There's nothing that sums up my childhood more than tuning in every Friday night to watch a new episode of "Degrassi: The Next Generation."
The moment I saw Marco spin around at the end of the iconic theme song to expose the back of his jean jacket, I automatically knew we were in for an alarming array of storylines for the next 30 minutes. There was even one point in my life that I was desperate to watch the show that I had to sneak and watch it with the volume lowered because I knew how they weren't sure if my 10-year-old self had any business watching a show like that at the time.
Their topics ranged from sexuality, pregnancy, rape and infidelity to drugs, alcohol, suicide, racism, gun violence, and more. After all, its tagline was "it goes there" and that's exactly what they did season after season.
Here are the top 14 "Degrassi" moments that benefitted my understanding of comprehensive sexuality more than my high school sex ed class.
1. Emma gets her first period
Emma and Manny are late to a book presentation and both of them awkwardly have to maneuver a large jacket tied around Emma's small waist so that it won't fall and expose the stain of period blood on her skirt. The guys quickly catch onto the fact that something is off and spew jokes from across the room, but then Emma immediately tells them that she's on her period and it's nothing to be ashamed of. I can definitely relate to this scene considering that the same exact thing happened to me in middle school and one of the girls in my homeroom at the time literally stood behind me, covering my period stain with a book so that the guys wouldn't see and embarrass me.
2. The aftermath of Paige’s rape
After Paige is raped by Dean, a popular soccer player from another school, she goes through a myriad of emotions, leaving a lot of her friends confused. One pivotal part in season two's two-part episode that is often overlooked is the conversation between Hazel and Paige when Paige first admits to what really happened between her and Dean. After Hazel urges her to take legal action, Paige tells her that she can't do that because of how people will misconstrue the situation to fit Dean's narrative. "What about what I did? I didn't dress like a slut? I didn't drink? I didn't come on to him in front of the whole school?" she says. Then Hazel still assures her that none of this was her fault.
I love that this conversation between the two sheds light on victim-blaming which is a sad reality for sexual assault survivors and can explain why the majority of sexual assault incidents go unreported.
3. Manny goes from innocent to promiscuous
Many viewers were in awe at Manny's transformation of going from "cute" to "hot" in order to capture the attention of her crush at the time. She starts to wear thongs and outfits that reveal more skin. While this grabs the attention of guys, her friends notice that all the male attention has gone to head. Body image and sexual expression isn't something that gets brought up enough in terms of comprehensive sexuality so I'm glad that this episode highlights the pressure for young women especially to manifest ourselves in a light that fits the standards of the male gaze.
4. Marco’s coming out story and dealing with homophobia
The thing that I appreciate the most about Marco coming to terms with his sexuality is that the show kept it real with this plot. It shows Marco's struggle beforehand with dating his best friend, Ellie, and Hazel to convince others and even himself that he wasn't gay. It shows the support of his friends during his time in need, especially when he gets attacked by gay-bashers. It also shows one of his friends, Spinner, reacts by bullying him and eventually becomes accepting of Marco. The takeaway behind Marco's story can be for LGBTQ+ members to be inspired to embrace who they are and for straight people to understand what it means to educate ourselves on how to be an ally.
5. Manny gets an abortion
In every heterosexual couple's relationship, the girlfriend will more than likely initiate "the talk." Not the sex talk, but the "How would you feel and react if I got pregnant?" talk even though the decision will ultimately weigh more on the girlfriend anyway considering it's her body that is being affected.
The two-part episode "Accidents Will Happen" basically sums that up for us. After Manny finds out that she's pregnant, she tells Craig and he's surprisingly ecstatic about it. Throughout the episodes we see Manny grapple with the reality of what her future would look like if she decides to go through with the pregnancy and she eventually decides to get an abortion despite Craig's wishes. Emma also initially urges her not to get an abortion, but later comes to her defense out of support for her best friend even though her personal beliefs don't align with Manny's actions. People can go back and forth about whether they think abortion is a fundamental right, but I think it's refreshing that Degrassi never strictly answers this question.
Rather, they show that the topic of abortion isn't easy for any party involved. Interestingly enough, these episodes were so controversial when they aired in the US that the storyline was edited or un-aired in some countries.
6. JT buys a penis pump
All jokes aside, I appreciate the fact that this show tackles body image for not only girls but guys as well. JT notices that Manny has been giving him an icy vibe and it leaves him feeling rejected. Later, he sees Craig naked in the locker room and discovers that his penis is large. Seeing as Manny used to be head over heels when she dated Craig in the past, JT assumes that the reason for this was because of his size. He starts using a penis pump out of desperation and then eventually gets caught in the act by Manny. She ends up dumping him the next day, but it's due to his immaturity rather than the number of inches he has down there...or lack thereof.
