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Not-So-Shining Examples

Earlier this fall, the Los Angeles-based Media Project, which claims that it seeks to "ensure that [the entertainment industry is] presenting the most up-to-date, socially relevant, and accurate information about sexual health issues," announced the winners of its annual SHINE (Sexual Health in Entertainment) awards for "accurate and honest portrayals of sexuality" on various television programs from the 2000-'01 season.

Imagine that you knew nothing about the Media Project and the SHINE awards and were looking for a clue, any clue, as to their guiding philosophy. Your hunch, when you hear Hollywood buzzwords like "accurate and honest portrayals of sexuality," is that they will be anything but that, right?

How right you are. In Hollywood's culture, information about sexual morality must be "up-to-date" and "socially relevant" because the topic is flexible, "evolving," never absolute. In this context, "accurate" and "honest" become loaded terms, to tell us how things are (plenty of teenagers are sexually active) instead of how they ought to be (teens shouldn't have sex unless they're married).

But, of course, there's a more direct way of finding out that the Media Project and the SHINE awards promote a permissive view of sex: Examine who the winners were for drama and sitcom episodes, as well as the winner for a single scene, and why they won.

One of the two drama honorees (tying with a cable series, Lifetime's "Strong Medicine") was Fox's "Boston Public," for an episode addressing what a Media Project spokeswoman calls "the health issues of oral sex." How did it do that?

The fun begins when Lauren, a high-school teacher, comes across a male student, Peter, and a female student, Susan, in a school hallway. It is obvious that Susan has just done it with/to Peter. Lauren lectures them but decides not to report them, then changes her mind upon learning of their quid pro quo: In exchange for the sexual favor, Peter drops out of the race for senior-class president and endorses Susan's candidacy.

So where's the educational element to the episode? When a school counselor asks Susan if Peter wore a condom during their encounter, she exclaims, "You can't catch anything from oral sex," to which the counselor responds, "Yes, you can. I'd like you to read this pamphlet." That, my friends, is it - and good enough to win a Sexual Health in Entertainment award.

"Boston Public" is about teens, and it is aimed at teen viewers. The trendiness and sleaziness of the rest of the episode, however, meant that if there was any redeeming quality in that passage, it was lost. Both Susan and Peter express what Hollywood would have us believe is conventional teenage wisdom on this sort of conduct ("Everybody does it," "It's not like we were kissing or doing anything intimate") and we get a few smutty jokes ("With [Peter's] 20 percent, Susan will win [the election] - talk about blowing by an opponent"). And, while there's a sense at the end of the episode that Peter and Susan have acted stupidly, there's no sense whatsoever that they've acted immorally. The message: Do it, but do it privately, so you don't get caught.

UPN's "Girlfriends" won the comedy award for an installment titled "Burning Vagina Monologues," which the Project's spokeswoman said was SHINE-worthy for its handling of "STD testing's importance in a relationship" and "the need to use protection all the time." It centers on Toni, who has sex with two men in one night and contracts chlamydia. Her friend's reaction: "OK, two guys in one night. I hope you mean at the same time, 'cause if not, that's just sick." Toni's problem? Certainly not promiscuity, but rather her partners' failure to - you guessed it - use condoms.

The SHINE single-scene honor went to NBC's "The West Wing" for the fictional president's dressing-down of a Dr. Laura-like character. After the two agree that according to the Bible, homosexuality is "an abomination," the president says, "I wanted to ask you [more Bible-related] questions...I'm interested in selling my youngest daughter into slavery...What would a good price for her be?...My chief of staff...insists on working on the Sabbath...Am I morally obligated to kill him myself, or is it OK to call the police?" The Project's spokeswoman described this speech, hardly the series' first cheap shot at the religious right, as "wonderful."

Groups like the Media Project would have the public believe that they are interested only in the health aspects of sexual issues. It is far, far greater than that. Theirs is a cultural and political agenda to tear down any remaining walls of tradition and morality.