Do you know where your children are…. learning about sex? And I don’t mean just reproduction—which might be covered by their school’s sex ed—but more nuanced issues like consent, pleasure, gender identity, and sexual preference.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, 39 states currently require sexual education for adolescents, but only nine require a focus on consent. A minority—only nine—require their sex ed programs be culturally appropriate and unbiased. And seven states actually require that homosexuality be portrayed in a negative light.
I’d say we’ll need to have the “sex talk” with our children ourselves.
Of course, there are some great books out there—like Who Has What for little kids and It’s Perfectly Normal for pre-teens—to leave lying around for kids to embark on a self-study. But it’s a better to have an actual conversation— because once you do, kids are more likely to confide in you or come to you for advice later.
To make it easier, I’ve found that watching and discussing movies together sparks dialogue in a way that feels less abrupt and awkward than sitting your kids down for the sex talk. Viewing issues through characters’ decisions and actions provides that bit of distance that you or your children might prefer. And although movies and films certainly don’t always depict ideal teen behavior, by watching together, you create an opportunity for questions, thoughts, and critique.
In my TEDx talk “Why We’re Confused About Consent—Rewriting Our Stories of Seduction,” I call for parents and educators to pay attention to how sexual consent is being portrayed—and then take the opportunity to talk about it. But it’s not just consent—I’ve found myself chiming in during I Love Lucy episodes about how gender roles have changed over the years, or about racist stereotypes during 30 Rock episodes. The simple act of watching and discussing is a chance for you to express your own values and to let your children know you’re willing to talk.
So, to get you started, here’s a list of some recent teen films (in alphabetical order) that can serve as a launchpad into these conversations.
Alex Strangelove (2018)
High school senior Alex has a girlfriend he loves. But when they decide to have sex, Alex can no longer hide the fact that he’s gay—to himself or his girlfriend.
Alex Strangelove obviously offers the chance to discuss sexual preference, but it also raises important issues of consent (Alex’s girlfriend sometimes mistakenly assumes his consent), disappointing sexual experiences, and friendship.
Rated R, Dope chronicles the turbulent coming-of-age of Malcolm—a Black teenager from a poor neighborhood who has aspirations for Harvard. Brace yourself—this film will open the door to discussions about drugs, bribery, and violence. But it also features some more upbeat conversation starters, such as the rare depiction of a queer gender non-conforming Black teen in Malcom’s friend Diggy.
Edge of Seventeen (2016)
This one is also rated R, not for violence, but for profanity and sexual situations. Edge of Seventeen tells the story of Nadine whose best friend Krista embarks on a relationship with Nadine’s archnemesis/brother Darian. Nadine, feeling as if she’s lost her best friend, has a coming-of-age crisis. The film offers plenty of opportunity to talk about especially about consent—in one scene, Nadine winds up in a car with her crush Nick. And when he wants to take things faster than she’s ready, her “no” is clearly respected.
The Half of It (2020)
This modern-day Cyrano de Bergerac PG-13 story portrays high schooler Ellie Chu who gets paid to write love texts on behalf of the inarticulate Paul Munsky to his girl crush Aster Flores. The complication comes when Ellie develops a crush on Aster, while Paul develops a crush on Ellie. This film offers the opportunity to talk about first love and the ethics (or lack thereof) of trying to be someone you’re not. It also touches upon how young people navigate coming-of-age via differing religious beliefs and cultural backgrounds.
The Kissing Booth (2018)
We might assume that The Kissing Booth—based on a book written by a 15-year-old girl—would be an authentic teen story. Well, let’s hope not. The plot sounds innocuous enough—high school junior Elle has a secret crush on her best friend Lee’s older brother, until she discovers the feeling might be mutual.
However, this film features masculine behavior that we might have hoped was relegated to the past. Noah has a temper that leads him regularly into fist fights with other boys, and he secretly threatens all the other boys in school to stay away from Elle—whether it’s a misguided attempt to protect her or a means to keep her for himself is unclear. In any case, this film is chock-full of situations that can spark conversations about relationships, in particular more subtly abusive and controlling behaviors.
When straight-A high school senior Veronica finds out that she’s pregnant, she convinces her ex-best friend Bailey to drive her to an abortion clinic. There’s just one catch—the closet clinic without parental consent is over 1,000 miles away.
As a PG-13 film, Unpregnant offers a unique opportunity to discuss teen pregnancy and abortion with younger kids. The side plots also provide some conversation starters—Veronica’s boyfriend stalks her, and Bailey has her first same sex kiss.
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