One of the least memorable scenes to me in the 2018 YA rom-com To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is actually the scene that sets up Lara Jean Covey (Lana Condor) and Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo) as an item. Lara Jean realizes all her crushes received her childhood love letters, sees her current crush walking over with his letter while she’s in gym class, and to avoid an awkward conversation, jumps on top of Peter and kisses him. Peter, a former crush of Lara Jean’s, received a letter, too, and was actually there to reject her. Later, he finds her at a diner and tries to reject her again, to which she replies: “Are you trying to reject me?” Yes, Peter says, “because it doesn’t really seem like it took the first time.” Lara Jean ultimately apologizes “for the whole jumping you thing,” and Peter shrugs it off: “Could’ve been worse, right?”
In another unmemorable scene from a Netflix YA joint, Sierra Burgess Is a Loser, Centineo as Jamey thinks he’s texting hot, popular girl Veronica but is really talking to supposed-girl-next-door Sierra. On his first date with Veronica, she instructs him to close his eyes for a kiss, and when he does, Sierra swaps places with Veronica and kisses him instead.
I repeat: I honestly didn’t think much about these scenes or any deeper implications they might hold. They’re cute and goofy, and I’m an adult woman who’s traded in high school crushes for a far less cute dating hell. But they certainly stuck out to Michele Meek, author of the new book Consent Culture and Teen Films: Adolescent Sexuality in U.S. Movies. To Meek, the scenes speak to a shallow understanding of consent and feminine empowerment: Lara Jean tackles the boy for a kiss; Sierra tricks the boy for a kiss.
In her book, Meek argues that teen films have always reflected the attitudes about teen sexuality of the day, as well as how much consent played a part in those attitudes. Mean Girls (2004), for instance, didn’t at all ponder the implications of an adult having sexual relationships with minors; generations before Mean Girls, in 1940’s Stolen Paradise, a teen girl who tried to explore sexually was assaulted. In the last decade, society has started to shift from a “rape culture” that blames victims for their own abuse to a “consent culture” that centers verbal, affirmative consent and sexual empowerment for women and girls. This is an exciting step forward. However, Meek notes, some contemporary teen films are reflecting this shift by merely swapping the teen boy character out of the “sexual aggressor role” and replacing him with a teen girl character.
Before To All the Boys and Sierra Burgess, the swap happened in The To Do List (2013), in which Aubrey Plaza’s Brandy Klark manipulated a roster of teenage boys to gain sexual experience before college. In 2020, there was American Pie Presents: Girls’ Rules, in which teenage girls connived their way into sexual experiences with unassuming teenage boys. The swap is done “maybe with the best of intentions, in that they really wanted to prioritize female sexual agency and show that girls can want sex and go after what they want,” Meek told me. But it is not exactly a feminist achievement, she said, “for girls to be more like the way boys were at their worst.”
In some ways, teenage girls’ more callous treatment of boys in these films strikes me as less harmful—they hold considerably less power in society, so I find it hard to be scandalized when they get to wield what little they have. And while Meek acknowledged this, her point stands: “I think the problem is, if you really want to value sexual agency, it does have to be a two-way street.” Teen girls’ consent shouldn’t come at the cost of teen boys’, nor should the films they watch signal that teen boys’ sexual consent is a given.
This genre has an opportunity to guide young people through the nuances of consent—to show them how to protect themselves and others and have some fun along the way. Or course, not all teen films take it seriously; some go out of their way to be raunchy, often R-rated capers overrun with bra jokes and male-gaze-y girl-on-girl scenes. But even when filmmakers—who are notably not teens themselves—try to well-meaningly portray such a tender experience as adolescent sexual awakening, the results can be pretty problematic.
Teen Films and Consent: Then and Now
Across the country, a dearth of accurate, inclusive sexual health education means teens are left reliant on movies, TV, and other media (read: porn and the internet) to learn about sex and their bodies. That places a heap of responsibility on the shoulders of teen films to teach young people about consent and sexuality—a 2006 study found that “film, television, music, and magazines may act as a kind of ‘sexual super peer’ for teenagers seeking information about sex,” the Guardian reported at the time.
Throughout the 1940s and ‘50s, films depicting teen sexuality took an “educational” approach, Meek notes in Consent Culture and Teen Film. That is, they were written not to provide sexual health education but to teach young audiences a lesson about the horrors that would befall them if they embraced their sexuality. In Unwed Mother (1958), a sexually active teen girl is ultimately impregnated and forced to put her newborn up for adoption—a decision she later regrets; Blue Denim (1959) follows the trials and tribulations a teen girl endures after being impregnated by her first sexual experience and forced to search for an illegal abortion. Teen boys were punished, too, facing death and violence shortly after engaging in sexual trysts in All Quiet On the Western Front (1930) and Youth Runs Wild (1944).
