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Tips for Talking About Virginity and Sex in Teen Dramas

Parents can take the lead and get out ahead of media's messages about sex.

Brenda and Dylan, Joey and Pacey, Kurt and Blaine. Talking to teens about sex can be challenging enough, and when they see their favorite characters experience this intimacy for the first time, it can raise questions parents might not be ready to answer.

Whether kids actually watch or not, you can be sure they'll hear exactly what happened through social networks, friends in the classroom, or media coverage. As much as we might want to shield our kids from these sensitive topics for as long as possible, sometimes media pushes our hand. Here's how you can be prepared:

  • Acknowledge that sex and sexuality are part of our culture: Our kids are growing up in a world where teen sex, expansive sexuality, gender identity, birth control, and teen pregnancy are all a part of our culture. No longer hidden, these topics pop up every day in movies, shows, and YouTube channels, as well as in schools and politics. Helping kids navigate these tricky waters is part of our job as parents. As loud as the media voices can be, we need to make ours a little louder. Ask kids: What are the real-life consequences of sex, and how are those different from what we see in media? How is sex used to sell products -- including TV shows and movies?
  • Talk about virginity: By the time kids are old enough to watch most teen TV dramas, they probably know the facts of life. But teens find it pretty mortifying to discuss sexual experiences with their parents because they either don't want parents involved in their budding sexuality or because the conversation can veer dangerously close to personal experience. What we can suggest is being clear about your own values as they relate to real life -- and using a TV character as a jumping-off point can make this discussion easier for both parents and teens. You can also point out that no matter what you think about the ages or sexual orientations of favorite characters, there's a difference between casual hook-ups and decisions based on love and intention.
  • Think about how relationships are portrayed on TV: While most teen-oriented dramas make an effort to portray "first times" sensitively, a whole range of other relationships gets played out on the small screen. And kids are influenced by how these characters behave. Glee was one of the first teen dramas to portray same-sex teen relationships the same way as opposite-sex ones. Other shows have introduced characters who deal with one-night-stands, abstinence, and domestic violence. Regardless of how each situation strikes you, it's an opportunity to talk about your own family's beliefs and expectations, as well as how to react to these kinds of relationships in the real world. No matter what your family believes, it's critically important to stress to your kids that any bullying, name calling, or harassment is unwise and harmful. And make sure that kids know where they can go for support if they need additional help dealing with any of these sensitive relationship topics.
  • Make them media savvy: These "very special episodes" that feature teens having sex get a lot of attention. Help kids understand the hype around TV shows, movies, and musical artists who use sex as a selling tool. Ask kids to think about whether the "first time" storyline makes sense for the characters -- or is it a promotional tool? Also, who participates in the hype: teens, parents, media organizations, the show's marketers?
Sierra Filucci
Sierra is a journalist with a special interest in media and families. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of California at Berkeley, and she's been writing and editing professionally for more than a decade. As her kids get older, Sierra has developed a special fascination with youth culture, including YouTubers, gamers, social media, and slang. When she's not watching Marvel movies and Parks and Recreation with her kids, she enjoys reading young adult books, walking her dog, and streaming dystopian thrillers late at night.