Do you remember your first time? Was it awkward, exhilarating, overwhelming, tender, traumatic—or some combination of all of the above?
Mine was all of those things. I was a high schooler in suburban Chicago, in the throes of my first—and at that age, what I believed would be my last—love. Even today, I can sincerely say that it was true—if young—love; and in true Romeo and Juliet fashion, I threw my inexperienced self headlong into it ...
At least, until my mother found out.
To say that my mother didn’t take the loss of my virginity well would be putting it mildly. While she’d educated me about sexuality and sexual health since I was 6 years old, I discovered my own sexuality earlier than either of us had planned—if you can plan such a thing. I may have been in love, but for my mother and me, that revelation was mutually traumatic. I was mortified and scared; she was angry, disappointed, and—as I’d come to understand years later—terrified by the thought that I might have compromised myself and my future so early in life.
So there was something instantly recognizable about last Wednesday’s episode of Grown-ish, in which protagonist Zoey Johnson and mom Rainbow (in a guest appearance by her Black-ish mom, Tracee Ellis Ross) found themselves in much the same situation. In a brief but poignant scene, Zoey revealed to her mother that she’d fallen in love—and had sex for the first time. “Are you mad?” she asked. In the pregnant pause that followed (pun intended), I cringed along with her as she awaited her mother’s response:
“No! I—I just don’t want to think about it ... but did you use protection? ... It was bound to happen at some point,” Rainbow sputtered.
It was a refreshing moment—and a departure from the usual conversations that occur around black girls and sexuality, in which we are generally divorced from our own innocence and vulnerability. The truth is, we’re rarely presumed to be in love (or given the space to be), or exercising decision-making based on sexual autonomy and emotional intimacy—let alone smart enough to protect ourselves. Instead, we’re generally cast as over-sexualized and often “asking for it.”
While Zoey’s being of college age was likely another key factor in how this scenario played out, even as a fictional mother (and doctor), Rainbow understood that sexuality was a natural part of her daughter’s maturation. She also seemed to understand that that development wasn’t destined to happen on her time. Her primary concerns—aside from her child’s physical safety—were not for her daughter’s “purity,” but for the larger implications of her making what could be a lifelong commitment at such a young age; in this case, to leave college with a potentially NBA-bound boyfriend.
“Zoey, I did not raise you like this,” Rainbow ranted. “You’re a woman who’s just going to throw it all away for some guy? You worked so hard to get here!”
And that’s where the writers’ room at Grown-ish really got it right this episode. Because instead of focusing on the loss of virginity (which didn’t even merit its own scene), the focus was rightly placed on what it means for a black girl to commit herself to someone—in mind and body.
This is the discussion I wish my mother and I had had all those years ago. I wish she’d trusted that she’d taught me well on how to conduct myself physically, and focused on the emotional implications of my choice. Because while we often prepare our children for the mechanics and risks of sexuality, we often leave them to figure out the workings of love on their own.
As I’ve since discussed with my mother, rarely does anyone tell young women what it’ll be like when you first fall for someone—and they, in turn, fall for you. Rarely does anyone tell you how overwhelming that will be, and how you’ll do anything to hold on to that feeling. Beyond discussing sexual health—and, now, rape culture—rarely are we preparing our daughters to trust themselves emotionally, and to take their own agency sexually.
That’s why I’m personally grateful that a show like Grown-ish exists for this generation. Because as a member of several older generations of folks who often seem to lack the emotional intelligence to have productive, mutually respectful relationships, I think that maybe these are the conversations we need to be having.