What HBO’s Euphoria Gets Right (and Wrong) About Teen Sex and Drugs

• HBO’s Euphoria premiered this past Sunday, to much controversy and depicting much debauchery
• But its depiction of Gen Z sexuality and drug usage is likely exaggerated
• This exaggeration might make for more for shocks than story

Penises, statutory rape scenes involving aging, once-beloved character actors, and copious drug usage to absolute bopsEuphoria’s Sunday night HBO premiere featured some pretty intense, R-rated Gen-Z-TV. Like, for real.

But how much of it was for real?

The answer is complicated.

Certainly some of what happens on screen really did occur in the life of series creator Sam Levinson, and he’s spoken about how his own struggles with addiction informed the story. But Levinson also chose to transplant his story onto a post-9/11 generation, and it’s clear that at least one creative intention of the show is to represent that generation—its struggles, insecurities, and what it’s like growing up now.

At the same time, this story is very much not about that generation. And it’s difficult to believe that Levinson has in mind your typical Gen Z teenager (and we’ll show below why that’s fairly obvious—just, like, statistically); your typical teenager simply isn’t taking all kinds of drugs and having all kinds of sex. (The anxieties and coping mechanisms they represent are another story).

Yet what Levinson’s (we hope) purposeful exaggeration hopes to accomplish—if not generational realism— is, at this, point unclear. But we think it’s worth asking just where exactly Euphoria will go, whether we care to accompany it there, and if that destination is all that accurate, helpful, or deserved.

Here are some observations.

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THE DRUGS

The week before the show aired, the Parents Television Council issued a warning to parents about the content of the show. In the statement, PTC President Tim Winter said that “just as MTV did with Skins and as Netflix is doing with 13 Reasons Why, HBO, with its new high school centered show Euphoria, appears to be overtly, intentionally, marketing extremely graphic adult content—sex, violence, profanity and drug use—to teens and preteens. [emphasis added].”

It’s unclear whether the show intentionally targeted teens and preteens during its marketing campaigns, but as this is the representative cohort in the show, it’s safe to assume these ages will be tuning in. (We all want to watch characters like ourselves, after all). And there is precedence to assume such viewing experiences will be less than desirable.

Though the size of the data makes correlation difficult, teen suicide rates did increase following the premiere of Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, and experts suggest caution when exposing teens to the series.

Based on the warning they administered, it would seem that the PTC is worried about similar drug abuse trends following Euphoria. (The very title suggests the desired state of drug usage). And studies do suggest that viewing alcohol in movies and TV can makes adolescents more inclined to drink—and binge drink. There’s no reason to think other substances can’t induce the same mimicry.

Of course, after the first episode of Euphoria you might think teenagers are more inclined to booze and smoke and snort anyway. (The only main character shown not drinking, smoking, taking pills, or doing illicit drugs is Maude Apatow’s Lexi, best friend of Zendaya’s Rue).

In the nonfiction world, however, younger generations are consuming less alcohol and drugs than older generations once did. Over the last 10 years, opioid use has declined among teens, and substance abuse (alcohol, cigarettes, heroin, MDMA, methamphetamine, and amphetamines) are at historic lows. (Vaping may be the only substance rising in teen popularity).

Euphoria focuses on the more troubled members of the Gen Z cohort (and ones who live in an area with access to illicit substances). We’re best to remember this.

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THE SEX

When the teenagers have finished taking their euphoric medicine, they turn to other dopaminergic thrills.

Yet, alongside the show’s drug use, the sheer frequency of sexual activity in Euphoria is more consistent with the characters than their cohort.

The CDC has found that teens are actually engaging in less sexual intercourse during high school years than previous generations. Just about 40 percent of high school students now report having had sex. (That’s a more than 8 percent decline since 2007).

As for the nature of their sexual activity, Euphoria makes some very clear suggestions about the connection between pornography and sexual activity. In one scene, a character forces himself onto his consenting partner and begins choking her. She says “stop.” He stops and asks what’s wrong: “I thought you would like it.”

Alongside the show’s drug use, the sheer frequency of sexual activity in Euphoria is more consistent with the characters than their cohort.

Pornographic depictions of aggressive sex—involving forceful actions, spanking, choking—certainly exists. Pornhub itself showed that searches for “hard rough fuck” had increased significantly between 2014-2015 alone.

But when Euphoria suggested in narration that the majority of porn content is rough/violent, this is simply not true.

One recent study re-examined much of our assumptions about aggressive sex and found that “videos containing aggressive acts are both less likely to receive views and less likely to be ranked favorably by viewers” (Behaviors among adults also suggest that “rough sex” isn’t really in vogue).

It is true, however, that pornography influences how we act out sex—our particular “scripts.”

William M. Struthers, Ph.D., a psychologist who researches pornography’s effect on the brain, told Men’s Health that teenagers are indeed developing a particular script. “There’s usually oral sex one way and oral sex the other way,” says Struthers. “[Then there are] two or three positions and then the male withdraws, masturbates, and ejaculate on the woman’s face.” Struthers says that this script “simply did not exist” in the 80s and 90s. That script is a consequence of recent pornography. (A survey by the New York Times Magazine last year also suggested a prevalence of “rough oral sex” in porn videos, as well the assumption that girls want to be “dominated”).

While it’s not uncommon to see (and perhaps enact) a script like choking, it seems somewhat hyperbolic to have a character skip any kind of foreplay and immediately begin choking. That Euphoria goes straight to this script in order to make the point about teenagers and porn-inspiration reveals a tendency toward shock-moments over more nuanced artistry and social commentary. We’ll be keeping an eye on how well the show balances these features over the next several weeks.

For now, we say enjoy the wild, reeling, tweaking pilot. It may be generational hyperbole. Or it may be the perfect drug-induced teenage nightmare. Either way, rest assured that outside this small screen, the kids are generally all right.

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