What’s sexier than sex? Answer: Not being able to have it.
I have a very weird discussion for y’all today and would love your thoughts.(This post will talk in broad, non-graphic terms about the fact that sometimes teenagers in stories have consensual sex with each other. )
I love Pushing Daisies. There are a dozen things that make that short-lived show great, but the central romance is definitely high on the list. For magical plot reasons, sweet Ned and Charlie can’t touch skin-to-skin ever. She would literally die. They find other ways to have moments of almost-touch, kissing through plastic wrap or hugging in beekeeper outfits, but for the most part, their romance plays out at a difference of a couple feet.
The relationship is captivating for other reasons, of course, but nothing beats the torturous scenes where Ned and Charlie look longingly at the person they’re desperate to touch. It’s a strange, sadistic sort of viewer relationship, but what can I say–it just does it for me.
It does it for a lot of other people too, as pop culture has shown time and time again. Perhaps no one loves this scenario more than teen girls and young women, who have gobbled up can’t-have-sex romances for generations. 90’s teens had (at least for a while) Buffy and Angel. My generation had Edward and Bella.
Now, Gen Z has an even more extreme example in Stella and Will, forced by illness to stay physically apart even as they grow emotionally close. The story has repeated with many variations. Sometimes they can’t hold hands because she’ll contract his b. cepacia. Sometimes they can’t make out because he might accidentally drink her blood. Sometimes they can’t touch because she would literally drop dead. Whatever the details, all these stories anchor the tension in the fact that the lovers cannot do what their hormones say, often for extreme or supernatural reasons.
And it’s delicious. This trope is more than a story obstacle–often, it’s the hook that makes the story attractive to begin with. We don’t root for the couple despite this limitation. We’re glued to the screen because of it.
Netflix’s Big Mouth riffed on this contradiction in my favorite episode, “Girls Are Horny Too,” which introduced a fictional bestselling romance, The Rock of Gibralter, which sweeps through the middle school to the confusion of some of the boys, who don’t understand how a book with no sex can be considered so sexy. As an exasperated big sister finally explains, “it’s the fact that they can’t have sex that’s so hot.”
The recent release of teen drama Five Feet Apart (which I hated, but that’s beside the point) got me thinking about this trope, which anchors the movie and its novelization, currently topping the YA bestseller list.
This sexless, often touch-less devotion reflects a model of “courtly love” that would seem out-of-step with an increasingly permissive, sex-positive culture. Why, then, do we keep returning to it?
There’s more at play here than plot contrivance. Something has to keep the lovers apart for the sake of the story, sure, but star-crossed lovers can still sneak kisses at night. There’s something undeniably compelling about a fantasy of a romance where some level of intimacy is off-limits.
So, what is it? And what can it tell us about the ways coming-of-age has (and hasn’t) changed?
I’m not sure I know the whole answer, but I do have some ideas.
Today’s teen girls might be considered more empowered in their romantic and sexual relationships than any recent generation. (I should note that I’m speaking broadly about the imaginary “culture,” but I’m writing from a US-based, Midwestern perspective.) We still have a long way to go to educate and empower young women when it comes to their bodies, but over the past decades, loss of virginity has only lost social and cultural importance in fiction and reality.
Despite their access to resources and education, however, today’s young women are not different creatures than their grandmothers, and they still live with the reality of a massive power imbalance. (I’m thinking primarily of heterosexual relationships here, because these dynamics are often different in different gender configurations and that’s farther outside my knowledge.) They still walk the halls with boys twice their size who’ve often been raised to have twice the confidence. They read #MeToo-pegged headlines on a weekly basis. Many are about to head to colleges with an epidemic of sexual assault. Even at the best of times, they still carry all the uncertainty and insecurity of young women who want to move at their own pace. No matter how much cultural importance sexual activity seems to have lost, it is still trememdously important in an individual’s life.
Chastity fantasies are really fantasies of control–control over themselves, their bodies, their romantic relationships. Over their desires. The women in these stories are free to desire their men as much as they want, without worrying things will go too far. They’re free to articulate exactly what they want without being called clingy or bossy or unreasonable. They get to imagine hearing how much they’re wanted, no strings attached.
The sustained popularity of chaste romances may show us something else, too. Shifting focus in a romance away from sexual activity puts the interior lives of the characters at the center of the story, allowing for more nuanced, human stories. The male characters are more likely to be more than shallow, sex-driven hairdos, and the female characters to be more than beautiful objects to be won.
“Chastity fantasies,” when done well, have to deliberately uncouple the idea of love from the idea of sex, which might reflect a growing awareness of the asexuality spectrum. For many people, sensual touch is not high on the list of the important ways they express romantic love–perhaps, in time, more fiction will reflect that.