The holiday season drop of Shonda Rhimes first Netflix series Bridgerton (an adaptation of a series of romance novels by the same name) all but guaranteed that there’d be some group binge-watching with the family. For the uninitiated, Bridgerton follows the regency-era stories of an oversized brood of attractive gentry types in the family of the same name as they seek advantageous (that means rich, titled and ideally sexually compatible) marriage matches during the summer season in London.
Even if you don’t know what a viscount is — it’s a fancy title, pronounced vye-count — or are Googling “What are leading strings?” (old time-y baby leashes) between soft romantic Shonda monologues, you’ll have fun. It’s got string quartet covers of Top 40s pop hits! Men with inhumanly good eyebrows! Empire waist dresses! And, ICYMI: it’s sexy TV!
But as fun as that last part is, when your binge involves a teen — or even the knowledge that your teen is watching it separately or with friends— that pretty much also guarantees the moment of “oh God, there’s a (several) sex scene(s) from a time before we had easy-access condoms, the pill or ‘yes means yes’ consent discourse. What do I do?” panic. Sex talks (plural, yes, they should be plural) will do that.
Even the most modern, informed and open-minded parents can have the realization that they’d rather be anywhere but in that particular situation. But, as we’ve said before, TV is not a replacement for sex education and real, ongoing conversations about intimacy with the young adults in your care. You are not going to get a well-rounded, medically accurate and wholly unproblematic framing of modern sexuality from a romance novel adaptation taking place in Regency England. (It’d be silly to expect that.) From the tradition of bodice-rippers to 50 Shades of Grey, the romance genre is chock full of tropes that at-best don’t line up with 21st century sexual etiquette and at-worst make you want to revisit conversations about consent and basic biology.
So, uh, how do you even touch this without you and your teen both bursting into embarrassment flames? We’re here to help. Here’s a quick and dirty guide to a few stand-out Bridgerton sexual health moments and how you can contextualize them for your teens. Remember, these conversations might be weird at first but can become so much easier to handle once you bust open the communication door. You may find yourselves having some really thoughtful talks and will probably having a better understanding of your young adult’s POV by the end. And even though TV isn’t sex ed, you can use it to ask or answer the right questions, contextualize familiar issues and help your teen develop a really fine-tuned bullshit detector (yay media literacy!) along the way.
(If it’s not obvious, heavy spoilers for Bridgerton season one ahead. If you don’t want to deal with those, this is your warning.)
Contraception and Prophylactics: Then and Now
Taking place in the Hot Girl Summer of 1814, you will not be seeing the safe sex precautions you might swear by while watching Bridgerton. There are a few storylines around pregnancy (ones that happen, ones that don’t happen) with the underlying theme that women are denied the intel about their bodies until the literal last moment (or until it’s too late) and are forced to pay for that forced ignorance. There’s no mention of sexually transmitted diseases or infections (STDs or STIs) or too many historical pregnancy prevention tactics beyond one character pulling out repeatedly as a means to prevent pregnancy.
BTW: Outlander, another historical romance does a really great job showing a fraction of the common folk knowledge of historical pregnancy prevention and intervention that existed in the past.
How to talk your teen: Totally your choice on how geeky you want to get with this one. Exploring the history of contraceptives (Planned Parenthood, as always, has got some good info!) in different eras is my idea of a fun Saturday afternoon, but may be hit or miss for you and/or your teen. If you want to venture down that rabbit hole together, you’d be in for tons of ways to easily show how many more reproductive healthcare options we have at our disposal in 2021 (a Costco condom run > animal intestine condoms, IMO) — and talk about the functions, pros and cons of each and how they fit into different relationship dynamics. If this is a conversation you’ve been looking to bust in to but haven’t felt like the time was right, the history angle is a cool way to contextualize it all without it feeling forced.
And, since the withdrawal method is explicitly mentioned and shown, it’s probably a good time to talk about its flaws: It really only works if done perfectly (which is difficult in the heat of the moment!) and, per Planned Parenthood “22 out of 100 people who use withdrawal get pregnant every year — that’s about one in five.” It also lacks the STI/STD protection one would get when they pair it with barrier methods.
