Television and Sex



he past few years have seen an increase in the number of charges brought by women against men for sexual harassment, a rise in the number of rapes and a coarsening in attitudes generally between men and women, of which a lack of basic courtesy and respect is only one aspect. We have also seen a growing contempt for the principle of lasting marriage based on mutual commitment, and a widespread feeling that men and women are entitled to be sexually irresponsible and selfish if they so desire, with no thought for the people who might be affected by their actions. These include discarded sexual partners, spouses and the most vulnerable group, children.

If we are to be tough on these issues in our attempt to create a better society, we must be equally tough on their causes. Many observers - expert commentators and ordinary people alike - see TV as a major influence. They point to a clear link between our attitudes to other people as sex objects and the way some very particular attitudes to sex - which would simply not have been tolerated a few decades ago - are now being actively promoted as perfectly normal in the soaps, dramas, movies and comedy programmes we see every day on TV. In addition to this there is the proliferation of satellite and cable channels, originating from this country and elsewhere, licensed and unlicensed by UK authorities, which continue to transmit pornographic material seemingly subject to only tenuous regulation.

Many people in the broadcasting industry, and a number of leading politicians - still refuse to recognise any connection between what we see on TV and our behaviour. No wonder. For them to admit a clear cause and effect would mean they would have to admit that they have been wrong about a major cause of social ill and then strengthen the regulations.

As an organisation we are against the idea of Government censorship.  We believe in effective self-regulation, which is upheld and respected.  What we want is a sympathetic climate of sensitivity and respect for others, in which forethought and self-restraint are practised by the broadcasters and everyone involved in the creative process, including directors, writers and actors.  We believe that most of the viewing public would welcome a general raising of moral tone.

Most of us already accept a number of constraints on our behaviour as part of living in civilised society - how we drive our cars, where we put our litter, how much noise we make and so on. Of course these constraints do effectively 'censor' our behaviour but we can understand, and go along with, the principle of advancing the common good that lay behind them. The idea of self-restraint is at the heart of a caring society. It is far preferable that any decision to restrain behaviour comes from the individual, rather than official bureaucracy. It preserves self-respect.

We now need to accept this kind of restraint in our entertainment too, if we are to build a caring society in which marriage is given its proper value once more and people accept full responsibility for the consequences of their sexual behaviour. If we don't even try, we certainly won't see it happen.

This booklet is one of a number of short booklets produced by mediawatch-uk to help concerned viewers recognise the problems with our media and to respond to them. Please discuss it with your family and friends. The portrayal of sexual conduct on TV is one issue that won't go away.



torytelling, and listening to stories, is an intrinsic part of our human nature. Morality tales, with good triumphing over evil, are one tradition which is alive and well. The love story is another. The classic romance, in which the hero and the heroine meet, fall in love and then have to decide whether to get married or not, and resolve their other relationships, is as old as time.

We all identify with love stories and enjoy them at different levels of sophistication depending on our taste and maturity. In the absence of any moral guidance, we also draw on them as a resource to help us work out how we should conduct our own lives. In short, we need them.

The issue then, is not with the love story itself, but how it is told on TV and film and video. We recognise that there is a clear difference between the images each of us finds erotic, and images which are pornographic. What we find erotic is highly personal and can be quite neutral in its own right, like the face of our loved one or our favourite TV celebrity. Or it can be an image which is intended to titillate us, like the footage of semi-naked bodies shown at tea time on 'Bay Watch'! Either way, we do not say such things are pornographic in themselves!

But graphic sex on TV is pornographic. It undermines respect for human dignity - hence it is pornographic in the literal sense - because we become desensitised by it. Many people - of all faiths and none - say they find the all-out portrayal of sex on TV offensive, because its deliberate portrayal assumes the audience is without imagination.

What about nudity on TV? This is an important issue too. As a guideline, the state of undress that we accept in the street is what is appropriate on our screens. TV is a public arena, not a private one.

