A team of medical researchers has found plenty of sex but only one reference to condoms among the top-grossing films of the past two decades, concluding that blockbuster movies paint a worryingly consequence-free view of sex and drug-use.
Australian researchers who studied 87 of the biggest box-office hits since 1983 found they contained no depictions of unwanted pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease. Drug-use also tended to be portrayed "without negative consequences," they reported in a study published Monday in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine.
"The social norm being presented is concerning, given the HIV and illicit drug pandemics in developing and industrialized countries," said Dr. Hasantha Gunasekera of the School of Public Health at the University of Sydney, the study's lead author.
The researchers studied a September 2003 list of the 200 most successful movies of all time as ranked by the Internet Movie Database on the basis of world box-office takings. They excluded animated features, films with G and PG ratings, and movies released or set before the start of the AIDS pandemic in 1983.
Of the 87 movies remaining, 28 contained sex scenes — a total of 53 scenes in all.
Only one film — the 1990 romance "Pretty Woman," in which Julia Roberts plays a prostitute — contained a "suggestion of condom use, which was the only reference to any form of birth control."
"There were no depictions of important consequences of unprotected sex such as unwanted pregnancies, HIV or other STDs," they added.
The sexiest film — in quantity, if not quality — was the 2001 comedy "American Pie 2," which contained seven episodes of unprotected sex in which the "only consequences were social embarrassment."
The 1992 thriller "Basic Instinct" had six sex scenes, no birth control and no "public health consequences" — although "other consequences" included death by ice pick.
Suave super-spy James Bond also was rapped for his promiscuity. The 2002 Bond adventure "Die Another Day" contained three episodes of sex — "all new partners, no condoms, no birth control, no consequences at all" — but at least no drug use.
Eight percent of the films studied contained depictions of marijuana use, and 7 percent other non-injected drugs, the researchers said.
Just over half the marijuana scenes — 52 percent — showed use of the drug in a positive light. In the other 48 percent of cases it was depicted in a neutral light with no negative consequences.
Characters smoked tobacco in 68 percent of the films and got drunk in 32 percent.
"The most popular movies of the last two decades often show normative depictions of negative health behaviors," the authors concluded. "The motion picture industry should be encouraged to depict safer sex practices and the real consequences of unprotected sex and illicit drug use."
Gunasekera said "there is convincing evidence that the entertainment media influences behavior."
But some experts said the issue was more complex than the study suggested.
"Hollywood doesn't depict anything with any of its consequences," said Adam Smith, a writer with film magazine Empire. "Its job isn't to be a social or moral guardian. It's fiction."
"I don't think you can pinpoint Hollywood as responsible for sexual immorality in the post-AIDS era," said Paul Grainge of the Institute of Film and Television Studies at the University of Nottingham.
"Hollywood responds to social mores as well as creates them."
By Jill Lawless