How 'Glee' Got Teen Sex Right

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Two main characters lose their virginities on this week's episode—a decision the show treats with unusual humor and sensitivity

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Fox


After two and a half seasons (and many previous, apparently uncontroversial sexual encounters), Glee's two star couples lost their virginities on last night's episode. And Call the Parents Television Council, one of the couples was even gay. The episode was highly publicized and managed to spark controversy before it even aired—Fox even posted a "viewer discretion advised" disclaimer ahead of the telecast. But for all the hullabaloo, the whole thing was handled quite beautifully, even responsibly—a reminder that for all its melodrama and unevenness, Glee can still be a very good, even socially important show.

First, the details.The episode began, appropriately, with Blaine and Rachel singing the swelling Tony and Maria duet from West Side Story, "Tonight." Get it? Because tonight's the night. It's a song, director Artie reminds them, about unbridled passion and sexual awakening, which sparks a realization in the chaste duo that perhaps they are not suitably "awake" to play the star-crossed lovers. So when Finn invites Rachel to his house when his parents are out of town—and because she thinks she needs to lose her virginity in order to believably portray Maria—she agrees. "I'll be there at six."

Meanwhile, Blaine stops by his old school to visit the Warblers and meets Sebastian, an attractive new member of the a capella group who aggressively hits on him. At one point, he calls Blaine "sex on a stick with a voice like a dream." The newly horny Blaine—he too thinks he must have sex in order to believably play Tony—clearly laps up the pick-up lines, which are intercut with a West Side Story rehearsal of "A Boy Like That." Get it? Because "a boy like that/ wants one thing only," and entertaining those thoughts would ruin his relationship with Kurt.

The actual sex aspect of the storylines is treated quite delicately—certainly more so than on fellow frequent Parents Television Council target Gossip Girl or other teen soaps like 90210 or Skins, shows on which characters swap sexual partners like trading cards. That didn't stop, of course the PTC from condemning the episode before it even aired, calling it "reprehensible" for "celebrating children having sex." Yet the emphasis of "The First Time" was on the overwhelming emotional roller coaster that surrounds the act, far more so than on the physical aspects of it—something that one would imagine the PTC, if not most parents everywhere, appreciating. The show focuses on the romance of it all, with both couples coming to the mutual decision that it is, in fact, "the right time."

Birth control is mentioned multiple times, with Finn and Puck having a heart-to-heart about it. At one point there's a healthy and hilarious conversation among all the girl characters about sex and first times. Quinn suggests waiting not just because she got pregnant when she lost her virginity, but because she gave up something that she can never get back before she was ready. Santana alerts Rachel that it will likely be disappointing: "It's like being smothered under a sweaty sack of potatoes soaked in body spray." But Tina reminds everyone that at the right moment, with the right person, and after careful consideration, the first time can be something to cherish. Every nervous teen should be so lucky to have such a nuanced discussion to educate her decision.

The show's responsible handling of the issue continues as the couples come to their final decisions about whether to go through with the act. When Finn suspects Rachel doesn't want to have sex for the right reasons, he tells her to stop. After Blaine drunkenly tries to bed a flustered Kurt in the back seat of a station wagon, Kurt teaches a wise lesson about boundaries and the offensiveness of going through with sex when one party isn't entirely comfortable. In the end, both couples have extremely romantic sex for the right reasons (as Rachel says, "When and who is going to feel more right than you and now?"), set to the fitting backdrop, once again, of a West Side Story song, "One Hand, One Heart." (If nothing else, the episode proves that West Side Story is timelessly relevant).

Of course, teen sex on TV is no new issue. From Donna and David on the original Beverly Hills: 90210 to Buffy and Angel on Buffy the Vampire Slayer to the first time Finn and Rachel flirted with the deed in season one of Glee, the subject has courted controversy each time for its varied versions of the act as either a fairy tale or a nightmare (Donna and David wait until the end of college to have sex and eventually get married, Angel turns into a murderous monster following his first tryst with Buffy). And the way sex is treated on TV has evolved over time: Meghan Lewit wrote here back in April, that today's shows "mirror the glassy-eyed detachment and causal attitudes towards sex that pervaded teen pop culture in the '80s," while '90s series "debated having sex like it was a U.N. Security Council Resolution." This week's episode of Glee bucked all those trends. Rarely has the act been portrayed with as much thought to the impressionability of young viewers and the honesty of the situation as it was on "The First Time."

The remarkable, if not revolutionary other element here, of course, is that the decision by gay teen characters to lose their virginities is given equal weight to that of a straight couple. Sure, not everything is equal: Rachel and Finn spelunk each other's throats in the school hallway, while Blaine's peck on Kurt's lips while they're alone in his bedroom literally has a Mwah! sound effect. Similarly, you have to wonder if Fox would have branded the episode with a "Viewer discretion advised" warning if it were just Finn and Rachel sealing the deal. But from the nerves to the passion to the actual footage of the act, Blaine and Kurt's first time was given the same consideration, weight, and respect as their straight counterparts—a milestone for network TV.

Glee often sacrifices character development in service of a good message. This was the rare example of a Glee episode that managed to do both: treat its characters realistically and also send an important message. The first time is scary, romantic, awkward—and worth taking seriously.

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Kevin Fallon is a reporter for the Daily Beast. He's a former entertainment editor at TheWeek.com and former writer and producer for The Atlantic's entertainment channel.

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