Pop Culture

Let's talk about safe sex - and keep it fun

Television shows may have the potential to influence younger viewers, but the message should be conveyed such that it doesn't sound like a public service announcement

Let's talk about condoms.

Apparently, some television viewers think that the subject is not being discussed enough on the goggle box, especially on sexually explicit programmes.

Fans of HBO dramedy Insecure, for one, felt so strongly about this that they took to social media to call the show out on how it continually features its characters having unprotected sex.

The outcry went: "The show is sending the wrong message; the characters are terrible role models."

The debate caused such a stir online that the show's creator and star, Issa Rae, directly addressed the issue last month.

Along with a zoomed-in screenshot of a sex scene taken from a previous episode, which shows two opened condom wrappers on the nightstand, she tweeted: "We tend to place condoms in the backgrounds of scenes or imply them. But we hear you guys and will do better next season."

As an ardent fan of Insecure, my initial reaction is that Rae had caved too easily to pressure from some overly conservative viewers.

The HBO dramedy, Insecure, which stars (from far left) Yvonne Orji, Issa Rae, Amanda Seales and Natasha Rothwell, has been criticised for featuring characters having unprotected sex. PHOTO: HBO

After all, the scripted series is fictional, which means that it is pure fantasy - and audiences should be able to tell that apart from reality, right?

Most other popular shows featuring graphic sex scenes in the past - think Sex And The City (1998 - 2004) and Californication (2014) - almost never addressed condom use, either, so why should Insecure be singled out?

If a TV show has to shoulder the responsibility of promoting safe sex, would it not be a slippery slope before TV programmes are forced to advocate other health issues such as a balanced diet or good personal hygiene habits?

Where would the line be drawn?

Researchers found that of the teenagers who saw the episode of TV sitcom Friends discussing condom effectiveness, many went on to consult an adult about the issue as a direct result of the episode viewing.

Not that I am downplaying the importance of safe sex. The consequences of unprotected sex tend to be more dire than if someone simply forgot to wash their hands before eating lunch.

After doing more in-depth research online, however, it seems that I may have been too quick to judge some of those concerned Insecure fans.

According to multiple studies, younger and more impressionable viewers, such as teenagers, do in fact get much of their understanding about sex from whatever they are consuming on TV and from films.

In a 2003 study published by the American Academy Of Pediatrics, for example, researchers found that of the teenagers who saw the episode of TV sitcom Friends (1994-2004) discussing condom effectiveness, many went on to consult an adult about the issue as a direct result.

So it would seem that scripted TV shows have the potential to act as positive sex educators after all.

My only hope is that, if programmes do go down this route and start writing safe sex habits into their scripts, they do not turn into blatant public service announcements.

There would be nothing worse than if an edgy show such as Insecure is turned into a Channel 8-like drama, in which characters bizarrely start reciting the benefits of a new government campaign for no apparent reason.

The pilot of Aziz Ansari's Master Of None (2015) is a great example of how something such as condom usage can be written into the show and still feel natural and be entertaining.

In the episode titled Plan B, leads Dev and Rachel hilariously start discussing how they should remedy a broken condom situation, with Ansari's signature quick-fire quips well intact.

So yes, talk about condoms, but keep it fun.

•Follow Yip Wai Yee on Twitter @STyipwaiyee

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 06, 2017, with the headline 'Let's talk about safe sex - and keep it fun'. Print Edition | Subscribe