through a similar process.

And we should not forget daytime serials. Our research indicates that most women viewers appreciate the treatment of all kinds of adult themes in daytime programming which they would not like to see during prime time, because in the afternoon they can relate to what they see on the screen in relative privacy.


It seems clear that in the current situation where there is no consensus about sexual attitudes and behavior, it is not possible for TV programmers to please everybody. The best policy under such circumstances is to try to steer a middle course. The networks have been doing just that, and they will not depart from that policy. However, TV will not go back to the standards of the 50's. It is the responsibility of broadcasters not to allow a minority of conservative critics to act as censors for the majority of viewers.

Indeed this is my main concern, the implied censorship issue raised by the ability of small pressure groups to influence what is seen by the American public. Even without direct formal censorship by the government, the pressure of these interest-groups can exert a chilling effect which in a subtler and more insidious manner produces the same consequences as formal, explicit censorship.

On the other hand, we have a responsibility to resist those who want television to become a leader in the sexual revolution. We have to continue being responsive to the majority of our viewers. If we don't, we invite government censorship. Especially in an emotional issue like this, the threat of government intervention is very real.

It is for all these reasons B because of our responsibility to the viewer, the affiliate, the advertiser, because of our sensitivity to the minorities who criticize our programming, and because of our determination to avoid censorship B that network television will change with the times, but on matters of sex will still remain the most conservative of media.



William S. Rubens, National Broadcasting Company


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 05 | 1978

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