Media: Can sex get any more boring?

Now my six year old asks me the meaning of sexual terms found in the TV listings
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The Independent Culture
I SCREW therefore I am. British television programme makers have been flogging this message to us mercilessly for a good while. In just two weeks in 1997 terrestrial television showed us 357 people participating in some kind of sexual activity. In July, the Broadcasting Standards Commission said sex on TV had gone up by 60 per cent in the previous year. Perhaps that's because the industry is still dominated by near-menopausal men.

The BSC figures spanned intentionally "sexy" programmes such as the risible US import Sex and the City and individual scenes such as a teenager losing her virginity in the back of a car in Coronation Street. Since then we have had; The Sex Trade, Sex and Shopping, Vice, Naked, Love in the 21st Century, Anatomy of Desire and Queer as Folk. And there's more to come as the nights close in.

Expect programmes on the female orgasm and sex freaks; interviews with people who "have walked on the wild side of sexual behaviour" and "loose women"; our own versions of Jerry Springer and soft-porn films where rich, big-breasted women do it on horseback with tireless and obliging farm hands.

The BBC (a bigger, and mightier organ of course) is going to jump into the same boudoir to give us a whole week on sex and the nation beginning on 6 September. The series, Adult Lives, has taken 18 months to make and was commissioned by former BBC 2 controller Mark Thompson, now the Director of National and Regional Broadcasting. Apparently Mr Thompson still thinks there is a need to "explore the nation's sexuality" and get an audience to look at itself and ask questions about this sexuality. This, in spite of evidence provided by the BSC that viewers are getting to despise this obsession. It is interesting to note that this weekend the Radio Times revealed the greatest moments on British television as judged by thousands of readers and those working in the industry. Not a single orgasm or whiplash seems to have made it although the rape of Irene Forsyte in The Forsyte Saga is in the top 10. Andrea Millwood Hargrave, the author of "Sex and Sensibility", a survey into viewers' perceptions of sex on the box found that they felt alienated and said too much sex was forced upon them by programme makers. The BBC's Peter Salmon has accepted that sex on TV is "as potentially turning-off as it is turning-on". He also proclaimed that the BBC did not need to chase ratings by using sex for cheap headlines and sensationalism and that the corporation could therefore "take sex seriously".

Is anyone really persuaded that sex on the BBC is about serious sociology and psychology? It seems to me that even if the programmes are sometimes exceptional, the reason behind these series is that the BBC feels sex brings in the punters. Despite this cloak of respectability everyone is just as naked and rampant as on Channel 5 which, at least, accepts it has rather a lot of "bosoms, balls and brutality".

My objections do not rise out of prudery. Like other grown ups, I want to see sexuality, with all its wonder, subtlety and individuality, depicted well in fiction, in the arts, even on TV. Popular drama does this best. I will never forget the sensuality of Harriet Walters in The Men's Room or the dangerously seething Trevor Eaves in A Sense of Guilt. Most people find the good costume dramas sexy too because there is so little on show and so much to hold back and imagine. But I do think there are serious consequences for a society which is force fed so much sex without life or personality. Our children are growing up in an excessively sexualised world. It is infantile to deny the role of TV in this. My six year old has asked me the meanings of sexual terms which she has read while scanning TV listings.

In this climate even family programmes begin to acquire a significant sexual content. The US Kaiser Family Institute found that this had increased from 43 per cent in 1976 to 75 per cent by 1996. And we say we are concerned about the record numbers of teenage pregnancies.

With so much that needs to be known, discussed and learnt in this complex world, how on earth does the BBC have the time to give us this much sex? Is there a connection, I wonder, between declining interest in politics and our obsessive, mindless interest in personal relationships, "lifestyle" and now sex?

Most of all, I worry about the effect of broadcast sex on our own lives. It invades our intimate spaces and corrupts our longings. How many people worry that their delightful orgasms are nothing compared with that two- minute scream they have just witnessed on the box? Do we know if these programmes contribute to relationship breakdowns because people really believe that out there everyone else has all-night sex in shiny leather boots?

Writer Aphra Benn said that love ceases to be a pleasure when it ceases to be a secret. I think this is even more true of sex. Programmes like Adult Life, by opening up our secrets and displaying them for all to gape at, demean us.

The BBC should have the confidence to give the real alternatives to this endless filth.