7. Jay gives Emma an STI
Everyone who watched Degrassi knew that all the hoeing around went down at the Ravine. Sadly for Emma, she found out the hard way when she sucked his dick for a damn bracelet and ended up getting gonorrhea. For the most part, I applaud the show's accurate depiction of how sexually transmitted infections are spread and how to recognize the signs. In Emma's case, the only symptom she had was a sore throat which is a major in what my middle and high school sex ed classes told me. All I got shown were grotesque pictures of pus and wort infected genitalia when in reality, many STIs result in minor to no symptoms.
8. Peter exposes a video of Manny going topless
While extremely drunk, Manny goes into a bathroom with Peter at a party and lifts her shirt to reveal her boobs, saying "You can sell this for a million dollars because I'm gonna be famous!" He takes advantage of her drunkenness and eggs her on to act out in front of the camera. He later blackmails her and ends up releasing the video to the entire student body. Back then it may have not seemed likely to me that something like this could easily happen in the real world, but considering how technology has taken over since then, sexual exploitation through online blackmail is even more relevant.
9. Liberty's pregnancy
Liberty and her boyfriend, JT, decide to start having sex over the summer, but the king sized condom they used slips off during sex which results in her getting pregnant. Problems in their relationship caused her to decide to give the baby up for adoption instead of keeping it, but later she starts to regret it considering that the family who adopted her baby ended up moving away. I like that this scenario included Liberty's postpartum grief. There needs to be more of a discussion about the different reactions a woman feels when she chooses a better life for her child even if that means that it's not with her.
10. Jimmy tries to have sex after being paralyzed from the waist down
Due to physical damage of getting shot a few seasons prior, it was hard for Jimmy to get an erection until one day during physical therapy. Then he happily set up a romantic date between him and Ashley, hoping that they can finally have sex with each other. When I first watched this episode as a kid, I was almost wonderstruck seeing Jimmy figure out how to express his sexual desires while having a disability. It's not that I had no idea people with disabilities could still have sex, but it definitely wasn't a heavily discussed topic in school or on television. I have a lot of respect for this storyline because the topic of sexual function isn't exclusive to one type of person. People who have disabilities aren't inherently non-sexual and they deserve the most fulfilling sex lives possible.
11. Clare has sex for the first time
Clare and her on-and-off boyfriend, Eli, had an epic yet tumultuous relationship. However, when they were finally on a good note, they decided to have sex with each other on prom night. It wasn't his first time, but it was hers so she asked her two best friends for some quick advice before the big moment and they give her some pretty daunting tips like "Don't be concerned if it's awkward," "It'll hurt," and, "Keep your expectations low. It'll probably only last for two minutes." While I do agree to be realistic about first sexual encounters, I wish people understood that your first time doesn't have to be whack. That's why I love the fact that Clare's first time ended up being natural and satisfying for her.
12. Holly J and Declan’s discrepant sexual encounter
The inconsistency between Holly J and Declan's perspectives on what went down between the two of them one night after a party shows that consent is not always as black and white as people want it to be. Unfortunately, it's a sad reality that there are times when people, women, in particular, don't want to have sex but do so anyway out of obligation or uncertainty.
In this case, Declan, Holly J's ex, is trying to make his move by kissing her on the neck. She shrugs him off and says "No, we shouldn't be doing this," but he continues to kiss her until she eventually kisses him back. Then they have sex. Later she tells him that she didn't consider it rape and that her old feelings for Declan came back again, but she truly didn't want to have sex with him especially due to the fact that she was in a relationship with someone else and felt guilty for cheating.
At first, watching this left me confused because I had never considered an interaction like this. Rape wasn't touched on during my middle or high school sex ed classes and wasn't a topic of discussion until I went to college and found out every student was required to take online modules about sexual assault and relationship violence. If it took me 18 years before I found a school that incorporated sexual assault prevention into their education then you can only imagine how unlikely it is that people have a conversation about what happens when the lines are blurred and the steps to take to that all parties involved are on the same page when engaging in sex.
13. Adam lives his truth as a transgender male
Adam Torres is not the first transgender character to ever appear on Degrassi but he is the first transgender character to ever appear as a series regular on a prominent television series. The writers of Degrassi didn't have big shoes to fill with this role, but they did have a big responsibility to realistically depict a transgender person and I think they did an excellent job. They didn't make him being transgender the only worthy fact about his identity and most of his storylines were about him living life just any other dude would. The other parts of his storylines didn't shy away from transphobia from peers and even loved ones. One of my favorite scenes with Adam is a conversation he has with his future girlfriend, Becky. He explains to her that her intolerance is the same fuel that has had him thrown out of washrooms and beaten up bad. Then she replies saying "I would never do any of that!" He responds saying "But the stuff you say makes people think it's okay to bully kids who are gay or transgender or different in any way!"
14. Becky’s sexual expression as a Christian
Growing up in the Bible-belt south, sexuality as a whole isn't something that is normally discussed in a positive light so it resonated with me to see Becky, a Christian girl, who eventually becomes comfortable in her own skin and shows affection to her boyfriends by sharing passionate kisses without completely giving up her religion. Though strict and uptight at first, her gradual open-mindedness proves that even religious people can shut down the stigma of expressing sexuality and intimacy as a human being even if they decide to save sex for marriage.