Two key events in the 1960's had a major impact on the way we discuss these things. The first key event was the ineptly handled obscenity trial of 'Lady Chatterley's Lover', D. H. Lawrence's least impressive book. This ended in failure for the Crown and the ridiculing of the new Obscene Publications Act. The second key event was the end of official censorship in the theatre at around the same time. The new "permissive" atmosphere of the 1960s meant that writers, producers and directors could reveal more of the characters' sexual activities, liaisons and misadventures, without risk of prosecution owing to badly worded law.

The lack of moral leadership gave people the chance to think about changing attitudes to sex before marriage. But in the 1960s, portrayal of the sex act itself remained largely confined to "porn" films, the preserve of seedy men in dirty raincoats and cheeky schoolboys furtively venturing down the back streets of Soho and elsewhere.

In Britain there was still very much a 'seaside postcard' attitude to sex at the cinema. Feature films tended to be suggestive rather than graphically revealing. The audience knew what the characters were up to but we didn't expect to see them doing it. Even in 'The Graduate', what Ben (Dustin Hoffman) did to Mrs Robinson (Anne Bancroft) was mostly left to our imaginations. The sex scene as we know it first reached its current prominence in the 1970s, with a wave of Hollywood directors who started pushing it to new heights of explicitness. And here, in Britain, our directors caught on too knowing that they could also get away with it.

Compare the relative innocence of films like 'The Knack (And How To Get It)' or 'Georgie Girl', with the sophistication of 'A Touch of Class', a few short years later, in which George Segal is married with children but is intent on playing around with Glenda Jackson, who is divorced with children. And yet, before they become entangled she asks him if he knows what he is doing. Her attitude suggests that though divorced, she still has a basic concern about breaking up his marriage. In any case, this sort of thing passed largely unnoticed in Britain at the time. In the 1970s the British Board of Film Censors was justifiably more concerned with the likes of 'A Clockwork Orange' and 'The Devils'.

Meanwhile playwrights and TV writers flourished in the freer atmosphere of the 1970s. Some would say that Dennis Potter, in particular, made his reputation for pushing back the barriers, following on from the tradition of the 'Plays For Today' of the 1960s - dramas which led to Mary Whitehouse founding the National Viewers' And Listeners' Association now called mediawatch-uk.

The impact these TV dramas enjoyed was soon to be eclipsed by the impact of video technology. In the 1980s, with the arrival of the video recorder in four out of five homes, it was suddenly possible to capture all the more explicit films on tape and see them at one's leisure - rewinding and replaying the exciting bits to our heart's content. With the video recorder, suddenly there simply wasn't enough on TV to keep people amused. So during the 1980s video rental shops and video 'sell-through' arrived on our high streets in a big way. The cinema box office suffered for a while as consumers discovered the convenience of catching up on the recent films at home. (It has caught up since, as people realise the limitations of the small screen). Digital technology will enable much larger domestic TV screens and sophisticated audio equipment is now available to give cinema quality stereo sound. With the video retailer effectively acting as the moral guardian, there was a clear difference between what was acceptable on TV and what could have a video release. With such a choice now available - and with so little regulation - ultimately the viewer became even more blase about sex on TV. And the morality behind it was accepted too!

The films themselves were much 'darker' in tone. The Glenn Close character in 'Fatal Attraction', made in the late 1980s, couldn't care two hoots about breaking up Michael Douglas' marriage after a fling. She was a far cry from the Glenda Jackson character in 'A Touch Of Class', who did care, as we have mentioned.

TV broadcasting also expanded in the 1980s, with the launch of Channel 4, which was given a 'bad boy' manifesto from Day 1. Interestingly the first ads C4 showed were for a brand of videotape! The Government was under pressure to act from National VALA and others, and the result was the formation of the Broadcasting Standards Council. But generally speaking this has taken a lenient view of a worsening situation, which some say has been caused by the Broadcasting Authorities' failure to regulate effectively and contriving Codes of Practice that permit maximum latitude in terms of taste and decency in programmes.

