Rated R: Sex in Teen TV

With an 82% score on Rotten Tomatoes, HBO’s series “Euphoria” has become a hit. For those who don’t know (don’t worry, no spoilers ahead!), “Euphoria” is a teen drama centered around a group of high school students who are dealing with issues such as abuse, addiction, and homophobia. The show has been praised for its authenticity and hard look at the lives of high schoolers, but it’s been criticized for its portrayal of underage characters — specifically, their sex lives. 

Everyone on the Foghorn is aware that there are high schoolers who are sexually active and high schoolers who struggle with substance abuse. However, we have a different reaction than the sanctimony of parental watchdog groups or the belief that “art” is the ultimate defense.

In a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 41% of high school students said they have had sex before, which is 13% less than what was reported in 1991. This is probably a much lower percentage than what is portrayed in most shows and movies geared toward “edgy” teens — unless, of course, you assume that the main characters are the only ones getting down and dirty, while all of the background characters are as pure as the driven snow.

“Euphoria” provides a relatively accurate and not-so-glamorous look at the challenges high school students face. It’s important to keep in mind why sex scenes are being shown. If it’s for artistic reasons, then it’s probably more acceptable. But if the purpose is for shock value, or to get the audience excited, then it’s extremely dubious, because it’s strange for grown adults to ogle underage characters having sex.

Whether it’s conscious or not, a lot of teens learn about sex and romance from shows and movies that often do not portray active consent. The few of us who have seen “Euphoria” feel the show is very good at depicting what consent is in a way that seems natural, and not like you’re watching an after school special. 

Teens are, in fact, having sex, so it doesn’t make sense that portrayals of underage sex are so taboo. It just becomes uncomfortable when the sex is gratuitous and serves no function, or when the show’s intended audience skews young. “Euphoria” is on HBO, so it is more likely intended for young adults, but a portion of the show’s audience is most likely still on the younger side.

But, that being said, we also have to consider what these shows are implying about teen culture, and whether or not that reflects reality.

One of the more damaging aspects of shows including an excessive amount of sex is the impression it leaves on its teen viewers. When shows are heavy-handed with the inclusion of the “ol’ hanky-panky,” more impressionable teens might feel like they’re “behind” in their own sex lives.

Artistic portrayals of underage sex aren’t a new thing — they’ve been part of our culture for centuries. Romeo and Juliet were teenagers. The very popular musical “Spring Awakening” has an onstage sex scene between two high schoolers, which results in a pregnancy and ultimately (spoiler alert!) an attempted abortion, which kills a girl. Not only is “Spring Awakening” extremely well-known, but it is also based on a play written in 1891. This is not new, and it’s not a problem in and of itself.

At the end of the day, a show is a show, and if the sex scenes aren’t gratuitous or portraying sex in a harmful light, then that’s fine by us. 

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