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Are explicit teen sex scenes in shows like ‘Euphoria’ ever okay?

WORDS BY RUBY STALEY

Why do we need to see this stuff?

Don’t get me wrong, I want to like Euphoria, I really do, but I have a serious bone to pick with the show’s creators. Loved for its bold makeup and incredible soundtrack, the series has us all in a collective chokehold. It’s also currently under fire for its portrayal of underage sex and nudity.

It’s a show that’s widely loved by my demographic, but I understand these complaints. Teen dramas that were also controversial in their days – Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars, The OC and Skins, all shows that didn’t shy away from teen sex – pale in comparison to the last two seasons of Euphoria.


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And although it’s not the first of its kind to do so (and it won’t be the last) it’s possibly the most explicit television show aimed at young people I’ve ever seen. In the pilot, we’re quickly thrust into witnessing not only full-frontal nudity from an adult and a teen, but also a deeply uncomfortable statutory rape. Later in season one, almost 30 penises flash onscreen during the duration of a single episode.

There is constant graphic sex between minors, sharing of underage nudes, excessive drug use and even overdoses, and wildly problematic relationship dynamics. And that’s not even scratching the surface.

Without trying to sound like a prude – trust me, I love edgy TV – something about Euphoria’s explicit portrayal of teen nudity just doesn’t sit right with me. And I’m not alone in thinking this way. The release of the first few episodes of Season Two prompted conversations around the ethics of portraying teen nudity and whether it’s ever necessary.

In reality, all of the actors who portray these teens are all well and truly out of their adolescent years (Alexa Demie who plays Maddie is 31!). So we’re not actually watching teenagers have sex and the show doesn’t actually depict anything that resembles child pornography.

But the lines are blurred here because these actors are all embodying underage characters. If only Euphoria portrayed adults, even college-aged people, this wouldn’t be as much of an issue, but it doesn’t. A lot of this explicit content doesn’t even serve much of a function in the plot and often feels more shocking than anything else.

The most frequently nude or semi-nude character is Sydney Sweeney’s Cassie who is often shot topless and bottomless. Although Sweeney has said she’s comfortable filming these scenes, she requested that some of the nude scenes from Season Two be cut, describing them as “unnecessary”.

When speaking to The Independent, Sydney said although she’s proud of her work in Euphoria, practically no one wants to talk about her performance because of the nudity, citing the “stigma against actresses who get naked on-screen”.

Another huge star from the show, Zendaya, has been rumoured to have added a no-nudity clause to her contract to protect herself from having to get nude in front of the camera. Currently, she’s one of the few characters in the entirety of the show who hasn’t got her kit off.

If these explicit scenes do nothing for the actors’ reputations and hardly add anything to the narrative, why do directors and writers still include them, especially when they’re portraying minors?

Maybe it’s to generate controversy, or on a more sinister note, perhaps it could be for the enjoyment of adult viewers? Euphoria is a teen show, it’s about teens who go to high school and party, so presumably, it’s for teens. Right?

Well, because of the show’s gritty themes, it’s rated MA – meaning in the US, it’s not suitable for kids under 17, and here in Australia, kids under 15.  The show portrays teens, but it’s not really for teens.

Although presenting sexually explicit content to minors is an issue in itself, portraying explicit underage sex for the adult gaze is even more messed up. When minors, whether that be in TV shows or real life, are held up as sex symbols, it normalises the sexualisation of children, blurs the lines of consent and promotes age gap dynamics that can lead to unsafe situations. It’s truly a slippery slope.

When it comes to protecting kids, young actors and even audiences, I’m firmly in favour of regulating this kind of media. Whether that means not showing underage nudity in an explicit way or taking themes of sex and abuse out of teen shows altogether – that’s up to Hollywood to decide.

Although the shenanigans portrayed in Euphoria ring true (on some level) for many of us, they don’t need to be more normalised than they already are. Abuse and underage sex should be treated carefully by the media and given the sensitivity and gravity it deserves, and Euphoria has missed the mark here. For that, and that alone, I’m giving the show an incredulous thumbs down.

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