Salt-N-Pepa kicked off the 90s with a sex anthem for the ages: “Let's talk about sex, baby/ Let's talk about you and me…/ Let’s talk about sex,” they declared. Salt-N-Pepa weren’t the only ones open to a frank discussion of the birds and bees back then; the decade as a whole was saturated with sex as a major, explicit subject in music, TV, film, and current events. Of course, the 90s wasn’t the first era to be preoccupied by sex, nor was it the last, but for kids growing up back then — especially those of us going through the magical (and by that I mean “horrifyingly awkward”) transitions of puberty — the way that sex was portrayed in 90s news and pop culture made a major impression, and colored how we think about sex as adults.
For all its candid discussions of sex, 90s popular culture often sent out conflicted, even contradictory messages about sex and sexuality — especially when it came to sex involving teenagers. Sex was simultaneously portrayed as a natural aspect of growing into adulthood and as something to be ashamed of or feared. Remember when Brenda and Dylan slept together at the spring dance in 90210? The show showed Brenda feeling happy about it afterward, but apparently the show runners received such an angry backlash from viewers, that they had to backtrack on the suggestion that sex had been a good development in the couple’s trajectory. They thus began the next season with Brenda experiencing a pregnancy scare and breaking up with Dylan. For adolescents watching the show, the message was confusing: Was sex a good thing? Or something for which you would be punished? Those kinds of questions inevitably influenced how we think about sex now — for better or worse. Keep reading for 12 other ways that the 90s may have affected your ideas about sex.
1. As Salt-N-Pepa taught us, it’s important to talk about sex — because "it's part of life."
The lyrics were true then and they’re true now:
Let's talk about sex for now To the people at home or in the crowd It keeps coming up anyhow Don't decoy, avoid, or make void the topic 'Cause that ain't gonna stop it …
Let's tell it how it is, and how it could be How it was, and of course, how it should be.
2. Sometimes you can be TOO SEXY.
Right Said Fred taught us the important lesson that sometimes, we are just too sexy — for our shirts, our hats, our cats, EVERYTHING.
3. Sex workers really can have it all!
I saw Pretty Woman when I was 11 or 12 years old (to be fair to my mom, I was only allowed to watch the TV-edited version), and, like a lot of people my age, I did not really understand the full implications of Julia Roberts’ role as a sex worker in that film. Needless to say, Pretty Woman presented a rather rosy image of prostitution — just find the right client, heal him with your heart of gold, go shopping on Rodeo Drive, and you’ll live happily ever after! The movie remains controversial, with some arguing that it degrades women and others insisting that it’s a feminist classic; personally, I fall into the “I-Find-This-Film-Extremely-Problematic-And-Yet-Whenever-It’s-On-TV-I-Can’t-Help-Watching-All-Of-It” category. Am I the only one?
4. The Clinton/Lewinsky scandal taught you about blowjobs, slut shaming, and the necessity of dry cleaning.
Sex was at the forefront of one of the biggest scandals of the decade: President Bill Clinton’s relationship with then-intern Monica Lewinsky. The news coverage of the scandal was explicit and thorough, and those of us who were growing up then learned a lot about sex (probably more than we wanted to know) from news reports on the significance of the infamous stain on Lewinsky’s blue dress, rumors about events involving cigars, and the president’s wrangling about what acts, precisely, constitute “sexual relations.”
The scandal also taught us about slut shaming: While Lewinsky — a young intern in her early 20s — was branded a “little tart,” a “ditzy, predatory White House intern,” and a “tramp” by the media, Clinton’s approval ratings actually went up during the controversy. Though he was the one who was older, married, and in a position of extreme authority, it was Lewinsky who was primarily blamed for the affair; she was the brazen temptress, while Clinton was merely “doing what men do.”
5. Sex is mostly heavy breathing.
At least, that’s what I assumed after hearing Madonna’s 1993 hit “Justify My Love” for the first time. The breathy song became the root of controversy when Madonna’s video for the single, featuring partial nudity, images of bisexuality, and themes of sadomasochism, was initially banned from MTV. Unsurprisingly, the controversy only made people more interested in the song and video, which was also released on VHS so that people could watch it at home. (Yes, the idea of buying a video tape in order to watch a single music video seems absolutely insane now, but, guys, IT WAS THE 90s.)
6. Losing your virginity might turn your boyfriend into a sadistic, (literally) bloodthirsty demon.
I adore Buffy the Vampire Slayer (A LOT), but girl can’t catch a break when it comes to sex. Her first boyfriend promptly loses his soul the first time they have sex. The second guy she sleeps with — the non-vampire Parker — completely ignores her after he gets her into bed, proving that one doesn’t have to be a member of the undead to be a horrible douchebag. Both storylines enact the real-life horror story that many people fear when beginning a sexual relationship — that they’ll be abandoned or even shamed afterward.
7. Angela Chase taught us that you shouldn’t have sex until you’re ready, even if it means that your extremely attractive but emotionally stunted ex-boyfriend will sleep with your best friend.
Angela refused to give in to Jordan’s pressure to sleep with him in My So Called Life, and they broke up. Then, he slept with Rayanne in his car, which was awful. But Angela stuck to her guns, and set the example for all of us.
8. A hand on a steamy window = SEX, guys.
Titanic used an image of Kate Winslet’s sweaty palm streaking across a fogged window as shorthand for “ROSE AND JACK JUST HAD SEX, EVERYONE.” To this day, any 90s kid will read that image — or any variation of it — as a symbol of sexytimes.
9. It’s OK to wait until your ready — just look at Cory and Topanga.
It’s unsurprising that Boy Meets World, a show aimed at families and children, had its main couple wait until marriage to have sex. But although Cory and Topanga weren’t actually having sex for most of the series, they did talk about it a lot — about sexual frustration, about desire, and about waiting until they were ready. That openness was central to their healthy relationship.
10. You learned a lot about sex from The Sunday Night Sex Show.
The Sunday Night Sex Show was a Canadian call-in show hosted by Sue Johanson, a friendly-looking, middle-aged sex expert who would talk frankly about sex, often using dolls and other props to illustrate. It aired in the U.S. on Oxygen, and, if you snuck off to watch it without your parents knowing, well, I won’t tell on you.
11. HIV/AIDS influenced how we thought and learned about sex.
Growing awareness of HIV/AIDS in the 90s influenced sex education and drove home the importance of practicing safe sex.The HIV/AIDS crisis played a major role in popular culture in the 90s, featuring prominently in Broadway musicals like Rent, music (TLC’s “Don’t Go Chasing Waterfalls” included the lyrics, “His health is fading and he doesn't know why/ Three letters took him to his final resting place”), and films like 1993’s Philadelphia. In 1994, MTV’s Real World: San Francisco featured AIDS educator Pedro Zamora as a cast member. His heartbreaking death shortly after the show aired brought home the realities of the disease to many young viewers.
12. Viagra makes you think of Bob Dole.
After a failed run for the presidency, Bob Dole became a spokesman for Viagra (no, really, that happened). You still feel weird about it.