Recently on Nerve, Cord Jefferson tracked the changing attitudes of sexuality in teen movies from American Pie to New Moon. As he contemplated New Moon's pro-abstinence subtext, Cord longed for the attitudes of the Jason Biggs comedy: "It was crass, silly, and immature… but more amusing and relatable to us were the movie's frequent invectives against virginity." It's a noble sentiment, but to be honest, I'm glad that times have changed. I was a virgin when I saw American Pie, and it fucked me up.
When the movie came out in the summer of 1999, I was four months away from the legal viewing age of seventeen. In that interval, the film became a pop-culture juggernaut, a 235-million-dollar success. Picking up Entertainment Weekly, I read that Pie reflected "a major shift in contemporary teen culture… sexually speaking, playing catch-up is what being a teenager is all about, and movies like American Pie are, by now, an essential part of the ritual." This was more than the light summer comedy I'd expected; clearly, its ninety-five minutes contained a lesson about teenage sex that everyone but me was discovering.
On December 21, 1999, American Pie came out on VHS, pay-per-view, and that expensive new format, DVD. I finally got to sneak a viewing in the privacy of my bedroom, like a young monk seeking enlightenment on the mountain. There, I learned that lesson: I needed to lose my virginity by the end of high school, or I would become a huge loser.
Marketing sex to youth is an old trick, but was there ever a movie for teenagers that was that blunt about sex? Porky's, maybe, but it was also poorly written and featured no likeable characters. Fast Times at Ridgemont High treated teen sex realistically, but seemed to distance itself; it was more for adults looking back at adolescence. Cruel Intentions was soap-opera trash.
American Pie, however, was a unique hybrid; glossy pop filmmaking with a mix of gross-out humor and a real sweetness. The movie got laughs from the struggle to get laid, but depicted the actual moment of losing your virginity surprisingly tenderly. In the sexual Tet Offensive that was high school, it suggested that your first time could still be perfect and romantic. As clueless as they could be, the four protagonists weren't about racking up points; they were just looking for that right girl.
Roger Ebert wrote that American Pie contained "a great deal of sexual content that in my opinion is too advanced for high school, and a lot of characters who are more casual about it than real teenagers might be." But I couldn't see the movie as simple escapist fare, because the characters dressed, talked, and drank just like my own classmates. And just as in American Pie, every story about sex, from my own high school, was ridiculous. Chris bragged about nailing girl after girl on the basement floor of his family game room. (He also warned me that IcyHot was no good as lube.) Lindsay earned the nickname "Road Head" from a large group of boys who'd given her rides home. Mike proudly displayed the come-stain he left on the senior-lounge sofa, the result of an after-school tryst with his girlfriend. As I overheard those stories, Ebert's grandfatherly words rang hollow.
In Pie and in life, having sex by prom night was a huge imperative. The only confirmed virgin at the end of the movie was the Sherminator — a jerk and a loser. The countdown to prom became my personal doomsday clock. Through no luck of my own, I actually got a prom date. An unrequited crush of mine set me up with a girl who had just moved to the school. That girl assured me that she was going with me as "just a friend." And I still thought I needed to go for it.
A couple of weeks before the event, my date got into a car accident. I didn't go to my senior prom out of sheer embarrassment; showing up alone was worse than not going at all. By the standards of American Pie, my high-school experience was a failure. But I wasn't the only one who couldn't get laid. Did we all consider ourselves failures?
Turning eighteen and going to college magnified my neuroses about virginity. I felt so alien, so insecure, so… un-American. My first time couldn't be like something out of the movies, so I determined to throw it away as soon as possible. Drunk after a party, I finally lost my virginity to a girl I wasn't attracted to; I was just tired of missing out on sex.
It didn't feel like a 235-million surprise achievement. Honestly, it felt more like a direct-to-DVD sequel — forgettable, poorly executed, and devoid of charm. I actually can't remember the date; all I remember was that it was technically winter. The fact that I still remember the day American Pie came out on DVD suggests that my priorities were out of whack.
There's a lot to hold the Twilight series accountable for; maybe it is just a thinly-veiled Mormon abstinence parable co-opted by Hollywood. But somewhere in that film, there's a message my teenage self really needed to hear, and never did: "Sex is an otherworldly, fantastical, and terrifying experience. Once it happens, you are changed forever. Don't rush." Yes, that message shares space with glittery vampires and ab-crunching werewolves. But I'd still rather show that to my little siblings than a movie where a confirmed virgin is laughed at by everyone at his senior prom, to the point that he pisses himself.
Now I wonder what happened to my peers who couldn't have sex before the end of high school, no matter how hard they tried. When I was a confused adolescent, I needed to lose my virginity as soon as possible because a movie told me to. A whole generation of actual teenagers, looking for answers from anyone but their parents, watched American Pie. A decade later, we're out in the world, trying to be adults. We're trying to meet people, to be part of the world, to feel alive. And when we were younger, we took advice from a movie where Jason Biggs fucked a pastry.