How First-Time Sex Is Portrayed Drastically Differently On-Screen, Depending On Gender, Race & More
The coming of age tale has been a staple of storytelling since well before Romeo angstily proclaimed, “Then I defy you, stars!” to Juliet. Oftentimes, the coming of age stories that pervade popular culture include a lot of, well, coming — especially in regards to having sex for the first time. Over the past decade or so, onscreen portrayals of virginity and first-time sex have drastically changed, but there's still a long way to go before the stigmas against “purity” have dissolved and a culture of consent has expanded in movies and TV.
Somewhere along the way between Romeo and Juliet and Superbad, having sex for the first time became a cultural milestone on-screen — that is, for teenage boys. There is an innumerable number of movies about young men who want to do it before going off to college, from Splendor in the Grass to Sixteen Candles to American Pie to the more recent Alex Strangelove. And although it’s not set in high school, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, too, also deals with a man who badly wants to have sex for the first time.
Historically, a robust sexual appetite has long not only been encouraged, but expected, from on-screen men. Women, though? Not quite. Coming of age films like Crossroads, Cruel Intentions, Saved!, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and 10 Things I Hate About You that have shown young women having sex for the first time have depicted them suffering from consequences afterward. Juno, Crossroads, Saved!, and Fast Times each feature teen pregnancy; Cruel Intentions, 10 Things I Hate About You, and Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants show girls who are left heartbroken/damaged; and the Kids' female lead contracts HIV. For many years, young girls had few places in pop culture to turn toward to find examples of first time-sex that didn't make it look like a complete disaster.
It's only really been in the last decade that a handful of movies and shows about young women’s hopes to have sex have arrived that haven't show terrible consequences. In films like The To Do List, Blockers, Lady Bird, The Spectacular Now, and Blue is the Warmest Colour, plus the UK show Chewing Gum, teen girls have sex simply because they want to — and it's OK. These works demonstrate the cultural shifts that have taken place over the last several years through public discourse, which have exposed the fallacies of a lack of female sex drive and the idea that girls who have sex before marriage become “impure” or somehow decrease in "value."
One of the best portrayals of this cultural shift is in 2000’s Love and Basketball, where high school sweethearts Monica (Sanaa Lathan) and Quincy (Omar Epps) have sex. When Monica shows that she’s in pain, Quincy asks her, “Want me to stop,?” and she tells him no. Not only does the scene realistically portray first-time, heterosexual intercourse well — as many YouTube viewers pointed out in the comments section of the film’s clip — but it shows both of the partners equally engaged in taking their relationship to a new level.
Love and Basketball is truly one of the few popular films featuring male protagonists of any race that doesn't make virginity a joke; 1975's Cooley High, 1988's School Daze, 1991's Boyz n the Hood, and 1994's The Inkwell all tease young men about their virginities. One of the most memorable scenes from Boyz n the Hood, for instance, features Tre (Cuba Gooding Jr.) confessing to pal Ricky (Morris Chestnut) that he's a virgin. Ricky breaks out into exaggerated laughter and asks why, and Tre says that he's scared of getting a woman pregnant; even in a comedy, there's a consequence to having sex.
In School Daze, meanwhile the men of a frat tease Spike Lee's character, Half-Pint, for being a virgin, and they tell him he must have sex in order to join the group. Half-Pint eventually does have sex, but in the aftermath, the girl runs out of the room crying, suggesting that she had a terrible experience — yet Half-Pint is met with a crowd that's cheering him on. Similarly on TV, in The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Carlton’s long-awaited de-flowering — after he was teased by cousin Will (Will Smith) for being a virgin — prompts a cutaway to a series of images like a bee pollinating a flower and fireworks set to sounds of the in-studio audience cheering.
While coming-of-age movies that star women of color are lacking overall, those that do exist almost never explore the topic of first-time sex (one of the most quintessential movies about female virgins, in fact, The Virgin Suicides, stars five nearly identical girls with ivory skin and blonde hair). Yes, Boyz n the Hood includes a storyline about Brandi (Nia Long), having sex with Tre, but she's not the center of the film, and the scene showing their first time includes objectifying, gratuitous images of her naked body. Sadly, this style of filming, known as the male gaze, is not unique to Boyz n the Hood, or even virginity movies as a genre; the male gaze serves as the most common perspective from which any sex scene is filmed.
In a 2018 essay on Broadly, writer Zoé Samudzi discussed the lack of films about virginity starring non-white actors, writing, "Films about white female adolescence and teenhood revolve around particular experiences of and meditations on dissatisfaction and boredom, using nostalgia as their primary pull. And yet for me, their projections of high school misery and endless summers only served as a reminder that Black girls are never afforded the kind of ordinariness that would make them relatable to white audiences."
That does not mean that people of color can't be in lighthearted movies about chasing after sex; just look at Geraldine Viswanathan, the half-Malay actor who played Kayla in Blockers, a teen who happily aims to have sex on prom night. But as Samudzi noted, movies like Lady Bird, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, and Crossroads are based largely around their white characters' general boredom (including with their virginity), which might feel un-relatable to some people of color dealing with larger everyday issues.
As movies like Blockers and the recent If Beale Street Could Talk demonstrate, Hollywood is slowly improving the diversity of stories in which people of color play main roles, leading to more on-screen depictions of people of color having sex. Yet even in Beale Street, the characters' sex scene does result in an unplanned pregnancy, with a woman physically bearing the consequences of having sex. With that storyline, plus those surrounding rape and criminal justice, Beale Street is far from the kind of tale of suburban malaise leading to first-time sex that's so common among movies about white people.
