06/15/2007 05:24 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

There is Not Enough Sex in American Media

I would like to make a startling claim: There is not enough sex in American media. We need to put more sex on the screen... and we need to do it for the children.

Consider the icon of sex: The supermodel. She is about as sexy as a sports car. Both have hard bodies and curves in all the right places. And, with only a moment's reflection, it's clear that both sports cars and supermodels inspire a sort of sexual desire (as God and/or the ad company intended). But it's more like Pavlov's ring than natural yearning. Supermodels and sports cars are sexy because they are sex symbols. But symbols, by definition, only point to sex. They refer to it, they remind us to think of it, they invoke sex, but ultimately they are still only symbols... they don't embody complex human sexualities.

Even when sex (that is, intercourse) occurs on the screen, no one seems to really be having it. Oh sure, all of the right signifiers are there: missionary position, gazing into each others' eyes, gentle rocking back and forth. When he (or they -- no, let's face it, he) has an orgasm, it is only the suggestion of an orgasm: some subtle sounds, the stopping of motion. Ah ha, we conclude, sex has been had. In the meantime, no one fussed with birth control or awkwardly tried to disrobe without looking ridiculous, no one ended up in a less than flattering position, the sheets stayed dry and properly placed, no one made any ridiculous or embarrassing sounds or faces, no one laughed or cried, no one got bored, and, certainly, kids didn't barge in and no one called. (Unless it's comedy, of course, which only serves to prove my point.)

Most importantly, and this is what the sex scene has in common with sex symbols, both are about control and perfection. Let's face it, real sex rarely involves two highly-coordinated, hard-bodies. Nor does it (I think, we hope) follow a careful script in which both remain in perfect control as he approaches a modest (let's not be excessive here) but marked climax. No, sex, at its best, is messy, unrestrained, and explosive. At its worst, it's clumsy, awkward, and weird. Somewhere in the middle, it's funny and humbling. And often it's wonderful.

In the U.S. media, all of this is reduced to a fake, formulaic system of symbols and referents. This reduction strips sex down to less than what it is. And this is what I mean when I say there should be more sex on the screen. The stripped-down version of sex that is ubiquitous on our screen today, that permeates our media-drenched existence, that we are told is the most exciting experience and the secret to our happiness, is actually a sex that is sex sans everything in life that makes sex meaningful. It is a sex stripped of its humanity.

This has profound and measurable consequences for young people who are newly negotiating the sexual playground. Perhaps the meaninglessness of sex is why young adults in contemporary America are having more sex and more kinds of sex with more and more people in less and less intimate circumstances. Oral sex is now "like a goodnight kiss" or "not really sex," while intercourse is now "just sex." In inventing "just sex" by stripping it of everything else that it is -- love, hate, sadness, need, comfort, joy, nurturance, struggle, pleasure, emptiness, hope, despair -- it is left hollowed out, dry, hard, and empty; just a shell of sex. No wonder kids don't take it seriously.

Why more sex on the screen, then? Because studies show that one of the few things that actually predicts delayed first sex is feeling like that first time is meaningful, important, and precious. So I call for more! Let's see the pain and the pleasure, the ridiculous and the profound, the clumsy and the smooth, the silly and the serious, the beautiful and the ugly, the triumph and the humility! Let's see sex in all its varieties and imperfections. Let's insist on its complexity. If we teach young people (because, like it or not, the screen is a teacher) that sex is the key to many things, including both great pain and great pleasure, then they will be more thoughtful about when they do it, with whom, and how. And if they are empowered to make sex meaningful however they choose, then they will be better prepared to resist peer and media pressure to "just do it" and negotiate the meaning of sex for themselves.