[Trigger warning: This article mentions sexual abuse, verbal sexual harassment, attempted sexual assault, and threats of sexual assault.]
I find most discussions about black female sexuality strange. On the one hand, there seems to be little discussion of male sexuality. Men are not called upon to feel empowered by “embracing” their sexuality. On the other hand, so much of what passes for black women owning their sexuality is a repackaging of the same tired, racist stereotypes. Black women have to expend a lot of energy fighting off sexualities that are imposed upon us.
So lately, I’ve wanted to pause and to think about what a black female sexuality would look like without all the baggage.
One of the results of my being sexually abused and objectified as a child was being inappropriately sexualized at a young age. Normally, sexuality in young children is a limited to a natural curiosity about their bodies. However, I remember wanting to be sexually attractive at age six — even though I had no idea what that really meant. One Halloween, I wanted to be a sexy witch. I remember deliberately trying to swish my hips as I walked. Unfortunately, it has now become normal to sexualize children. Because of the Internet, children are exposed to violent porn at younger and younger ages. A 2011 study stated that 30% of girls clothing is highly sexualized. Although not named, this is a form of covert sexual abuse.
By the time I hit puberty, I decided that I didn’t want to be sexual any more. Well, it wasn’t that I didn’t want to sexual. I just didn’t want to be sexualized and objectified. At the time, in my mind, they were one and the same. Partly, my feelings were a reaction to the “normal” sexual harassment that women and girls go through. But mainly, as a victim of sexual abuse, my boundaries had been stripped. I had not yet grasped the concept that my body was mine and deserved to be protected.
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Now, thank goodness, more and more middle school and high school girls are speaking up. However, when I was at that age during the 1980s, sexual harassment wasn’t discussed. It was simply endured. My freshman year, I was groped and felt up countless times. As I actively pushed hands away from me, I endured. I remember walking down one particular hallway where I hid my face and clung to my backpack as high school boys grabbed their crotches. I called it the Gauntlet. It simply didn’t occur to me to tell someone or even change my route.
In my twenties, I was living in Atlanta, and I didn’t have a car. I had to use public transportation, where I was grabbed and groped on nearly a daily basis. I was told my pussy smelled sweet. Men would describe the circumference and length of their penises and what they would do to me. For several weeks, like clockwork, one particular so-called man demanded I suck his dick. One time, out of fear of him following me home, I turned, ran towards him swinging my umbrella at him, and screamed for him to get away. He called me crazy.
Right. I was crazy for wanting to walk home in peace after working all day at a job I hated.
What finally made me decide to get a car was that this same so-called man decided to gather some of his friends and follow me in his vehicle. I had just gotten off the train and tried to ignore them, but they kept saying they were going to fuck me up for talking back. To get to my home, I had to walk nearly a mile through a wooded, secluded area. I thought about going back to the station, but there was no security and another train wouldn’t be arriving for nearly thirty minutes.
When I heard, “We’re going to run a train on your ass,” I picked up a brick, threw it, and ran. I heard glass shatter and the car screech to halt. I ran into the woods and they came after me. I’m not sure how long they looked for me but I hid in those woods for three hours. I took taxis to and from work the remainder of the week, and bought a car I couldn’t afford over the weekend. The first time I drove home after work, I pulled up in front of house and started weeping. Months of terror and tension I hadn’t even realized I was holding just flowed out of me.
As many women have realized, there is also a problem embedded in the language of sexuality we’ve been given — language based on dominance, violence, and objectification, as if our vaginas are detachable parts that are masturbator tools for men:
- Who’s pussy is this?/This is my pussy
- Yeah, I hit that.
- Who’s your daddy? (which is extra gross because of the incest implications)
- What a great piece of ass!
- She wouldn’t give it up.
Fortunately, I’ve had enough recovery that I can spot abusers and users a mile away, but in the past, my “love” relationships didn’t fare well. I’ve had to deal with many false assumptions about my blackness and femaleness. One white male I dated for several months dumped me when he found out that I could actually count the number of men I’ve had sex with on one hand. I guess, as a black woman, I was supposed to have had sex with an infinite number of men. That not being true somehow diminished his view of his sexual prowess.
With so much of what is called sexuality being imposed upon me, I would like to see sexuality stripped of its patriarchal, white supremacist, heternormative assumptions. In Black Sexual Politics, Patricia Hill-Collins calls for a claiming of a black progressive sexuality. To me, this means refusing to “reclaim” stereotypes of black female sexuality — or any female sexuality, for that matter. I don’t need to “reclaim” these negative perceptions because they were never mine to begin with.
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One also has to understand the racist and sexist roots of stereotypes about black female sexuality. Black women and our bodies were hypersexualized to justify white men raping us on the slave ships, on the plantation, and during Jim Crow. In fact, as in any war-torn country, rape was used a method to terrorize black women and their families well through the Civil Rights era. What was natural to our bodies — our hair, our lips, our hips, our thighs — was deemed dark and lascivious and worthy of plunder. Black women were the original poster children for slut shaming. That is something I have no desire to reclaim.
One of favorite Danish TV shows is “Borgen.” It is a political drama about the first woman prime minister. Seeing the ins and outs of a parliamentary system of government was fascinating, but it was only after a few episodes that I noticed that the main women characters were only sexual with men they actually wanted to have sex with. In other words, they weren’t performing sexuality in order to get ahead in a career, to get a story, or to get anything else we’re supposed to use our sexuality to get. They were sexual with men with whom they were in relationships or with whom they just wanted to be intimate. In fact, one episode in which a minor character attempted to have sex with a guy to get a story seemed odd and out of place.
So, what do a book about a progressive black sexuality and a Danish TV show have in common for me? Well, I want to be sexual only with men with whom I choose to be sexual. That means I want to be able to walk in a world where someone else’s idea of my sexuality is not imposed upon me. That means I want to live in a world a world without street harassment, assumptions of how many partners I’ve had, or any beliefs rooted in a white supremacist ideal that was used to justify the rape and oppression of my ancestors. This means I don’t have relationships with men who have any of these types of views.
It also means knowing what I like. Personally, I hate Cosmopolitan, but they did have an interesting survey about orgasms. The survey doesn’t state the race or ethnicity of the women polled, didn’t think to survey women over forty, and clearly didn’t poll any lesbian and bisexual women, but there is one conclusion: a lot of heterosexual women in their twenties are putting up with bad sex. The men these women have sex with seem to lack a basic understanding of female anatomy. Because so much of what falls under the blanket of sexuality is so phallocentric, it looks like many heterosexual men are under the delusion that what pleases them pleases women. So, another aspect of female sexuality is figuring out what you like and being sexual with someone who actually believes in sexually reciprocity.
In The Way of Tenderness: Awakening through Race, Sexuality and Gender, Zenju Earthlyn Manuel, an African-American, lesbian, Buddhist nun, encourages the development of a healthy sexuality through the route of tenderness. She states, “Oppression is the distortion of a true nature.” Engaging in the active dismantling of oppression, internally and externally, is the key to liberation and to embracing a black female sexuality that is self-defined and progressive.
My black female sexuality has been colored by abuse. As I work to unpack these issues, I am becoming aware of my needs as a creative and sexual being. This is the key to true sexual liberation, freedom, and empowerment.
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