Opinion | Entertainment needs to stop sexualizing teenagers — except for ‘Sex Education’

By Grace DeLallo, For The Pitt News

As Marina Diamandis once said, “Sex, sex, sex, sex, yeah!”

But when it comes to actors portraying teenagers in sexual encounters — sex, sex, sex, sex, no. The sexualization of underage characters in entertainment feeds into both personal and societal issues that actively harm adolescents, women and the LGBTQ+ community. This needs to stop.

While the amount of shows and movies that participate in this adverse trend are abundant, I believe there is an exception. The Netflix original series “Sex Education” delves into sex as a multifaceted experience with a lot more involved than the kissing, taking your shirt off and getting down to business most other teen shows demonstrate. “Sex Education” quite literally teaches its viewers the sex education our schooling failed to provide millions of students — including myself.

The third season of “Sex Education,” released on Sept. 17, further explores the types of people who make up our world but are often left out of media representation. The series depicts an array of sexualities, genders, relationship models and all of the other progressive identities we see being embraced in the 21st century. The show talks about gay sex and the measures that go into safely participating, the bravery of getting an abortion, the struggles of body dysmorphia and so many more topics that many people aren’t formally educated on, but should be. There is even a disabled actor who illustrates alternative ways sexual arousal can occur — a completely new insight that I thought was intimate and tastefully done.

The show differentiates itself from the overtly sexual imitation of minors seen in shows like “Outer Banks,” “Riverdale,” “Gossip Girl,” “Glee” and movies like “Bring It On,” “Jennifer’s Body” and “Mean Girls” — think Regina George and the infamous nipple-cut tank top she wears around school with her mini skirt and heels. She is supposed to be 16 or 17 years old.

The critique of Regina’s style is not a reflection of her character, but of the person who conceptualized a high schooler to appeal to adult men in this provocative manner. Did the filmmakers forget they were writing for a teen comedy and not an adult film? Rape culture can be perpetuated in American society when teenagers are portrayed as a kind of erotic creature, always willing to sexually engage. The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network reports that every 68 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted — and people between the ages of 12 and 34 are at the highest risk of being raped or sexually assaulted.

Contrary to films like “Mean Girls,” every situation where someone is shown in a sexually suggestive light in “Sex Education” illustrates a thematic issue, like confronting sexual assault or accepting one’s identity. It serves a purpose besides just looking alluring.

“Sex Education” illustrates the struggle of being a teenager and attempting to get acquainted with your body, while the students are portrayed as normal people and not 27-year-olds trying to pass as “sexy teens” — even if the actors are in their 20s. Meanwhile, other television shows and movies that involve teenagers and sex oftentimes teach the viewers nothing about these relationships. Instead, television and movies targeted towards teens and young adults exploit adolescents to further a plot sequence or to simply entertain.

Although the vast majority of the actors on “Sex Education” are adults, I understand why this is the case — it is unethical to have actual minors engaging in the sexual acts, no matter how staged they might be. Society is aware that real teens have sex, but they shouldn’t be shown doing so, since that would constitute as child porn.

Even if teenagers aren’t playing out sex scenes, people aren’t told that the actors are older. As a result, actors aren’t accurate representations of adolescents and create a dissonance among viewers. This draws a few key issues to my attention — one being the expectations young girls must live up to in their formative years, illustrated by people sometimes a decade older than them. This creates self-esteem and body image issues that can develop into lifelong battles. I don’t see this as an issue in “Sex Education,” since the characters are meant to be relatable and aren’t setting unrealistic expectations. The characters’ main characteristics are about their quirks and struggles, not elements of their bodies. They’re just trying to figure out life in the most imperfectly perfect ways, and to me, there’s nothing more relatable. 

Another negative attribute of adults portraying teens is the potentially increased craving some adult men have in seeking relationships with young girls — people sometimes referred to as ephebophiles. Girls, barely legal or still minors, are already bombarded with unwanted attention from older men. I fear that sexualizing teens in entertainment makes this unwanted attention more common.

The issue isn’t confined to teenagers being sexualized. The expectations the media feeds young, impressionable people create an unrealistic image of what sex looks like for people beginning their exploration. In particular for members of the LGBTQ+ community, the way sex operates looks a lot different than what is presented in the mainstream, which is overwhelmingly heterosexual intercourse. Sex can be a lot of things aside from the penetration we’re most frequently shown. From strap-ons, to dildos, to vibrators, to whatever body parts, toys or combination works best, the easiest way to get people having their best sex is to be educated on the safest sex for them and their partner or partners. 

“Sex Education” never shies away from the diverse reality of sex and puts all of these things on display — whereas some entertainment treats sex as a guilty pleasure. This is part of the reason why we need quality, medically accurate sex education in the United States and greater representation within movies and television, whose targeted audiences are adolescents and young adults. We shouldn’t have to rely on a TV show to normalize sex outside of heteronormativity.

When you think about it, most people are engaging in sex and sexual discourse during their high school years — a formative time where teenagers develop a perception of the relationships between sex, their bodies and their lives. Though this may be true, most high school students across the country are never formally introduced to inclusive sex education that discusses things outside of a penis and vagina, leaving many people to find their own information, or just neglect the subject as a whole. Some things I never thought of were only brought to my attention while watching “Sex Education.” My school’s teachings only consisted of being taught abstinence using a piece of Hershey’s chocolate — and yes, it was as ridiculous as it sounds. 

The media portrayal of adolescents and poor sex education in this country needs to improve drastically if society wants to prevent the detrimental personal and social effects these things can help create — like body image issues and rape culture. People shouldn’t have to learn sex ed from a television show or ask for minors to stop being sexualized. Nonetheless, “Sex Education” should serve as a model for shows and movies attempting to sexually appeal to audiences members, keeping education at the core. The problems are abundant, the solutions are just within reach, so now it’s a matter of implementing the necessary changes that will benefit all Americans, especially teens. 

Grace DeLallo writes about social, environmental and political issues. Write to her at [email protected].