The youth of America have spoken, and when it comes to sex onscreen, they say "ewwwww."
The new UCLA “Teens and Screens” study, conducted by the Center for Scholars & Storytellers, found that across 1,500 members of Gen Z, ages 10 to 24, young people wanted to see platonic relationships between onscreen characters, and many felt sex wasn't necessary for story plot. (Only the respondents ages 13 to 24 were asked about sexual content.)
“While it’s true that teens want less sex on TV and in movies, what the survey is really saying is that teens want more and different kinds of relationships reflected in the media they watch,” said Yalda T. Uhls, founder and director of CSS, co-author of the study and adjunct professor in UCLA’s Department of Psychology.
The survey found that adolescents want to see “lives like (their) own” depicted onscreen and crave "authenticity." Teens, plus the 18- to 24-year-old demographic predominantly desired by advertisers, think that sex and romance are too prominent in TV shows and movies.
Among those 13-24, 44.3% felt that romance is overused in media, and 47.5% agreed that sex isn’t needed for the plots of most TV shows and movies. More than half of Gen Z wants to see more content focused on friendships and platonic relationships, with 39% saying they're especially interested in aromantic and/or asexual characters depicted in film and television.
On a list of stereotypes that irked Gen Z, romantic tropes ranked fourth. This included a dislike of relationships being necessary for happiness, male and female leads always having to end up together romantically, and love triangles.
“We know that young people are suffering an epidemic of loneliness and they’re seeking modeling in the art they consume. While some storytellers use sex and romance as a shortcut to character connection, it’s important for Hollywood to recognize that adolescents want stories that reflect the full spectrum of relationships,” Uhls said, adding that recent studies show young people are having less sex than their parents did at the same age and more are choosing to be single.
Survey results say that Gen Z’s values and desires "reach depths beyond what society has typically explored." It suggests teens and young adults have grown tired of "stereotypical, heteronormative storytelling that valorizes romantic and/or sexual relationships," particularly depictions of toxic romance.
While the survey's findings might appear cut and dried, it can't be ignored that sex-heavy shows often outperform the rest by staggering margins. According to HBO, “Euphoria” Season 2 episodes averaged 16.3 million viewers. That's the highest viewership for any season of an HBO series over the last 18 years aside from “Game of Thrones,” which pulled in an average of 46 million viewers across its eighth and final season in 2019.
Both shows were known for their gratuitous sex scenes, and the sexual content often played a key role in the plot. (Spoiler examples: Tyrion Lannister kills his father Tywin with a crossbow for sleeping with his girlfriend. Also, would King Joffrey Baratheon have been such a monster had he not been conceived by two siblings?)
In "Euphoria," one of the main antagonist characters (Nate Jacobs' dad, Cal) is a sexual deviant. Entire plot points revolve around Cal, and his sexual proclivities create problems for several of the main characters.
And "Bridgerton," the Regency-era high-society drama filled with angst, sexual tension and an increasingly risqué honeymoon? In 2021, Deadline reported that Season 1 of "Bridgerton" was watched (partially or in its entirety) by a record 82 million households around the world and at the time quickly became Netflix’s biggest series by a wide margin.
While UCLA's "Teens and Screens" survey might have studios considering giving Gen-Z what it wants, it may be hard to ignore the success of those steamy sex scenes saturating both the big and small screen.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.