Sex, Sex Everywhere

Sex today seems to be everywhere. It's certainly more present in the public square than before. But how big a problem is this?

When I was growing up, many people believed that sex must be kept out of sight, because it would corrupt the minds of children and lead to sexually deviant behavior.

Watch John Stossel's special "The Age of Consent" next Friday, March 14 at 10 p.m. ET

That was why when Lucille Ball, the star of the most popular television show, "I Love Lucy," got pregnant, showing that was considered shocking and a breakthrough, even though the word "pregnant" was never spoken.

Today, television has traveled miles from "I Love Lucy." Now, even on family television shows, sex is a regular story line, and that bothers a lot of people.

"The intention is clearly to bring up this sexual desire, and I don't think that's beneficial for our society," says Peter Sprigg, vice president for policy at Family Research Council.

Particularly disturbing, says Sprigg, is what children are seeing. "They are being exposed to sex and to talk about sex before they're even old enough to even think about having sex." Sprigg adds, "Television is going downhill fast and the programmers sometimes seem to me to be racing each other to see how they can push the envelope in terms of negative sexual content."

Family Research Council and similar groups feel there is a tremendous cost to society from this type of media exposure to sex. "I see the harm in the rise of sexually transmitted diseases," says Sprigg. "I see the harm in the increase in out of wedlock pregnancies and births. We see the harm in the increase in single-parent households. All of these things have significant harm for the country."

Others say that's just not so.

"There are groups of people out there who are devoted to scaring the heck out of Americans about sexuality," says Marty Klein, Ph.D., author of "America's War on Sex." Klein says, "It makes some people feel good because they say, Aha, there's the enemy and if only we could do something about that, everything would be better."

Klein points out that the dire predictions of anti-sex crusaders have not happened, and that despite all the increased focus on sex in America, most of the news is good.

Statistics prove Klein has a point. In recent years, the rape rate has dropped, as has the birthrate among teen girls. And this happened, as not just the media, but as the world around us seems to be coarser. There's sexy lingerie shown on scantily clad mannequins in store windows. And there's sex all over kids' computers. Protesters once picketed stores that dared sell Playboy and Penthouse, but now little kids with e-mail accounts get spam offering penis enlargers. It's estimated that the average age of first Internet exposure to pornography is 11 years old.

That's why people like Sprigg feel we need tougher regulations on pornography and we need to protect children from sexual images.

That's easier said than done, Klein maintains. "The truth is children think about sex whether we want them to or not, children think about sex. Children don't need our help to think about sex."

It's all part of what Klein sees as over-reaction and hysteria about sex in America. Klein points to how in Europe, kids are exposed to more sex than in the United States, from nude beaches to things like more sexually explicit television commercials. Yet, says Klein, all that sex and nudity hasn't caused European countries to experience more sex-related crimes.

"The issue really is," says Klein, "is the stuff out there that you and I don't like, is it dangerous? And the good news is that for the most part, the unsavory sexual things that people are exposed to isn't dangerous — it may be unpleasant, but it's not dangerous."