Click here for 'Helpful Hints on Monitoring TV and Radio'

In the 1990s, movies on TV became ever more important in attracting an audience to please the advertisers. Led by Channel 4 the TV companies also became directly involved with film production, so that they could be guaranteed first showing. Some of these films reflected clearly the attitudes of the broadcasters behind them. Channel 4's biggest film production success so far has been 'Four Weddings and a Funeral', a comedy in which the leading character - played by Hugh Grant - is pathologically unable to commit himself to marriage. This attitude, the film tells us in a script full of F-words, is now acceptable! But 'Four Weddings and a Funeral' wasn't the worst of it, by any means. In 1996, James Ferman, the then Director of the British Board of Film Classification, said publicly that he felt helpless to control the nature of the films coming our way from Hollywood - all of which were bound to end up on our TV screens sooner or later after their cinema release. Sadly, this remark, and his further remark that we must hope that Hollywood wakes up with a conscience, brought no suggestion that the Government might intervene.

Click here for mediawatch-uk comments on BBFC Classification Guidelines

Film censor or no film censor, the important point is that the current TV regulations are ineffective in dealing with sex on TV. The BBC's Royal Charter, governing BBC1, BBC2, and any other "narrowcast" channels the BBC may operate in the near future, is largely powerless to temper the more bold creative brains and commissioners of programmes. And the independent contractors can see equally clearly that the Broadcasting Act can do nothing directly to curtail their excesses.

In the late 1990s the wheel is turning still further, with the arrival of Channel 5, numerous satellite and cable TV channels and the digital expansion that is in prospect. How on earth can all these channels be controlled and breaches of good taste and decency redressed? No-one can possibly watch them all and see all the programmes. We are faced with a new situation which has arisen without any real public or parliamentary debate: the onus for maintaining standards is shifting away from the broadcasting authorities to ordinary viewers and listeners who will be expected to write and complain every time offence has been caused. Since no objective standards of good taste and decency seem to apply the only measure of dissatisfaction will be the number of protests from the public received by the broadcasting authorities. And the outcome of such protestation, as is well known, is at best uncertain and most often rejected.

It is true that the police still crack down on the really obscene videos. But when it comes to the ever bolder 'run-of-the-mill' sex scenes shown on TV, the bemused audience is presented with two choices - like it and keep watching, or lump it and turn off. We say that's ridiculous. We believe that an overhaul of the Obscene Publications Act is long overdue - the only legal measure left to enable action against sex on TV - to strengthen and update the law effectively.



e can take responsibility for our own lives, first of all. We need to accept that most of us spend more time watching TV than doing anything else besides sleeping. Under three hours a day, and we are regarded as "light viewers".  Many people regard TV watching as cosy, comfortable and safe.  But clearly much programming - including 'soaps' screened at children's teatime (5.30pm) - isn't like that!

We have a duty to ask: "What are we watching? What is the family watching?" We also need to teach teenage children to be discerning about what they see. Encourage them to be more critical - discuss whether that scene adds anything to the story? A family discussion like this can put things in perspective, remind us all that we must share responsibility for what we see, and our reactions to it.

Pre-teenage children should clearly not see programmes with a sexual theme. But we definitely need to ask teenagers, who know all about sex by now from school sex education programmes and friends, what they feel about what they have watched. Parents must have the confidence to say "no" to their children watching films and programmes that are unsuitable because of their sexual content.

In taking this stand, parents of course have to make sure they themselves are credible. No young person who can reason for themselves will take seriously an adult who is known to revel in sexy films and programmes, but does not let the teenagers watch them. As with so many other aspects of being a parent, common sense and integrity must be the key.



review of the Obscene Publications Act which covers TV, video and the new electronic media, such as the Internet, will need to proscribe sexual imagery which is absolutely unacceptable for broadcasting.

Click here for 'Time to strengthen the law against pornography'

Literature is somewhat different: the reader brings their own interpretation and imagination to it. When a work of recognised literary merit is adapted and shown on TV, there is an arguable case for sexual activity to be described or alluded to in dialogue. Any dramatisation like this puts the onus on the scriptwriters to make sure the sexual activity is only referred to verbally, if at all.



s consumers, TV viewers have rights. We also have responsibilities. We should - we must - make our views and opinions known about the depiction of sex and other objectionable material on TV. This responsibility is particularly important for parents and others responsible for children and young people.

