Context and a T.V. Show: Unsafe Sex on "Girls"

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

This interview originally aired live on March 20, 2013. An edited version was re-aired on August 9, 2013 as part of a special episode of The Brian Lehrer Show. 

The depiction of unprotected sex on HBO's "Girls" has been criticized for sending the wrong message about how twenty-somethings should think about sex and risk. June Thomas, culture critic for Slate, and sexual health expert, John Santelli, chair of the Heilbrunn Department of Population and Family Health at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, talk about that message and how it compares to real life concerns about sexually transmitted disease and public health.

What do you think about the way sex is portrayed on "Girls"? Do you think it's realistic, or is it sending the wrong message? How important is it for media to reflect desirable behavior, like protected sex, for impressionable viewers? Leave your comment below. 

A "Girls" Reading List


John Santelli and June Thomas

Comments [68]

Seth from UES

Who the F cares about a stupid TV show?!

Mar. 24 2013 05:43 PM
JDUWS from Manhattan

In addition to the lack of safe sex on this show, I find the lack of "responsible" sex very disturbing. If this is the new reality for women in their 20s, we are in a serious crisis. Where are the young women with self respect making thoughtful decisions about having sex - when, how, with whom? It's about more than morals - it's about personal growth and self respect. I acknowledge that the 20s can be an emotionally volatile time and bad decisions are made. Like these young ladies, my friends and I had crappy jobs, were buried in student loan debt and struggled to make sense of guys and dating, but we worked really hard, supported each other and learned from out mistakes. I don't mind that this show portrays a more realistic picture of women in their 20s, but how about emotionally healthy ones?

Mar. 21 2013 09:11 AM
Kat from UK

Several people have mentioned not having seen *much safe sex practiced on other past/current depictions of 'casual' sex. Of course there are some exceptions but I think I agree for the most part.

It reminds me of what's happening in the UK in the last few years regarding women and the drinking culture here. The media keeps bemoaning and singling out women who are drinking to excess here, over and over. I just think - haven't men drank to excess for AEONS in the past and now yet there isn't all this targeting/singling out of men to stop excess drinking?

Which leads me to my theory that the reason women are held more 'accountable' for these indiscretions or whatever is that we somehow represent some kind of last bastion of 'civilised' behaviour... the 'boys will be boys' attitude is still prevalent... they are somehow excused from the accountability and responsibility of these same actions... Why haven't the history of male directors/screenwriters (the majority of writing the dialogue and actions of the females) been targeted for the same accountability?

I'm not saying that I promote unsafe sex or excess drinking or anything like that, it's just that this is a pretty complex issue and the real question that comes to my mind is equal accountability.

Mar. 20 2013 09:26 PM
Ed Pendleton, Esq. from Harlem, USA

I had a woman tell me that "If you are having sex with a condom, then you are not really having sex." We all have had non-safe sex. Otherwise, nobody
would be on the planet. The show is trying to be real and young women have sex without condoms. Relax, this is life. Yes it may kill you but it feels so good. Who always has a condom? Many guys will sneak and take it off anyway.

Mar. 20 2013 06:34 PM
Meghan from Westchester

I don't think that the portrayal of unprotected sex in this show or any other television show or film will have any real impact on the behavior of the people who watch it.

I expect that this criticism has come from a more veiled discomfort with the way that the the characters are displayed overall. And that is exactly Lena Dunham's intention.

Women are sick of seeing vapid, little waifs with only love and shoes on their mind portrayed in television geared towards females and females relationships. This ideal does not represent us and we can not relate.

I would have loved to have a show like Girls around when I was in my twenties. Real life is uncomfortable and confusing - especially the sex life of a 20 something and I am more than thankful for the popularity of a progressive show like this one.

Mar. 20 2013 02:54 PM
Noach (Independent, anti-Corporate,anti-War) from Brooklyn

"Suzanna from Brooklyn" wrote,
"the scene with Adam and his new girlfriend, after he makes her walk on all fours, felt so extremely violent and uncalled for that I can't get past it."

