The virginity-loss plotline is standard fare for teen television, right up there with eating disorders, unfaithful parents and high-school dance drama. Female protagonists in particular get a lot of screen time as they start to navigate sexual waters. Angela Chase makes a self-aware decision to put off having sex with Jordan Catalano, while Joey Potter has a sweet first time with Pacey Witter on a ski trip. Blair Waldorf makes an impulsive and steamy decision to get down with Chuck Bass in the back of a limo; Emily Fields sleeps with her first girlfriend, Maya St. Germain, just before they’re torn apart.
But teen TV tends to spend a lot less time focusing on all the decision-making that comes after first-time sex has been had. In fact, teen series tend to ignore sex-driven storylines altogether once female characters have slept with someone for the first time, unless sexual assault or pregnancy is involved. This silence at once reinforces a patriarchal obsession with virginity—if a lady has already done the deed, who even cares what her sexual experience are like?—and implies that the only time anybody makes sexual choices that matter is the first time around.
Of course, in real life, we have to make a whole fresh set of sexual decisions with each new relationship. Whether we’re hooking up, dating or seriously involved, we constantly face choices about when to have sex and when not to have it, what kind of sex we prefer and under what circumstances. By ignoring this reality, teen shows can wind up suggesting that sex is something that just happens automatically and without discussion once people are no longer virgins. That’s a dangerous message. It risks reinforcing the beliefs of young men who think they’re entitled to sex—which in turn perpetuates misogyny and rape culture. Our cultural productions all too frequently squander the chance to follow women as they develop their sense of sexual agency. It’s a silence that feeds directly into a system that devalues women and their right to make choices about what they do with their bodies.
A recent episode of the ABC Family series Switched at Birth offers a welcome corrective to this silence. Bay, a senior in high school, has been dating college freshman Tank for a while. One night they wind up back in his dorm room. They start to kiss and fall back on the bed; Tank reaches to slide down the zipper on Bay’s hoodie. And then Bay calls a time-out. Read the rest of this entry »