Think of it as moral deflation. A few years ago when Robert Redford made his Indecent Proposal to Demi Moore, the ethical question posed by Hollywood was whether married women would sleep with Redford for $1-million.
Now the Fox network is offering "unmarried but committed" couples a chance to break their promise in return for a free vacation and prime-time exposure.
Fox sent four couples to Temptation Island, a location off Belize just warm enough to justify the bikinis. There they are split up and tempted by a designated cast of pecs and pulchritude.
This is "not about sex," we are told soberly by the Fox president. It's a test of love. Sort of like putting a dozen dieters on a Carnival Cruise with an endless chocolate buffet and seeing who loses weight.
Of course, Fox _ the network where Ally McBeal meets Bill O'Reilly _ has standards. Or at least lawyers. When one of the couples being tempted to deceive each other actually deceived the producer by violating the prohibition against couples with children, Fox got a chance to take the moral high ground. The network will kick the parents off the island and into therapy. Let the temptation continue.
I am not surprised that this morality tale was targeted to young viewers. Nor am I surprised that the premiere drew 16-million viewers, with a disproportionate number from the coveted young demographic that begins at age 18. Temptation Island is, after all, just a small part of the "Temptation Mainland" media.
But there is in this "reality programming" a window, or a television screen, onto the mixed, diverse, and utterly screwed-up messages being directed at and absorbed by the young.
Consider just one small fact. We have a multibillion-dollar private sector selling sex to alleged adults. Meanwhile the public sector is spending some $100-million a year teaching abstinence-only to pre-adults.
On the screen, sex steams. In at least one Chicago school, it spits. A videotape in an abstinence class compares sharing body fluids of intercourse to sharing glasses of pre-chewed cheese snacks. Between steam and spit, they'll keep sex therapists busy for decades to come.
How confused are kids? Lately, we've had another rash of studies, surveys, and reports about teens and sex. They're not just getting mixed messages, but mixed-up definitions.
There has been, for example, a good deal of hype or, as the social scientists say, anecdotal evidence, suggesting that many teens regard oral sex as not-quite-sex, or safe sex, or pre-sex. Choose one of the above and freak out mom and dad.
The Alan Guttmacher Institute published a survey of studies suggesting that if young people can't define sex, they also can't define abstinence. In one study, 37 percent called oral sex abstinent while 24 percent said a shower together was not abstinent.
Then there is the recent federal study suggesting that virginity pledges "work." If by "work" you mean that a pledge to abstain till marriage helps delay intercourse for 18 months. They apparently "work" when teens form their own minority subculture, a kind of "Anti-Temptation Island." The downside is that they are less likely to use contraception if or when they break the vow.
Parents trying to create an island of sexual sanity in all this are almost as battered by the cultural surf as teens.
About 80 percent of parents had premarital sex themselves. With the age of puberty going down and the age of marriage going up, most parents seem to hope that their kids will delay sex until 18 _ an age that mysteriously coincides with the time they will be out of the house.
"Whatever your values are, your kids should know them," says University of Washington sociologist Pepper Schwartz. As someone who's written about the "talks" parents and children should have, she knows that we aren't sure what to say or how to say it.
Some 80 percent of parents want schools to teach birth control as well as abstinence. But at home, too, many of us get tongue-tied in talking about relationships _ about pleasure and exploitation, mutuality and intimacy, fear and vulnerability, sex and love.
It would be lovely to quarantine the Fox folks on Temptation Island. But if we don't express our own values, we leave the stage to the folks who describe sex as a dirty glass of cheesy water. Or to the folks who market sex as cheesy entertainment.
Ellen Goodman is a Boston Globe columnist.
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