What Are You Afraid of…The Love Below?: Black Female Sexual Agency and the Power/Penalty of Yes


I recently hosted a shindig with a group of 30-somethings at my home.  The group was composed of both men and women, and much of the conversation—albeit fueled by alcohol and barbecue—revolved around male/female relationships and of course sex.  One of the men present at the event put forth the premise that all women fall into four hierarchically based categories: marriageable date-able, fuck-able, and untouchable.

This statement immediately sent me to my special place.  My anger reached biblical proportions. That is a less judicious part of me wanted to smite him on sight—but instead I listened. I listened to him rationalize ad nauseam a limited, simple, and rather hurtful view of women and in particular Black women.  I may be biased, but to me a Black woman’s experience and the way she does “womanhood” is too unique and really too  divine to be reduced to arbitrary categories. Yet his premise gives us a point of departure to discuss Black female sexual agency: its power and its penalty.

The fictions around Black female sexuality are dangerous.  From the sexually repressed mammie to the wanton jezzebel, these convenient and simplistic archetypes make me nervous for several reasons.  First, they are symbolic of the greater cultural systems of patriarchy that normalize sexism and more pointedly sexual prohibition for women—and in particular Black women. Second, they subvert Black women’s sexual agency and support constructed myths of the “good girl” and the “bad girl” to the detriment of Black female sexual identity formation. Finally, they treat sex as a commodity within the relational transactions of Black women and men, thereby stripping it of its spiritual and natural origins.

For decades, Black women have had to negotiate a sexual identity against the historical backdrop of slavery that found them the victims of systematic rape and sexual abuse.  From these origins, a range of sexual stereotype regarding Black women have emerged in the larger culture.  We have been portrayed as either oversexed or sexually deficient.  Sadly, the Black female voice has largely been left on the margins of such discussions, particularly when it contradicts mainstream ideas.   Accordingly, to assert agency over one’s sexuality may even today be interpreted within the parameters of stereotypes like the Jezebel:

The portrayal of Black women as lascivious by nature is an enduring stereotype. The descriptive words associated with this stereotype are singular in their focus: seductive, alluring, worldly, beguiling, tempting, and lewd. Historically, White women, as a category, were portrayed as models of self-respect, self-control, and modesty – even sexual purity, but Black women were often portrayed as innately promiscuous, even predatory. This depiction of Black women is signified by the name Jezebel.2

Jezebel Stereotype

In the song “She Lives in My Lap”, by Outkast, a breathy Rosario Dawson’s whispers the lyrics: What’s wrong?/What are you afraid of?/The Love Below. I thought this line was very telling about the power differential that sex can cause in modern male female relationships.  I believe that many men are equal parts attracted to and fearful of a sexually confident woman.

All too often, a women’s sexual ego is equated to her ability to please a man— rather than her ability to derive sexual pleasure for herself.  However, if a woman outwardly expresses her desire for sexual pleasure and moreover asserts agency over her sexuality, she is often reduced to the “jump-off, “the  provocateur”, or ” the heaux”.  Categories and stereotypes become a way of managing common fears men have around female sexuality: that they will fail to please their partner, that their partner might commit adultery, or that they will erase men from their sexual experience all together.

The good girl/bad girl construct is another fall out of patriarchal thinking.   Steve Harvey’s Act like a Woman, Think like a Man is an artifact of this construct.   What’s the difference between a lady and a woman?  Patriarchy.  Western society promotes so-called sexual purity in women as a desirable quality for a mate.  On its face sexual purity isn’t a bad thing; I would simply argue that its value is applied inequitably across the sexes.   Black women are well aware of the “boys will be boys” mentality that governs sexual power structures of our community and for that matter larger Western society, but I believe we have been downright complacent, if not content to uphold and even perpetuate this norm.  We see and define our own value within these constructs: be sexually desirable—yes, desire sex outside the norms of society—no.

Categorizing or stereotyping women along lines of their collective sexual behavior is not only damaging to the female psyche, but I would argue equally dangerous for the greater society.  Ironically, as I type this, I am watching the documentary Love Crimes of Kabul. It traces the story of Afghan women who face prison for adultery and premarital sex.  While worlds apart from my reality, I would argue that the sexist ideology that governs such practices is very real in Western culture  and in the African-American community.  Listening to women talk about their lack of power to define their sexual behavior is an apt metaphor for the power struggles Black women face in defining, owning, leveraging, and embracing their sexuality.  Pain and pleasure interplay in this long running narrative.