TV shows also have portrayed post-sex consequences for people of color often, albeit typically less severely. Both the aforementioned British show Chewing Gum and the Freeform comedy Grown-ish have both recently depicted Black women seeking out sex for the first time and facing problems afterwards; Grown-ish, for instance, had a storyline about the stigma women who aren't virgins can face, with Zoey (Yara Shahidi) learning that her boyfriend Cash (Da'Vinchi) likes that she's a virgin because it helps his image. And Jane the Virgin, about a religious, young Latina, has had several in-depth discussions about how sex can affect a person's sense of self-worth, faith, and relationships.
On TV, women of all races and ethnicities are generally treated worse when it comes to first-time sex. Back in the '90s, plenty of female characters had sex for the first time on their shows and faced severe repercussions, such as Buffy on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. When Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) sleeps with Angel (David Boreanaz), it literally turns him into a demon; as far as parables about women losing their innocence and cursing men go, that one's pretty simple.
Sadly, Buffy is far from the only show or movie to have been empowering for girls in many ways but to have faltered when it came to depictions of first-time sex. Clueless, for instance, passes the Bechdel test with flying colors, yet uses female virginity as an insult. One of the most famous quotes from the 1995 rom-com is Tai (Brittany Murphy) telling Cher (Alicia Silverstone), “You’re a virgin who can’t drive.”
At another point in the film, Dionne (Stacey Dash) admits that she is a virgin… but only “technically.” She implies that she engages in other sexual acts other than intercourse, satisfying her lover while avoiding "the big one." Defining sex technically as only vaginal penetration has popped up in various other films and shows, like 2004's Mean Girls, in which Regina George (Rachel McAdams) laments, “I was half a virgin when I met him.” These lines are meant for humor, but they point out the actual subjectivity of “virginity” and support the archaic idea that women are "pure" until they have vaginal intercourse.
The fact that Regina and Dionne define virginity with varying technicalities is something you’ll likely observe in real life, too. In her 2016 non-fiction book, Girls & Sex, author Peggy Orenstein discussed the theory that pop culture has led people to partake in more sexual activities besides intercourse, like oral sex, starting at a younger age. In an interview with NPR, Orenstein said, “One of the things that I became really clear on was that we have to broaden our definition of sex, because by ignoring and denying these other forms of sexual behavior that kids are engaging in, we are opening the door to a lot of risky behavior, and we are opening the door to a lot of disrespect.”
Not only does defining vaginal penetration perpetuate a misleading and anachronistic mythology that has beleaguered women for millennia, it also erases non-heterosexual sex by regarding sex strictly as something that requires a penis and a vagina. Orenstein acknowledges that consequence in her work, telling NPR that broadening what sex means for people might also broaden the idea of “virginity” so that a person might have various “virginities.”
As pop culture has shown, the concept of having more than one "virginity" is often aligned with LGBTQ+ relationships. In the films Blue is the Warmest Color and Call Me By Your Name, for instance, the lead characters have heterosexual first-time sex before later sleeping with lovers of the same sex. And in both movies, the characters' first times are shown to be not nearly as meaningful or intimate as their second times, with partners with whom they're more comfortable.
Speaking over the phone, sociologist and author Kimberly Dark tells Bustle that the “coming out movie” trend that’s currently taking place with films like Love, Simon and Alex Strangelove, in which LGBTQ+ teens struggle with their sexualities, seems to her like the queer version of “virginity movies.” Explains Dark, “I would say absolutely [first-time sex] could happen twice, or three times, or eight times that you cross into new understandings into yourself and your eroticism... somebody who is into BDSM might say the same thing, like, ‘It was like losing my virginity all over again when I understood the joy of being tied up.'"
Many of the recent films that featured LGBTQ+ first-time sex scenes, like Call Me By Your Name and Moonlight, have emphasized the importance of the moment and were filmed with beautiful, artistic intimacy. Even the raunchy comedy Blockers was praised for the ways that it subverted gender stereotypes to portray young women — including a lesbian — having first-time sex and embracing their sexualities in emotional, mature ways.
Blockers also, refreshingly, featured a new take on parents' need to control their daughters' sex lives, with none of the adults worried that their kids wouldn't remain “pure” if they had sex. There's long been a double standard about parents holding onto their daughters' sexualities more tightly than those of their sons, and movies and shows about Latinx culture, in particular, highlight that difference well. Jane the Virgin, for example, frequently discusses the way that Jane’s (Gina Rodriguez’s) abuela, Alba (Ivonne Coll), values virginity so strongly, often to a fault. Intergenerational strife also played out in the 2002 movie Real Women Have Curves, in which Ana (America Ferrara) is asked by her mother, “Why didn’t you value yourself?” after she has sex for the first time. To this, Ana responds, “Because there’s more to me than what’s in between my legs.” Amen to that.
Clearly, a lot of progress in regards to depictions of first-time sex has occurred over the past several decades; perhaps the days of movies and shows shaming women for exploring their sexualities, and praising men for doing the same thing, are coming to an end. And as real-life conversations about consent and the concept of virginity itself develop further, more progressive changes will likely continue to take place. Hollywood may always make movies about teens having sex for the first time — whatever that means to them — but maybe, just maybe, the act can be something to celebrate for everyone involved.