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November 16th, 2003, 07:38 PM
November 16, 2003


Sex-Ed Night School


Sex education was an awkward business once. In my school they called the subject ''Health.'' The teacher diagrammed the reproductive organs on a blackboard that still showed the ghosts of algebra problems, then cleared his throat and asked for ''any questions.'' We had plenty, but none we wished to ask him. Too shy. Too polite. And too fearful that our teacher, who we found it hard to believe had had sex recently (we didn't want to picture it if he had), would suffer some sort of fundamental breakdown if our inquiries grew too vivid. Instead, we silently studied our illustrated textbooks while our teacher huddled behind his desk nervously sorting and sharpening colored pencils. While I was reading, I thought I heard one snap.

Youngsters today may have it easier, though, thanks to the thus far unacknowledged efforts of anonymous Hollywood sitcom writers. According to a new study, watching TV is a highly effective means of teaching teenagers about sensitive sexual issues like, just to name one, condom leakage. Researchers at the RAND Corporation have found that a single episode of ''Friends'' centering on Rachel's unplanned pregnancy due to the untimely failure of Ross's condom stuck in the heads of most teenagers who viewed it, and especially those who viewed it with an adult and discussed it together afterward. Six months later, RAND found, the teenagers still recalled its gist: life is imperfect and sometimes rubbers rupture.

But what are parents to make of this discovery? (And, more puzzling, who would bankroll such a study?) RAND, in its gee-whiz social-science way, spins its data as positively as possible, forgetting the dozens of other lessons, many of them not so helpful, that teenagers absorb from watching shows like ''Friends.'' For example: the ideal weight for full-grown women is between 95 and 98 pounds. Or this one: the best route to true romantic fulfillment is to seduce your closest buddy's girlfriend.

Sitting down with the kids to watch prime-time TV in hopes of gleaning a nugget of sexual wisdom may be like panning for gold in the Love Canal: sure, you might, just might, come up with something, but will the side effects be worth it? And how is a responsible parent to know before he powers up the Sony wide screen precisely what he's in for that Thursday night? Maybe what's needed is a TV Guide that summarizes programs not by storyline but according to sex-ed content. ''Tonight on 'Joe Millionaire,' Joe postpones a date in order to treat a flareup of his herpes virus.'' ''Tonight on 'Frasier,' Niles buys a copy of Hustler, only to realize at the opera that pornography distorts real human intimacy.''

The most powerful lesson about sex that TV teaches, of course, is that everyone's having more of it than you are -- and they're having it with more attractive partners than you can ever hope to meet. Against this fantastic background of gorgeous couplings, most of them implied but some shown outright (the under-the-blankets writhings on ''The Real World,'' say, or the above-the-blankets antics on ''Sex and the City''), sex-ed tidbits related to contraception, pregnancy, S.T.D.'s and such tend to come off as jarring, if not ridiculous. Maybe that's what makes them so memorable: they interrupt the dreamscape. Not for long, though. Looking good is the essence of TV sex, and any other message is just a footnote.

But maybe this isn't as bad as it appears. Sex ed was never sexy in my day; there was some kind of rule against it. The teaching materials were as free of lust, as stripped of carnality and humanity, as a med-school anatomical mannequin. They answered every question about sex except why anyone would find it pleasurable. They addressed the little doctors in kids, not the little devils. But television first stimulates the glands and only secondarily touches the mind, and in this way, it's like sex itself. The diagrams and plastic models of old, which emphasized physiology at the expense of feeling, were misleading. No boy ponders the shape of the fallopian tubes while groping his girl in the back seat of Dad's Buick. But a lot of boys probably think of Jennifer Aniston -- and then, by association (if RAND is right) the failure rate of condoms.

Whatever works. And here's the beauty of it: the teenager doesn't even know he learned something, and no squeamish adults had to be there when he did, although they may want to slip in afterward and ask, ahem, if there are any questions.

Remote-control sex ed. What's not to like?

As an adult, though, I hope that TV professionals don't get carried away with this new notion of salting their productions with sex-ed talking points. I like the dreamscape, I like the fantasy and I hear pencils snapping when it's shattered by awkward echoes from my seventh-grade health class. I also believe that once teenagers suspect they're being covertly instructed by TV actors, they'll tune them out as surely as my classmates tuned out our teacher.

Walter Kirn, a frequent contributor to the magazine, is the author, most recently, of ''Up in the Air,'' a novel.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company