I'm not familiar with the show or the scene but what you describe sounds just like the kind of degrading depravity that is glorified and promoted in an alarmingly extensive amount of the porn that abounds today. Accessible with incredible ease even to children of younger than ever ages, such smut surely accounts for a great deal of just the type of behavior you describe. Ditto for the alarming increase in the pressure females experience to submit to acts such as fellatio and even anal penetration-- acts that are repulsive to most females. (To say nothing of the health risks they pose, and, especially in the case of the latter (buggery), the inherent gruesomeness and anatomical,physiological and hygienic unsoundness of the act.)

Are you willing to go on record as condemning these cultural cancers?

Seems like very few will, outside of the dreaded "Religious Right".

(But many of the same people won't hesitate to condemn anyone who so much as opposes as abortion as "hating women"...)

Mar. 20 2013 02:37 PM
Noach (Independent, anti-Corporate,anti-War)s from Brooklyn

"Bob from Brooklyn" wrote,
"I stand by my comment about Ed. It's consistent with much of what he writes on WNYC."

Can you cite a single example where "Ed from Larchmont" demonstrated acceptance-- much less /sanction/-- of gratuitous violence on TV?

If not, your post was libelous and you owe Ed (as well as all cultural conservatives to whom your sweeping generalization does not apply) an apology.

(But I won't be holding my breath...)

Mar. 20 2013 02:17 PM
Suzanna from Brooklyn

All I know is, the scene with Adam and his new girlfriend, after he makes her walk on all fours, felt so extremely violent and uncalled for that I can't get past it.

Mar. 20 2013 02:12 PM
Gabi from Manhattan

Maybe I don't watch enough tv or movies, but I can't think of any sex scenes where you see the characters putting on condoms before they have sex. And if these scenes do exist, which they must, they are probably very few.

Mar. 20 2013 01:33 PM
Bob from Brooklyn

Hey Brian, It would be interesting to hear a segment this week on the Cyprus/Russia vs EU showdown happening right now and maybe an update on the Stop and Frisk trial. Lots of interesting testimony coming out of that.

@Noach - whatever you say. I stand by my comment about Ed. It's consistent with much of what he writes on WNYC.

Mar. 20 2013 12:43 PM
Noach (Independent, anti-Corporate,anti-War) from Brooklyn

"Bob from Brooklyn" wrote,
"Conservatives, like Ed from Larchmont, have a strange way of looking at the world. They don't mind violent television shows, heck studies show NCIS is one of their favs,"

Excuse me, Mr. Bob, but how do you know that /Ed/ doesn't object to violence on TV just as much as he objects to sleazy, immoral sex?

Unless you have evidence that /Ed/, specifically, is okay with violence, you have no right to /assume/ based simply on whatever "studies" you mention. Simply an outrageous generalization that would be roundly castigated if the positions/roles were reversed.

I cannot speak for Ed but I can tell you that I, Noach, an unapologetic /cultural/ conservative take issue with gratuitous depiction, romanticization and glorification of violence just as I do of sex.

Mar. 20 2013 12:36 PM
Bob from Brooklyn

Penises go inside vaginas. Ain't going to change! Go out and get some, ya'll.

Have a good day everybody!

Mar. 20 2013 12:24 PM
Noach (Independent, anti-Corporate,anti-War) from Brooklyn

There is no such thing as "safe" sex, only safeER sex.

All forms of contraception and STI prevention have considerable failure rates.

(Yes, they're certainly better than /nothing/ but not to be relied-upon.

"Self-control works better than birth-control (and condoms to prevent STDs)"

It is shocking how many otherwise intelligent and generally well-informed adults not quite realize/appreciate/acknowledge this.

I'll try to post some example later if I get a chance.

Also, there are those who claim that increased contraception use/campaigns actually leads to /increased/ pregnancy and abortion. How could that be? The theory is that the false sense of security provided by contraception/ condoms leads to greater promiscuity. Similar idea to the claim that seat belts and air bags cause people to drive more recklessly.

