Twisted Nostalgia and the Hypersexualization of Teenagers

I couldn’t wait to go to high school. I dreamt of first loves, wild sexual escapades, and life-changing adventures. And can you blame me? The Vampire Diaries was my favorite show–it featured the beautiful protagonist Elena Gilbert, who was only three years older than me, Stefan and Damon Salvatore, the two devilishly handsome vampire brothers who also happened to be competing for Elena’s love, and a myriad of blush-worthy supernatural sex scandals. I ate up the lascivious supernatural endeavors the teens of Mystic Falls embarked on, and I, too, wanted to have equally—if not more—salacious experiences when I was in high school. Almost every CW and ABC Family (yes, before it was Freeform) show I watched then featured teenagers who, if not emotionally mature, were still having adult (or what I thought were adult) experiences without the responsibilities of being an adult. I figured if every show I watched portrayed high school in the same way, then that’s what high school had to be, right? Why would the writers and producers lie to me? 

With this mindset and the belief that I would be the most sexually adventurous teen ever, I went into high school with wide eyes and high expectations. But when freshman year rolled by and the most dangerous thing I’d done was get a C in geometry, I was a bit taken aback. Where was the first kiss? The senior boy who was supposed to hit on me? The wild Project X parties? They seemed to be hiding from me. But I was not completely shaken–most of my favorite characters’ lives really took off during their sophomore and junior years. So I again went into my sophomore year hopeful that this would be the year I finally started having my own bold escapades. 

But when the end of sophomore year started approaching (and with it my sixteenth birthday,) I began panicking. Not only had I not had my first kiss yet, but I didn’t even really want to kiss anyone. Something must have been wrong with me. So, in a frenzy void of any type of thought process, I texted my friend and begged him to kiss me the day before my birthday. Which he did, outside the gym, but even that had been met with much resistance because I did not want to kiss him. I didn’t want to be the sexless pariah who hadn’t even had her first kiss by the time she was sixteen, never mind the fact that none of my closest friends had either. Elena Gilbert had dated and been in love with a broody vampire when she was sixteen! So, not wanting to be too far behind, I kissed him, and then begged him not to tell anyone, fearful of appearing more pathetic than I already felt. But, being a sixteen-year-old boy, he of course did, and my already awkward years were compounded by the embarrassment and shame I felt at my secret being made known. 

I did eventually date someone my junior year, someone I really liked and who I like to think really liked me as well. It was classic, intense puppy love, characteristic of high school romance. But we hardly kissed. The most we did was “cuddle,” but I never felt the urge to kiss him, and I’m assuming he never felt the urge to kiss me. Looking back, I know that we were too young to truly understand the difference between romantic and sexual desire, and we were especially too young to realize that our romantic feelings far outweighed our sexual ones. Our sex drives were neither compatible nor fully developed, but at the time, I felt wholly inadequate. I no longer watched The Vampire Diaries or anything else on the CW, but I still felt as if I was missing out on the true high school experience, and I would lay awake at night wondering if I had some type of hormonal defect causing my sexual inadequacy. 

It wasn’t until I went to college that I finally started having sexual encounters, because I finally felt ready. And while I now have new questions and anxieties pertaining to sexuality and salaciousness, having these sexual experiences has allowed me to truly reflect on my high school experience and my infatuation with comparing myself to the teenagers I watched on TV. A lot of the pressure I felt to be the definition of lascivious as a teenager was mainly a result of how hypersexualized and glamorized high school is in the media–most young adult shows on the CW or Freeform take place in high school, but more often than not have actors in their twenties and sometimes even thirties playing the roles of teenagers. Obviously, these actors are much more developed than the average teenager, which shames the actual high school students who are in the throes of puberty, and who are watching wondering why they don’t have hourglass figures or six-pack abs or flawless skin. Additionally, the sexual nature of these shows often pressures its audience to partake in their own sexual experiences–often before they’re ready–because they believe that that’s what “teenagers are supposed to do.” Likewise, the intense focus on teenagers partying and doing drugs can often influence the show’s audience members to recklessly chase out similar experiences that they may not have sought after otherwise. 

I’m not by any means saying that it’s bad for teenagers to partake in these activities so long as they are doing so in a safe environment, and only if they are ready for it. I, for one, was not. Neither were my friends, but they all shared similar feelings of inadequacy for not being the type of teenager the media loved to portray. The general, false representation of teenagers as sex-crazed, hormone driven delinquents needs to be replaced by an accurate portrayal of teenagers who are confused about their future, who are insecure about their relationships, who are scared of kissing that boy they really like, but who still enjoy sleep-overs, their mother’s company, and who are just as complex as adults. 

I’m glad that I now have the distance from high school to adequately reflect on my experience, so now when I watch The Vampire Diaries, I can laugh with my friends and say with certainty as Elena passionately makes out with a Salvatore brother at a motel in the middle of nowhere with no parent or guardian in sight, “High school is nothing like that!”

By Modesty Sanchez

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