Teen Drama's Irresponsible Fascination with Teen Sex

I grew up worshipping teen dramas, so I'm no stranger to suspending my disbelief when a 25-year-old actor refers to themself as a high school junior. When I was an actual teenager, I reveled in projecting my friends and me onto the characters on our screens. My group of BFFs could spend hours debating who was Blair Waldorf and who was Serena Van der Woodsen and I imagine that obsession with teen dramas is still alive and well for the teens of today.

Actually, I know it is because networks are cranking teen dramas out like they'll be the Black Hood's next victim if they don't. (Yes, I know, that reference was so three seasons ago, but that's what was going down before I decided to quit watching "Riverdale," okay?) The quantity of these shows isn't what worries me—if anything, I'm a little jealous we didn't have this kind of variety to enjoy when we were teens. What's concerning is how increasingly sexualized the underage characters are written to be and how it feels like a tricky precedent has been set where teen dramas are now feeling the pressure to out-porn one another. Though no stranger to hinting at hookups, shows of our youth like "Pretty Little Liars" and "Gossip Girl" seem objectively tame compared to the shows being marketed towards teens nowadays.

We can all agree that watching Betty, the 15-year-old pole dance in lingerie at a bar full of adults, was not one of the finer moments "Riverdale" has had. But I'll be the first to admit it: I just kind of shrugged it off after the scene was over. In fact, I'm pretty sure I said something along the lines of "'Riverdale' will be 'Riverdale.'" And that's exactly where the issue lies. When suspending our disbelief becomes too routine, we forget we're doing it which is a very dangerous position to find ourselves in when it comes to teenagers and sex. I'm sure no teenager is seriously convinced that these plots reflect their real life, at least, I hope their social drama doesn't revolve around finding out who murdered their younger sister because that might be it's own problem to address if that's becoming #relatable content. What I'm not sure about is if we're doing a good enough job demanding that these shows remember the characters are supposed to be minors.

Dean Buscher/The CW Don't get me wrong; I understand why writers incorporate sex in these plots. Though the percentage has dropped, teens are still having sex, which makes it a topic that's pertinent to include in shows targeted towards teens. Beyond relevance, there are instances where teen dramas have done some real good with how they portrayed their characters' intimate lives. When "Gossip Girl" delved into Dan's anxiety about having sex for the first time with a partner who had far more experience than he did, for example. Dan didn't sl*t-shame Serena. Instead, he confided in her about how he was feeling, and the pair bonded over their different anxieties. When we're having this conversation about sex in teen dramas, we should be careful not to undervalue these shows' unique opportunity to present healthy depictions of what sex is and isn't.

Another stand-out example I remember was when MTV's 2014 show "Faking It" tackled three-ways and highlighted how intimacy is involved in even more non-traditional types of sex. I was absolutely floored at the way "Faking It" demystified having multiple partners, but any fan of Netlfix's 2018 drama "Elite" will know that we have certainly progressed past treating three-ways like they're something new. Instead, "Elite" gave us three-way sex scenes that are as steamy as they are smoothly choreographed (which is totally how teens should think of sex, right?). 

This choice and all the ones like it deserve some examination. While they might not surprise the 2020 young adult viewer who's well-accustomed to the non-teenage production teams creating dirty sex scenes for their non-teenage actors to strip down in, it should prompt some questions for them. Primarily, if these shows don't want to make even the smallest effort to realistically portray their teenage characters... why not write them to be college students? Apparently, the idea of casting age-appropriate actors to play teens is out of the question, so why not just abandon the high school plotline altogether? The characters we see on these shows simply aren't teenagers, they never were, and it's time we start being more vigilant about what we shrug off because actual teenagers won't be the best judge of what's acceptable because they're, you know, teenagers.