Mar. 20 2013 12:23 PM
olivier from Bronx

A smooth sea never made a skillful sailor.

I was in college 20 years ago. I was irresponsible then. Lucky with hindsight. Being male made life easier, no pregnancy risk nor bad reputation associated with promiscuity. Puritanical left-overs have stalled progress in reclaiming Sex as a healthy human endeavor. Almost tempted to insert George Michael quote here....

Every body seems to imply that contraception is the woman's responsibility solely. Honesty, responsibility, awareness, thoughtfulness are not typically associated with the throes of passion.

Patriarchal scientific hang-ups have also complicated and stalled things. We basically know nothing about the clitoris and have treated it as the devil's gateway. I might be going too far there.

Mar. 20 2013 12:17 PM
Brooke from Brooklyn

Consider Mad Men--Joan Harris, played by Christina Hendricks, has had multiple abortions; Peggy had a child out of wedlock. Mad Men doesn't have a narrative on safe sex--but like girls, it delves into the emotional reactions the characters have as a result of their decisions.

Mar. 20 2013 12:13 PM
Bob from Brooklyn

Lynn is correct, especially about mainstream storytelling. These types of characters and situations can be found in all kinds of art and literature going back centuries. Just because it's on TV doesn't make it 'new'. Maybe it is for the illiterates or myopic experts, but not for those who actually pay attention to the art and world around them.

Mar. 20 2013 12:12 PM
Bob from Brooklyn

Tony - my girlfriend likes some of these dramatic shows with young, sexy people. We joke about which characters are going to do it or not. It's actually funny to watch some of these sex scenes because they are so unrealistic. If we don't care about the characters or don't want to see the actors naked, we simply don't watch it. And I think that's the way it should be.

Mar. 20 2013 12:10 PM
Bob from Brooklyn

Brooke from Brooklyn is spot on too.

Public health experts should stay out of art.

Mar. 20 2013 12:07 PM
Lynn from Manhattan

The people interviewed on this segment are coming from a perspective that youth is a necessary evil -something you have to get through. They are working off the assumption that all of the choices made on "Girls" are "mistakes" that set people back and ultimately teach them to learn to be better people. The approach "Girls" represents (which is the unique example of this in mainstream US culture) is that choices are based on more complicated processes than simple cause and effect / trial and error experiences. Lena Dunham is offering a counterweight to the American fear of being young. It is an alternative to the extremes of "being a responsible member of society" and the "swinging sixties" - mentalities that somehow non-millennials believe are the only lifestyles.

Mar. 20 2013 12:06 PM
Bob from Brooklyn

I agree, Tony. Quality over sensationalism. That's why I didn't care much for this segment. People have sex, often unprotected and the results are pregnancy or STDs or nothing at all. These are individual fictional characters portraying life in their world. It doesn't represent a whole generation, or group or necessarily 'girls'. They're human characters so the issue of whether they use protection or not is irrelevant. It's a story, not a PSA.

Mar. 20 2013 12:06 PM
Tony from Canarsie

Bob from Brooklyn -- btw by "softcore porn" I meant the average cable dramatic show and not the late night blue stuff.

Mar. 20 2013 12:04 PM
Brooke from Brooklyn

In a lot of ways, Lena Dunham's understanding of AIDS is spot on--because it is such a reference point for our generation (the Millenials). The shock expressed one of Brian's guests at the Forrest Gump reference point is telling of the different milestones generations have about STD's.

Mar. 20 2013 12:02 PM

I lived in Greenpoint and Williamsburg for 8 years and also know girls & guys who represent every character on this show. It sometimes is even uncomfortable to watch because I see myself in so many of the situations presented. I was diagnosed with HPV just a few weeks before "Hannah" was. That being said, the characters on this show are not meant to be role models or people to look up to. It's not as if everything they do on the show are great decisions and really going to make their lives better. They are constantly making mistakes and learning ( or in many cases not learning) from them. This show is a slice of life of living single in new york in your 20's-30's and in todays area. It's the most realistic depiction of my own experiences and situations of living there, and the friends and co workers around me. We didn't always make great decisions thats part of growing up.

