From the promos, ABC’s “In a New Light: Sex Unplugged” might seem like an MTV-style look at sex and teens today. Check out the hosts - doe-eyed Stephen Baldwin and excitable Rosie Perez - in their club-like setting. The hip quotient is high.
So it’s almost startling when dignified - and grandfatherly - C. Everett Koop, former U.S. surgeon general, appears on-screen before the opening credits to tell viewers: “If you’re a parent and watching without your teens, call them into the room to watch with you now. If you’re a teen watching without your parents, go get them now.”
When Barbara Walters is thrown into the mix - she acts as third host - there’s something for nearly everyone. Koop offers a disclaimer that lets viewers know immediately about the graphic and frank nature of the show, which focuses on the heath risks young people face in today’s sexual environment.
The statistics are sobering: According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately threequarters of the country’s teens are sexually active by their senior year in high school, and one of every five Americans needs to be treated for a sexually transmitted disease by the age of 21. Among the most startling facts: The CDC reports that a large number of people diagnosed with AIDS in their 20s became infected with HIV, the virus that causes the immune-deficiency disease, in their teens.
Some of the youth represented are as young as 11. A girl and her mother join Girls Inc., a discussion group in which mothers and their pubescent daughters get together to talk frankly about sex. Talking frankly is executive producer Joseph F. Lovett’s main concern.
“We really hope the show can be used as a discussion tool for families to watch together, to discuss facts and more subtle things,” he says from his New York office. Lovett points out that while sex education is often clear about how to stop sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy, the more subtle issues often are not examined.
“We want to get rid of that barrier and change our behavior about our discomfort about talking about issues that we found to be important to boys, girls, men, women, blacks, whites, gays, straights - everyone has the same issues they worry about talking about,” he adds.
“People are lonely,” he points out. “It’s a huge problem, and so then intimacy becomes terribly important. It’s one of the reasons they are embarrassed to reach for a condom. They don’t want to stop the moment, because they’re worried that the other person will have a chance to realize that they don’t want to be with them.”
Young people need more than a clinical approach to deal with the issues they face, Lovett says. “Young people need to talk about passion, pleasure, lust, complications in relationships after sex. And now that AIDS exists, it changes the ballpark further.”
Perez and rapper Ed Lover lead a group discussion where teens talk about the peer pressures they face where sex is concerned these days. A recent study concluded that up to 85 percent of teens who had sex at 15 and younger did so out of pressure. “They weren’t raped,” Lovett clarifies. “But they felt pressure to have sex by their friends.”
Show segments cover the growing trend of abstinence among some teens, sex education programs proven effective in dealing with STDs and pregnancy, interviews with young couples grappling with HIV and more.
Athlete Greg Louganis (who has AIDS), models Kate Moss and Veronica Webb, rockers Melissa Etheridge and Tiko Torres, actors Kim Fields, Jared Leto, Parker Posey, Michael Sutton and Kimberly McCullough also appear.
“What we’re hoping is that kids will understand the concept of pressure, and if they’re going to have sex see no problem in using a condom,” Lovett says. “We’re hoping that people will talk to each other and to others, their parents included.”
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Program information “In a New Light: Sex Unplugged” airs Thursday at 8 p.m. on ABC (KXLY-Channel 4 from Spokane). Recommended for teens, with parental discretion.