Valentine’s Day brings about a season of love, red roses, heart-studded cards and, of course, high expectations of what it means to be in love. Included in this raising of standards is a greater expectation for sex. A recent survey shows that 51% of people expect sex to be part of their experience of this love-filled holiday.
It’s not surprising that sex is part of the ultimate celebration of love, as our conceptualization of sex as a society has shifted away from procreation as the number one prerogative, to a form of expressing love. This way of thinking about sex is constantly reinforced through media depicting happy, often monogamous cisgender heterosexual couples doing it. The rom-com movie genre is an easy example of this, as there is often the expectation of sex (either displayed or insinuated) at some point in these films.
Another genre in film and television for which sex plays an important role is the coming-of-age story. The name of the genre itself suggests a transition period, usually framed within the teenage years, during which young people grow from children to adults. A part of this shift is being introduced to the topic of sex and forming expectations about their own sexual journeys. Research has already established a correlation between sexual content in media and adolescent attitudes toward sex, but what exactly do movies and TV shows tell youth about what to expect?
As a child of the early 2000s, I have noticed some trends in the way sex is talked about in this generation’s coming-of-age stories. Looking at snapshots of the sexual lives of the teens on “Gossip Girl,” “Skins” and “Degrassi: The Next Generation,” sex carried social meaning and was often represented through social identities that categorize sexual experiences.
Depictions of sex often revolve around how communities like high school groups view the sex lives of their peers. Sex is viewed as a rite of passage, especially for men. It isn’t uncommon for guys to be questioned for not having “done the deed.” This is the case with Nate Archibald (Chace Crawford), who is frequently chastised in the pilot of “Gossip Girl” for not wanting to have sex with his girlfriend since kindergarten. The situation of Sid Jenkins (Mike Bailey) is another example of how a lack of sexual experience is pathologized, as his unrelenting virginity is actually the driving plot of the first episode of “Skins.” Sex, when publicized, also becomes a sign of promiscuity, especially for women. In “Gossip Girl,” Chuck Bass (Ed Westwick) expects Serena van der Woodsen (Blake Lively) will have sex with him because he knows she has had sex with Nate. His knowledge of her sexual history later becomes potent as a threat to her social standing.
In addition to influencing how one is viewed in society, sex is often used as a manipulative tool for maintaining relationships. When “Degrassi”’s Anya MacPherson (Samantha Munro) and “Gossip Girl”’s Blair Waldorf (Leighton Meester) have their first time (or almost the first time in Blair’s case), it is portrayed as a way of securing their partner’s attention during vulnerable moments in their relationships. Sex is also believed to be the perfect display of love or at least a healthy relationship, especially by women. It is often correlated with occasions like proms, dances and parties, situated as a reward for dates that performed well in preparation for or during those events.
In general, sex is placed in the social realm of these earlier coming-of-age stories. It is presented in contexts on screen that create expectations of sex (but just the right amount of it) as obligatory for social acceptance and as tools for creating desired social effects.
Recently, however, the coming-of-age story has shifted toward more personalized representations of sex. Shows like “Sex Education,” “Pen15” and “Big Mouth” embrace notions of sex that cover a wide range of behaviors and as experiences that are unique to each person. Scenes of young women such as Maya Ishii-Peters (Maya Erskine) and Anna Kone (Anna Konkle) from “Pen15” and Jessi Glaser (Jessi Klein) from “Big Mouth” meeting their vaginas for the first time introduce ideas of sex as a way to get to know one’s own body.
The apprehension surrounding sex or sexual acts is also explored in more detail. Episode eight of the first season of “Pen15” shows Anna’s worries about her first kiss with her first boyfriend Brendan (Brady Allen) as well as her reaction to the fact that, unlike her expectations, it was a pretty unromantic kiss. Sex is also presented as scary and imperfect. In “Sex Education,” the variety of sex issues brought to amateur school sexologist and protagonist Otis Milburn (Asa Butterfield) proves this. Teenagers in the series explore uncomfortable sex challenges, from Anwar (Chaneil Kular) who is afraid to tell his boyfriend that he doesn’t know how to douche to Lily Iglehart (Tanya Reynolds), whose vaginismus prevents her from fulfilling her wish to have sex. The new way of talking about sex on TV recognizes the nitty-gritty aspects of sex that we often shy away from discussing, which provides a more accurate and holistic picture of sex. Unlike their early 2000s’ predecessors, new coming-of-age movies and series address sex on a more personal and biological level, allowing for more inclusive understandings of sex that push against social norms.
Don’t get me wrong — these newer coming-of-age stories still carry some established conceptions of sex. Otis is a virgin whose friends and family try to indoctrinate him into the rite of having regular sex. Anna and Maya are labeled as promiscuous and ostracized after word gets out about their threesome with classmate Brandt (Jonah Beres). The point is that these stories aren’t developed in superficial ways that say, “That’s just the way it goes.” Instead, they often get us to rethink our expectations of sex and consider accepting new realities that better reflect our experiences.
So while you’re wondering if the box of chocolates you bought for your loved one is also going to work as the perfect aphrodisiac for your magical time on Valentine’s night, you might want to take a moment to reevaluate your expectations and have your partner do the same. The story of sex has changed and one wonders how it happened: Have we experienced a new sexual enlightenment or are we being prompted by these new stories on TV to think about sex differently? It’s a chicken and egg situation, but nevertheless, the change is noteworthy. We might have grown up in a world of coming-of-age stories that told us to keep our sexual expectations in line with the social status quo, but now there seems to be a new set of teenage-filled series breaking up that world and introducing us to a new one where sex is defined by the person and by not the people.