Mar. 20 2013 12:01 PM
Tony from Canarsie

Bob from Brooklyn -- Good point. I suppose it's just that I prefer subtlety over sensationalism.

Mar. 20 2013 12:01 PM
Mark from Delaware

Seinfeld, Friends and Sex and the City.
Arguably they have shaped more than chronicled NY social trends.

Mar. 20 2013 12:00 PM

Of course television influences behavior. Check out the work of Albert Bandura, Miguel Sabido, Arvind Singhal as well as organizations like Hollywood, Health and Society and Population Media Center. Many times writers and producers are working with health organizations to bring factual information to the public through entertainment/dramatic television. Think "edutainment".

Nancy Kaplan, PhD
School of Communication
Hofstra University

Mar. 20 2013 11:59 AM
Bob from Brooklyn

Tony - cable is like choose your own adventure. You have 100 plus stations to choose your own level of entertainment. It's a good thing we have more soft-porn now. 20 years ago we only had Cinemax.

Mar. 20 2013 11:57 AM
Tonky from Portland, OR

I think it's great how a PH academic is taking action and making the science accessible. Fantastic use of tweets Professor! A+

Mar. 20 2013 11:56 AM
Bob from Brooklyn

Spot on JB from Manhattan

Mar. 20 2013 11:55 AM
Tony from Canarsie

Not to sound prudish or naive, but why do so many premium cable shows feature so much softcore porn? Thank the gods and goddesses for Turner Classic Movies.

Mar. 20 2013 11:54 AM
Bob from Brooklyn

Gangsta Rap Made Me Do It

Mar. 20 2013 11:54 AM
Bob from Brooklyn


Mar. 20 2013 11:53 AM
Sheldon from Brooklyn

It's the same with drug use, some people don't want to accept the fact that certain behavior is not relegated to "Jersey Girls" or "young minorities."

Mar. 20 2013 11:52 AM
JB from Mahattan

I don't watch girls. Girls represent that corny, lame clueless chick that I don't have the patience to be friends with let alone laugh at on TV. The show is definitely over over rated ad mediocre. It is definitely not the voice of the 20 year olds, just that specific 20 something that most ant stand to be around. And everyone I know uses condoms.

Mar. 20 2013 11:52 AM
Lou Viola from Brooklyn

Your expert displays the ignorance typical of people outside the television business. The reason "Girls" is unlike other shows on tv is primarily because HBO hires writers and producers they trust to tell honest and real stories without interference from network bureaucrats with limited real life experience.

Mar. 20 2013 11:51 AM
antonio from baySide

Thank you BOB!!!

Mar. 20 2013 11:50 AM
Sarah from Jersey City

I'm not a fan of the show, but it is great to see this on television. How many NETWORK shows have we seen with pregnancy "scares." But never once a disucssion of protection.

Mar. 20 2013 11:49 AM
foodaggro from Brooklyn

Girls is a brilliant show. It's been made clear that the characters make big mistakes, and that makes it more realistic and relateable. One thing to keep in mind, though: IT'S JUST A SHOW ON TV!

Mar. 20 2013 11:49 AM
Mike from New Jersey

GIRLS isn't about girls living in NYC... its about HUMANS living in today's culture. This is the world we live in - the world that the MEDIA has given us. NYC is the backdrop, and girls are the protagonists, but it's all of our (20-somethings in this culture) lives that it deals with.

I'm a straight male, 26, who commutes into NYC for work.

Mar. 20 2013 11:48 AM
CK from Yorktown

First: the show is much ado about nothing. How many of you listeners actually watch it? (I know everyone talks about it but I know of no one that watches.) 2.) So what you want with your own junk. But don't whine then when you get a rash or something falls off. Good luck

Mar. 20 2013 11:47 AM
Bob from Brooklyn

Girls is NOT DIFFERENT. hello? Is this a segment promoting HBO and GIRLS? All these issues are protrayed in music and books and other tv shows.

