Sex is complicated. Whether it’s a first encounter, a discussion of monogamy, a romantic entanglement, or a question of sexuality; it’s too loaded with emotion and morality to be simple. It’s hard enough for adults to navigate concepts of sex and gender, but for teens, it’s exponentially worse. Puberty throws everybody for a loop, then when you add to that some inexperience, insecurity, and the general living hell that is the high-school experience (unless you were extremely lucky) and you have a perfect storm of awkward and embarrassing self-discovery.
There have been some incredible movies made about the tricky subject that is sex during those awkward high school years, and that still carry powerful messages for teens attempting to figure out this whole sex thing for themselves. These twelve films focus on students grappling with the kinds of issues that plague teenagers everywhere: reputation, promiscuity, pregnancy, sexual orientation and sexual health. Some of them keep it light and funny (because let’s face it, sex can be really funny!) while others take a more serious or dramatic look at the issues high schoolers face, but all of them hold lessons about sex and relationships that apply far beyond graduation.
American Pie (1999)
This gross-out comedy classic may have forever changed the way you look at apple pie, but it does a lot more than just play on shock value for a few cheap laughs. The movie follows four high school seniors, Jim (Jason Biggs), Oz (Chris Klein), Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas), and Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas) as they bemoan their virginity and make a pact to each have sex before graduation. The four each do some serious self-discovery as they try and find someone who will let them do the deed – some more humiliating than others, and each with a lesson for the audience.
Kevin spends the movie trying to win back his girlfriend by learning how to be better in bed for her. While this seems like a surprisingly altruistic motive, it doesn’t actually work out quite as planned. They have sex on prom night, but it’s stilted and awkward, and they break up the next day. This simple story just shows that sex doesn’t always go smoothly, even with a girlfriend and the best intentions. Compare this to Oz’s story, where he looks for a girlfriend by joining the school jazz choir to balance out his reputation as a jock. His is definitely the sweetest story, as he discovers that he can find a real connection with one of the girls in the choir, and that his reputation as a jock isn’t as important to him as he first thought. Their first time seems natural and enjoyable. Finch learns an important lesson about telling the truth when his plan to spread rumors about his sexual prowess backfires; it goes so well at first that it prompts Stiffler (Sean Scott Williams) to play a brutally humiliating prank on him. Stiffler also ends up with a hefty dose of karma, though, as Finch is left dateless for prom, and ends up spending his night with Stiffler’s mom instead. (A storyline that popularized the term MILF.)
Jim bears the brunt of humiliation though, in more than one story. We cringe alongside him as his father walks in on him with that infamous pie, and as he suffers through some of the most embarrassing parental sex-talks on screen. More than that, however, Jim learns a serious lesson about consent, when he attempts to watch another student undress via webcam. Nadia (Shannon Elizabeth) has come over to study, and asks to change in his room, so he sets up the camera to watch her with his friends. Disturbing as this is, he learns just how horrible it is to have the world watch as she invites him to join her, and he’s just not up to the task. While this is laughed off in the film, it actually works to make a serious point about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, and treating people’s privacy with respect. Jim’s final adventure comes at prom, where he learns that old chestnut about never judging a book by its cover. After ending up taking a self-confessed band geek, the one girl who he thinks didn’t hear about the webcam, he discovers that she’s actually the most sexually experienced of all of them. He also discovers that even without a deep connection, a one-night stand can actually be fun in the right circumstances.
The film ends with the four looking back over their experiences, but not indulging in the kind of locker-room boasting they had first imagined. Showing that they have matured along the way, they are restrained and relatively respectful, providing teens with a surprisingly reasonable example of how to talk about sex.
The Girl Next Door (2004)
Another comedic offering, The Girl Next Door plays on perceptions of porn and porn stars, as a high school boy discovers that the pretty blonde who moves in next door is actually in adult films. They end up on a zany adventure, as the two start to fall for each other, but her producer appears to try and convince her to return to filming. Matthew (Emile Hirsch) ends up on the hook for a lot of money, and trying to find a way to save his skin and the girl he loves.
The biggest take away from this film is that porn stars are, very simply, just normal people who happen to have sex for a living. While the film does play on stereotypes of women trapped by unscrupulous and drug addled “producers,” and of the “good guy” rushing in to save the day (eye roll), it’s still nice to see Danielle (Elisha Cuthbert) having some personality and substance. The film also opens with a very clear point about consent, when Matthew notices Danielle starting to undress from his window, and decides to spy on her. When she notices, Danielle makes a point that won’t be soon forgotten, by making him run down the street in his underwear to show him what it’s like to be stared at when you don’t want to be.
