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Not teaching abstinence can get you screwed

THE MEDIA PROJECT is one of those do-gooder nonprofit groups conveying a relatively simple message — namely, if TV characters, particularly teens played by gorgeous twentysomethings, are going to hop into bed with each other, then at least producers should incorporate responsible messages about it.

Imagine my surprise, then, to hear that the organization’s funding has been dramatically cut, apparently because its D.C.-based parent, Advocates for Youth, hasn’t adhered to Bush administration guidelines on abstinence-only sex education.

At the end of March, the Media Project will lose its entire staff except for director Melissa Havard, vacate its current offices and at least temporarily discontinue the 20-year-old Shine Awards, which honor “accurate and honest portrayals” of sexual health issues. Major outreach events and briefings, as well as a Spanish-language media initiative, also will be a thing of the past.

From my experience, TV already contributes to abstinence by getting kids addicted to sitting around like slugs, eating junk food and watching “Battlestar Galactica” reruns, which, as anyone who has attended a sci-fi convention can attest, represents its own form of contraception.

Beyond that, there’s only so much TV can do, especially with society’s overall fascination with sexuality. Let’s face it, without sex Paris Hilton would be “Paris who?” Nobody would watch “The O.C.” or “One Tree Hill” to see kids discuss college-prep English in parkas, so all we can hope is that Dawson mentions condoms or waiting before tumbling onto the couch with Joey, or for that matter Pacey.

Nevertheless, there’s a powerful movement afoot to set the way-back machine for the Middle Ages, or rather, to treat teenagers like they’re middle aged — even though just saying no has done about as much to stamp out illicit drugs as counseling abstinence alone will do to shackle raging teenage hormones.

IT’S DIFFICULT TO OVERLOOK the irony of Republicans and Democrats combining to implement mechanisms to fine the hell out of broadcasters when they do wrong while the former work to slash programs that theoretically encourage programmers to behave more conscientiously. The current policy also exposes some of the smut police’s true motives — here to condemn, not to serve — when they assume seeing a breast or hearing an epithet can poison impressionable minds but exhibit no interest in promoting more sober treatment of such issues.

Whatever one’s political views, naively insisting on abstinence-only instruction is simply questionable public health policy, which appears especially true in light of recent and potentially alarming news about the AIDS virus.

Nor, historically, has lambasting Hollywood accomplished much in drumming up participation in and support for pro-social programming efforts. “In this town, you always catch more flies with honey,” Havard said.

As Havard noted, even some parents who would like to see kids in chastity belts until they turn 18 welcome thoughtful depictions of teen sexuality as a jumping-off point for discussion. “There are people who want to see sex addressed in a way … that might help parents segue to those difficult conversations,” she said.

NEAL BAER, exec producer of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” a member of the project’s board and, not incidentally, a medical doctor, said it would “be a shame” if the project was significantly diminished. He called the organization a valuable resource (and incidentally, a free one) that doesn’t push a partisan agenda.

“Abstinence only by fiat is not going to deal with the gray areas (of sexuality) and human feelings,” said Baer, who cites a recent “SVU” about promiscuous teenage girls as an hour that dealt with adolescent sexuality without promoting or glamorizing it — as did Sunday’s episode of “Desperate Housewives.”

That isn’t to say everyone advocating abstinence education is disingenuous. But they’d possess greater credibility if more research pointed toward its efficacy. Nor does it help that conservative firebrands have provided such rich fodder for “The Daily Show” by campaigning against the “homosexual agenda” of PBS kids shows and “SpongeBob SquarePants.”

At this point, Havard’s immediate goal is to rebuild the program. In the interim, she’s hoping to secure more private funding and plans to engage the industry through something called Take P.A.R.T. (Positive Action for Responsible Television), which will call attention to laudable explorations of reproductive health.

For those enamored with morality lessons, however, this one seems pretty clear: In the current climate you can toe the line on abstinence or risk getting screwed.

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