Youth Culture Window

Promise Rings or Promiscuity

Amy’s 15 and pregnant. Her partner Ricky was molested as a child. Jack’s a Christian who’s cheating on Grace (another Jesus lover) with the school slut, Adrian. Ben’s the rich, oblivious virgin who wants in on the action. Say hello to the cast from one of TV’s most popular new shows.

On Tuesday nights at 8:00pm, record-setting numbers of viewers are tuning in to ABC Family’s new show The Secret Life of the American Teenager. The drama centers on the sex lives of 6 kids at Ulysses S. Grant High School. Some of them are already facing the consequences of sex, and others are “Christians” who are dead set against sex (at least verbally, anyway). The others search their hearts trying to find a way through the confusion, excitement, and pain that is typified by teen sex.

A New Kind Of Show From A New Kind Of Family
ABC Family bills themselves as “a new kind of family” and their new show is a hit with teens. 2.8 million viewers tuned in for the show’s premier on July 1, the most for any opener on that network! (within the first 14 days the first two shows have been viewed online more than 800,000 times!)

Why wouldn’t teens watch? It’s about them…and sex!

But the show also has a strong element of faith woven into its plot. Creator Brenda Hampton, of 7th Heaven fame, is the brainchild behind yet another TV drama all about the struggle between life and faith. But this time it centers exclusively on teenagers.

The Lure 
So, what makes this show so popular with teens? It’s not the acting; marginal at best. It’s also not the writing; somewhat superficial. No big names either; just John Schneider (The Dukes of Hazzard & Smallville) and Molly Ringwald (The Breakfast Club, 16 Candles… you know… the “Brat Pack”).

What makes the show popular? Could it be that it’s all about teens…teens consumed with having sex?

Listen to a conversation from the hallways of Ulysses S. Grant High School. Here, Amy provides more information concerning the bomb she just dropped on her friends about her choice to have sex at band camp over the summer.

AMY: It [sex] was nothing.

FRIEND 1: OK, by ‘nothing’ you mean, what?

AMY: It was not that great.

FRIEND 2: And by ‘not that great’ you mean…

AMY: I’m not even sure it was sex, OK guys?

FRIEND 1: Why not?

AMY: I don’t know. I didn’t exactly realize what was happening until like after 2 seconds and then it was just over. And it wasn’t fun and DEFINITELY not like what you see in the movies, you know, all romantic and stuff.

Ok. It’s obviously very “real.” It’s good to see that the writers aren’t romanticizing first-time teen sex that often leaves the participants standing around with a “what just happened?” expression on their faces. But, every TV show has an agenda that stems from its focus. It’s too early to determine what that agenda will be, but as sad as it sounds, I hope the focus continues to be teen sex, and not something worse.

Worse! What’s worse than casual teen sex?

How about teen sex AND blatant, over-the-top misrepresentation Christianity?

Let’s Talk About Sex…and Jesus!
Hollywood usually has no reservations with casting Christians in a poor light. (Remember Hilary from Saved or Lyla from Friday Night Lights?) There’s a crystal clear distinction made between the “sinners” and the “saints” on Secret Life. The “Christian couple” is ridiculed – and even targeted – by Adrian, the school “slut.” But it might be because Grace, the beautiful blond Christian cheerleader, is so vocal – and a bit naïve – about her faith. The tension between these two extremes affects everyone else on the show.

Later in the show, Jesus weighs in on sex via His trusted ambassador, Grace. Her studly boyfriend notices her new ring and asks her about it. She tells him it’s a promise ring and flatly explains that she’s not having sex until marriage. That creates a “problem” for Jack because Grace is a long ways from being ready to get married. She wants to finish high school, then college, then med school!

So, Jack raises the possibility of oral sex, wondering if it counts as real sex.

GRACE: Of course it’s sex. And you need to keep you mind away from those kinds of thoughts, Jack. I mean, what is wrong with you today?

JACK: I don’t know. I just…. This ring…. It just…. I don’t know, it just made me think about things. And you know when you tell yourself not to think about something, and you just cannot stop thinking about that something?

GRACE: It’s called will power.

JACK: (rather desperately) Pray I get some! Pray I get lots of it! Grace, I love you. And you are the most beautiful girl in the world, and I’m not saying I wanna do anything, right now. But waiting till you’re outta medical school?

