[Trigger warning: This article contains language, historical context and other truths that may piss you off, strike a nerve or make you “big” mad…..my thoughts…so! Get over it, just like “you folks” have asked us to do over the past 400 years.]
Black women have a complex and painful history when it comes to sexuality. What happened on the auction block centuries ago is still unfinished business for Black women today. Slavery ripped into the hearts and soul of African women altering their culture, their families, and their sexuality. It would be naïve to think that time has healed those wounds or to believe that they are no longer relevant to the sexual experiences of Black women today.
The psycho-sexual trauma of slavery is forever embedded in our subconsciousness. The shame, stigma and other negative feelings are still associated with sexuality even today. Under the system of slavery Black women were often considered chattel property and were bred like animals. White men sexually coerced and abused Black women. Black families were frequently torn apart. Legal marriages between slaves was often prohibited. The trauma of slavery left Black women feeling ashamed of their body and their sexuality. Black women were left to negotiate the burden of years of sexual humiliation and degradation. The trauma embedded from years of exploitation became the catalyst for the negative intergenerational patterns, thoughts, beliefs and attitudes regarding sexuality within the Black community. This degradation would lay the foundation for the modern conceptual framing of Black women’s sexuality. It also contributes to the 10 reasons why Black women have to think differently about sexuality.
1) They labelled us! The white imagination still produces toxic caricatures of Black women’s sexuality. Much like the four women that dance between the bars of the famous Nina Simone song “Four Women,” Black women’s sexuality has been determined by the conceptual framing of white folk’s ideals of how Black women should embody sexuality. These labels help to restrict the exploration and celebration of Black women’s sexuality. They evoke fear, while providing comfort to the labeler. As a result, the sexual script Black women have been given includes: jezebel, baby mamma’s, mammy, Madonna, siren, “Hottentots” etc. Given these narratives of our sexuality, Black women have had too constantly battle the stigma, shame and guilt of being a sexual being. Unfortunately, Black women have bought into this notion that we are no more that our bodies or erotic capital that has built and continues to build this country and many others. Additionally, these labels have contributed to the internalized self-hate or self-barriers that Black women have placed on ourselves and our sexuality.
2) The Music and the Media. We continuously allow music and media to capitalize on our sexuality as if we are still nothing more than oversexed, irresponsible, out-of-control women who create havoc with our sexualities. In many ways, the sexual images that represent us in music and media places right back on the auction block for sale disguised as entertainment; our bodies exploited, objectified, on display for all to see. In our minds and in the minds of others, these degenerative images of women have become the defining factor of Black women’s sexuality and relationships. We have bought-in to this belief and now we are selling ourselves at a huge cost to ourselves. But what we fail to realize is that the price we’re paying contributes to the reasons why Black women continue to be disenfranchised, marginalized and continue to remain on bottom in every area: careers, education, marriage, etc. Finally, this hyper sexualization of women’s bodies contributes to the rape culture, sexualization of little girl’s bodies and places women and girls at increased risk for sexual assaults.
3) The institutional breakdown of Black love and relationships. According to Dr. Joy Degruy, author of Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, we must also consider the complexity of black relationships and their deterioration because of the trauma caused during slavery. Degruy explains that when black women were repeatedly raped by slave masters, they understood intellectually that black men could not help them for fear of retaliation, abuse, separation of families or worse. Nevertheless, that did not stop them from distrusting black men. Alternately, while black men understood that black women could not fight back, they resented it anyway, and began to distrust black women. This dichotomy created a struggle with their values and their sense of manhood. They would begin to project this onto women. This distrust from both parties has been carried with us over centuries creating a strained relationship between Black women and men; thus altering the black family.
4) Spirituality conflicting message about sexuality – abstinence, abuse, silence and stigma. Often times, the church preaches one thing – refrain from sex until marriage- but demonstrates another. Everyone from the choir stand to the backdoor, from the pastor to the youth usher board individuals are engaging in some form of “sinful” sexual activity, nevertheless it’s swept under the rug. Female congregants are often judged more harshly and treat unequally when it comes to sexual indiscretions i.e. when the young lady gets pregnant she is expected to come before the congregation and acknowledge her sins of fornication, while the male partner does not. This sends the message that only the female is to be held accountable for her unacceptable sinful behavior. In addition, bible beating with scriptures, religious guilt-tripping and sin shaming forms a barrier. It creates this virgin/whore dichotomy that teaches women to lie about, hide, be ashamed of and deal with their sexuality in silence. It is this type of learned silence, shame and stigma that makes us vulnerable and puts us at higher risk for unintended consequences of sexuality. In addition, it does not equip us with the tools we need to protect ourselves from sexual abuse – inside or outside of the church. Nor does it prepare us for sexual relationships within marriages and other partnered relationships.
5) Good girls don’t have sex myth! This message is reinforced time and time again to many young Black girls. Abstinence is great and we all wish that our girls were but, that’s just not the case. We cannot turn a blind eye to the situation. It only adds to the problem. We need to equip our girls with the truth, so they can not only protect themselves but embrace and own their sexuality. When we categorize sex as something that only bad girls do, we subconsciously send the message that “good” girls should not enjoy sex. The challenge that this creates is that as our “good” girls grow up and become women who get married, and still are harboring the “good girls don’t” stigma. As a result, they are less likely to experience sexual pleasure with their partner; which can ultimately contribute to significant problems in their relationship. In addition, many girls who grow up with this belief may suffer from sexual dysfunction which may have been prevented if they grew up with a healthy view of sexuality. This good girls don’t have sex belief reinforces the shame, stigma, guilt, embarrassment and taboo that surround sexuality. The negative consequences of this are that as our girls grow up and become women, they tend to be less likely to have healthy and positive feelings regarding their body and their sexuality.
