Colored pencil drawing of a couple kissing on a dirt path in front of a body of water, across which is the outline of a city

For Keeps: Teenage Girls and Anxiety around Sex during the 1990s

In 1995, I was sixteen and experiencing the excitement of my first real love. As if out of a 1990s teen rom-com, my boyfriend asked me to “go with him” by drawing a picture of roses and placing them in our shared locker. Once, when we were shamelessly making out in the band room between classes, another girl dreamily commented, “The first kisses are just the best.” Everyone just assumed that we were having sex.

But the truth was, we were not, though it was a constant point of discussion between us. As a young woman, I worried about what my peers — and, god forbid my parents — would think of me “losing” my virginity. For most young women coming of age during the 1990s, fear surrounded the act of sex, with its threats of unwanted pregnancy, disease, and loss of self-respect. If I were going to compromise my special status as a “good girl” for this love that I was certain would be the only one I would ever know, the act had to be special, orchestrated, timed perfectly. But where and when?

A group of teens in 1990s-era clothing (baggy pants, hats turned backwards, big baggy tshirts, holding skateboard and wearing backpacks) walk down a city street and sidewalk, with the word KIDS in typed lettering at the forefront.
Cover art of Kids (1995). (©Shining Excalibur Films/Wikipedia)

That fall, our regular Friday night routine was going to the local video store, renting a video, and “watching” it in my basement. One week, we decided upon the now-infamous 1990s cautionary tale, Kids, barely making it through the first scene before turning it off. In the opening sequence, director Larry Clark exposes his audience to the hedonism of street kids of New York City. Telly, an older white boy, persuades a 12-year-old virginal girl to have sex with him. Telly’s claim to fame is that he only has sex with virgins, and then leaves them. The audience quickly learns that Telly is spreading HIV to these naïve girls after Jennie, played by a young Chloe Sevigny, learns she has contracted the disease from him.1 Kids depicted the deepest sexual fears of all 1990s teen girls. If you had sex, even just once, you would contract HIV — a moment of weakness that would ultimately kill you.

Though still terrified of disease or pregnancy, I learned from one of my friends that you could tell your mom that your periods were irregular, which would prompt a visit to the gynecologist. There, you would receive the golden ticket — a prescription for the pill — all without having to have the conversation with your mom that you intended to have sex. So that is what I did, while my boyfriend sheepishly went to the local grocery store to buy condoms, which lived in a brown paper bag in my underwear drawer for the remainder of that year, unused. I constantly worried that my mom would find the bag while putting away my laundry.

1995: The Year (Frank Discussions of) Sex Changed

Much to the dismay of my first love, we never had sex. I felt the duality of fear surrounding sexually active women in the 1990s — the patriarchal notion of “losing” your virginity and ultimately your self-respect, as well as the fear of pregnancy and disease. I distinctly remember receiving sex education three separate times in public school in fifth, seventh, and ninth grades, in a class called Physical Health and Wellness. This was where I saw a condom for the first time in real life, though what stuck in my mind was the movie we watched, For Keeps. The 1988 film featured Molly Ringwald as an ambitious, college-bound high school senior who becomes pregnant after having sex with her boyfriend during a night away orchestrated by her best friends.2

While the message of the film stuck with me, I was not particularly concerned with getting pregnant. I knew that, if I were to have sex, I would be overly careful. I was adopted and understood the consequences of teenage pregnancy quite well. In the 1980s, before HIV became the new specter looming over young women eager to have sex, pregnancy was the mainstay casualty of teenage lust. In comparison to the abstinence-only approach that became the national standard three years later, I regard the sex education I received in 1993 as compelling and honest.

