Broadcast television is increasingly making light of sexual exploitation, but not everyone is laughing.
The Parents Television Council (PTC) on Tuesday released a new research report on the sexual exploitation of teen girls, young adult women and adult women on primetime broadcast television. Part of the conservative media watchdog’s “4 Every Girl” project, the report looked at various forms of sexual content -- including rape, child molestation, sexual harassment, sex trafficking, prostitution, pornography and stripping -- much of which was played for laughs. On a conference call from Los Angeles, Tim Winter, president of the PTC, called the results part of a “troubling” trend.
“There’s a growing amount of primetime television programming that is sexually exploitative,” he said. “And much of it much of it is being used as a punch line to a joke.”
To compile the results, PTC’s team of entertainment research analysts combed through original scripted programing that aired on broadcast television during the first two weeks of the November 2011 sweeps period, as well as during the first two weeks of the May 2012 sweeps. Non-scripted programing was not included.
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Of the 238 scripted episodes the group analyzed, 63 percent contained sexual content in scenes that were associated with women and girls, while 33 percent contained “sexual content that rose to the level of sexual exploitation,” according to the study. For the purposes of the study, the PTC defined “sexual exploitation” as it is described in a bulletin on gender-based violence posted by the U.N. Secretary-General.
The PTC has targeted humorous programing in the past. (The group has made repeated attempts to boycott Seth MacFarlane’s “Family Guy.”) In its new report, it calls out broadcast comedies such as Fox’s “Glee,” CBS’ “Two and a Half Men,” and NBC’s “Whitney,” in addition to “Family Guy,” which is cited for a scene in which Meg Griffin appears onstage for a sex-slave auction. (Plenty of dramas such as “Law & Order: SVU,” which is concerned with the prosecution of sexually-based crimes and in no way makes light of sexual exploitation, were cited in the report as well.) In all, the study found that 37 percent of scenes containing sexual exploitation are intended to be humorous. That percentage goes even higher -- 43 percent -- if the exploitation involved underage female characters.
Sexual topics that were played for laughs include child molestation, sex trafficking, sexual harassment, pornography and stripping, according to PTC.
PTC admitted, however, that most of the instances were represented in references -- i.e. spoken dialogue -- and not visual depictions. Nevertheless, the PTC called the results “disturbing,” claiming that humor has been proven to reinforce negative stereotypes.
“Past studies have shown that not only can humor reinforce stereotypes and negative images, the trivialization that can result from the joke can lead to desensitizing the audience to serious social issues,” the group said in the study’s executive summary. “Consequently, recurring exposure to sexual humor targeting specific social groups may perpetuate unhealthy and inaccurate stereotypes.”
Broadcasters had long argued for the need to produce racier content as a means of competing with their uncensored counterparts on cable, where popular shows like AMC’s “Breaking Bad” and HBO’s “Girls,” unencumbered by FCC regulations, are attracting evermore loyal audiences and critical acclaim. Many free-speech advocates say the old rules of media regulation are simply obsolete in an increasingly crowded landscape where consumers can access any type of programing they want at any time. However, the PTC counters that most parents still want appropriate viewing options for their children, particular during primetime hours.
“More than a thousand research reports and studies confirm what parents instinctively know to be true,” Winter added. “Children are impacted by the entertainment content they consume.”