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18 February 2023

Why on earth do you care what Gen Z think of sex scenes in films?

So what if today’s teenagers have views you find irritating and absurd? That’s part of being young.

By Marie Le Conte

It’s always entertaining to watch things snowball on social media. You can glance at a tweet then go about your day, and a few hours later find yourself faced with a full-blown moral panic.

Most recently the American actor Penn Badgley was interviewed about his role on Netflix‘s hit show You. “Fidelity in every relationship, including my marriage, is important to me,” he told BuzzFeed. “It’s got to the point where I don’t want to do that.”

“That”, in this context, is sex scenes, which Badgley, 36, has asked to do fewer of in seasons to come. There is something quite amusing about a man prudishly refusing to bed women on screen while comfortably portraying a serial killer and stalker, but that isn’t why the quotes went viral.

Instead, his decision was applauded. “Penn Badgley requesting to have zero intimacy scenes moving forward with any of his projects because he respects his marriage too much & feels it’s unnecessary to both his public image & acting is the only thing that brings me hope for men today,” was one especially popular post.

It was also the point at which the backlash began and the snowball started rolling. Three days later headlines started to appear online begging readers not to romanticise or try to bring back the Hays Code.

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The Motion Picture Production Code, to use its full name (it was known as the Hays Code after the president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, Will H Hays), was in place in the US from 1934 to 1968. It politely but firmly asked studios not to show anything that could “lower the moral standards of those who see it”, including but not limited to interracial relationships, extra-marital affairs and crime going unpunished.

Though there’s no evidence that anyone really is trying to bring the Hays Code back from the dead, it is true that the puritanism of today’s youths has been a hot topic for some years. Gen Z, we are told, do not drink or smoke or do drugs. They do not believe in relationships with even a slight age gap, do not want to see sex on television, are against online porn, and care about consent with a fervour bordering on the neurotic.

These changing social mores do raise a number of questions, most of which have been explored at length by writers in their thirties and above. After all, the sex scenes in today’s already sanitised Hollywood usually aren’t anything to write home about. Complaining about their mere existence feels like the start of a slippery slope.

Similarly, declaring that, say, an adult of 23 cannot consent to a relationship with someone a decade their senior leads to concerning questions about what adulthood entails. Still, the main question – arguably the elephant in the room – keeps being ignored: namely, who cares?

Who cares what teenagers and people in their very early twenties are doing or not doing, thinking or not thinking? If you are above the age of about 27 and not currently a parent of children that age, what does this have to do with you? What does it have to do with us?

Teenagers should be able to go about their business and share views with one another without feeling like the rest of society is breathing down their necks. Of course some of their beliefs and opinions are blithe and myopic – they’ve just started thinking for themselves. That’s the whole point of being young.

On sex specifically, it really shouldn’t be a surprise that adolescents find so much of it odd and off-putting. A lot of it is odd and off-putting, especially at the beginning. They should be able to figure it out themselves, in their own time.

The problem, really, is that they no longer have spaces to do so. The internet is flat now; we’re all together, all the time, on the same platforms, aware of what everyone else thinks about everything. A university fresher can tweet something daft then find themselves in the firing range of roughly seven thousand irate middle-aged men. I have, on numerous occasions, got myself riled up reading some daft tweet then clicked on the person’s profile and realised they were literally half my age.

That’s the other issue: if everyone shares the same online spaces, there will be constant friction. No one will ever be entirely right, and no one will ever be entirely wrong. We’ll all annoy one another and bicker even though we shouldn’t. It’s like being stuck on a never-ending family holiday that no one really wanted to go on in the first place.

You can’t blame the teen for eating half a fridge’s worth of food in one sitting and not showering, because that’s what teens do. You can’t blame the parents for being cross at having to go food shopping again and spray Febreze in the living room, because both those things are annoying. The internet is like that now, day after day after day.

The only way to break the cycle is to recognise, as parents eventually do, that there isn’t much one can do about irritating young people doing or thinking things that irritate you. You just have to let them be. In an ideal world, Elon Musk would introduce a pop-up on Twitter that warns you’re about to sincerely argue about politics with someone who’s only just discovered weed and Kate Bush. Sadly, this isn’t an ideal world.

Instead, a conscious effort should be made to let things slide, even if they infuriate us. They’ll grow out of it eventually – and if they don’t, well, you’ll know where to find them then. Keyboards at dawn.

Read more:

Could America’s young voters save the world?

Louis Theroux on becoming a TikTok icon

Single-use vapes show we can’t rely on Gen Z to fix the climate crisis

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