A red-haired Kurt Cobain smiles slightly at the camera, his hands on Courtney's shoulders, as she kisses the side of his face.
April 1992 cover of Sassy featuring Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love. (Wikimedia)

In researching my next book on the experience of girlhood in the 1990s, I located a shift in the social discourse that occurred in 1995 and most certainly played into my insecurities around sex. During that year, conservative women’s groups like Women Aglow attacked the beloved feminist magazine, Sassy and convinced major advertisers to withdraw advertisements as a punishment for its sex-positive messaging. Just a year later, in 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) bill into law, setting up a new system of grants, $50 million to be exact, for states providing abstinence-only-until-marriage education that used a specific eight-point criteria to argue that only through abstinence could school-age youth ensure social, psychological, and physical wellness.3 From that point forward, as researcher Charlie Jeffries found, it was far more difficult for young American women to access accurate information on sexuality in the mainstream of that culture.4

Sassy, Seventeen, and Sex Education

The most important messages I absorbed about sex, however, were those I learned through the media I most frequently consumed before the advent of the internet: teen women’s magazines. Prior to its censorship in 1995, Sassy told the truth about sex and instructed its loyal cadre of readers to have a passionate first time with their partners with no regrets. The results of a Sassy poll of 19,958 men and women published in October 1992 found that “44% of girl respondents have had sex; 72% of the guys have,” while the age most noted that they lost their virginity was sixteen.5 The poll also found that couples were more likely to have sex at “the guy’s house,” to which Sassy’s writers quipped, “Gee, could this be ’cause parents care less about their sons having sex than their daughters? Nah, parents are far too rational for that.”6

Seventeen reported similar results, though the context of the discussion was far different. Where Sassy was light-hearted and snarky, particularly over the responses from young men, Seventeen used bold words to punctuate the seriousness of their poll: “Romance. Respect, Privacy. Protection. New roles. New rules. It’s all about you.”7 The results of the poll found that older teenagers of the early 1990s were taking sex more seriously than teens in the 1980s, both emotionally and in terms of protection. But after 1995, both Seventeen and Sassy shifted away from messages of sex positivity to address stories that read more like the message of Kids. Various 1996 articles focused on ideas such as “Girls with HIV Speak Out” and “I Got HIV after My First Sexual Experience.” The sources most teenage girls turned to for frank and honest discussions of female sexuality had turned against them.

Looking back, I was in an ideal situation for the so-called “perfect” first sexual experience. My boyfriend always checked for consent, maintained open lines of communication, and cared about my well-being, yet society ultimately told me it was wrong for me to have sex at sixteen. Twenty years later and now a parent, I intend to teach my daughter that she should have sex when she is emotionally ready for it and that she should not listen to anyone else’s expectations or stories of danger. She will know how to make proper use of protection, ask for and provide consent only when ready, and have fun. After all, enjoying love and sex for the first time should be one of the most liberating experiences a young woman will have.

Notes

  1. Kids, directed by Larry Clark, United States: Independent Pictures, 1995, DVD. Return to text.
  2. For Keeps, directed by John G. Avildsen, United States: TriStar Pictures, 1988, DVD. Return to text.
  3. Marcela Howell and Marilyn Keefe, “The History of Federal Abstinence-Only Funding,” Advocates for Youth, July 2007. Return to text.
  4. Charlie Jeffries, “Getting Sassy at the Schlesinger: Circulating and Censoring Teenage Female Sexuality in the 1990s,” Schlesinger Library Blog, November 24, 2015, accessed March 28, 2019. Return to text.
  5. “Sex Poll Results: You Can’t Make This Stuff Up,” Sassy, October 1992, 62-3. Return to text.
  6. “Sex Poll Results.” Return to text.
  7. Curtis Peisman, “Love and Sex in the ‘90s,” Seventeen, November 1991, 63-4. Return to text.

About the Author

One Comment

Susie Wilson

You might want to visit http://www.sexetc.org and read the magazine, Sex, Etc. written by teens for teens and published by Answer, sex ed honestly located at Rutgers University in New Jersey. The magazine is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year and has always been sex positive in its outlook and messaging.

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