Brow Beat

The Great Middle School Sex Movie

PEN15 hails Wild Things as a horny touchstone for a generation of middle-schoolers. It really was.

A photo illustrated still of Denise Richards and Neve Campbell in Wild Things, as seen in an old-fashioned TV.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by ArisSu/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Columbia/TriStar.

Middle school is a curious, heady, and—I’ll just say it—horny time. Bodies are changing, urges are emerging, all that stuff. More recently, kids who want to learn about sex have at their fingertips an endless library of video clips as well as basically the entire scope of human knowledge in their pockets, but before the internet was in most homes and hands, this task was much more challenging: You had to sneak into an R-rated movie or acquire a dirty mag or even resort to smut in book form. Once VCRs and cable came along, happening upon a racy movie became the most convenient way to explore sex. Kids talk, and certain movies of the era developed a reputation for, well, having particularly salacious sex scenes. The king of these movies, circa the late ’90s and early 2000s, was Wild Things.

This is why, when Maya and Anna, the protagonists of PEN15, are invited over a boy’s house for a co-ed viewing of Wild Things in a late-season episode of the Hulu show, an entire generation gasped in recognition (or its members will when they get around to streaming the show, that is). The stars and co-creators of the show are 31-year-olds playing their 13-year-old selves—it works, I promise—so it’s to be expected that they nail their references. But in a show full of specific, well-chosen period details, it doesn’t get more excruciatingly real than a bunch of seventh-graders in the throes of puberty in the year 2000 watching a covertly obtained Blockbuster copy of Wild Things.

For those of you who need a refresher on the movie, which came out in 1998: Matt Dillon stars as a high-school guidance counselor who is accused of rape by two students, a popular girl played by Denise Richards and an outcast played by Neve Campbell. (Yeah, it’s more than a little yikes, especially post-#MeToo.) Kevin Bacon plays the detective investigating the situation. The plot is filled with all kinds of crazy twists, which don’t matter for our purposes, because it also contains, as Entertainment Weekly put it last year (which saw more than a few Wild Things 20th-anniversary tributes), “one of the most notorious movie moments of the ’90s.” That scene is the champagne-soaked threesome between Dillon, Campbell, and Richards. A not-quite-as-infamous-but-still-pretty-notorious kissing scene in a pool between Campbell and Richards is also recalled fondly: Complex ranked it in a list of the sexiest movie scenes of all time, saying, “The lesbian pool scene, while highly-stylized, was many a teenage boy’s first glimpse at on-screen sex between two women that didn’t classify as porn.”

The movie, despite not being a huge hit, spawned several direct-to-DVD sequels, of which the A.V. Club wrote, “none of the latter movies would presumably have gotten made were it not for the semi-notoriety of the first one,” adding: “Wild Things is a laughably dumb film, but almost embarrassingly watchable in its unashamed pursuit of hokey, salacious pandering to its intended audience of normally functional human brains slumming it for a couple hours.”

In addition to the much-discussed threesome scene, the other part of the movie people always remember is Bacon’s full-frontal moment, which has been described as “delightfully gratuitous.” That scene helped expand the movie’s appeal beyond straight male audiences. As a BuzzFeed piece from last year put it, “For gay men who grew up in the ’90s, there are two distinctive eras: the time before we saw Kevin Bacon’s full-frontal scene in Wild Things, and the time after.” Lesbians, the erstwhile LGBTQ site Into has written, latched onto the kissing scenes between Richards and Campbell in a similar way.

It’s confirmed: Wild Things had all the necessary ingredients to become a touchstone for millennial adolescents in all stages of puberty. But how do I know it actually lived up to its innocence-destroying potential? I asked around, and my male co-workers came out of the woodwork to reminisce: “Teen boys at my middle school and high school definitely discussed the lesbian scene in hushed tones,” one colleague said, adding, “Denise Richards was also definitely a Thing.” Yeah, a wild thing. Another colleague remembered: “Certain scenes from Wild Things were widely shared among certain individuals who attended college when the early days of file sharing coincided with the film’s release. For their artistic value.” Yes, of course. Evidently, it wasn’t just a middle- or high-school phenomenon—Wild Things was even a hot commodity at colleges.

A third co-worker offered: “I remember a class trip to D.C. where we were all staying in a hotel and word spread through the class that Wild Things was going to be on TV that night. We were all staying in different rooms of four kids or so, but I think every single person in the class watched it.”

That last anecdote struck me as eerily similar to a string of tweets I saw a few days later from Mel magazine writer Miles Klee, who shares my assessment of PEN15’s knack for detail:

Klee did not, as far as we can tell, go to my colleague’s school. My co-worker could only offer, “1999: What a time to be alive and an eighth grader watching Wild Things in a Washington, D.C., hotel.”

And now that I’ve gone on and on about how Wild Things inspired the sexual coming of age of a generation, I should probably mention that I had never actually seen the movie until they watched it on PEN15. I recently corrected that error and I’ll just say that, even as someone who is now more than 15 years out of middle school, I’m not sure I could handle watching it at a boy-girl party.