Television Gets Smart About Teenagers and Sex

The XX Factor
What Women Really Think
Feb. 26 2013 5:00 PM

Finally, Television Gets Smart About Teenagers and Sex

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TV shows wise up to the fact that not all teenage sex is this romantic

Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

Last night, the finale of the first season of Bunheads, the weird, wonderful ABC Family show about a ballet school, the oddly precocious students who study dance there, and the women who teach them, focused on the younger girls' attempts to decide whether they were ready to have sex with their respective boyfriends. The montage in which Sasha, Boo, Ginny, and Melanie did their homework, reading everything from Edward Thorne's 1973 Girls Who Said Yes, an oral history of "Girls 16-24 who have accepted sexual permissiveness as a way of life" to the feminist classic Our Bodies, Ourselves, only to find themselves overwhelmed by the condom options—and really, the range of their own potential choices—at their local drug store was an amazing illustration of one of the loveliest emerging trends in television. Whether it's sitcoms or dramas, edgy networks or family programming, TV is suddenly taking teenagers seriously when it comes to sex.

On Bunheads, the big question was the girls' attempts to divine their feelings through a thicket of medical information, their perceptions of what their boyfriends needed to be kept happy, and their sense of where they should be in relation to other people's life milestones.

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Meanwhile, Fox's sitcom The Mindy Project had ones of its best episodes earlier this year with "Teen Patient," which went after a common misconception many young people factor into their sexual decision-making process. "Here is what I've observed about you teenagers," Mindy told her young neighbor Sofia and her high school volleyball class. "You are obsessed with eternity ... It's probably why you like teen vampires and stupid crap like that ... And maybe you'll be really lucky and you'll find the perfect guy, and you will stay together forever. But I'll tell you one thing that lasts forever: herpes." In other words, you can't count on forever as an emotional safety net that will protect you from the consequences of having sex. Any sexual decisions you make need to factor in the possibility of heartbreak.

And NBC's Parenthood this season explored some of the consequences of assuming you'll be with someone forever, and how much worse your hurt can be when that assumption comes into question. Drew (Miles Heizer) and his girlfriend Amy (Skyler Day) started having sex in Season 3, and in Season 4, discovered that she was pregnant. Whereas previously they'd been on the same page, Amy's pregnancy revealed the gaps between them. Though Drew supports Amy's decision to terminate her pregnancy, his initial reaction was different: He liked the idea of having a child with her. Sex initially brought the young couple together, but it ultimately exposed differences in their worldviews and priorities that made it impossible for them to stay together.

Without going censorious and conservative, all three of these television episodes make an important point that's rarely offered to either teenagers or adults. Sex is an awful lot of fun, but it doesn't make you a prude to see it as a big deal. Sometimes that means waiting. Sometimes it means forging ahead. But these shows aren't just treating the consequences of sex as significant: They're treating their teenaged characters as up to the challenges of weighing those consequences.

Alyssa Rosenberg writes about culture and television for Slate’s “XX Factor” blog. She also contributes to ThinkProgress and theatlantic.com.

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