Sex and the City is no longer a TV show to me; it’s a mood. If I’m sad, or over-tired, or just overwhelmed by the work of being an adult, I will fire up Amazon Prime, run a bath, and watch episodes that I’ve seen a dozen or more times each, their awkwardly hilarious sex scenes and brunch-time banter so familiar that I barely need to look at the screen.
But Sex and the City, which debuted on HBO 20 years ago this week, wasn’t always just an innocuous part of my self-care regime. In 2004, when TBS started airing re-runs, I devoured the show with the alertness that only a 14-year-old Catholic school student could muster. Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte, and Miranda served a vital function for me—not just as a salacious foil to the religiously tinged “sex-ed” taught by the pious teachers and nuns at my all-girls school, but also as a desperately needed introduction to sex positivity.
I wasn’t the only one in need of this edification. My high school years in suburban California coincided with the resurgence of abstinence-only sex education backed by US president George W. Bush. At the time, the prudish self righteousness I encountered each day in religion class was emboldened to the point of giddiness. The school—and the world outside, it seemed—was pro-life, pro-war, and anti-anything that wasn’t hetero marriage, kids, and family. Even with my relatively liberal, non-Catholic parents, the lessons seeped into me in a way that I still reckoned with well into my university years.
I applauded when Miranda took a stand after Magda replaced her nightstand vibrator with a statue of a Virgin Mary. When Carrie finally mastered “having sex like a man,” it was an epiphany: Having sex can be a thing you do just because it sounds like fun. These were not just throwaway plot lines to me, but affirming lessons on what it meant to be a woman who had sex.
It must be said that in 2018, post #MeToo and Woke Charlotte, there is plenty to recoil at in the show’s troublesome sexual tropes. There’s that time when Carrie submits to unenjoyable “jackrabbit sex” that leaves her in physical pain and, instead of it being framed as a problem of unexpressed consent, she is apologetically polite to the guy the next day. Or the episode where she exhibits a normal human bodily function—farting—in front of Mr. Big and is suddenly rendered the least dateable woman in all the land. And let’s not forget the show’s squeamish treatment of sexual and gender fluidity: Samantha complaining about the “trannies” below her gentrified Manhattan loft, and Carrie dismissing the entire concept of bisexuality as “a layover on the way to gay-town.”
Then of course, there was the meta-message of the show. That sure, you can consider your friends soulmates and have all the non-committed sex you want, but in the end—or at least the end of season six—your heteronormative happily ever after will find you on the Pont des Arts bridge in Paris, and tell you, “You’re the one.”
But to judge the show by these considerable failings is to miss a larger point about what Sex and the City did do: portray sex in a way that the likes of me had never seen before—and were being taught the exact opposite of at school.
Knowing what I do now, it has become something of a party trick to horrify people with stories from those religion classes. There was the notecard we were given featuring a single long-stemmed red rose and the words: “Your sexuality is like a rose. Each time you engage in a premarital sexual activity, a precious petal will be plucked. Don’t hand your husband an empty stem.” Or the suggestion that condoms were ineffective, supported by a diagram of a teacup-sized circle—meant to represent a rogue hole in the latex—scaled next to a pea-sized sperm, which was eagerly waiting to swim right through it. Then there was the grainy and traumatic dilation and curettage abortion we were required to watch on VHS in the middle of the school day.
If any one of us understood the basic mechanics of ovulation, fertility, or menstrual cycles—let alone the difference between a clitoral and vaginal orgasm—it was not because of our schooling, but in spite of it. We were completely ill-equipped to deal with the sexual grey areas that were waiting for each of us as we arrived at our freshman dorms. And the inescapable impression we got was that our bodies belonged to anyone but ourselves.
And that’s where those four antiheroines—whether in the edited-for-basic-cable reruns or via the uncensored box set my best friend got her hands on—came in. They showed us that sex could be funny, romantic, or even dark. That vibrators were a thing. That grown women in their 30s could openly talk about abortion at brunch. That female pleasure was something that needs to be put front and center if it’s going to be taken care of. That you could ask someone to leave when you were done.
Today, sex education in the US remains woefully insufficient by global standards. Of course there is no shortage of sexual content—informational and otherwise—for Catholic high school students to find online. But I must admit that I’m sort of grateful that I got that education from these four funny, smart women. They taught me that premarital sex doesn’t have to be something women fend off or regret—and that sometimes, it’s okay if you just want to get laid.