I'm old enough to know quite a lot about sex. I'm also young enough to still lucidly remember my introduction to it. It wasn't elegant, romantic, or even textbook. It was pulled clumsily from sweet fantasies and uncomfortable realities, a collision of naive yearning and rude awakenings. I was always curious about sex as a kid — less so from a physical standpoint, and more so as a romantic ideal — but my exposure to even a basic understanding of sex was limited to small doses very early on. I would hear whispers about things my cousins did that were considered "fast." I saw movie after movie of girl meeting boy, losing her virginity, and being left to pick up the pieces. I even got to read about the raunchy escapades in Zane's urban erotica my mother hid in her closet. I found myself listening to a very loud and continuous cultural conversation, but I didn't just want to listen, I wanted to be apart of it. But there was no one for me to ask.
I grew up in what I consider a stereotypically black family, where children, and anyone who was yet to be deemed "grown," were to be seen not heard. There were no family meetings because this was not a democracy. The adults in my life had no time to listen to innocent questions, let alone the difficult ones. Even the bare bones medical explanations my school thought were important enough to mention in their limited sex education classes were seen as down right taboo in my home. Even today as a grown woman — one required to bring dishes to family functions, and even give the youngins money for the ice cream truck — it's still hard for me to bring up pivotal conversations.
Once a teenager, my body hastily caught up to my mind, and I couldn't wait for my world to actually include the experiences I'd been learning about secondhand. I wanted more than what my level of understanding of sex and relationships could provide. Between "sexual education classes" that glorified abstinence and ignored pretty much everything else, and a house where I was fearful about even mentioning a boy's name, there wasn't anywhere left for me to turn when I had questions about sex, relationships, or even just maturing into a woman. I was left to my own devices to try to find answers as I went, because while the developing body, hormones, and googly eyes were readily available, the information was not.
I went to a high school where one of my classmates was on her third child by junior year. Some boys were already several years deep into their lifelong conquest to forever be "getting some." They were not just experienced, they were well-versed and the gossip mill put them in places and conversations my inexperience could never reach. Why would my crush with absolutely perfect eyelashes who had been sleeping with girls and women alike for the better part of 10 years want this awkward, inexperienced girl who didn't even have her first kiss until 13? I was beginning to feel the pressure to forge my own escapades. Fortunately for me, before I began to remold myself as the Zane of my high school, I was hit with an unexpected dose of reality from a fictional character.
That first connection, the first inkling that a fictional character might understand me better than my parents or even my advanced level friends happened during the episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air where Carlton (Alfonso Ribeiro) took drastic measures to avoid admitting that he was a virgin. I typically watched for Will Smith because, I mean, he was and is Will Smith, but this Very Special Episode was what I needed more than sitcom beat jokes. Carlton's hapless ruse involved possibly fathering the child of his ex-girlfriend. He jumped through hoops and even agreed to marry this young woman to perpetuate the lie that he too had conquered the ugly beast of virginity. He so desperately wanted to fit in, he rushed into decisions that would alter the course of his life forever — raising a family is expensive, emotional, and forever. Although I'd never be driven to this level of lying, I saw myself in Carlton. Sometimes you want to, for once, not stand outside of spaces you crave to know. Wouldn't it be nice to have a turn to join in conversations that consumed your mind? To actually be able to have something to contribute? Or even better, not feel the need to fast-forward through fake life experiences that would eventually come? I was ready for a different outlook.
Fresh Prince was still relevant, but also outdated by time I used it as a roadmap into my own sexual discovery and expression; most of the shows I watched at this time were. In fact, I couldn't really tell you about what shows were popular to teens in the early 2000s. I submersed myself in '90s black sitcoms, and I did not mind drowning in it. I saw these characters as my friends. They were my points of reference, and more often than not, taught me a valuable lesson for each side-splitting laugh they provided. These lessons were sometimes easy and light hearted. Eddie (Darius McCrary) from Family Matters would fall for a "dog" of a girl, and my chunky and awkward heart would flutter at the thought maybe someone would look past my flaws. Or Moesha (Brandy) would be able to get her crush's attention without compromising her sexual boundaries. There would always be a happy ending until there wasn't. My fictional best friends, mothers, and siblings had moments where things weren't alright, and I used their turmoil as a North Star when navigating all the times sex and relationships had left me standing on the outside.
Of all of these time honored classics, it was A Different World that provided me the most accurate blueprint to who I could be and the kind of sex and relationships I could have. When I discovered A Different World, it was at a time when I had the opportunity to turn my theoretical knowledge into practical experience. But watching the show quickly put a halt to that, at least for a while. I remember being terrified of my first date years before it ever occurred because when Freddie (played by Cree Summers, who I secretly identified with although I tried my hardest to be Whitley) fell for her crush on the show and he turned out to be a rapist. I learned right alongside Dwayne (Kadeem Hardison) that coercion from a guy on a date could be sexual assault. There were episodes about pregnancy scares, heartbreaks, unrequited love, and about a still extremely taboo topic today, HIV. A Different World was where I got to see myself in almost every episode, and the reflection looking back was confused despite all of their worldly experiences.
Nothing hammered this idea home more than when Tisha Campbell appeared as Josie Webb, a new classmate who shared that she had less than a year's life expectancy after contracting HIV from her boyfriend. Up until watching this episode, I knew about STIs and I didn't know anyone who was dealing with one, at least not openly. Sex as a whole, I was learning, and anxiously waiting to enjoy, but I was looking at the whole experience through rose-colored glasses. I was so focused on the act, the love, the feel good of it all that I missed the even more perplexing realities. I was so misinformed, I barely thought about the side effects or repercussions that could come with sex, even when you have it with someone who is right for you. STIs were no longer bogeymen or an old wives' tale that I could just shunt to the back of my mind with an eye roll; they were real. They existed and they ran rampantly in communities, specifically my community, and I, for the first time, I was grateful for my second-hand experience instead of cursing it. I was able to experience the parable, without ever having to suffer the consequences of it. And for the first time, being a late bloomer felt like a gift.
I could look back at these shows as an adult in 2019 and easily poke a million holes in them. They had their unsavory moments, from sexism to colorism. But even through that critical lens, the greater truth is that these shows shaped me into who I am. All the lessons I learned from Fresh Prince, Family Matters and Moesha I would have run into eventually, but for the same reason your parents or peers crack open their painful journeys to share cautionary tales, these shows made it so I wouldn't have to approach these issues blind. I was provided a seat at a table that people in my real life saw as unneeded, but was actually one that would help me to keep the conversations going, even if at first the conversations were just with myself. Regardless whether I or anyone else acknowledges it, the conversation about sex and dating will forever be happening and evolving. There will another girl overflowing with hormones, another a boy lying about conquest he never had, and black and brown kids will still be searching for answers to questions they're afraid to ask. I hope they won't have to string together an understanding haphazardly through TV, pop culture, and their equally inexperienced peers like I did, but if they do, I'd tell them to start with A Different World.
This week, TV Guide is exploring television's relationship with sex, puberty, and everything in between. As part of Sex Ed Week, we're examining what Stranger Things can teach us about puberty, what Starz's new series gets right about millennial sexuality,how Shrill provides a much-needed, body-positive representation of sex, and more. You can check out all our Sex Ed Week content here.