Things evolved from there. Brat pack movies in the 1980s, like The Breakfast Club, challenged the caricatures of high school students, shining light on their inner lives and unexpected sexual desires. Then, 2010’s Easy A marked a breakthrough: a direct challenge to the gendered double standards in who’s punished and who’s rewarded for imagined sexual experiences—although, Meek notes, no actual sexual activity is depicted in the film, tacitly reinforcing the anti-sex stigma perpetrated by the teens on-screen.
Meek, who’s watched just about every American teen film touching on adolescent sexuality in existence, thinks the genre is continuing to fall short, mostly because our cultural understandings of consent and sexual empowerment off-screen are falling short, too. Consent, we’re told, is about checking off a box—not ensuring your partners actively and enthusiastically want to be intimate. Of course these misunderstandings fundamentally shape what makes it to our screens.
More recently, media depictions of queer youth have often leaned heavily on the “bury your gays” trope and queer suffering, as we see in The Miseducation of Cameron Post and Boy Erased—both released in 2018, both centered around torturous conversion therapy programs. But sometimes, sexual harm that young LGBTQ characters face is more innocuous, Meek says. She cites how in both Blockers (2018) and A Girl Like Grace (2015), queer teen girls feel pressured to consent to heterosexual sexual encounters they don’t actually want so they can say for sure they’re gay.
“That seems like a problematic trope, because why should someone have to try out heterosexual sex before they can ‘know’ they’re gay?” Meek, who is also an assistant professor of communication studies at Bridgewater State University, said. “It would be nice to see more representations of teens navigating same-sex interactions without feeling like somehow heterosexuality is the default.”
Depictions of trans youth navigating sexual interactions have raised similar ethical tensions, as we see in 2019’s Adam. “One of the things I argue is a problem with the affirmative consent framework is its emphasis on disclosure—if we say everything should be on the table in the beginning, upfront, how far are you taking that exactly?” Meek said, referring to the expectation that we should share as much as possible about ourselves with a partner before a sexual encounter. In some cases, of course, like exposure to sexually transmitted infections, this is entirely reasonable. But, Meek says, “I don’t believe a trans person should have to disclose they’re trans.”
Verbal, affirmative consent itself can often be a product of pressure and coercion, even a sense of obligation to fulfill a gender role, rather than actual desire. Teen films depicting straight teens’ sexual awakenings underscore their twisty journeys to affirmative consent: In Lady Bird (2017), Meek notes that Saoirse Ronan’s Lady Bird consents to sex because her boyfriend Kyle (Timothée Chalamet) misled her to believe he was a virgin, too. (Spoiler alert: He wasn’t!) In The Kissing Booth (2018), Joey King’s Elle Evans, who feels perennially rejected by a school that seems utterly sexually uninterested in her, consents to a relationship with Jacob Elordi’s Noah Flynn only after—unbeknownst to her—Noah has threatened to beat up any boy in school who pursues her.
“A lot of these movies overlook the fact that it’s not just about what you say, it’s about how you feel—there can be a disconnect,” Meek said. If audiences overlook this in movies, it’s probably because we’re taught to overlook this in real life, too. It doesn’t help that there’s a massive gender gap among Hollywood directors and a persistent history of male directors hypersexualizing young women stars.
Teens Are Telling Their Own Stories
Much of the change Meek hopes we see on-screen will have to start off-screen, Meek says. That means collectively reckoning with the mutual desire and empowerment that consent requires.
There have been glimmers of hope: Meek enjoyed Amy Poehler’s Moxie (2021), which follows a teen boy and girl who meet through activism on their high school campus as they embark on their first sexual relationship together on equal footing. The final movie in the To All the Boys trilogy challenges the trope of the always-consenting teenage boy as Centineo’s Peter expresses reservations about his girlfriend’s motivations for pursuing sex with him on prom night. And then, there’s the emergence of The Clit Test, an online campaign that evaluated media—including some teen films—for depictions or mentions of clitoral stimulation, often overlooked and excluded in projects catered to the male gaze. (Teen films like To All the Boys, Lady Bird, and Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart all passed.)
The latest numbers from the CDC show teenage sexual activity has plunged in recent years, with an especially sharp drop during the covid pandemic, which makes sense. But it’s not exactly clear what teens think about sex and why they’re having less of it in 2023—and seeing as most movies about them are made entirely without them, we can hardly look there for answers.
Meek says she feels hopeful seeing teens shape their own narratives around sex via social media. Naturally, platforms like TikTok come with their own problems, especially where teen self-image is concerned—but at the very least, teens are in the driver’s seat. “They can create their own stories about themselves, maybe even change or challenge our public perception about their sexuality,” Meek said—an equal parts thrilling and nerve-racking development.