“Looking for Alaska” Shows How Adults Can Fail Teens
October 17, 2019
Hulu’s television adaptation of John Green’s Looking for Alaska follows the wacky hijinks and coming-of-age struggles of high school student Miles “Pudge” Halter and his friends. The show portrays Miles’ first experiences with dating and sex, and it’s clear he has a lot to learn. But Miles isn’t the only one with a thing or two to learn about sexuality. The adults, including Miles’ teachers and parents, demonstrate they need a crash course in sex education too.
Painfully Awkward Adults
In a perfect world, all young people would have an adult in their lives they can go to for help if they have questions about sexuality or dating. But the reality is that many young people feel like they don’t have that option. In Looking for Alaska, the young protagonists faced two primary issues when it came to the adults in their lives and how they discussed sexuality: grown-ups in the show either made it painfully awkward or outright shamed them for having a natural and healthy interest in sex.
Nowhere is this more apparent than the very first episode. As Miles’ parents drive him to Culver Creek Academy, his new boarding school, they suddenly ask, “Do you know what STDs are, Miles?” It’s random, awkward and poorly timed, and Miles is clearly not having it. This one question about sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), which seems to be Miles’ parents first attempt to talk to him about sex, is seriously lacking. In an ideal world, this awkward conversation about STDs would not be the first time Miles’ parents had talked with him about sex.
Parents should start talking to their kids about their bodies and sex well before the teen years, which is when people begin dating or having sex. When these conversations start early, young people have time to process information. They also feel like they can talk to their parents and ask questions about sexuality well before they need to use this information.
Miles’ “birds and the bees” talk with his mother and father only gets worse when his dad follows up with, “Just keep your pecker in your pants, son.” The message: Just don’t have sex. It’s a sentiment clearly shared by the school principal, known by students as “the Eagle,” who later on in that episode barges in on two students having sex and expels them. (Although the fact that they were drinking underage may have contributed to that outcome, too.)
Shame in Sex Ed
Teens are all-too-familiar with adults who are uncomfortable talking honestly about sex or who shame them for being curious about sex. In fact, Culver Creek Academy may be fictional, but its punitive policies about and fear of honestly addressing sexuality are based in reality.
Sex education in schools too often only addresses two factors of sex and sexuality—STD and pregnancy prevention. But sex is not simply some ticking time bomb of disease, nor an act solely performed for the sake of conceiving children. While it’s unclear whether Culver Creek Academy offers sex education classes, students should be receiving a quality sex education that includes discussion of consent, sexual orientation, gender identity, body image, healthy relationships and pleasure. But too many schools are steeped in a culture of shame where they don’t provide all of the information young people need.
Schools that provide abstinence-only programs, for example, promote the idea that waiting until marriage is the only morally sound and healthy sexual decision a person can make. Research has proven abstinence-only programs, which shame young people and use scare tactics, are ineffective at having young people wait until marriage to have sex. These programs can also be harmful because they provide inaccurate information about contraception. They also promote homophobia and transphobia. And yet abstinence-only programs receive millions of dollars in federal funding each year.
Accurate, Shame-Free Info
Time and time again, students—if they get sex education at all—are being shamed for their sexuality and/or sexual orientation, even though sexuality is a normal, natural and healthy part of growing up and being human.
Know that having consensual, safer sex doesn’t make you evil or bad. Try to find adults you can trust and talk with if you have questions about relationships and sexual health. Miles is able to get some sage wisdom on love and dating from his religion teacher, Dr. Hyde. If your teachers and parents won’t provide you with the sex education you need, consider talking to a guidance counselor, therapist or health care provider. You can also find more information here at Sexetc.org. Every young person deserves accurate and non-judgmental information about their bodies and their lives.