Mar. 20 2013 11:46 AM
antonio from baySide

Also, I think the show reinforces the idea if your in this class/background you'll be fine...cause THOSE people are immune to such worries...I mean the show is not taking place in the "marcy projects" right?

Mar. 20 2013 11:46 AM
Sheldon from Brooklyn

Perhaps - since this show has unearthed the usually dormant narrative of mostly white, middle-class,female, 20 something year olds' sexual health, is making some people uneasy.

Mar. 20 2013 11:46 AM
Dan from Greenpoint

I'm 33. I've lived in New York for 8 years, all of that time spent in Greenpoint. I know these "Girls". I (stupidly) rarely use condoms. It's stupid, but it's true. I've never been with a girl here who's even asked me to.

The people here come from a certain background so we feel safer...though we know it's unrealistic.

Mar. 20 2013 11:46 AM
Tara from Bronx

The problem w/"Girls" is how it portrays girls overall. I tried watching the show and was disgusted at how stupid the characters were and the stereotyped image the show promotes of young females. I don't personally know any girls who act like the one's portrayed on that show, and if I did I wouldn't have anything to do with them.

Mar. 20 2013 11:46 AM
Bob from Brooklyn

CHrist. Are we back in High School? Girls is a non-factor. Why do we give a crap? Porn portrays unprotected sex literally.

The media is a tool for advertisers.

Mar. 20 2013 11:45 AM

How about herpes 2? Condom use diminishes the risk but does not really protect. So even portraying "safe" sex could be misleading.

Mar. 20 2013 11:45 AM
Noach (Independent, anti-Corporate,anti-War) from Brooklyn

Ed from Larchmont wrote,
"TV has portrayed sex in an immoral way for years and years to the point that many people can't watch TV. One reason NCIS is so popular is that it's a program people can watch. Here it's just a question of how far down the slippery slope one is progressing."


Mar. 20 2013 11:43 AM

If anyone has watched the show, you'll know that 99% of it isn't real.

Mar. 20 2013 11:43 AM

@DBK from Brooklyn

Exactly. As evidenced my the boom in STDs within retirement communities.

Mar. 20 2013 11:42 AM
Bob from Brooklyn

Seriously. Old people spread way more studs than the young.

Mar. 20 2013 11:42 AM

Is the pope still telling catholics to use rhythm?

Mar. 20 2013 11:41 AM
Anel from nyc

you could have a whole host of unrealistic things happening on the show, why stop at unprotected sex?

Mar. 20 2013 11:41 AM
YZ from Brooklyn

This is infuriating.

Screenwriters, as artists, have no obligation whatsoever to create characters who are role models.

Mar. 20 2013 11:41 AM
DBK from Brooklyn

Oh please! This is what happens. It's reality. But like someone else pointed out...I don't really recall any safe sex scenes on any other shows I have watched in recent years. I can only think of Felicity losing her virginity in the 90s. And stop pinning it on 20 somethings - every one does it maybe more so in 30s and beyond!

Mar. 20 2013 11:40 AM
Bob from Brooklyn

Yes. It realistic. Next topic please.

Mar. 20 2013 11:40 AM
Sheldon from Brooklyn

Amen Alicia and Carolita - Unfortunately, the depiction of unprotected sex may influence some people to do the same but that's life - it happens for real, it's not for HBO to sanitize "reality."

Perhaps, one of the characters should get an STD - on the show, to balance things out.

Mar. 20 2013 11:40 AM
Bob from Brooklyn

All other issues and STDs aside, it doesn't get any better than unprotected sex.

Mar. 20 2013 11:37 AM
Tom from Vulgaria

I'm 23. I have unprotected sex with new partners all the time. It relies on honesty- I only do it when we both have been recently tested.

Mar. 20 2013 11:37 AM
Gerald Fnord from Palos Verdes, Ca

It is characteristic of people who believe that children should believe everything their parents tell them without critical thought, and that only exemplary behaviour should be shown, that they greatly---and justifiably---fear that their children will completely believe _someone_else_'s ideas and accept their depictions as exemplary. (The Communists did very well recruiting amongst the children of orthodox religious believers.)