Click here for mediawatch-uk DIRECTORY

The BBC Producers' Guidelines published in November 1996 suggest that to the BBC for one, the mere existence of the 9pm "watershed" is, in most cases, sufficient "signposting" to warn viewers of programme content they may find offensive after that time. The "watershed" has been made largely redundant by the video recorder. However, since the broadcasters still overtly uphold the "watershed" as an ideal, by their own argument any programme they show at a time when children might reasonably be assumed to be watching needs to take the protection of children into account.

Films classified for adult audiences should definitely be shown later on. The 8pm rule, for example, currently favoured by Sky Movies, is simply too early for adult films to be screened, even well known ones featuring superstars.

The same BBC Producers' Guidelines indicate that pre-screen announcements and warnings are thought necessary when content is likely to offend "significant numbers of viewers or listeners". But from mediawatch-uk's frequent surveys, there is little consistency across the channels, and no clear rationale for prefacing some films and not others. In any case, the warnings rarely if ever convey the true nature of what follows. Worse still, the announcement tends to be made in a tongue in cheek manner, serving to attract viewers thus defeating the object.

Click here for 'Helpful Hints on Monitoring TV and Radio'

Click here for mediawatch-uk comments on the Watershed (see blue text)

We therefore ask, why not avoid offending in the first place? After all, television is a medium specifically designed for home viewing where not offending public feeling is a statutory requirement. It isn't offered in a cinema or private club, or in a pre-recorded video form. Its unique role as a guest in the home should be respected.

References to sexual activity should be restricted to what is strictly dramatically necessary. This is a principle the broadcasting authorities often bend to fend off viewers' criticisms, but it is essentially a sound one.

Sex scenes are often shown in adult dramas, and defended with the plea that the broadcasters want to portray the reality of our society. There is a justification for referring to sex (as opposed to showing it) when the drama has a clear moral dimension. It must be clear that these people behave like this because they are in emotional pain, which the story shows them resolving. But showing the sexual activity itself has a quite different impact to a dramatic presentation without these gratuitous 'extras'.

Children's and teenage programmes, broadcast early in the evening, should have a virtual guarantee of being free from either depiction of sex or discussion of it. Adultery and casual sex should not be portrayed to a young audience as acceptable and normal. This is a characteristic of many 'soaps' with a large youth following, as well as many popular comedy programmes.



hen you see something on TV which you feel is harmful or damaging in terms of its sexual content, you should write to, or telephone, the TV station. Note the programme's name, the time, the date and the TV channel. (Click here for mediawatch-uk DIRECTORY). Keep this handy near the TV set. Keep a copy of any letter you write (typed is best, but hand-written letters count just as much).

Whatever concerns you, contact the Broadcasting Standards Commission. Printed complaints forms are available free of charge on request. Ask for a copy of the BSC Code of Guidance too! (Click here for mediawatch-uk comments on the Code) Why not contact your local Member of Parliament as well? Do not feel isolated. Talk to other people who share your outlook. If you objected to a programme, others may well agree. Six letters are better than one on its own, but that's still better than no letter at all!


mediawatch-uk publishes a useful 'newsbrief' (Click here for menu page) carrying news of debates and of campaigns on the whole question of TV standards. We run regular conferences with well-known speakers looking at different aspects of TV. We are linked to similar groups in other countries, from the USA to the Netherlands, from Scandinavia to Australia, and regularly publish the results of methodical research on the contents of programmes.

The Association is a voluntary, independent campaigning organisation. It is made up of, and supported by, concerned members of the public from all faiths, all backgrounds and of all ages. (Click here for About Us) We campaign for better broadcasting - specifically, for higher standards in the media and effective broadcasting codes of practice. We campaign calmly, rationally and peacefully. We work for wholesome family viewing, for respect for human dignity in programmes and more frequent portrayal of good moral behaviour and standards.

We have local branches - or perhaps you could help to start one! - and work closely with various like-minded groups sponsored by community organisations, churches and others. Over the years we have been a welcome voice for concerned consumers wanting better broadcasting. Perhaps this booklet has persuaded you that you'd like to help us? Please get in touch!

Click here for Joining Form

Click here for 'Making our voices heard!'

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Click here for 'Beware TV's Red Light Districts'

Click here for ‘Time to strengthen the law against Pornography’