by Martha Kempner
Last Wednesday, in a rather obvious attempt to avoid chatting with my in-laws on the night before Thanksgiving, I escaped to their guest room to watch TV. With no DVR filled of favorite shows, I was back to the old days of flipping channels when the new Courtney Cox sitcom, Cougar Town, caught my eye.
At the moment I tuned in, Cox’s character Jules had barged into a room where her teenage son and his girlfriend were sitting on the bed. “See this,” she yells holding up a water balloon, “do you know what this is?” “It’s a condom filled with water. People think that condoms are foolproof but they’re not, these things can break."
Of course, given that this is a sitcom, she then tries to break it in a series of comical moves that includes poking it with a sharp object, throwing it on the ground, and stomping on it, all to no avail. “This isn’t fair,” she whines when it remains filled with water, “because this is a balloon I got at the toy store because I thought it would be weird if I used a real condom.” (The implication here is that if it was a real condom it would have broken as she’d predicted, but we’ll get back to that later.)
I hadn’t seen the lead up but guessed that the character had learned her son was planning to have sex and was doing all she could to dissuade it. In this case, she was using the old but flawed logic that if teenagers think condoms don’t work they won’t have sex. (They will have sex, they just won’t use a condom. As one fifteen-year-old boy once said to me, my parents showed me a fire extinguisher, it didn’t make me want to run out and set fires.) And, though watching Courtney Cox struggle to pop a water balloon —which as you probably guessed soaks her only after her son and his girlfriend have left the room —is admittedly kind of funny, I wondered why the writers couldn’t make good sex education from parents funny.
I flipped away disappointed. Yet another example of bad sex education from parents on TV.
The thing is, they did. Watching it online this morning I learned that had I tuned in two scenes earlier, I would have been praising the writers for doing just that. After telling her ex-husband that she got pregnant far too young and has been having the “doinking” talk with Travis since he was nine, we get a great scene between mother and son where he admits that he’s planning on losing his virginity the next night when his girlfriend’s parents go out of town.
Jules: “I know you’re 18 and you’re going to do what you want but please remember that talk about just being ready emotionally and, oh my god, protection. Do you want me to show you how to put on a condom again because we could get the rolling pin?”
Travis: “No, I’m good. Plus the rolling pin made me feel kind of bad about myself.”
Jules: “Oh, I’m sorry. Oh, of course it did.”
There it is. Funny dialogue. Great messages. If only they could have left it at that. Instead, Jules goes to her friends to complain that she knows too much about this now. She knows when he’s going to have sex, where, with whom, and, as a result of a conversation with her ex-husband who had coached their son on technique, how. This, too, could have been a funny and positive example of sex and parenting. After all, even those of us most comfortable talking about sex with our kids don’t really want to imagine them doing it. But the writers took it in a different direction.
“He told me she’s not even on the pill,” Jules whines to her friends. “Condoms break all the time! I’m going to be a grandmother at 41.” With that thought she marches upstairs for her water balloon demonstration, and I’m left once again disappointed.
ABC came so close to modeling good parent-child communications and at the last minute resorted to an easy joke that, whether you think a soaking wet Courtney Cox is funny or not, perpetuated misinformation. Condoms do not break all the time. If used right, they break about 2% of the time – pretty rare. In fact, though Jules laments that her son’s girlfriend is not on the pill (“What kind of mother lets a girl out of the house in that slutty cardigan without even putting her on the pill,”) the truth is that condoms, when used consistently and correctly, are also effective at preventing pregnancy. And, unlike the pill, condoms also provide protection against sexually transmitted diseases. They are also cheap, readily available, and take very little advanced planning. Doubling up with condoms as well as the pill? Even more protection.
So why give condoms a bad rap in the interest of comedy? Why not, instead of the water balloon moment, bring out that rolling pin? That could have been funny and educational. I know, I know, ABC won’t even air condom commercials so a condom demonstration in prime time remains a pipe dream. Still, they could have done better than this.
The good news is that as real parents we don’t have to worry about laughs, ratings, or the FCC. We do, however, have to worry about pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. And that means we do have teach our kids the truth about condoms. Whether they become sexually active as a high school senior, a college junior, or a newly married twenty-something, young people need to know that condoms do work and they need to know how to use them correctly. So put aside the worries that teaching kids about condoms will make the have sex any sooner (research shows that it won’t), and get out the rolling pin (or a simple pamphlet on proper condom use) and, after you’ve told your kids what your values are regarding when it’s okay to have sex, tell them just how valuable a condom can be.