What About Boys? Affirmative Consent in American Teen Films

Curator's Note

Although, over the years, teen films have been criticized for their poor handling of sexual consent, more recent teen movies clearly have sought to take consent into account. To avoid being part of rape culture, they’ve adopted consent culture. However, recent popular American teen films, such as The To Do List (2013), Blockers (2018), Alex Strangelove (2018), To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before (2018), and Yes God Yes (2020), demonstrate a problematic trend. While obtaining girls’ consent is essential in many of these films, obtaining boys’ consent often appears irrelevant.

Contemporary teen films often put girls in the driver’s seat—girls’ sexual desire has become more commonplace, and girls are often the initiator of intimate acts. However, their sexual empowerment sometimes comes at the expense of their partners, particularly when they are male. At times, boys are even used as props—and their consent is either a moot point or they are presumed to be “always already” consenting.

Why is this imbalance a problem? After all, haven’t we been waiting centuries for girls’ sexuality to be seen as "normal"? Absolutely. But the goal of affirmative consent as defined, for example, by Planned Parenthood is for sexual consent to be "freely given, reversible, informed, enthusiastic and specific"—for all parties involved. So we might ask: if teen films now emphasize how affirmative consent is necessary to obtain from girls, why not from boys, too?


Thanks so much for this insightful talk. I found it really fascinating. I've written before on sexual violence in teen television and your points about teen film and the broader representation of male sexuality really resonate. In particular, your points about how male sexuality is commonly represented have really specific consequences for how narratives of gendered abuse and power imbalances involving boys as victims/older women as perpetrators play out on screen. (I'm thinking in particular of narratives involving male teens/female teachers that are commonly portrayed as 'exciting' rather than as abusive, due to that assumption that boys are always sexually ready and willing). The work you're doing is really crucial in unpicking normative constructions of gendered sexuality - thank you for sharing.

Hi Michelle,

This is great and really thought provoking - thank you. It's so interesting to see how consent gets played out in these teen Hollywood hetero rom coms, which I'm not too familiar with. For it to be meaningful, as you suggest, consent needs to be understood in terms of open communication and mutual respect and agreement. It is important that popular culture is starting to take consent seriously but more care needs to be taken to ensure there is not a simplistic reversal whereby girls gain sexual power at the expense of devaluing the consent of boys. I suppose as you say these films are trying to be seen to address rape culture but it is interesting to think about what happens when they try to flip the power dynamics. One of the things that I appreciate about Normal People, which I'm discussing on Wednesday, is how it presents equality and mutuality between Connell and Marianne - they are both concerned about the pleasure of the other. These are just some initial thoughts! Your post has got me thinking back through episodes of Netflix's Sex Education to think about how they present consent in relation to boys! 

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