Love & Sex

Does Television Have a Responsibility to Promote Safe Sex?

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We shouldn't expect Girls to reflect reality when we want it to, and to ignore reality when it suits our purposes.

This week, while everyone was trying to unpack that cringey sex scene between Adam and Natalia on Girls (which, by the way, sparked some great discussion on the issue of consent) Gothamist had latex on the mind. "Hey Lena Dunham," they asked, "Why Are All The Girls Having Unsafe Sex?" At first I thought, “That’s right—you never seen anyone unrolling a Trojan in that show!" But then I thought, "Wait a minute…when have I ever seen condom usage on TV?"

And, oddly enough, the only instance of condom use on television that came to mind right away was on Girls. In the first season, when we see Hannah and Adam post-coitus for the first time, she asks him something like, "Don’t we always use condoms?"—and that’s out of the ordinary for television. If there is condom use on a show, it’s more implicit than explicit. Usually the people are so beautiful, and the mood so passionate—and wow they finally got together!—the safety of the sex is the last thing we’re thinking about. When did Carrie Bradshaw or Don Draper or Jesse Pinkman ever interrupt a heated moment of passion to slide on a rubber for the cameras? And do we really want all the Girls characters making a point of donning a condom in every scene where they knock boots?

Another thing that’s important to recognize is that wild and crazy twenty-somethings aren’t actually using condoms as much as our high school P.E. teachers would hope. According to the most recent National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior, only 45 percent of men and 38.7 percent of women ages 18 to 24 used a condom with their last sexual partner. And researchers at Indiana University, who analyzed 50 studies of condom usage, found that when that those people do use condoms, they’re usually doing it wrong. Between 17 and 51.1 percent of those surveyed admitted they put the condom on after sex had already begun, nearly 31 percent of men said they failed to promptly withdraw after ejaculation, and (a small but strange group) between 1.4 and 3.3 percent admitted to reusing a condom for repeated sex. Recycling: not always sexy.

I think Girls is held to a higher standard than other shows in terms of what it does and doesn’t do because it has major influence and because it recognizes that influence; even if you hate the show, even if you think it’s too pretentious and out-of-touch to be watchable, it’s one of the most-discussed shows on the air right now. And I think Lena Dunham realizes that she has a platform to launch debates about issues we need to be talking about under the shield of entertainment.

But this doesn’t mean we should expect Girls to reflect reality when we want it to, and to ignore reality when it suits our purposes. Girls attempts to get at an accurate depiction of sex for the social demographic it depicts; it's not trying to be a PSA for birth control. Perhaps the lack of condom usage on the show highlights the fact that it actually isn't the reality for the majority of their viewers.

I’m not saying it wouldn’t be great if entertainment became more socially conscious and willing to make condom usage a priority. Maybe flashing that shiny square wrapper at the camera with a wink should be a new theme on cable. But rather than calling out a 26-year-old director for fictional representations of unprotected sex-having, maybe we should look more closely at what’s happening in reality and the ways in which sex education is failing us more than HBO is.