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“So no one told you life was gonna be this way,” and when it comes to television, nothing is closer to the truth. Through the media, we are constantly confronted with images of what society views as acceptable and right, whether it's about work, family, or relationships. NBC’s hit sitcom Friends serves as an example of such a medium and often presents the belief that casual sex and affairs have no adverse consequences. Yet, simultaneously, in a recent episode it has challenged its own stance. This confusion about the message can be detrimental to the audience of teens and young adults and can create false perceptions about sex.
Throughout the series’ seven year stretch, various instances of casual sex and promiscuity can be found. One episode focuses on a married woman who had several boyfriends, including Chandler, and her emotionless, physical relationships with them. Another shows Joey in a meaningless relationship with a fellow thespian. Phoebe struggles unsuccessfully to contain her desires for one of her massage clients, while Chandler sleeps with Rachel’s boss. In a prime example, Rachel asks Chandler to set her up with one of his coworkers specifically for a “fling.”
None of these encounters end in pregnancy, disease, or emotional distress. They become something to be laughed about and taken as the “norm.” References to sex are just as frequent in dialogue, yet never with serious undertones. Even if a character is mildly upset about an occurrence, by the conclusion of the half hour, everything is all right again and by the next episode it is completely forgotten. Joey will never again speak of his theater “rehearsal” with Kate, nor will Phoebe mention her “appointment” with Rick. Sex just happens and is pushed aside just as easily.
Other sitcoms perpetuate this idea as well. Flipping through channels, one cannot ignore the tremendous amount of sexual content. In one night alone, Caroline from Caroline in the City can sleep with her veterinarian, Tommy’s girlfriend can have sex with a busboy on Titus, and Ally from the infamous Ally McBeal can have a random interlude in a car wash. It is a sure bet that none of these characters stopped to talk about contraception. “A television analysis found that the average adolescent views 14,000 sexual references, jokes, and innuendoes each year. However, only one in 85 of these references will mention abstinence, contraception, or marriage, sometimes negatively” (European Approaches to Adolescent Sexual Behavior & Responsibility, 1999).
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"It’s Just Casual Sex Between Friends." 123HelpMe.com. 22 Feb 2020
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These risk-free ideals don’t transfer exactly into real life. Bad things do happen as a result of frequent and unprotected sex. In the United States, nearly four in ten young women become pregnant at least once before they reach the age of 20, and eight in ten of those pregnancies are unintended. Approximately two-thirds of people who acquire STDs in the USA are younger than 25. “In 1997 alone, HIV/AIDS-associated illnesses caused the deaths of approximately 2.5 million people worldwide” (National Institutes of Health (NIH), Jan. 2000). Eight out of ten girls and six out of ten boys say they wish they would have waited until they were older to have sex. These problems do not cure themselves in a half hour. They are life-altering events, leaving those affected forever changed.
Yet, to the uninformed viewer, the statistics mean nothing. The characters don’t tell their audience if they contracted an STD, because there is no entertainment value in that. “In a 1987 Planned Parenthood poll, 66 percent of the public agreed with the statement ‘there is so much sex and talk about sex on television that it's not surprising so many teenagers get pregnant’" (National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, 1997). There is a frightening need to address these issues and prevent young people from viewing such interactions as non-consequential.
A glimmer of hope for such goals appeared during the eighth season premiere of Friends. During Chandler's and Monica’s wedding reception, it is revealed that Rachel is going to have a child. She became pregnant after a one night stand with Ross. Suddenly, she has been placed in the same position as many unexpectedly expecting mothers. She is filled with uncertainty about being a single parent, whether to keep the baby, and what to tell Ross. The reality of the situation is a wake up call for viewers, for their flawless character has made an error in judgment and has now been forever changed.
Sadly, the change in approach was probably not planned by the show’s writers. Rachel’s real life counterpart, Jennifer Aniston, is pregnant with her actor husband Brad Pitt's child. Rather than write her out of the season and suffer a drop in ratings, the new development was worked into the plot of the popular series. The story line was most likely not a result of moral obligation, but one of financial necessity. However, the point should not be lost on viewers as they watch the characters of Ross and Rachel struggle through the dilemma and raise a child.
So how does society change its perception of sex? It is doubtful that the solution will come from a great reform in prime time television, for sex sells and networks will keep trying to push the limit and up their ratings. Instead, education should come from role models and, primarily for younger viewers, parents. “Teenagers who have strong emotional attachments to their parents are much less likely to become sexually active at an early age” (SOURCE) and half of teens feel that they can talk about contraception with their parents. Education about pregnancy and STDs is the best way to battle false social beliefs. The important thing is to draw a clear and distinct line between fact and fantasy.
Despite television’s portrayal, casual sex is not without dangers. Up until Rachel’s pregnancy, Friends, along with many other shows, depicted an environment without risk in which sexual relations with many partners were okay and even amusing. But it's not so funny when it happens for real. Media is a powerful force in society and its content should not be taken without a grain of salt. Parents and role models play an important part in helping children and others become of aware of this fact. Because when it comes to disease and pregnancy, nobody is laughing.