If there's one thing that defines the American high school experience, it’s prom. Just look to one of our most pivotal cultural touchstones—the teen movie. From American Pie to Pretty in Pink, prom is a BIG EFFIN DEAL. Of course, for many, the tradition can be an absolute shitshow—you gotta make reservations for the perfect suburban-chic Italian restaurant, make sure the dress/tux fits, ace the corsage, and, of course, pay for the damn tickets.
But one prom pressure far outweighs the rest: I’m talking about having sex for the first time. Or at least the cultural expectation that you need to have sex on this very specific night.
But does anyone actually lose their virginity on prom night, or is it just another made-up pop culture trope? It’s hard to think of a television show or movie that deals with prom that doesn’t at least allude to the pressure to have sex.
"We do have this cultural legacy of narratives about prom night and sex," says Nicole Cushman, the executive director of the Rutgers University sex education resource Answer. "It’s something that is still sort of engrained in our psyche."
It makes sense that sex would be on the teen mind at this moment—prom is something of an experiment in maturity for high schoolers.
“It is this pretending at adulthood rituals,” says Laura Carpenter, an associate professor of sociology at Vanderbilt and the author of Virginity Lost: An Intimate Portrait of First Sexual Experiences. “We’re dressing up like fancy people, going out for a nice dinner, and doing these things we imagine that adults do.”
Prom, says Carpenter, comes with “this notion that this is part of your passage to adulthood—and sex comes with that."
It’s tough to determine when teens started to feel the pressure to lose it on prom night—but as a plot device, it made its way into pop culture in the 1980s, coinciding with the 80s prom boom.
“Prom got really unpopular in the late 60s,” says Carpenter, explaining that this shift was another example of youth “throwing off all the trappings of The Man.” But the event made a comeback in the 80s as the country re-embraced conservatism, giving us prom-com hits like the aforementioned Pretty in Pink, Can't Buy Me Love, and Some Kind of Wonderful.
The era also happened to be the golden age of the teen sex romp comedy—think Porky's, Little Darlings, and Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
These films fertile ground for the “virgin-til-prom” concept.
Movies such as 1980’s Prom Night, 1983’s Valley Girl, and 1989's She's Out Of Control all address losing one’s virginity on prom night. In the latter, Wallace Shawn’s character, a therapist, exclaims to an already overbearing father played by Tony Danza that “81.5% of American girls lose their virginity on prom night!” Unfortunately, he did not cite his source.
The prom/virgin trope continued to be a staple well into the 90s, in both film and television (see: Never Been Kissed, 90210, Roseanne, Boy Meets World)—though, in this decade, characters often opted to abstain.
“We might expect that teenagers who watch representations of sex on prom night might think this behavior is typical,” Stern says. “In itself, this belief might prompt more teens to engage in sexual behavior, perhaps on a ‘special’ night like prom.”
So the cliche may lead to the perceived normalization of a behavior, which could lead to teens actually losing their virginity on prom night. A chicken-and-egg type deal. Unfortunately, however, we have no metric to verify. "There is no reliable data that would tell us when young people are likely to lose their virginity,” says Leslie Kantor, vice president of education of Planned Parenthood.
Kantor is right—hard data on how many teens lose their virginity on prom night is lacking. We do know that the percentage of students in grades 9 through 12 who are having sex (46.8% as of 2013) is the lowest it’s been since 1988 (about 55%). And according to a 2002 study, teens are more likely to lose their virginity in early summer or December. But that’s pretty much it.
"Given the lack of data, given that we don’t know how prevalent a phenomenon losing your virginity on prom night actually is, I suspect the rates are a lot lower than we might [have previously thought]," says Cushman. She explained that there's a widespread misperception that teens are far more sexually active and promiscuous than they really are. To paraphrase 80s teen expert and former teen Will Smith, it seems that parents, truly, just don’t understand.
On top of that, the messaging around virginity loss, which our society for some reason views as a monolithic event, is also heavily gendered in media and culture-at-large.
"Images of boys often focus more on virginity as stigma, emphasizing the urgency of losing it," Susannah Stern, a professor of communications at the University of San Diego, told me over email. Meanwhile, "images of girls often focus on protecting virginity, or giving one’s virginity as a gift to the right person."
So what do we know about how real teens view prom sex today?
I spoke with Rose Leaven, the youth services coordinator at Boulder Valley Women’s Health Center in Boulder, Colorado, about whether the teens she works with really are thinking about doing it for the first time on prom night. She informed me that, at least among her students, the whole idea of “prom sex” is actually pretty obsolete.
"In my own opinion, it’s not really something that is happening as much as it may be portrayed in media," says Leaven. “Especially with this generation. I think that people are a lot more sex positive and a lot more inclusive, so I don’t think it’s seen as this big gesture as much as it used to be."
It’s not that teens aren’t exploring and discussing the concepts of sex and virginity-loss, both in pop culture and real life. As Kantor put it, "There’s no question that sex is going to happen on prom night," emphasizing the need for teens to be prepared. It's just that teens don't appear to be assigning as much importance to prom as the ultimate setting for virginity loss.
And these days, prom rarely provides the context for characters to lose it in pop culture, too. The 2011 Disney flick Prom was completely void of any references to sex at all, and teen shows like Gossip Girl, Glee, The Fosters, Teen Wolf, Vampire Diaries, or Pretty Little Liars passed over the virginity question in their respective prom episodes.
We can't say for sure how many IRL prom-goers are losing their virginity on prom, but it does appear that, after decades, the trope of losing your virginity on prom night may have lost its staying power. Looks like prom night is just another scene.