But, ultimately, the main crux of this issue here is that the prevention of unwanted STDs, STIs or pregnancies requires all parties to know and understand the mechanics of exposure to those things and the options for preventing them. And in 2021, there’s way more options within reach to be informed and to stay safe.
Keeping sexual health info a secret hurts everyone.
Throughout the show, it’s a running joke that non-married women and girls of the ton (AKA the upper social class trying to make these marriage matches) are nearly all oblivious to how pregnancies happen (because they’re supposed to be “well-bred” and “virginal” as part of their marriageability): One character stalks around the various promenades and fancy lady sitting rooms announcing how she just found out “a person can be with child without being married?!” as her older brothers laugh and her mother goes pale. There’s a character who ends up pregnant and unmarried — and though she soon understands how that came to be, she seemed to also be in the dark about the process at the time of the conception. And, in the A-plot of the series, Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor) is absolutely horrified to find out about the existence of semen and its role in creating a baby — as it explains why her husband, the Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page) keeps pulling out before he orgasms even though he insists he “can’t” have children (with a whole plot about the totally valid reasons he didn’t want to have children). Ultimately, it’s this ignorance that makes her act in a way that deeply hurts her partner.
And, maybe a little on-the-nose here, but when Daphne and her mother Violet (Ruth Gemmell) fight about how she felt like she was sent into her marriage without a full understanding of anything (see: the existence of semen) they do it in front of a statue of Athena, the Greek Goddess associated with wisdom and warfare. This heartbreaking moment is all about how denying a person access to this knowledge about their bodies (even if you are trying to protect them or just really uncomfy with it) leads to pain and trauma that is wholly unnecessary.
How to talk to your teen: Teens can connect with themes of feeling like they’re being kept from certain “adult” knowledge. Talk about all the ways being informed about their bodies can make them feel more empowered in their relationships and more capable of doing right by themselves (honoring their wants and needs and safety) and that of their partners. Talk about how they feel about the concepts of “virginity” and “purity” then and now — and how they intersect with misogyny and sexism. Make sure that the talk of a woman being “ruined” by sexual contact is something they understand to be totally antiquated and gross — and that a person stepping into their own as a responsible sexual citizen is a beautiful thing.
And, let’s be real, you don’t want to be Violet Bridgerton here: You don’t want to speak in romantic metaphors about rain covering a field (she really does this on Daphne’s wedding night!) when you mean to prepare your kid for healthy, satisfying sexual relations. You don’t want to shelter them so hard that you send them out into adulthood without arming them with all the knowledge and wisdom you’ve acquired yourself.
Consent should be informed — & consent can also always be revoked.
So back to consent and that big awful moment between our main ‘ship on the show. In the fallout of the great semen discovery by Daphne, she snaps and decides that she’s going to take the option of the aforementioned pull-out method that Simon has been using to prevent a pregnancy away from him. In a scene that makes me deeply uncomfortable, she gets on top and forces him to ejaculate inside of her. He says stop and she refuses to do it. To be clear, that’s assault. Your teen may be able to pick up on it and you certainly will. Even though the couple seems to by the end talk through their situation and come out happy together, it may feel dismissive to Simon’s POV (that he didn’t feel comfortable with the idea of having kids — due to his issues with his own father) and forced him to just be traumatized and then move on. It being a white woman hurting a Black man in this way and not being forced to reckon with can also be unsettling.
There’s also the concern that Simon (who is decidedly not part of the ‘forced into ignorance by sexist society’ club) took advantage of Daphne’s ignorance to have the sex life he wanted without communicating or making clear his reasons or attempting to help her understand. Her consent, while totally enthusiastic throughout does lack a bit of the ‘informed’ part. It’s a part of the genre’s tropes, but can certainly make a modern viewer (particularly a young one) feel off.
