Should Hollywood do more to portray safer sex?

There’s still something undeniably compelling about a good sex scene. Whether it’s to build intrigue or advance the plot, they remain attention-grabbing set-pieces.

 But even in the best sex scenes, the industry has generally eschewed condoms, a trend that climaxed, if you will, when fans pointed out that Issa Rae’s sex-heavy series Insecure has, over the course of one and a half seasons, failed to show its characters discussing, buying or applying protection. And the HBO series isn’t alone: if you’ve ever wondered how film and TV characters seem miraculously capable of bypassing foreplay, moving quickly from a shared glance of mutual desire to a carnal embrace, it’s because a) it isn’t real, and b) they don’t seem to use contraception.

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A Response from the TV Show Insecure

Of course, the dearth of contraception use in film and TV is hardly Issa Rae’s own cross to bear. But the show-runner and star of the Golden Globe-nominated hit responded nonetheless, explaining to her Twitter followers that she and her crew “tend to place condoms in the backgrounds of scenes or imply them”, attaching to the tweet two stills from the episode where open condom wrappers appear on a bedside table. “We hear you guys and will do better next season,” she added.

Prentice Penny, the show’s executive producer, took a less conciliatory approach, telling fans on Twitter that in the writer’s room it’s assumed characters use condoms. “We are not a PSA, documentary, or non-profit,” he added. “They should not look to ANY decisions our characters make as a compass.”

Condoms as a Gimmick

While Insecure’s been asked to shoulder the burden of promulgating safe sex recently, it’s still worth asking just how scarcely it’s practiced, or referenced, in pop culture. A dive into the annals of the cultural condom canon shows how regularly they’re utilized merely as a source for slapstick comedy or to cause an unintended pregnancy.


The plot of Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up is of course singularly driven by a misunderstanding between Ben (Seth Rogen) and Alison (Katherine Heigl) about not using protection during their one-night stand. “I assumed you were wearing a patch or, like, a dental dam,” Ben says. Then they have a baby. The opening scene of the Master of None pilot shows Dev (Aziz Ansari) having sex with Rachel (Noel Wells) before the condom breaks and they Uber to a convenience store to buy Plan B. One of the few times in recent years where condoms were shown without much fanfare was in the film adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey, where the sex is otherwise mostly vanilla; twice Christian Grey puts on a condom, and there’s even a brief joke about the oral contraceptive clause in Ana’s “sex contract”.

Acknowledgement to STIs

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Fifty Shades acknowledged that using protection is a safeguard against not only unintended pregnancy but sexually transmitted infections too; Girls, Transparent and the British sitcom Lovesick have also addressed STIs in ways both big and small. And based on a 2016 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, STI rates recently reached an all-time high: in 2015, there were more than 1.5 million reported cases of chlamydia, nearly 400,000 of gonorrhea and close to 24,000 cases of primary and secondary syphilis. A study by the informational site BirthControl.com found that, in their past 10 instances of intercourse, women used condoms 58% of the time and men 79%.

No Condoms on Screen

But onscreen, you wouldn’t know it; characters mostly head straight to the sack without skipping a beat.The question of protection in Insecure was first raised by Jozen Cummings in an article last week for the Root. Some wrote off the op-ed as more pearl-clutching from the media police, while others argued that it’s worth Issa Rae’s time to show some compulsory condom application, even if it messes with the rhythm of the show’s sex scenes. But the trend’s too pervasive to fall on the shoulders of one show, since condoms are practically nonexistent across the industry when they’re not the butt of a joke.

A 2010 study conducted by the UK Department of Health – entitled “Mis-selling Sex” – analyzed 350 episodes of television with sex scenes and found that only 7% of them featured any sort of discussion of contraceptive use. More alarming still is that in 99 of 102 instances of intercourse examined for the study – which included British soaps such as EastEnders and Coronation Street, as well as American dramas such as Desperate Housewives and Grey’s Anatomy – condoms didn’t appear to be used at all. 

But some believe we overestimate pop culture’s capacity to normalize safe sex. And others, like Penny, argue that movies and television shows aren’t public service announcements but creative, for-profit entities, with no responsibility whatsoever to lead audiences towards contraception and safe sex.

There’s validity to both arguments. But truthfully, how hard can it be for shows to throw a condom in there for good measure, especially since the sex scenes – unlike the kind had in porn studios in the San Fernando Valley, where legislation’s been proposed to mandate contraception to stop the spread of STIs – aren’t real?

Standards for Condoms in the Industry 

As for whether calling for more depictions of contraception use constitutes an undue burden on a film or television show’s writers, Fortenberry believes that we already police sex onscreen in more established and indiscernible ways.

Unfortunately, there’s no barometer to measure the extent to which real-life sexual practices are influenced by sex in film and TV. But the imprint left by seeing characters simulate intercourse – like the family movie night gone awry when teenagers are forced to watch a sex scene opposite their parents – is potent. Fortenberry thinks the issue’s akin to that of cigarette smoking onscreen, which Hollywood studios began to legislate when anti-smoking lobbyists framed it as a matter of public health.

“If you take, for example, cigarette smoking and the limits on advertising for and portrayals of cigarettes, that’s part of a larger social understanding of the harms of smoking and the importance of this approach for the prevention of those harms,” Fortenberry explained. 

And though he remains skeptical as to whether showing safe sex would affect viewers’ own practices, Fortenberry thinks it’s worth a shot, insofar as we continue to encourage contraceptive use in other ways too.

“I think by itself, showing more contraception use wouldn’t be all that helpful, but it would contribute to a larger social attitude that puts value on prevention and on sexual health, as a part of sexuality education in middle and high schools and access to this kind of information through a variety of public health venues,” he said. “I couldn’t easily support this with extensive data, but my impression is that parental values and influences, influences from peers at school and other places, sex education at schools, all of those I think are more immediate influences on young people’s attitudes and behaviors.” 

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