Beverly Hills, 90210 taught me how to have sex. In the penultimate episode of the first season, back in 1991, Brenda Walsh (Shannon Doherty), the seventeen-year-old female lead, lost her virginity to her high school boyfriend Dylan McKay (Luke Perry). She was the innocent from Minnesota who’d turned his head by being quick-witted and non-blonde; he was the motorbike-riding, permanently frowning ‘bad boy’ who wasn’t actually bad (for a couple more seasons, at least). They talked about sex soon after they started dating, but Brenda wanted to wait until she was sure they were in love. A few months later, she was. So, on the night of the spring dance, while their friends had overwrought conversations with people they used to date or wanted to date, Brenda and Dylan snuck away to have sex.
It was her first time, but not his, and on the dance floor just before they headed to their hotel room, Brenda told Dylan she was nervous she might disappoint him. He pulled her close as they swayed to the music, his voice a low rasp. “Bren, we’re not going to be judging each other up there,” he said. “We’re going to be enjoying each other.” As cheesy as it sounds now, for a twelve-year-old who was afraid of her own body and what boys might one day expect her to do with it, the idea that sex could be fun, even the first time, was a revelation. Before then, the main message I’d picked up about sex was that it could ruin your life and possibly kill you.
Left Eye from TLC wore a condom over one eye, Tom Hanks won an Oscar for Philadelphia, and every other TV show had a storyline about how easy it was to contract HIV, from A Different World to The Golden Girls. Only halfway through the first season of Beverly Hills, 90210, the school invited a young woman called Stacy Sloan (Kathy Molter) to give a sex education lecture. Self-appointed stud Steve Sanders (Ian Ziering) volunteered to collect her from the airport, working on the assumption that any woman who talks publicly about sex will be hot and want to sleep with him. When Stacy showed up, petite and dimpled, he wasn’t disappointed and so, posing as his teacher, he asked her out. But she said no, even though she thought he was cute. The next day at her talk he found out why: every time she goes out with someone new, she has to tell them she has AIDS. She didn’t use a condom the first time she had sex. Now she was dying.
You could call this scaremongering, but (especially in a time before antiretroviral drugs) we were right to be worried. As a self-centered adolescent, though, I was more scared of the consequence of unprotected sex I’d seen firsthand: pregnancy. I’d been raised by a stressed-out single mother and saw how much work it was, how you might never get to live the life you wanted. When I was fourteen a girl in my class dropped out of school to have a baby and I couldn’t believe she was going through with it. I planned to have an abortion if I ever got pregnant, although I was too squeamish to be awake while it happened. Years before I’d ever had sex, I’d rehearsed what to say to an abortion doctor to make sure she knocked me out.
No one was allowed to have an abortion on 1990s teen dramas (too off-putting to advertisers and conservative network execs), but sex almost always had consequences. When high school junior Julia Salinger (Neve Campbell) got pregnant and then miscarried on Party of Five, it served as a warning not only to her brother Bailey (Scott Wolf) and his girlfriend Sarah (Jennifer Love Hewitt), who’d been thinking about having sex, but also to me, who hadn’t. On Dawson’s Creek, sexually generous secondary character Abby (Monica Keena) got drunk and fell to her death, as if to warn her best friend Jen (Michelle Williams) to stop drinking and having sex with guys she hardly knew. (When Jen later became a single mother following a one-night stand, she was killed off, too.) And in the 90210 episode after she had sex with Dylan, Brenda had a pregnancy scare that made her rethink their relationship, a plot point I’d overlooked when their first time imprinted on me as the platonic ideal.
When I was growing up, shows often had subplots where teen characters looked after a fake baby for a week (Buffy, Degrassi, A Different World again). Sometimes, this was a creepy computerized doll that wailed if it wasn’t “fed” and “burped” at regular intervals, other times it was an egg or a sack of flour that had to remain intact. Every time I watched one of these episodes, I was incensed on the characters’ behalf. Why did their teachers assume all teenagers wanted to have a baby but didn’t understand how hard it would be? Decades later, I caught on: they didn’t assume all teenagers wanted to have babies. They assumed all teenagers wanted to have sex.
I met my first boyfriend when I was fourteen. Sam was a year older, with dark blonde hair and blue-green eyes, so good-looking two different girls asked him out right in front of me and I almost didn’t blame them. Once, when we were kissing outside a local supermarket, he cupped my butt through my jeans and whispered, “You can touch mine too, if you want.” The thought hadn’t occurred to me but I didn’t want to be a bad sport, so I carefully placed one hand on each cheek. His jeans were cold to the touch. A couple of weeks after that, he mentioned his ex-girlfriend and I asked why they broke up. “Oh, she stopped wanting to have sex,” he said. I must have looked shocked because he laughed at my expression and said he was only kidding. He dumped me a few days later because we were “too different.”
Jane was the first of my friends to do it, when we were fifteen. “It’s horrible,” she told me. “It really hurts.” A year or so later, Natalie had panicked sex in a public park after her boyfriend said he was fed up of waiting. In college, one of my roommates got kicked out as soon as it was over and had to run home to wash the jizz off her legs. The more first-time stories I heard, the longer I was willing to wait.