How to talk to your teen: It’s good to make clear that if a partner in any way says “stop” the way Simon did that the correct and ethical move is to stop. Full stop. Consent can always be revoked during the act (yes, even when you’re married.) I’d go even farther and encourage checking in throughout — because sometimes discomfort with a sexual act can manifest with going silent and a change in body language! Talk about how it’s important to make sure your partner is having fun and to check in with them to not cross lines (because they cannot be uncrossed).
Also, it’s worth talking about how Simon had every right to not want to impregnate his wife and that it’s a valid choice to not want to have kids. Reproductive coercion is something that disproportionately affects woman (particularly low income women and women of color) but the act of ignoring, refusing or taking away one partner’s choice about their reproductive health is abusive. If your teen expresses discomfort with that scene (a “that was weird” or “that didn’t feel good”), be sure to let those feelings exist. Ensure them that it’s completely valid to be uncomfortable with that kind of coercive, abusive behavior and to want to see that experience resolved or discussed in a more meaningful way.
Abortions have always existed!
So remember the girl who got pregnant out of wedlock? Marina Thompson’s (Ruby Barker) story is one of the more tragic in Bridgerton. Despite being just as beautiful and ambitious and fun as any other young marriage-minded woman in the cast, she’s saddled with the baggage of a pregnancy from her MIA former flame — and the worry that if she doesn’t immediately land a husband she’ll end up visibly unwed and pregnant in a society that is incredibly cruel to women in that position. When one of her plans to get married falls through, she makes a choice that countless other women throughout history have made: she decides to terminate her pregnancy.
Just like there’s a wealth of historical contraceptives, there have always been historical abortifacients. Per Botanical Medicine for Women’s Health: “Emmenagogues are defined in herbal medicine as herbs capable of stimulating the menstrual flow even when it is not due, and are also to be avoided during pregnancy. For centuries, they have been colloquially defined as ‘herbs for delayed menses,’ sometimes a euphemism for eliminating an unwanted pregnancy. Many emmenagogic herbs are therefore also abortifacients.”
However, despite there being a host of different ways women had successful abortions throughout history, it would still be dangerous attempting to induce one on your own without intimate knowledge of how these plants work in a human body. “The amounts required to induce an abortion may pose toxicity risks to the mother, including kidney and liver damage,” per Botanical Medicine for Women’s Health. And “…the risks of maternal intake of these herbs to the fetus are unknown.”
In Marina’s case, the tea she uses doesn’t work — it just makes her very sick and gets her a lecture from a doctor (who likely was en route to bleed someone with leeches or whatever).
How to talk to your teen: A big 2021 contextual takeaway is this: Abortions being made illegal, stigmatized and hidden is highly dangerous for pregnant people without other options. When clinics aren’t available through them being closed, financially prohibitive, desperate people will do what they can to make the reproductive choices that they needed to make. Making abortions inaccessible doesn’t stop the need for them, it just makes them less safe. It also may be a good time to remind them that if they are ever pregnant and don’t want to be, they still (God-willing) have legally protected options to safely get the care they need — and you will love and support them no matter what decision they arrived at.
Another good thing to note: the outlawing of abortions wasn’t really a thing until a lot later than you may be thinking! As the Center for American Progress writes “Abortion was not just legal—it was a safe, condoned, and practiced procedure in colonial America and common enough to appear in the legal and medical records of the period. Official abortion laws did not appear on the books in the United States until 1821, and abortion before quickening did not become illegal until the 1860s. If a woman living in New England in the 17th or 18th centuries wanted an abortion, no legal, social, or religious force would have stopped her.”
People may have be prude-tastic back then, but access to certain kinds of care (perilous as they might be) was still available.
These are just the highlight real of reproductive health moments you’ll want to clear up with your teen during/after your Bridgerton watch. Know that these conversations about sex, intimacy and relationships are ones that you’ll have over and over as they grow — and that, ultimately, we’re all lifelong students in better understanding our bodies, health and wellness.
If it gets weird (and, hey, sometimes it gets weird) don’t be afraid to crack a joke or two or acknowledge it. And, when in doubt, leave space to listen to how your teen is feeling and what they are curious about without judgement or shame — and reward their curiosity by being open to the conversations they want and need to have.
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