The “talk” isn’t an easy conversation for parents to have. But children’s understanding of their bodies and sexuality (and what is and isn’t OK with each) is so much more than just “the birds and the bees.” Parents and schools have traditionally shouldered these sometimes awkward discussions, and the media has played a supporting role. But today, conversations around #MeToo, consent and gender are playing out at the same time the US is reversing progressive sex-education and bringing back abstinence-only teaching.
And with pornography and the pressure of body-shaming becoming everyday parts of young peoples’ lives, some are calling on television producers and broadcasters to help provide quality information to children and teenagers.
“Kids and teens are bombarded with messages,” says independent children’s media consultant Justine Bannister. “They are harangued by parents and teachers that they must protect themselves. Sexual predators and pedophiles are constantly on the prowl. They should be careful when out with friends and watch their drinks in bars and clubs. The list of fear-mongering goes on. And the distorted picture they have of sex from YouTube is horrifying.”
Before the internet and social media, television dramas did pick up some of the slack, with long-running shows like the UK’s Grange Hill, Canada’s Degrassi, and Dawson’s Creek in the US leading the way. These shows raised awareness (and often eyebrows) with storylines that introduced issues of teen pregnancy, STDs, consent and characters grappling with their sexuality.
“Before Beverly Hills 90210 and the others that followed, Degrassi was the first teen drama to tackle these issues head on,” says Linda Schuyler, the show’s creator. “We produced it with the belief that teenagers needed to be empowered, and if we were going to empower them, we needed to give them good information.”
In the ’80s, the series famously featured a storyline about teenage pregnancy, including discussion over whether or not to keep the child. The follow-up ’90s series included a similar storyline, this time ending in an abortion. Other episodes tackled the equally difficult issues of rape and gender identity (featuring one of TV’s first trans storylines) amid equally awkward conversations around mid-class erections and periods.
There was pushback, Schuyler notes, but some broadcasters at the time—WGBH Boston and CBC in Canada—were supportive of the show’s aims, and didn’t interfere.
That wasn’t always the case: In the UK, the BBC moved the series from pre-watershed BBC1 to a later slot on BBC2, concerned about the upfront portrayal of teen pregnancy and abortion; in the US, an episode specifically dealing with abortion was broadcast only after being re-edited.
Schuyler pushed these stories through regardless of market concerns. “It’s really important because we, as producers and storytellers, are the only ones in a position to do the pushing,” she says. “It doesn’t mean that we’re not respectful of what the broadcasters want, but unless we do it, the boundaries are never going to move.”
Today, the Internet has completely disrupted the way children and teens access information, and also the range and quality of the information available to them. But children need to be guided through tweendom, and adolescence remains the same. “The amount of information out there is overwhelming for kids,” Schuyler says.
While they can find responsible and helpful content on the web, kids are just as likely to tumble straight into porn. Statistics suggest that by age 11, anywhere from 70% to 90% of children have watched hardcore pornography. It’s so pervasive, even the porn stars are concerned: In 2017, adult actress Monique Alexander uploaded a video to YouTube entitled, “Monique Alexander Gives The Talk,” warning that unless someone takes the time and accepts the responsibility to educate young people properly about sex, a generation will grow up believing her industry reflects reality.
“Kids are curious,” Bannister says. “And they will go looking for the answers.” She notes that in parts of Europe, children begin learning about their bodies when they are just four. The Netherlands, for example, made age-appropriate sex education mandatory beginning in kindergarten in 2012.
In response, Dutch public broadcaster NTR took up the challenge of creating a television show designed for primary-school children that would discuss sex in a frank but age-appropriate way. Originally a three-minute segment in an already well-known educational program produced by the national School TV channel, the character of Dokter Corrie was introduced as a way of helping teachers discuss sensitive topics in the classroom. Over 24 short segments, the titular character talked about everything from masturbation to French kissing to issues around sex and disability.
Though teachers reported that the shorts—featuring a doctor who wants to know more about sex, but feels awkward about it—had given positive support to classroom discussions, there was a public backlash from religious groups and questions raised about the show in parliament by a Christian politician. The outcry backfired: The Dutch government expressed its support, and persuaded NTR that Dokter Corrie could carry her own weekly 20-minute show.
“It’s a real challenge to make something for primary-school children,” says Hedda Bruessing, head of media at NTR. “But we know it’s important to start young—before students have experienced anything. If you leave it until later, they are already filled with poor information. For young children, it is talking about body awareness, learning that your body is yours.”
The content is developed closely with Rutgers, the Dutch-based international organization that campaigns for sexual health, education and rights worldwide, and the format has already been successfully reworked in Belgium—as Doktor Bea—by public broadcaster VRT. It is also being adapted by Ottawa, Canada-based GAPC Entertainment for the 12-plus audience. The working title for the Canadian adaptation is Dre Annie and is currently in development.
Keeping things entertaining and frank was key to developing the European shows, and in Canada, Quebec’s Echo Media took a similar approach to engage older adolescents (13 to 15) with its On Parle De Sexe series (created by Louis-Martin Pepperall). Its five-minute episodes kick off with a humorous sketch, followed by two minutes of clear information, and then testimonials from young people in their 20s.
Broadcast on TV Quebec and available on YouTube and Facebook, the series has proven hugely popular, with 35 episodes garnering more than two million views, 500,000 online interactions—and not one complaint from anyone, according to producer Sarah Chatelain. Seasons two and three are in development and an English-language version is about to go into production.
Chatelain says the research the company did before production began really paid off. “We went into schools and spoke with hundreds of teenagers,” she says. “We found that there were real gaps in their knowledge about sex. They would have heard a term, but not really understood what it meant. One thing that came up again and again was that they understood the porn they watched wasn’t real, but they didn’t know what real sex would be like. They often said they didn’t know how it would make them feel.”
One common theme, Bannister notes, is how much of the current sex education content is being tackled by public broadcasters, and how next to nothing is being produced in the US. (Netflix’s Big Mouth is one exception, but is billed as adult content. And the platform’s Sex Education, produced in the UK, is similar.)
Netflix has backed four seasons of Degrassi: Next Class (currently on hiatus) with storylines covering consent, gender fluidity and homophobia. Asked what keeps her committed to the teen drama, Schuyler says that behind her desk is a row of black binders filled with letters and emails she’s received from teenagers over the years. “They are from kids who watched the show and write to me to thank me because they no longer feel alone. Adolescence is a fundamental age, and though the attitudes and issues change, the stress and confusion remains the same.”