Sex has a place in teen shows. Sexualization of teenagers doesn’t.

A director's clapper overlaying a high school hallway
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Exploring one’s sexuality is a cornerstone of many teens’ real-life experiences. While it’s important to explore this sexuality in television, it’s equally important to avoid sexualizing the underage characters themselves.

Riverdale is the pinnacle of excessive sexualization of its teen characters, often including unnecessary sexual scenes doing little to nothing to drive the plot. While many aspects of the show are unrealistic, sexualizing its characters in the way it does is damaging for the teen audience the show is intended for.

Riverdale’s cast may be comprised of adult actors, but that doesn’t make the sexualization of its teen characters any less gross. In many cases, the show inserts sex scenes without having conversations about sex or sex education itself.

The issue with the sexualization of underage characters in shows like Riverdale isn’t just an issue of education; it pervades the gross sexualization of young girls in our real-life society.

Pedophilia and sex trafficking are very real things. In Canada, 75 per cent of sex trafficking victims are under the age of 25, with the average age of targeted victims being 13. Many women can recount the catcalling, objectification, and calls to ‘cover up’ that haunted them as underage girls. Society is obsessed with sexualizing underage girls, a problem that goes beyond just the television screen. Riverdale might not be the root of that problem, but it’s a part of it.

Shows like Riverdale are teaching young girls that being sexual is somehow feminist. Without plot lines advancing the character development of young girls outside their relationships with men, these shows are simply repackaging sexism as empowerment. In Riverdale, Betty doesn’t don a corset and strip down for her own personal development or exploration of her own sexuality; she does it to join her boyfriend’s gang. In high school.

Young girls already face unwanted sexualization in real life—they don’t need to be sexualized onscreen, too. Simply hiring adult actors doesn’t make the sexualization any less problematic; if anything, it allows producers to forgo authentic conversations about sex and sex education.

While sex plays an important role in many teens’ lives, portraying it realistically is important. Exploring one’s sexuality can be a complicated thing; the fact that Riverdale skirts over these conversations, simply showing characters having sex with little rhyme or reason, is worrying.

Another issue is the disconnect between teenage sex onscreen and sex education in schools. Teens are being exposed to excessively unrealistic sex scenes without the education to contextualize it.

Shows with excessive sex scenes should simply up their target audience—it’s as easy as portraying characters in college instead of high school. If the show is geared toward an older audience, then by all means: be as raunchy as it likes.

Riverdale uses its raunchier scenes for the wrong reasons, titillating the audience and sensationalizing the show. What it should be doing is working to portray a realistic high school experience while having real conversations about sex and relationships. Shows like Sex Education and Big Mouth already do a good job of this.

Sex scenes aren’t inherently bad things. But we can’t keep applying them to underage characters.

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