CHICAGO - Nicollette Sheridan in a towel; raunchy lyrics on the radio; violence, skin and bad language in nearly every film - it's no wonder Americans feel the entertainment industry is putting in overtime doing the devil's work. A recent New York Times/CBS News poll found that 70 percent of us fear that "popular culture - that is, television, movies and music - is lowering the moral standards in this country."
But if that's what the purveyors of trash are attempting, they're doing a very poor job of it. The curious experience of recent years is that the more bloodletting and debauchery we're exposed to in mass media, the less inclined we are to emulate it. It's as though vicarious sin is an adequate substitute for the real thing. Our entertainment may be sinking lower, but our moral standards keep rising in spite of it.
In fact, anyone trying to prove that we're succumbing to bad influences would have trouble filling a thimble with evidence. In 1994, conservative moralist William J. Bennett published a book, The Index of Leading Cultural Indicators, noting an array of alarming trends and warning of impending doom. "Unless these exploding social pathologies are reversed," declared Mr. Bennett, "they will lead to the decline and perhaps even to the fall of the American republic."
Well, most of those pathologies were reversed, and the republic didn't fall. But social conservatives rarely publicize the progress we've made. As a result, many Americans mistakenly assume that we are going to hell on a fast freight.
One of the most vicious and destructive social ills is crime. In the late 1980s, with the rise of crack, it appeared to be spinning out of control. But in the last decade, the crime wave has moved toward low tide. Since peaking in 1991, the murder rate has plunged by 43 percent. The rate for all violent crimes has fallen by 29 percent.
You'd think all the canoodling onscreen would overstimulate carnal appetites, particularly among the young and hormonal. But all the data suggest it works more like a cold shower. Among teenagers, for example, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that since 1991, "HIV infection, other sexually transmitted diseases and unintended pregnancy have decreased among high school students nationwide." Out-of-wedlock births among teens are down as well.
Among women in general, unintended pregnancies have become less common. That's one reason the abortion rate, which was already on the decline, continued to fall during the 1990s.
Nor does all the racy fare seem to weaken marriage as an institution. The divorce rate has been slowly falling since the early 1980s, including a 16 percent decline in the last decade. Birth rates among unmarried women have been stable.
How about other vices? Alcohol consumption is on the wane, along with tobacco use. Drunken-driving deaths last year hit their lowest level since 1999. A rare exception is illicit drug use, which has risen.
From all this data, you might get the idea that people take what they see and hear as a guide - to what not to do. As it happens, there's other evidence for that proposition. In the Bible Belt, people tend to be more religious, which would be expected to foster more upright conduct. But the expectation proves unfounded.
In 2002, most of the states with the highest divorce rates (after perennial champion Nevada) were conservative and Southern - such as Arkansas, Alabama and Kentucky.
How do we explain the overall paradox? Maybe endless exposure to racy or violent entertainment really does reduce the need for people to seek out such thrills in real life. Maybe openness about sex, drinking and other risky pleasures fosters more communication, which in turn leads to better decision-making. Maybe when we trust individuals with the freedom to make their own choices, they become more responsible rather than less.
In any event, we do know that however tasteless and degrading our entertainment may be, we can enjoy it (or not) without letting it rule our lives. Our moral standards may be under attack, but they seem to be big enough to take care of themselves.
Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.