We take a deep dive into the most urgent political question facing the queer community today: why aren’t these fictional teenagers having sex?
Heartstopper has been widely acclaimed for its depiction of gay, trans, bisexual and aro-ace teenagers today. But it suffers from one major problem: it doesn’t represent me. What about cynical, cold-hearted gay guys who live in the big city? Do we not deserve to feel seen? To address this oversight, allow me to propose some storylines for the next season: Charlie launches a techno night, starts taking mephedrone and gets drawn into the sordid yet alluring demi-monde of Buckinghamshire’s chemsex scene. Nick goes on doxyPEP after acquiring a nasty strain of shigella in a darkroom at The Eagle. Nick and Charlie organise a Grindr threesome which goes hilariously wrong when Nick forgets to douche. Gregory James, a handsome and enigmatic journalist with a dark past, arrives at Truman High School to carry out an undercover assignment… If you’re reading this, Alice Osman, and you’re serious about providing a definitive portrayal of the queer experience, please give my agent a call.
The LGBTQ+ community today faces a number of pressing questions. How should we address the resurgence of reactionary politics around the globe? Is violence an effective response to mobilisation from the far-right? At a time when queer people are being smeared as decadent elites, how do we forge our struggle for liberation with other social movements, such as the fight for climate justice? But one debate is more urgent – and more divisive – than all the others: why haven’t Nick and Charlie fucked yet?
Since the first series of Heartstopper (based on a series of YA graphic novels) aired last year, few topics have inspired more heated online discourse than its chaste depiction of sexuality. To its critics, the show offers a conservative, sanitised and puritanical vision of queerness – effectively a Netflix adaptation of “no kink at pride”. If you’re a hater, this line of attack also provides an opportunity to recall your own teenage exploits and to make it clear that, unlike your tenderqueer opponents, you are a cool customer who has had sex on more than one occasion. To its defenders, Heartstopper’s depiction of queer romance is relatable, inspiring and refreshingly sweet: rather than being sanctimonious “puriteens”, Nick and Charlie are working towards sex in their own time (in the novels, they get there eventually), all the while respecting one another and being mindful of consent. Besides, there’s a lot of kissing.
Not for the first time in my life, I find myself in the lonely position of being the only person in the world with the correct opinion. As I see it, there is nothing wrong with Heartstopper’s portrayal of sex: it is a YA romance, working within its own genre and geared towards a particular audience. Its cautious, sweet-natured approach clearly resonates with a lot of queer people, of all ages, many of whom feel that it reflects both their lived experiences and deepest yearnings – you might think these people are nerds, dorks and goody-two-shoes, but I’ve yet to see a compelling reason why they don’t deserve representation. It’s fine for the show to be wholesome and cute, just as it’s fine to enjoy it for those qualities. Not everything has to be Stranger by the Lake.
But the defence of Heartstopper veers towards the conservative when “purity” and “innocence” are valourised in their own right, when people insist that it is a necessary antidote to a culture of promiscuous gay sexuality which is being foisted on young people. Likewise, the positive effects of its queer representation risk being undermined by its own fanbase: last week, queer journalist Patrick Sproull wrote an article about the show’s “unrealistic” chasteness and, in a ensuing Twitter pile-on, hundreds of fans demanded to know, “why are you so obsessed with minors having sex???” We can disagree over the sexual politics of a Netflix show without implying that gay people are paedophiles and, in doing so, bolstering one of the far-right’s most destructive smears at the height of a moral panic.
Part of the problem is that we apply a scarcity mentality to queer representation. Rather than being a specific story about specific characters, Heartstopper is expected to shoulder the burden of providing an authentic representation of the queer experience. But there is no such thing as the “queer experience”, just as there is no singular queer sensibility. I would like to see more explicit gay art (we are not suffering from an abundance of sex scenes in mainstream media, despite what some would have you believe). But that preference isn’t more authentic than wanting to see characters enjoy an innocent snog, just like Heartstopper wouldn’t be “radical” if it portrayed sex – it would still be a TV show.
When I was a teenager, I used to watch Queer As Folk, which I enjoyed for its frank sexuality and aspirational vision of adult gay life. But one of the key plot points of the first season involved the characters teaming up to have a villainous Black migrant deported by the Home Office –and in hindsight, that seems like a more troubling expression of “respectability politics” than Nick and Charlie failing to do anal. Criticising Heartstopper for its sexlessness can be a form of moralising like any other. There should be a space in queer art for both the raunchy and the wholesome; the edgy and the twee; the YA-reading introverts and the cool, crazy party animals like me, who have definitely had sex ;)