thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Why Teen TV Needs to Find New Ways to Talk About Sex

In girl culture, sexuality, TV, violence on May 14, 2014 at 7:04 am

Screen Shot 2014-05-14 at 9.57.48 AM

Sarah T.

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.

“What’s wrong?” Tank asks, a little startled.

“I don’t know if I want to,” Bay says, sitting up. She sounds a little surprised herself, realizing perhaps for the first time that she feels this way. But she’s clear about her own uncertainty.

“Why, did I do something?” Tank asks. Bay assures him he’s done nothing wrong; he offers to light some candles and set the mood. That’s not the problem, she says.

“Are you a virgin?” he asks, suddenly serious.

“No,” Bay says, “why does that have to be the reason? I just—I don’t want to.”

That’s when the temperature in the room takes a plunge. At first Tad was concerned for Bay, maybe a little puzzled. Now he’s frustrated and put out. If he hasn’t done anything wrong and Bay’s not a virgin, his logic goes, sex ought to be available. And he’s insulted that she doesn’t feel the same way.

“We’re dating and I like you,” he says, as if it’s an accusation.

But Bay’s ready to parry: “So that automatically means we should be having sex?” She’s ready to leave, and Tank agrees she ought to go.

The brief scene perfectly captures the wrong-headedness of Tank’s assumptions about sex. A part of him believes that dating Bay—or any girl—means that she owes him sex, though he would never phrase it that way himself. It’s the kind of male perspective that’s all too common in TV and in the real world. Tank never stops to consider that Bay’s feelings for him may not be the same as his for her, or that her attitudes about sex may differ from his own. He assumes that since she’s had sex before, she’ll want to have it again with him. All of his words and actions are based on a fundamental belief that his desires and perspective on sex are the correct and normal ones—and he thereby devalues Bay’s feelings and sovereignty over her body.

But Bay knows intuitively that her hesitation about sleeping with Tank has nothing to do with her level of experience or how long they’ve been dating. She’s just not sure she wants to have sex with this guy—maybe not now, maybe not ever. And she knows that it’s her right to refuse anytime she feels like it. If Tank’s displeased with the situation, he can certainly opt not to date her. But he doesn’t get to keep dating her while resenting the fact that she gets to make choices.

Switched at Birth is unreservedly supportive of Bay’s instincts in the scene—and the show further emphasizes its stance a few scenes later as she seeks counsel from her birth mother.

“I know why I was nervous with Ty,” Bay says, referring to her ex-boyfriend. “I’d never done it before. But now I have … I felt like [Tank] was expecting it, like I owed it to him. I just don’t want to do it again until I know what it means to me.”

“Then you did the right thing putting the brakes on it,” her mother assures her. “I completely get that it’s hard with guys, having the courage to say no. But you’ve got to do it if you’re not sure. And how they respond will tell you a whole lot about them.”

There’s no question of slut-shaming in the conversation between mother and daughter; Bay’s birth-mom trusts that she’s old enough and smart enough to make her own decisions about sex. She only wants to reinforce the message that Bay can and should say no anytime she wants. Once again the show clearly communicates that Bay is empowered to do, or not do, whatever she likes.

In their last encounter in the episode, Tank apologizes to Bay for his behavior. But he also says that he forgets sometimes that Bay’s still in high school. Bay again refuses to go along with Tank’s personal narrative about sex and expectations: “That’s not the reason,” she says instantly.

Tank corrects himself. “What I mean is, it’s okay if you’re not ready to take the next step,” he says. “You just tell me when.”

“Okay,” Bay says. She already knew it was fine and had no need for him to tell her so. But the exchange offers yet another opportunity for the show to highlight the fact that Bay is in control of her sexual experiences.

It’s a concept that ought to be crystal-clear to everyone. But as the newly ignited national conversation about sexual assault on college campuses clearly shows, far too many people in this country still refuse to understand or respect the idea of consent. This small storyline on Switched at Birth communicates something incredibly important by focusing on the clash between a young man who feels as if he’s owed sex and a young woman who refuses to submit her sexual agency to his.

When Bay says no to Tank, the show reminds viewers that everyone always has the right to say no, regardless of how many people they’ve slept with or how old they are or how long they’ve been dating. There’s no grey area in the scene and no question of who’s in the wrong. And because teen TV tends to be less concerned with preserving moral ambiguity than adult shows, Switched at Birth can emphasize the absolute clarity of this situation in ways that series on AMC or HBO tend to skirt. At a time when the news cycle is filled with violent stories about men who fail to acknowledge the subjectivity of women, it’s heartening to find counter-narratives about sex that insist on centering women’s perspectives.

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  1. [got excited and wrote a long response]

    I’ve been rewatching Gossip Girl, and I just recently rewatched the episode in Season 3 where Jenny Humphrey thinks about having sex for the first time with Damien – remember, the wacky drug dealer/diplomat’s kid? Yeah, we all know it’s a bad idea, but what really struck me this time is the way that everybody in her life, except step-sister Serena, totally freaks out about her losing her virginity and tries to control her rather than talk to her. I dunno, it really creeped me out for a couple reasons, and I’ve figured them out after reading this article. First of all, it seems like her whole family, while well-meaning, gets hung up on this idea that the loss of her virginity is a specifically acute crisis – this one time act is the watershed. Stop her before it’s too late! Nevermind that the girl has been in a dramatic downward spiral in numerous other ways; hanging out with and abetting a drug dealer is one thing, but sleeping with one is another! [I’m not trying to say that the situation wasn’t serious or that her family should have been blase about a potentially destructive decision; but what I noticed was the way that no one in her life except Serena attempts to talk to Jenny about her motivations and desires – to help her make a decision with agency. Instead, as Serena points out, they just start making mandates and trying to control Jenny, pushing her to lash out and demonstrate her agency through rebellion. They essentially take away her ability to make a choice about sex, reducing it to a choice to submit or push back.] Her family also forgets that Jenny is capable of making her own choices; in the moment, she chooses to say no, and what is so heartbreaking about this depiction is the way that she has no one in her family she feels she can talk to about this, including the cruel, dismissive way Damien treats her: using language quite similar to Tank’s by dismissing her as a “high school girl” and insinuating she is responsible for violating his explicit dating=sex contract and hence wasting his time.

    What makes this episode particularly interesting to me is the way it contrasts the way characters treat Jenny and Serena when it comes to sex. Serena is a reformed party-girl trying to learn how to take control of her own choices in life, from relationships to career (and a character for whom I find myself having much more empathy my second time through this show). Anyway, when Serena asks her boyfriend Nate why everybody is freaking out about Jenny and why nobody is asking Jenny what she wants, Nate is curt and dismissive, saying that she wouldn’t understand because sex actually means something to “a girl like Jenny.” Serena is justifiably hurt and rightly calls Nate on his assumptions about her own attitude towards sex.

    I just thought of this episode because it reinforces exactly what you’re talking about, Sarah: since Serena lost her virginity during her wild party days, characters around her are tempted to think that the rest of her choices don’t matter.Sexual choice was a one time deal, and she did it “wrong.” However, I think Serena’s storyline really emphasizes what you said – that sexual choices go on for life, and some of the worst damage that comes from slut-shaming is its pressure on women, suggesting to them that having said yes in the past means they may as well say yes forever in the future, whether they regret or validate their past decision, whether that decision has some or no bearing on their present choice. I think I have come to appreciate Serena as a character more because she portrays a struggle to develop agency about one’s choices. For a long time, she let her first choice about sex set the tone for the rest of her life; but as she works to discern what she actually wants, she learns that she can say yes and no, depending on what she wants, and I think that is a powerful story for women.

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