Finally, the film has a message about the state of sex ed in schools, as Matthew and his fellow students crack up over an outdated education video that doesn’t provide any useful information. He and his friends end up making their money (to pay back a pilfered charity fund) by filming a new set of sex ed videos starring Danielle and her friends. The videos are educational, but graphic and explicit, showing actual people rather than suggestive cartoons.
This early ‘80s classic covers a range of sexual situations, as a group of high school boys try everything they can to help get their friend Pee-Wee (Dan Monahan) laid. Another film that shows how much stock teenage boys put in sex, and how ridiculous that kind of single-minded determination can be, Porky’s takes the boys on a wild ride through peep holes and seedy backwoods strip clubs before they finally achieve their goal.
First we see the boys at school, spying on the girls in the locker room after gym through crude peep holes. These are revisited a couple of times in the movie, but sadly, they don’t make the point they should about voyeurism. When the girls discover the holes, it’s more of a funny situation than an appalling one. Although some of the adults are shocked, others seem to find it hilarious that Tommy (Wyatt Knight) put his penis through one, and the female teacher is seen as a ball-buster for demanding to figure out who’s penis it was.
The boys also go to see Cherry Forever (Susan Clark) in a trailer park to try and get Pee Wee laid, but she plays a prank on them. She has them strip down naked to be “inspected” before she will sleep with them, and then (with a little help) convinces them that her “husband” has come home and is going to murder them with a machete so that they all run away naked. They discover it’s a set up, but not before running off completely naked through the trailer park!
Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)
Another early ‘80s comedy drama, Fast Times deals with some sillier moments of teen angst and humiliation, and some far more serious ones. Following high school students and siblings Brad (Judge Reinhold) and Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh) as they try to navigate their respective relationships.
Brad’s story is relatively simple (and quite sad), as he loses the tenuous popularity gained by having a car and a managerial job at a burger joint. After losing his job, being caught masturbating at a pool party (to the now-famous scene of Phoebe Cates in a bikini), and being dumped by his girlfriend, Brad ends up graduating as a nobody.
Stacy, meanwhile, ends up in a love triangle between friends Rat (Brian Backer) and Mike Damone (Robert Romanus); Mike cares for her, but his inexperience leads to an inability to truly make a move, so Stacy believes that he isn’t interested. Instead, she ends up seeing his friend Damone, a much more confident guy, but one who isn’t there when things get rough. After Stacy gets pregnant, Damone agrees to take her for an abortion and help her pay- but backs out when he can’t find the money and doesn’t know what to do. Stacy ends up with Mike after realizing that he is a much better guy for her.
Their love triangle plays into the common misconceptions about the “nice guy” and the “jerk”, but despite this, it deals well with the loaded subject of abortion, and provides a perfect example of how not to deal with a tough situation (the way Damone does, avoiding Stacy’s calls and ignoring her).
Easy A (2010)
Emma Stone stars as Olive in this comedy about the precarious nature of a reputation. It all starts when she is looking for an excuse to avoid a camping trip with her friend Rhiannon (Aly Michalka), so says that she has a date with a college boy. Succumbing to pressure from Rhiannon back at school, Olive lies, telling her friend that she had sex with this fictional boy, but when the school’s aggressively Christian gossip overhears, it starts a school-wide rumor.
To make things worse , Olive is then propositioned by her friend Brandon (Dan Byrd), who is in the closet; he asks her to fake having sex with him at a party to stop the rumors about his sexuality, and she reluctantly agrees to help. This well-intentioned lie soon gets completely out of control, as more and more boys bribe Olive with gift cards to pretend to have slept with them. Olive, at first enjoying her new fame at school, plays into it with a revealing wardrobe featuring the letter “A” stitched on her chest. Of course, it all goes wrong in the end, as her friendship with Rhiannon is in jeopardy, she takes the rap for giving a fellow student an STD (to protect the teacher who actually did), and guys start to believe that she is actually taking money for sex, not just for lying about it. Trying to fix the problem, she wants to tell everyone the truth, but her “clients” aren’t about the tell the truth, let alone the teacher who would ruin her career if people knew.
While things work out for Olive in the end (and she gets to ride off on a lawnmower with the boy she likes), the movie has a definite message about the power of rumor, and the ugly side of notoriety. For some students, feeling invisible seems like the worst thing in the world, but as Easy A shows, a bad reputation isn’t necessarily better than no reputation at all.
Geography Club (2013)
This touching film centers on a group of students at GoodKind High, struggling with hiding their sexual orientation in a school where there is little acceptance of anyone LGBT. After discovering one another, they decide to form a club to support each other, calling in the Geography Club in the hope that no one else would want to join a club with such a boring premise. However, when another student does ask to join, the club is thrown in to confusion as they have to decide whether or not it may be time to be a little more open about themselves.
