Teen Sex on TV: Are We Back in the '80s?

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Adolescent soaps like Skins and Gossip Girl have a carefree attitude toward intimacy that's reminiscent of hedonistic movies from the past

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The recent season finale of MTV's teen drama Skins featured two members of the cast performing a dramatic rendition of the Tears for Fears song "Shout." It seemed an odd choice at first, given that there probably isn't a slew of 15-year-old Tears for Fears fans out there. But perhaps it was also an unconsciously canny one, considering that teen shows today mirror the glassy-eyed detachment and causal attitudes towards sex that pervaded teen pop culture in the '80s. Even stripped of their cell phones and new-fangled gadgetry, the socialites from Gossip Girl and Pretty Little Liars would feel right at home in Less Than Zero (1987) author Bret Ellis Easton's world of rich kids who party too much and have too much consequence-free sex.

I remember watching the Amy Heckerling-directed Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) for the first time when I was about 15 (more than a decade after the movie came out), and being taken aback by the film's cavalier attitude toward sex. When the Jennifer Jason Leigh character gets pregnant and has an abortion, the incident occurs with little emotional fall-out. The take-away lesson seemed to be less about the dangers of unprotected sex, and more about the dangers of unprotected sex with a guy who plays side one of Led Zeppelin IV. Compare Fast Times with Heckerling's 1995 teen film Clueless, in which the main character, Cher (Alicia Silverstone), proudly refuses to lose her virginity to anyone less than totally worthy.

"She's saving herself for Luke Perry," Cher's best friend explains at one point in the film.

In the '90s, sex was serious business. HIV and AIDS loomed large in the public consciousness, and the consequences of unsafe sex were reflected all over popular culture--from the episode of Beverly Hills 90210 when Brenda has a pregnancy scare after losing her virginity (a plotline that led my mother to ban me from watching the show), to 1994's groundbreaking The Real World: San Francisco, which depicted educator Pedro Zamora's struggle with AIDS. Research from the Center for Disease Control found that the number of teens who reported having sex declined during the '90s, and teen birth rates fell by as much as 20 percent during the decade.

An entire genre of television--the teen drama--came of age amid this climate of sexual anxiety. 90210 originated the teen soap, but the show that really set the tone for the '90s was My So-Called Life, which aired for one pivotal season from 1994 to 1995. Sensitive, flannel-clad Angela Chase (Claire Danes) pined for slacker heartthrob Jordan Catalano. When asked whether she wanted to have sex with him, Angela responded: "I just like how he's always leaning. Against stuff. He leans great. Well, either sex or a conversation. Ideally both." But despite a few steamy make-out sessions in the school boiler room, the relationship faltered when Angela ultimately decided that she wasn't ready to go all the way.

For the rest of the '90s and into the early aughts, introspective, hyper-verbal teens and young adults on dramas like Dawson's Creek, Felicity, and Everwood debated having sex like it was a U.N. Security Council Resolution. It wasn't necessarily that the characters never did it (shows still needed ratings, after all), but they approached the decision thoughtfully and at times apprehensively. Actual consummation often took seasons, and when it finally occurred it was usually against a backdrop of candles and Sarah McLachlan music. The very first scene of Dawson's Creek opened on platonic best friends Dawson Leary and Joey Potter sharing a bed together (a watershed moment in teen drama history), but they didn't get around to having sex until the show's sixth season.

Granted, most of these shows featured one or two more sexually adventurous characters, but the consequences for promiscuity were often dire—particularly for the young women. On Felicity, a character who admits to having an unsavory sexual past is date-raped in the show's first season (by My So-Called Life's Brian Krakow no less!) In the second season of Dawson's Creek, reformed party girl Jen slips back into her old ways and as a result, her friend and partner in promiscuity, Abby, plunges to her death while drinking on a pier. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Joss Whedon took his "high school is hell" metaphor to an extreme by providing the ultimate cautionary sex tale: After Buffy sleeps with her vampire boyfriend, he loses his soul and murders half of Sunnydale.

But a couple of years into the new millennium, the pendulum started to swing back to a more laissez-attitude toward teen sex, at least on television. The O.C., which first aired in 2003, adopted a glossier and sexier approach to the teen drama. The show was less invested in its characters' inner lives, and more concerned with the party of the week; during which someone would inevitably get drunk, punched, and hurled into a pool. Along with reality shows like Laguna Beach and The Hills, it regenerated interest in the antics of overprivileged and oversexed young people.

The CW Network's current mainstay Gossip Girl takes the soapiness even further with a cast of characters who swap out partners like designer bags. The show introduced the ultimate teenage lothario, Chuck Bass, who (like any high schooler worth his salt) keeps a list of high-priced hookers on speed dial. Meanwhile, the preternaturally sophisticated characters on Pretty Little Liars navigate the hallways of their high school like it's Wisteria Lane, and the teens on the Beverly Hills 90210 reboot make the original gang from West Beverly High look saintly by comparison.

There are certainly exceptions. MTV's reality show Teen Mom depicts, in harrowing detail, the realities of unprotected sex, and Friday Night Lights treats its adolescent characters with a realism and sensitivity not seen since the days of Angela Chase. But for the most part, the thinly veiled moralizing of the '90s teen drama has given way to an unapologetically hedonistic take on adolescent life.

The Parents Television Council—which recently had a well-publicized run-in with Skins, accusing the show of child pornography—would likely point to these shows as encouraging teens to partake in potentially harmful behavior. This goes to the age-old question of whether popular entertainment shapes cultural mores, or simply reflects them. Their fears may be somewhat unfounded, however, as new data show that teen pregnancy rates in the U.S. have dropped back down to an all-time low (though they're still higher than in most developed countries).

So concerned parents and handwringers—some of whom probably grew up on Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Less Than Zero—should take heart. After all, everything moves in cycles, and it's possible that more relaxed cultural attitudes toward sex have simply come back in style along with pegged jeans and Ray Bans. Give it a little more time and virginity may well be back in vogue in pop culture, along with (heaven help us) Doc Martens.

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Meghan Lewit is a writer and editor based in New York. She has contributed arts and entertainment coverage to the L.A. Weekly, The Awl, and PopMatters.

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