Culturally, it was the right time to be whatever I was: repressed, or maybe just sexually cautious. Monica Lewinsky was slut-shamed out of the public eye, my school’s sex education classes consisted of a birth video and a slideshow of genital infections, and on 90210, Donna Martin (Tori Spelling) was labelled a “good girl” because she was waiting for marriage. For girls with higher libidos and fewer neuroses, the pressure to be chaste must have felt oppressive, but for me, it was a relief. I wasn’t ready to express my sexuality, and everything I saw and heard told me it was better I didn’t.
I started going out with Simon when I was nineteen and he was twenty-one. He was my friend’s brother’s friend: long legs, shy smile—an engineering student who was good with his hands. He lived in my hometown and every other week he’d drive a couple of hours to visit and share my thin, narrow mattress. At first, we just kissed, then we started to fool around a little. One night before we fell asleep, his head facing the wall, Simon whispered that he wanted us to “make love.” I stifled laughter at how he’d phrased it—as if we were thirty-something characters in a 1980s romantic comedy—but I appreciated that he’d made it sound as non-threatening as possible.
Now, of course, I understand that virginity is an arbitrary designation and there are other types of sex besides penis-in-vagina. Back then, though, penetrative sex seemed like crossing a line into adulthood, after which you were never the same. If I did it too soon, I might regret it forever. After a long pause, I mumbled that I wasn’t ready yet.
Three months later, I was. We went to see City of Angels, a sappy movie starring Meg Ryan as a surgeon and Nick Cage as an angel-turned-human (naturally). They fell in love and when they had sex, it was his first time. She asked him how it felt. “Warm. Aching,” he said.
“We fit together,” she breathed. “We were made to fit together.” I squeezed Simon’s hand in the dark theater, hoping to communicate that I wanted that, too; that it was finally time. But when we got back to his room he said he wanted to watch soccer and I lost my nerve.
That summer, I stayed with him in the house he shared with two friends from his new job, in a room so small we took it in turns to stand up. We slept side by side on another narrow mattress and at least once a week I opened my mouth to ask if he wanted to have sex, then worried he’d lost interest and swallowed my words. In November, when we’d been going out for ten months, I had a free week and went to stay with him again. That Tuesday night in bed, I burrowed my face into his back and whispered that there was something we should talk about, something I’d been thinking about for a while.
“Sex?” he asked.
“We could do it tomorrow.”
The next day, I went to the pharmacy down the street and bought condoms and lube. When Simon came home, he handed me a box of chocolates and said maybe we should wait. We perched on the edge of his bed, which I’d made that morning, full of nervous energy, pulling the navy-blue covers taut. “You don’t want to have sex with me?”
“I do, I just think maybe we should wait until Florida,” he said, talking about a vacation we’d booked for January. “We’ll be in a hotel; we’ll be more relaxed. It might be a better experience.” I was crushed. After waiting so long, I didn’t want this opportunity to pass me by. Dylan from 90210 flashed into my head and I scooted closer to Simon and put my hand on his thigh. “It’s always going to be a good experience,” I said, my voice as raspy as I could make it. “Because it’ll be with you. I don’t care if it’s quick, or painful, or not great—I want us to share this.” We kissed. “Okay,” he said. “Let’s just take it slowly.”
Afterward, we ate the chocolates he’d bought and toasted each other with wine glasses filled with Coke. I felt triumphant. Sex had been great, it hadn’t hurt, and we both wanted to do it again. I’d orchestrated the perfect first time, just like I’d always wanted. It was years before I realized it didn’t actually matter.
My sexual perfectionism had served me well in some ways: by using a condom and not having sex before I was ready, I’d had a good first time with someone I loved. But I waited until long after I was ready because I was scared of doing anything wrong. I thought that if I kept a tight enough hold on the reins of my life, I could make sure nothing bad ever happened: no pregnancy, no diseases, no mistakes of any kind.
I’d bought into what TV shows said about the magnitude of first-time sex because I thought it would keep me safe. But there was no way to avoid pain. After a brief separation, Brenda and Dylan dated for another year and then he cheated on her with her best friend. I got ill, dropped out of university, and gradually saw Simon less and less. The last time he visited, we hadn’t seen each other for three months. We climbed into bed, fully clothed, and I waited for him to make the first move. He didn’t, but I didn’t either. Instead we lay in silence, my head on his chest. Sex couldn’t keep us together. It was important, but it wasn’t everything.
The idea of virginity as central to a girl’s morality has never gone away, on screen or in real life. Regressive attitudes are everywhere—including the highest levels of government—but at least today’s teens have Tumblr and Rookie and Degrassi: Next Class, which aired an unsensational episode about abortion called #IRegretNothing earlier this year. There were more liberated narratives around sex in the ’90s, too: in the Pacific Northwest, women painted ‘slut’ on their stomachs, made zines, and listened to Bikini Kill. But in my rural suburb, with no access to Sassy magazine, MTV, or the early Internet, there was little countercultural programming.
In retrospect, there’s a part of me that wishes I’d slept with Simon sooner—when I knew I was ready, rather than months afterward. If it had been a little awkward, so what? Wouldn’t we have still loved each other? Couldn’t we have just tried again? I wish I’d known that, like television, sex doesn’t have to be perfect to be good.