The film covers a range of different sexual orientations, including Kevin and Russel (Justin Deeley and Cameron Deane Stewart), two gay football players; Min and Therese (Ally Maki and Nikki Blonsky), a lesbian couple; and Ike (Alex Newell), who refers to himself as 80/20 (80% straight, 20% gay). It looks at various issues that the teens face, from having to pretend to be “just friends” with their partner and being unable to be publicly affectionate, to the eventual question of coming out.
Russel is the main focus of the film, as he tries to cope with dating girls and trying to put them off without revealing his secret, as well as a particularly horrifying incident where he takes part in the homophobic bullying of outsider Brian (Teo Olivares) in order to keep his standing with the jocks on the team. We also see him dealing with his parents’ less than open-minded attitudes when discussing an openly gay relative of Kevin’s.
This intense ‘90s drama takes place in New York City, following a group of promiscuous teens over the course of a single day. The film revolves around a nihilistic sixteen-year-old stoner, Telly (Leo Fitzpatrick), who works his way through as many young teenage girls as he can, not caring about anything but having as much sex as possible and bragging to his friend Casper (Justin Pierce) about his conquests. Telly is convinced that the only way to have lots of unprotected sex without contracting an STD is to only have sex with virgins, so now this is all he looks for in a target.
At the same time, friends Jennie (Chloe Sevigny) and Ruby (Rosario Dawson) are seen talking about their sex lives and recent decision to go for STD testing. Despite the fact that Ruby is promiscuous and Jennie has only slept with one person (Telly), it turns out that Ruby is in perfect health, while Jennie has tested positive for HIV. The film follows Telly as he wanders the streets of New York, violent and miserable, looking for another conquest as Jennie tries to track him and reveal her diagnosis.
Kids is a particularly dark look at the problems of casual sex and misinformation, showing how promiscuity isn’t always a marker of sexual health, and how cold and narcissistic teens can be. A definite cautionary tale, it’s a harsh look at AIDS and sleeping around, without any semblance of a happy ending.
Cruel Intentions (1996)
This remake of Dangerous Liasons follows two wealthy Manhattan step-siblings during the summer before senior year. Sebastian (Ryan Phillippe) and Kathryn (Sarah Michelle Gellar) are rich, bored, and incredibly jaded about sex. Sebastian has slept with a ridiculous number of women, but sees them as conquests and challenges. He uses sex as a weapon to hurt people, and keeps a journal of them as a way to record his triumphs. Kathryn is equally damaged and promiscuous, but because of her gender, she feels the need to hide her enjoyment of sex behind a façade of peppy happiness and “proper” behavior (and a serious cocaine addiction).
The pair decide to spend the summer on a bet: their school is expecting a new headmaster, and his daughter is not only a virgin, but has written a manifesto about it in a teen magazine. If Sebastian manages to de-flower her before the school year, Kathryn agrees to sleep with him (if she wins, she gets his car). At the same time, Kathryn is plotting revenge on her ex-boyfriend by befriending his naïve new girlfriend Cecile (Selma Blair) and attempting to turn her into a “slut”.
Sebastian and Kathryn’s misadventures take us through a whole range of sexual topics over the course of just one summer. From Kathryn’s assertion that a woman isn’t allowed to “exude confidence and enjoy sex” (an opinion still echoed by many feminists), but men can be as sexually active as they like is a damning commentary on double standards. It’s a dark look at the bored young Manhattan set that often feels too jaded to be about high schoolers.
Date and Switch (2014)
A twist on the oft-visited tale of high school boys wanting to lose their virginity before prom, Date and Switch stars Nicholaus Braun and Hunter Cope as Michael and Matty, childhood friends whose plans are derailed slightly when Matty comes out of the closet. Michael attempts to be supportive of his friend, but his attempts to wingman are awkward, and their relationship becomes strained as he starts dating Matty’s ex-girlfriend Em (Dakota Johnson).
While the film was panned by critics, it still a novel and worthwhile take on coming out. Rather than the torment and bullying we see in Kids, Date and Switch deals with the issues that can arise even with the most well-intentioned friends. Michael becomes possessive of Matty, finding it difficult to accept that there may be a new man in his life, and a male relationship that will challenge the one they have had their whole lives. Matty, meanwhile, struggles to cope with his own feelings of jealousy towards his ex-girlfriend, despite the fact that he has now come out and has absolutely no sexual feelings toward her.
