When you think about the most successful movies of all time, do you ever think: Those might have been even better with a demonstration of "safe sex" practices? Not likely. But the safe-sex lobbyists worry that moviegoers aren't getting enough medical (if not moral) messages at the movie theater.
Moralists about entertainment come in many categories. Today, it's more common for people in Hollywood to fuss that too many characters smoke in films. Or that characters shouldn't wear fur coats. Or that too many anorexic actresses are ruining young girls' feelings about their body image. One of the most common, in the era of AIDS, is the Latex Brigade, which worries that movies don't preach enough sermons about the miraculous saving powers of the Almighty Condom.
But many people who roll their eyes at Hollywood aren't most concerned about what actors wear or smoke or refuse to eat. They're not just concerned about the medical mechanics of sex. What about the emotional harm of bad sexual relationships? What about the spiritual harm? Hollywood rarely thinks of illicit sex as a mortal sin, the interstate highway of temptation. But Hollywood doesn't really believe in Hell.
The latest volley in the annals of condom promotion come in a study published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. Three Australian researchers studied a September 2003 list of the 200 biggest-grossing movies, as ranked by the Internet Movie Database. But think of all the movies they had to exclude: the cartoons, and the G-rated films, for starters. Then they excluded PG movies and all the films released or set before the onset of AIDS awareness in 1983. Of the 87 remaining movies, they found 53 sex scenes to study. In that narrow sample, they found one solitary exception -- the 1990 Julia Roberts nice-prostitute love story "Pretty Woman" -- that carried any suggestion of condom use, or "birth control."
Let's grant that we haven't seen condom promos in many blockbusters. But their fuss about "Pretty Woman" demonstrates the mechanical worldview of the Latex lobbyists. Back when that movie came out, I would have been more concerned about young audiences getting the message that prostitution is cool or glamorous, that the "sex worker" turns tricks and looks fabulous before hitting the jackpot with the millionaire hubby.
It doesn't seem to matter to the condom promoters that "safe sex" practices make "safe" prostitution possible, and they may prevent horrendous, ugly consequences like … babies. I wonder if these researchers would be happy if a film showed a prostitute who was responsible enough to get an abortion early?
Researchers, like parents, are right to worry about Hollywood's devil-may-care approach to consequences. It's always a good idea for parents to remind their children "it ain't like it looks in the movies." But I wouldn't just worry about catching the wrong virus.
Top-grossing movies the researchers singled out as especially irresponsible, unsurprisingly, included Sharon Stone's star turn in "Basic Instinct" from 1992, which had six sex scenes without health consequences -- not counting "death by ice pick." The 2002 James Bond flick "Die Another Day" had three typically suave "unsafe" encounters, and that has to go for any James Bond flick over the last 40 years. Moviegoers surely thought the women he was bedding were more likely to shoot him than give him a sexually transmitted disease.
The researchers gave the gold medal for irresponsibility to "American Pie 2," with seven sex scenes, all with new partners and no "protection." Permit me, once again, to be amazed by the single-mindedness of the Trojan scolds. Can you imagine, thinking of the "American Pie" films, that when Finch prepares for sex with his classmate Stifler's mom, that Stifler would take Finch aside and say "Friend, before you have relations with my mother, don't forget to use a condom?"
Hollywood and its apologists respond with an artistic defense: Health lectures ruin the art of movies, disturb the flow of scripts, bog down the plot. Moviemakers feel movie viewers want to be taken out of their own world to see people do things they would or could not do in their own lives. But Hollywood knows full well that they are a powerful arbiter of "cool," and that young people might be convinced to plunge into irresponsible behavior because it looks daring, naughty and fun on the silver screen.
The safe-sex lobbyists worry only about the transmission of diseases. But many parents also worry about the transmission of moral and religious values, and how Hollywood is putting peer pressure into hyperdrive, urging children to have sex and generally pretend to be adults earlier and earlier. Parents have a tougher job than ever to hold their children close and make sure they don't lose them in the swamp of sexual mass mediation.