TV culture is obsessed with the idea of adolescent fornication, but not really in a “sex is sexy!” kind of way. More like in a fearful, moralizing, “sex is dangerous!” kind of way. The Secret Life of the American Teen, for example, follows an ensemble of teenagers (the most prominent of whom is a pregnant 15-year-old) as they sleep with each other, suffer the negative consequences, and then exchange incredibly dull, explanatory dialog about what they've learned.
Even racier teen dramas tend to focus on the dire emotional consequences that inevitably follow virginity loss. It almost always ends in shame, regret, and/or a break-up. Viewers are getting an eyeful of cautionary tales telling them sex is bad...and the vast majority of them are teenage girls.
I get that teen dramas need drama, and there’s nothing like a pregnancy scare or virginity freak-out to move a plot. But real teen couples (like adult couples) are capable of sleeping together and remaining in love, un-pregnant, and disease-free. Do we see that on TV? Well, sometimes. Here’s a little report card grading how well teen dramas have handled teen sex on screen.
In retrospect, Beverly Hills, 90210’s scandalous rep belies a rather chaste TV culture. It was a really big deal when Brenda Walsh and Dylan McKay, both juniors in high school, decided to lose their virginity together at the Spring Dance. The show’s willingness to tackle a taboo even led critics to call it hard-hitting and controversial, descriptions that will draw looks askance from most modern-day viewers. For all the bravado of their first time, Brenda and Dylan didn’t maintain a healthy sexual relationship. Just one episode later, Brenda regrets going all the way (for unexplained reasons), then has a pregnancy scare, then breaks up with mega-fox Dylan. Three cautionary tales in one!
Still, Bev-H0 gets points for doing it first.
For all its intelligence and soulful characters, Dawson’s Creek didn’t exactly revolutionize teen sex on TV. It was sex that sparked the demise of both major loves stories (at least in the high school years), if in very different ways. After Dawson Leery spent half a season pining for Jen Lindley, they finally started dating. When an old boyfriend of Jen's came to visit, Dawson decided Jen was too promiscuous. He would regret his judgment later and ask Jen to come back, but Jen stood up for herself and turned him down.
As for Joey Potter and Pacey Witter (the show’s fan-favorite couple) their relationship problems ensued the morning after they had sex, and culminated in a tragic prom break-up that would go unredeemed for the remaining 3 seasons. Sex: It's complicated.
Sex doesn’t get much more tragic than your partner losing his soul and trying to murder all your friends, which is exactly what happened to Buffy Summers when she bedded her BF, Angel on Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. But Joss Whedon’s over-the-top treatment of a break-up gave us a surprisingly relatable look at the emotional risks of intimacy, rather than the usual scary story about social consequences. You might even say Buffy satirized the way teen sex was normally portrayed on teen television.
Extra credit for top-notch dialog!
Marissa and Ryan only did it once or twice in their seasons-long relationship on The O.C. because they were too busy having misunderstandings, breaking up, getting back together, and having misunderstandings. The question of whether they would have sex became more important than the sex itself. In a way it was the ultimate teen drama relationship: All attraction and no pleasure.
Minus points for going on way too long.
To The O.C.’s credit, Summer Roberts and Seth Cohen were one of the first teen couples to have sex and a functioning relationship. Sure, their first time was a little awkward due to misunderstandings about who was a virgin, but they managed to work through it over the course of one episode. Seth and Summer maintained an ultimately loving relationship throughout the series (despite a few requisite separations along the way), without sex functioning as a the be-all and (more importantly) end-all.
Plus 10% for being two of my favorite characters ever!
One Tree Hill is easily the most sensationalistic show of its kind, but it has a damn healthy outlook on sex. Take Lucas and Brooke, the series’ predominant (unmarried) couple, at least in the high school years. They had their share of break-ups and make-ups, two of which involved pregnancy scares. But when they were together they enjoyed fun, loving sex…and plenty of it. Make-up credit for Brooke being super confident and assertive.
Veronica Mars portrayed its fair share of sexual violence, teen pregnancy, and emotional trauma, but it dealt with those issues in a very feminist way. Bad stuff didn't happen as the result of sex, it happened as the result of a fucked up society. Even as the title character tracked down her rapist she was able to engage in healthy sexual relationships, the most prominent (and hottest) of which was with Logan Echols. Minor point penalty for Logan and Veronica breaking up too many times.
The O.C. writers returned to bless us with Gossip Girl, a gorgeous show that makes up in style what it lacks in plot development. Serena Van der Woodsen and Dan Humphrey are the new Ryan and Marissa, complete with copious break-ups and limited sex.
And then there’s Blair Waldorf and Chuck Bass, the excessively complicated couple who can never decide whether to ef each other over or just ef. It would be easy to lump them in with all the other teen couples for whom drama is the epitome of love, except that Blair and Chuck’s romance is so much more sensual than the usual teen fare. Gossip Girl has taken will-they-or-won’t-they to they-already-have-and-now-it’s-a-question-of-who-will-win-the-epic-power-struggle-surrounding-sex. (Either-way-it’s-going-to-be-hot.) It may not be the healthiest portrayal of sex on TV, but Gossip Girl gets points for making sex look sexy. And the fact that the girls want it just as much as the guys? Exceeds Expectations.
So there we have it. If you’d like to dispute a grade or offer up other shows for evaluation, comments will be taken under consideration.
[Original version posted on February 10, 2009 at bitchmagazine.org]