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Sex, Love, & Teens on TV: Moving from fantasy to real life

By Leslie Massicotte, Teens Climb High Coordinator

I am a TV binger as much as the rest of you, especially during the downtime of this pandemic. As a sex educator, though, sometimes watching TV is cringey: relationships aren’t healthy, communication isn’t clear, protection isn’t used, people all have thin, tanned, perfect bodies, and sex is elevated to some ideal none of us will experience in real life.

But there are a few examples out there of really healthy relationships, real sex education info, and good, safe, consensual sex, and I’ve decided to write about them here.

1. Get your sex education from “Sex Education”

THIS SHOW. So good. Please watch. The awkwardness, mistakes, sexual tension, and sexual misinformation of being a high school student is just so real. It’s about a teen named Otis whose mother is a sex therapist. Otis “borrows” the sex advice he overhears during his mom’s therapy sessions and offers it to his high school peers, giving them great, necessary advice on vagina health, relationship communication, and sexual concerns.

I especially appreciate this show’s emphasis on the trials and tribulations of masturbation. Otis really struggles to masturbate--a really common reality for lots of people of all ages--and Aimee, another character on the show, learns for the first time how great masturbation is. This show does a great job at de-stigmatizing masturbation, normalizing its challenges and joys, and showing a risk-free (in terms of STIs and pregnancy) way to have some sexy time.

Of course, there’s plenty of sex, too. What’s great about the sex scenes in this show is that they don’t show sex as some steamy, perfect, fantasy land. They show it as messy, as weird, as awkward, and full of mixed expectations and challenges--just like real life sex. I can’t remember how well they do at showing folks using protection--condoms and contraceptives keep the STIs and unintended pregnancies away!--so maybe pair your Netflix binging of this show with a read of safe sex options.

And I can’t talk about “Sex Education” without also talking about Eric, Otis’s black, gay best friend who is navigating the tough waters of coming out to his family and dating guys in a homophobic culture. He’s such an excellent character and I wish that we were best friends. Black queer representation for the win.

2. Queer Love & Relationships for Disabled Folks in "Atypical"

This show is so lovely and important. It’s about Sam, a teenager with autism, who wants to date for the first time. It shows how challenging and rewarding it can be for folks on the autism spectrum to navigate the dating scene. It offers tips on how to date someone with autism and how to create a healthy, meaningful relationship. And seriously, look to Sam if you want a lesson in how to have clear, upfront communication.

This show also gives us such cute, sexually charged, queer love. I’m not about to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen it but yes. Yes yes yes. It can be really hard for queer folks to put themselves out there, especially amidst super judgey, hateful high schoolers, but when they do it’s a very beautiful thing.

3. Vulvas & Fingering in "Big Mouth" (plus so much more…)

Ok. So Big Mouth is not intended for youth audiences. However, I am sure y’all are watching it. And amidst the crudeness, there are actually a lot of great, healthy lessons about sexuality. The show is about a group of middle school students navigating puberty, sex ed class, dating, masturbation, and learning about their bodies.

My favorite scene ever is in Season 1 Episode 5 when Jessie meets her vulva for the very first time and it’s such a lovely, positive experience. Meeting your own genitals should be a lovely, positive experience!

The show is just so REAL (besides the wonderful absurdity of furry penis pets and cum monsters…). It’s so real that the intensity of hormones do actually feel like having a hormone monster. It’s so real in Season 4 when Jessie thinks that she physically can’t orgasm simply because she doesn’t know how yet. It’s so real to have anxiety and depression.

And this show gives us good lessons on how to communicate with a sexual partner. I won’t spoil it but in the fourth season, two characters experience fingering for the first time, and it’s so great to see the person with the vulva walking her male partner through what feels good and how he should do it. I wish that kind of open communication and mutual pleasure on us all.

4. Diverse representation matters! Everyone is loveable <3

Tired of watching thin white girls get all the boys? Hollywood is doing a little better at having more diverse representation in romance movies and TV. Check out To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, a super cute movie starring Lara Jean, an Asian American high schooler who writes five letters to five boys she’s had crushes on over the years. She never intends to send them but then *somehow* they DO get sent and what follows is a whirlwind of drama and romance. Never Have I Ever is another good one, a story about Indian American Devi trying to find her ideal boyfriend. Two more great ones: Dumplin’ stars a super cute fat* girl named Will who has a fun thing with the boy at work, and Love, Simon follows a high school boy’s coming out process. Everyone deserves seeing themselves represented in TV in cute, fun relationships!

5. Can all boys please ask for kisses like Kristoff does??

Ok, I know that Frozen is not a teen romance movie. However, it was one of the first “kids” movies (I use “kids” loosely here #FrozenFan #YesImAnAdult) to show such a perfect example of easy, clear consent.

For those who don’t remember, at the end of the movie, cuties Anna and Kristoff share an awkward sexually charged giggle when Anna gifts him the sled of his dreams, and instead of Kristoff assuming that Anna wants a kiss, leaning in, and placing one on her without consent, HE ASKS FIRST. Check out their dialogue:

Kristoff: I’m so happy I could kiss you!! (*interrupts himself and looks awkward*) Uh... I could, I mean, I’d like to. May I? We me? I mean, may we?

Anna: (*kisses him*) We may!

What a lovely example of perfectly executed consent! Maybe teen roms should take a note from the Frozen book….

We all deserve respectful, communicative, safe, mutually pleasurable relationships and sexual experiences. Sometimes the media fools us into thinking otherwise but there are great examples out there that are working to give us better, more healthy representation.

Happy watching!

*I use “fat” respectfully and intentionally. The word “fat” has often been used as an insult and has developed negative connotations. Yet, some folks in the fat community are reclaiming this word as an accurate (and neutral) description of themselves and encourage others to use this term.


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