GRACE: You’re gonna be fine. We’re gonna be fine. We’re gonna save what’s meant for marriage, for marriage. And with the help of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, we’ll make it, Jack. Through high school, and through college, and through medical school. I love you.

The “Christian kid” who wants oral sex is interrupted by Adrian. Grace leaves, but Jack stays behind to talk with the temptress. She finds it “interesting” that the two of them aren’t having sex, and then takes a slow, deliberate bite from an apple while looking deep in his eyes. (Wasn’t there a story in the Bible about a girl tempting a guy while chewing on fruit…with a world of hurt hanging in the balance?)

At the end of the show, Jack and Adrian have hooked up for a little “extracurricular activity.” No details, but they did something together that Jack soon regrets. So, at the post-football game party, they meet up outside the church gym to talk.

JACK: It was a mistake. I don’t know what I was thinking. It was a sin.

ADRIAN: Oh please. You’re not gonna get all ‘Christian’ on me now, are you?

JACK: I am a Christian, and I’m a man. I just…. I just don’t know how to be both, right now. I’m lost.

ADRIAN: Well, you didn’t look lost last night.

JACK: Look. I am so sorry, Adrian. I took advantage of you and…

ADRIAN: OK stop it! No one takes advantage of me! And nobody does anything they don’t wanna do.

JACK: Pray with me. Pray that God forgives us because God DOES forgive us when we do something wrong. Even something as wrong as we did.

ADRIAN: I don’t think we did anything wrong.

JACK: Please! God loves you! Even if you’re not a Christian, God loves you. Pray with me.

ADRIAN: Are you sure that’s what you really want, Jack? You want God to love you? (Then, stroking his hair and face) Are you sure you don’t want me to love you?

One Christian down, one to go. I’m not trying to be an alarmist, by any means. I just can’t help but notice the sub-plot. (Like I said, I hope it remains just a sub-plot!)

One Final Word
Just before the show played an encore in the very next hour, Amy’s character had a word with all the viewers.

“The first time too many teens have the sex talk with their parents is when they’re telling them that they’re pregnant. Parents, if your teens have a question about sex, don’t assume they’re doing it. And teens, if you’re parents aren’t talking to you about sex, don’t assume they don’t care. Teenage pregnancy is 100% preventable. Start talking.”

Here, she gives responsible advice on sex to the viewers. But what sort of “advice” did your students get on their faith from watching the show? Here are a couple suggestions in case you missed the premier.

  1. Take Amy’s advice. Start talking with your students (and your own teenagers) …about their faith…and how it impacts ALL areas of life, not JUST their sex lives. Teenagers crave intimate and authentic conversations, especially when it comes to topics like sex. They may not know how to go about having those talks, and they might even pretend like they don’t want to have those talks, but they genuinely do.
  2. Check out the show. You can view it online in about 30 minutes at Kids are talking about it, and this is an easy and quick way to stay informed. In addition to the 800,000 online views, hundreds of comments were left by teens. Here are two, printed as is:

Scenequeenamericanteen wrote: omg omg omg…….. its true life!!!!!!! SO many people have to watch this… IM TELLING EVERYOE to watch it….. my friends and i all get together with a big bowl of popcorn and watch it now… ITS AWSOME!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Eagleluvr1: im glad i got to watch this because i hav been pressured into having sex and i was goin to this show helps me relize that everyone in scholl could find out and i know that it could totally screw up my life and my freind kept telli me that. i couldnt see facing my parents and telling them i got pregnant and especially with me only being 13

TV has brought together sex and faith once again. You’ve got a lot to do, already, so let help you out a little when it comes to addressing sex and God’s desires for us. Try these readymade discussions… A Piece of My Heart or When I Think of Sex… to help your students understand the truth about sex.

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David R. Smith

David R. Smith

David R. Smith is the author of several books including Christianity... It's Like This and speaks to parents and leaders across the U.S. David is a 15-year youth ministry veteran, now a senior pastor, who specializes in sharing the gospel, and equipping others do the same. David provides free resources to anyone who works with teenagers on his website, David resides with his wife and son in Tampa, Florida.

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