(This is particularly stupid of religious types, as the Bible is _replete_ with conduct it explicitly condemns.)

Mar. 20 2013 11:30 AM
antonio from baySide

Do we actually think a show that is so blatantly myopic in it's themes, audience etc is supposed to effect the population in a meaningful way with such a serious issue???

Mar. 20 2013 11:12 AM
carolita from NYC

People do (unfortunately) have unprotected sex with strangers or people they aren't in a committed relationship with, in real life. I don't know how many friends I've admonished for that, people who ought to know better. But it happens. "Girls" just reflects that. I don't believe "Girls" is meant to be instructive, just descriptive. If parents are letting their underage kids watch it, for example, they ought to say something about it. But grown-ups do know better. I still don't now why people do it, but they do.

Mar. 20 2013 10:53 AM
Andrew Futral from probably brooklyn

We desperately need TV shows to teach us how to be people!

Mar. 20 2013 10:49 AM
Alicia from Greenpoint

I believe the point of these shows is to depict the reality of the characters. People in their 20's have a lot of sex. Hook-up culture is pervasive in NYC, its a real thing. This isn't an after-school special trying to teach a lesson to viewers, it is a nighttime HBO show. I do not believe that Girls is promoting unprotected sex, but rather trying to reflect the culture surrounding attitudes around sex for people in their 20's right now. And, I find for a lot of my 20something peers, the show is very relatable. I have had several friends call me to say, "Your life is just like Hannah's! You have all the same weird stuff happen to you!" Even male friends who watch the show have had conversations with me to the effect of, "I think I am more of a Hanna than a Marni." As a person currently in the tail-end of my 20's, I relate to trying to become a real adult human being.

To use Ed's example, NCIS is not suggesting people have high-speed car chases or draw weapons and have shootouts in the street, it is entertainment reflecting some degree of reality for a particular subset of American culture.

Mar. 20 2013 10:21 AM
Bob from Brooklyn

I love sex. I love unprotected sex with my longtime girlfriend. But unprotected sex with a stranger? No way. I'm a child of the 90's when the risk of AIDS was beaten into my brains at school, on tv and in music over and over again. So I agree culture does have an influence sex practices. The question here one has to ask is, Does the show Girls have a large cultural impact? And I think the answer is no. To call out one part is to ignore the rest. Girls and HBO have relatively small audiences so any fear of 'moral setback' is overblown. That being said, I like my entertainments to be reflective of reality, but I'd rather stop at fiction. Football games and MMA fights are too much like the games of Rome for my liking.

Conservatives, like Ed from Larchmont, have a strange way of looking at the world. They don't mind violent television shows, heck studies show NCIS is one of their favs, but portray sexual pleasure on tv? The horror! The horror! God forbid we see people enjoying sex! If anything, TV is getting better at capturing reality and I think that is a good thing, even though I don't watch these shows. I'm glad we have more options than Leave it to Beaver and the Brady Bunch and the network news to show tv watchers whats going out there.

Mar. 20 2013 09:29 AM

Agree 100% wth Brenda. Is the line "did you use something?" regarded as constituting a reference to sexual protection?
Who cares what message they are sending about sex,other than within the characters/ plotline in the show- this is ENTERTAINMENT! Are viewers so impressionable that they model their mores on a TV script? Most likely, though, the show is reflecting reality which is why it paints such an unhappy,hollow image of contemporary society.

Mar. 20 2013 08:19 AM
Brenda from New York City

I'm not sure that I have ever seen a depiction of safe sex practices on television or in film. Ever.

Mar. 20 2013 07:39 AM
Ed from Larchmont

TV has portrayed sex in an immoral way for years and years to the point that many people can't watch TV. One reason NCIS is so popular is that it's a program people can watch. Here it's just a question of how far down the slippery slope one is progressing.

Mar. 20 2013 05:46 AM

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