TV Eye

Satirizing Sex Ed

Cartman learns about the birds and the bees on Comedy Central's <i>South Park</i>.
Cartman learns about the birds and the bees on Comedy Central's South Park.

You've got to hand it to Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of the irreverent South Park. Just when you're convinced that there's no possibility of seeing, say, a singing poo wearing a Santa Claus cap on TV, there it is, thanks to those boys' knack for bringing the unthinkable to the small screen. So, I viewed with little surprise a recent episode of South Park that dared to approach that most prickly of subjects: sex education.

Naturally, Parker and Stone had their own take on it. Not being content with simply telling the story of our four heroes (Kyle, Cartman, Stan, and Kenny) taking those "special classes," South Park went a step further. Not only did they manage to critique sex education in the schools, but also the puritan attitudes Americans have about sex in general. Those attitudes, in contrast to the reality of sexually active youth, make discussions about sex woefully incomplete -- if they occur at all.

My favorite scene in the sex ed South Park episode was when the boys came away from the "special class" believing that to be protected and responsible, they were supposed to wear a condom at all times. It reminded me of when I learned about "that time of the month." At home, I was told if I got pregnant, I was on my own. In sex ed, I was told having sex meant responsibility. Responsibility meant being married and in love with a man. But how sexuality, love, and responsibility came together wasn't made clear. According to the South Park episode, not much has changed.

That this meditation on sex ed occurred on television at all is a minor miracle, given the conflicting attitudes toward sexual content vs. sexual paraphernalia on television. The most recent example of these conflicting attitudes involves the feature film American Pie 2. A sponsorship deal between the film and Ansell Healthcare, the maker of LifeStyles condoms, includes several cooperative marketing plans including joint promotional television commercials. However, don't expect to see trailers for the movie on TV with LifeStyles products present. The MPAA rating board, which has the final say on how films are marketed, nixed the TV ads based on the policy that it does not allow condoms in movie commercials meant for general audiences. Sure, it's okay to promote a movie, the theme of which is randy teen sex, but any mention of a product that would suggest a responsible approach to sex -- that's inappropriate.

Earlier this year Encare, the maker of a female contraceptive product, approached Fox to advertise during Temptation Island. Fox declined, citing its policy prohibiting contraceptive ads, unless the commercial shows the product as a means to prevent the spread of disease. The irony of the decision was that Encare wanted to advertise in the TI episode that revealed that one couple (Ytossie and Taheed) had a child out of wedlock. The irony was stretched further when one remembers that the premise of TI was to let loose pairs of supposedly committed couples and see what would happen when allowed to date horny singles. There was a lot of licking, kissing, and rubbing on that show. But contraceptive commercials and sexed-up programming apparently don't mix by Fox TV standards.

South Park appears on cable television, which is typically less restrictive in subject matter, but broadcast television is more available, and therefore more highly scrutinized by conservative, "pro-family" advocates. However, fractured thinking about sex and sexual content is not limited to broadcast television. In March of this year, MTV turned down a People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) ad because it showed two animatronic cats mating. The message of the ad was to encourage pet owners to spay or neuter pets. But MTV turned down the ad because it was "unacceptable for MTV Networks -- no fornication allowed." Imagine the illicit thoughts put in viewers' heads by watching two cats "doing it," were they not watching all those wholesome music videos.

So, what is the logic here? The point is there is none. The theory goes that if you talk about sex, especially to teenagers, they're going to run right out and get some. Well guess what? They already are. Although with only partial information and conflicting messages from popular culture, home, and school -- when and if any information is provided at all -- one can only wonder what that experience is.

To its credit, South Park not only approached the subject, but took a stand in suggesting where sex education should originate: the home, parents, family. For a show that is often sophomoric (but hey, pretty darn funny), it offered a smartly transgressive and humorous take on how mixed up and clueless this country is about sex. As far as I know no uproar over the South Park episode occurred before or after its airing. I was going to say it was unfortunate, to have this kind of intelligent, progressive discussion occur in a cartoon. But on second thought, it's much better than what other shows and networks are offering. And it's certainly more entertaining.

E-mail Belinda Acosta at

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South Park, Trey Parker, Matt Stone, sex ed, Lifestyles condoms, American Pie 2, Fox, MTV, Temptation Island, PETA, Ansell Healthcare, Encare

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