This quirky, award-winning look at teenage pregnancy was the breakout role for Ellen Page as the title character, a pregnant sixteen year old who makes some surprising decisions about the future of her child. The film starts as she discovers her situation, and her initial reaction is to go to get an abortion. While at the clinic, she changes her mind after learning that the baby may already be growing fingernails. Instead of aborting, she decides to have the baby and give it up to a couple that she finds in the penny saver. As the film progresses, we see how the father, Paulie (Michael Cera) manages to be consistently supportive of her decisions, and how the intended parents may not actually be as perfect as they seem.
One of the best parts of the film is the blossoming romance between Paulie and Juno, as she realizes how loving and caring he is during her pregnancy. This comes despite the fact that she essentially doesn’t involve him in any of her decision-making, and doesn’t always appreciate his care for her. Juno deals with the judgement of the rest of her school, who look down on her for her situation, and although her parents are supportive, it’s clear that they aren’t thrilled about the situation.
What makes this film so refreshing is that it doesn’t end with Juno seeing the error of her ways and keeping the child, or learning some kind of forced lesson about responsibility. Instead, she sees that Vanessa (Jennifer Garner) is still terrified of motherhood even though it is everything that she wants. Juno doesn’t appear to be ruined by her pregnancy or her decision, making this a realistic, rather than a morality-based look at teen pregnancy.
Can’t Hardly Wait (1998)
Another film putting a little too much pressure on graduation night, Can’t Hardly Wait looks at several different students with different goals (not just losing their virginity this time)! Preston (Ethan Embry) wants to finally confess his love to the newly single popular girl Amanda (Jennifer Love Hewitt) who he has had a crush on for years. Mike (Peter Facinelli) has just dumped Amanda, and is attempting to convince his friends to follow suit with promises of wild college sex. Meanwhile, William (Charlie Korsmo), having spent high school being tormented by Mike, intends to prank him by taking photos of him passed out naked with his friends. Finally, we meet Kenny (Seth Green) a wannabe gangsta’ who is out to have sex for the first time.
While the central story (that of Preston and Amanda) is far more about romance than love, both this and Amanda’s backstory with Mike make a point about expectations and relationships after high school. Mike’s assumption is that he should be free and single for all the college women who will be throwing themselves at him, but discovers from an alumni that college isn’t just willing women lining up. Preston and Amanda also broach the subject of whether or not relationships work after high school, but get the “happy ending” with their decision to give it a try.
Kenny’s story is short but sweet, as he does achieve his graduation goal, but with an old friend who he ditched at the start of high school in an attempt to make himself one of the cool kids. In something of a clichéd mini-arc, the two end up locked in a bathroom, where they have a deep and meaningful chat followed by some unexpected sex and culminating in an argument. While it may have been more realistic to leave the story at that, the two do make up the next day, and go for breakfast.
The story of Mike and William is actually one of the most interesting at the party. To start with, the idea of an accusation of being gay as the ultimate revenge is very telling; while LGBT teens may be finding increasing acceptance, casual homophobia is still incredibly prevalent in high school. A story arc that is, on the surface, about bullies and false personas has far greater reach as a commentary on homophobia in high school.
This semi-autobiographical film is a coming-of-age story centered on two teenage girls; the popular and outrageous Evie (Nikki Reid) and the naïve and sweet Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood). Tracy is already struggling and deeply depressed, so when she gets a chance to become friends with Evie, she jumps at it. However, Evie’s life is also troubled, and she turns to drugs, sex, and shoplifting to try and cope. When Evie ends up living with Tracy, the two egg each other on to more and more extreme behavior, getting high on the streets of LA, having casual sex and stealing anything they can. Tracy shuts out her mother and starts skipping school to hang out with Evie, becoming closer and closer until Evie wants to become a legal part of her family, at which point their friendship breaks down.
The film was the center of controversy for the way that it portrayed sex at such a young age. Unlike many of the other films on this list, which deal with older teens, virginal high school seniors or teens debating if they should explore sex for the first time, Tracy and Evie are only twelve and thirteen when they start sleeping around. The sex is so casual and mixed up with their drug use that we don’t even know many of their partners’ names; it’s not about a sexual story, but simply something that goes on in the background throughout.
Despite the gritty nature of the film, there is a clear moral element to the story, as Evie betrays Tracy, blaming all their bad behavior on her. She loses her friendship and the social standing she had gained at school, but more worryingly, she will have to repeat the grade as she has gone from a straight-A student to flunking out due to skipped classes. While her mother is there to support her throughout, it’s clear that neither Tracy nor Evie have dealt with their issues by the end of the film.
Did we miss any other educational films? Which high school movies taught you about the dirty deed? Let us know in the comments?