In a lively panel discussion, television creators and teen advocates tackled sex, teens, and TV.
On a recent episode of grown-ish, the Freeform spin-off of ABC's black-ish, Zoey Johnson (Yara Shahidi) tells her mother Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross) about her first love.
When mom hesitantly asks if they've had sex, she says yes.
"Did you use protection?" Rainbow asks her college-freshman daughter, while still absorbing this unexpected news. "Of course," Zoey says. "Nicely done, honey," Rainbow awkwardly responds.
On The Fosters, Freeform's drama about a family with two moms and a mix of biological and foster-turned-adopted kids, teenage son Jesus (Noah Centineo) asks if he can have sex with his girlfriend after sustaining a traumatic brain injury. "We'll have to see," replies mom Lena (Sherri Saum). "And you'd have to use protection."
On youth-oriented scripted shows such as these, as well as reality shows such as MTV's 16 and Pregnant and spin-off Teen Mom 2, viewers can not only follow the storylines but receive valuable information about the birth control options available to them, thanks to the live tweeting provided by the Washington, D.C. organization Power to Decide.
Actually, make that vital info, not just valuable. After all, as Dr. Drew Pinsky tells the young girls of Teen Mom 2, "Birth control gives you the power to decide your future."
Television's approach to contraception, love, sex, consent and pregnancy and its influence on young viewers was the focus of a lively discussion at the Television Academy, presented by the Academy, ATX TV Festival and Power to Decide.
Industry executives, writers and producers gathered February 28 at the Academy's Saban Media Center in North Hollywood for a panel moderated by Marisa Nightingale, consultant and senior media advisor, Power to Decide.
Panelists included Ginny Ehrlich, CEO of Power to Decide; Rina Mimoun, executive producer, Everwood, Mistresses and writer, Dawson's Creek; Mauricio Mota, creator-executive producer, East Los High and co-president of Wise Entertainment; and Deirdre Shaw, writer-producer, Jane the Virgin.
"I've had the privilege of doing this work for 20 years," Nightingale said by way of introduction, after attendees viewed a video that showed the above scenes.
"When we started out, we thought it was a really good idea to try to reach young people and the adults in their lives through the entertainment content they were seeking out, and 20 years later, we have proof that it works. This community, television, has actually helped reduce teen and unplanned pregnancy."
According to Power to Decide's research data, Ehrlich elaborated, "We know from East Los High that by virtue of being entertained, young people knew a lot more about birth control. They knew a lot more about relationships. They were more likely to say they were going to practice safe sex if they were going to have sex."
The series, which ran on Hulu from 2013 through 2017 and is still streaming, was about Latino students at a fictional high school in East Los Angeles.
"We know from 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom 2 that in terms of actually reducing the teen birth rate, television really contributed to that," she added. "Economists did that study, and frankly, they were a little cynical when they went into it." Over the 18-month period studied, the researchers found a 5.7% reduction in teen birth rates in the U.S. attributable to television's influence.
Said Ehrlich, "I think we have a real opportunity to have the entertainment young people consume make a difference in their lives, and give them the power to decide if and under what circumstances to get pregnant, and the power to decide, more importantly, to live their best life stories. Because they relate to characters, as you know. They try to emulate characters, and those characters become part of their trusted network."
Television is a great conversation-starter among that network, she noted.
Authenticity is key to storytelling, Mimoun said. "Any time you write a project about teens, you are inevitably going to discuss sex," she said. "Teens do talk about it – they don't just enter into it lightly. The more honest you are in the writing, the more kids connect to it, and the more it gets talked about on social media."
On Jane the Virgin, now in its fourth season on The CW, "Our showrunner, [creator] Jennie Snyder Urman, shows the reality of having a baby, living with a baby," Shaw said. "In one episode, Jane's whole family was trying to get her to take a shower. It's not just cradling and loving your baby."
One opportunity television has, Shaw said, is to reduce the shame some girls have about birth control. "There is no shame about it. If they see their idols on television talking about it, it's easier to talk to mom or dad."
Agreed Nightingale, "One of the most important things television can do is show what's possible, and normalize. If you see a sex scene and they happen to use birth control, it doesn't feel like 'a very special episode.'"
Some of the shows have tackled abortion; it was discussed as an option on Jane the Virgin because Jane was accidentally artificially inseminated, and a girl on East Los High did have an abortion.
While not all viewers reacted positively, Mota said, "We felt it was important. We have fans who approach the characters online and ask for advice every day. There are things they wouldn't ask their parents. We've talked to our actors – they're like best friends [to the viewers]. We never had pushback from Hulu about the abortion."
Even the streaming service does have its limits. In sex scenes, it was, "You can't thrust, but you can touch," Mota said. On Jane the Virgin, "Standards and Practices don't let us show much sex," Shaw said. "They don't let us show any grinding."
There has been a shift, Mimoun said; the word "vagina" is no longer verboten. "You couldn't say 'vagina,' but you could say 'bitch' all day long. On Eastwick, I screamed at the Standards and Practices woman, 'Say "vagina!" You'll feel free.'"
As Mota had observed, fans' online interaction creates an important dynamic, via social media. "From the get-go, East Los High was designed for social media, not because it's trendy, but because we knew there is real empathy when it comes to immersion. There are hyperlinks – we have 30-plus partners [for various social and personal issues teens may face]."
Not all shows that reach teens are about teens, Mota pointed out, saying that Shonda Rhimes's series, especially Grey's Anatomy, have sparked conversations with his 12-year-old daughter about sex and love.
Whatever the show, "Television influences people's lives," Ehrlich reiterated. "If we don't talk about an issue, people are going to think it's a taboo issue. We've done polling – people believe birth control should be talked about, and it should be available. That was across all political lines."
Listen up, television writers and producers: There's a wealth of compelling material to create – and an audience eager to watch, learn from and share.