6) The misogyny of it all. Penis play equals notches! Boys are socialized from a very early age to embrace their penis. They are encouraged to sow their royal oats and have as much sex as one man can take. This patriarchal thinking and sexist gender role have been passed down as some sorts of a rite of passage. “Locker room banter” is suggestive of negative connotations and references to women and it’s even accepted as proper protocol by the President of the “free world.” Misogynistic, white, male heteronormative privilege dominates and dictates societies response to Black women’s sexuality. It’s the same conceptual framing and narrative that began during slavery when the white slave masters, overseers, etc. felt the need to force themselves upon Black women. Black women’s bodies became their territory to occupy at their discretion. This unapologetic abuse of power and sexual violence would forever change the trajectory of how we would experience our sexuality. All these factors combine contribute to the degradation of Black women’s sexuality.
7) Keep your panties up! This old antiquated way of thinking fails just as much now as it did back then with grandma and nem. The message of remaining abstinent until marriage only ended with a lot of girls being sent on “vacation” down south or up north to Big mama’s house for nine months. It also contributed to a lot of shame, secrecy and empty church confessions from young women scorned. Or it created resentment from kids who grew up only to find that their “big sister” was really their mother. Finally, this out-of-date mindset, resulted in damaged wombs, infections and emotionally scarred women who received back alley abortions trying to maintain that “good girls don’t” image. Now of course some young ladies did keep their panties up, however they ended up pulling them to the side, which also opened the door to shame, secrecy and guilt. This misguided message only added to the layers of trauma that many girls experienced trying to navigate the complexities of their sexuality.
8) Cutesy names for the female body parts. We’ve been taught to call our vagina, vulva, breast every cutesy name in the book instead of the medically accurate name. Vajayjay, twat, slit, pussy, beaver, kitty, punany, coota mama, coochie, black box, deep hole, down there, honeypot, titties, watermelon, twins, boobs, jugs are just a few of the slang names that we use when referring to our body parts. When you stop to think about it, many of these names are not cute at all! They are downright negative and derogatory. They send the wrong message about the female body. Not only that, some of these words are very uncomfortable to hear. When we use cutesy names instead of using the correct terminology for body parts and functions, it takes away the value of our body. When we devalue something, we do not respect it and take care of it. This lack of respect or value of our body places us at risk for sexually transmitted infections, HIV and pregnancy because they don’t value their body enough to protect it or for that matter even know how to protect it.
9) Nasty Woman. We have been taught that our bodies are dirty and worthless and because of this we disassociate ourselves from our bodies. There are countless commercials and products on the market that help perpetuate and support this myth of the “unclean” woman. Even dating back to the Old Testament biblical times, there was the woman with the issue of blood who was ostracized. And even in many counties today, women and girls are oftentimes ostracized and separated from the males in the village when they have their menstrual cycle. We have come to loathe our bodies so much so that we try to alter the vagina’s natural smell and/or alter the look and feel of the vulva and vagina. In fact, some women have even died trying to create the “perfect” body that society has deemed sexually acceptable and desirable. In addition, because we have bought into this belief that our bodies our nasty, many women have developed an aversion to touching their bodies. The shame placed on touching and even enjoying touching one’s body ultimately contribute to unhealthy ideals about sexuality. This internalized self-hate contributes to risks for the acquisition and transmission of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.
10) The -isms… The -ism play a contributing factor to Black women’s sexual health, functioning, and quality-of-life outcomes and risks. Issues such as race, gender, ethnicity, class and sexuality cannot be ignored. Black women, more so than any other race, gender, or ethnicity, experience the brunt of racism, sexism, classism, erotic capitalism, etc. This intersectionality of gender, race, sex, class, and capitalism produces and perpetuates systems of oppression and domination. This social, systemic and institutionalized oppression creates barriers to accessing and receiving care, services and treatment and contributes to the already existing distrust of government. In addition, these misguided and sometime violent system further exacerbates the social determinant such as poverty, lack of education, under or unemployment, lack of insurance, income, etc. that keep us disenfranchise and disproportionately impacted by HIV. Additionally, these -isms and systems of oppression indoctrinate and reinforce shame, stigma, secrecy, guilt, etc. all of which contributes the denial of our sexual selves.
Prior to enslavement of the African people, sexuality was treasured, protected as a rite of passage. The initiation of slavery irrevocably altered the sexuality of the Africans and their descendants. The permission to be a sexual being was ripped and stolen from our very being. Over the next several hundred years, a new sexual order emerged for Black women. Stigma, shame, secrecy and guilt has become the dominate themes dictating Black women’s sexuality; such that we have experienced it as something outside of ourselves resulting in an existential crisis. Our sexuality is not something that happens to us! It’s who we are. We must be actively engaged and present in who we are as sexual beings. We must not be afraid to tackle the taboo, debunk the myths, contradict the stereotypes and disavow the beliefs that have become the modern narrative for Black women’s sexuality. Failure to do so, can result in the continuances of lifelong trauma that has been passed down for generations, and has kept Black women from experiencing the best life possible.
Finally, I leave you with this thought….My Beloved Sister! In order to be sexually free, sexually empowered, we have to move beyond the pain. We have to be active and intentional in dismantling the oppression – both internally and externally. Our sexuality is something that is inherent to our person, and it’s something that we should be allowed to freely define, claim, embody and experience without the influence of those who are not Black women. I give you permission to do just that! Discover, explore and unleash your sexuality in a healthier, safer, and unapologetic manner….that you and only you define!