Ever since Eve and the apple came into our cultural consciousness, women’s power over their sexuality has been compromised.  Women and men need to collectively take the power struggle, and manipulation out of our sexual relationships, in order to get back to its purest state. Sex is natural, spiritual, and beautiful.  When Black women and Black men confront each other honestly about what they are both seeking, the categories become extinct, the myths are debunked, and the stereotypes are confronted.  Love becomes free again. 

Catching Grenades: Dudes Do What They Want to Do. Always.


Ladies, I am going to let you in on a little secret.  Something that has been paradigm-shifting for me.  Are you ready?  Here it goes:  “Dudes do what they want to do.  Always.”  This little maxim is the only real wisdom I have about men folk, but it has been truly illuminating.  It has given me the freedom to stop analyzing and simply start living, and in the best case love with anticipation and not debilitating expectation.

As women, we have a tendency to get caught in analysis  paralysis when it comes to our romantic relationships.  We spend countless man hours and tremendous bandwidth trying to figure out what he is thinking, feeling, and desiring.  This kind of behavior almost always becomes an exercise in self-deprecation. We begin to blame ourselves for why he isn’t responding, acting, or otherwise behaving the way we want him to.  Perhaps it is that we don’t listen, or we are not accomplished, thin, pretty, or smart enough.  We begin to create these mythologies to provide a rationale for another person’s behavior and we operate within the myth, when there is only one real truth. Again I will say it:   “Dudes do what they want to do. Always”

Men are uniquely binary. They tend to operate more comfortably in a space of  “yes” or “no”, whereas women tend to prefer more choices; we are creatures of nuance.  The fact that men tend to thrive in the black and white spaces of life, and not in the gray should make things easier on us. However, all to often our choice to over analyze negates this opportunity for peace and truth.  We still sit around with our girlfriends trying to figure out why he doesn’t call, why he won’t leave her, why he won’t go down the aisle or even to the movies, when the answer is simple. He doesn’t do any or all of those things because he doesn’t want to.  When he does, he will. Simple.

This whole theory is not to suggest that men are not complex. I hate the idea floating around that men our “simple”; to my mind they are just has  cerebrally splendid and capable of feeling, as their female counterparts.  However, the extent to which they work comfortably in the emotional realm is perhaps more limited than women, but when they do—I would argue that men can be far more deliberate, loyal, and even invested.  So what does this look like?

I have known men that once in love with a woman will put up with every kind of demoralizing form of rejection one can imagine.  Bruno Mars sings about catching grenades for the woman to whom he was devoted.  Yes—this song is melodramatic, but there is a lot of truth in this metaphor.  Because men do what they want to do, when they decide they want to love you or make you happy, the lengths they will go to to do so are remarkable.  Have you ever had a guy in your life, who was crazy about you?  I don’t me lunatic stalker crazy; I mean genuinely into you.  I have and I will tell you that in every case I never had to question how he felt or what he was thinking because his actions demonstrated everything I needed to know.   “Dudes do what they want to do. Always”

I hope that this little tidbit  of wisdom helps you move on or move to a relationship that is affirming, fulfilling, and useful.  I also hope that it will help you loose whatever binds you have on your romantic life.  The next time you find your self ruminating  about what Mr. Man wants, needs, or feels immediately remember: “Dudes do what they want to do” and then channel that energy into yourself or even into serving others.  The time we spend devoting energy to understanding what he is thinking can be much more profitably spent defining our own hopes, desires, and dreams.

Thoughts?

The Brown Girl’s Dilemma: Beauty Standards, Media, and Colorism


It is 2011.  Colorism should be a relic of  America’s ugly racist past. Yet one look at Twitter or a BET video countdown and you will see that Black America’s internal struggle with complexion is still alive  and thriving today.  Hash tags of #teamlightskin and #teamdarkskin abound in online social networks and this is sad.  Media conceptions of Black beauty all to often fail to show its remarkable and brilliant diversity; this should change.

We all know that divisions around complexion were created  during slavery to further manipulate and conquer a stolen people.   However, I wonder why we continue to internalize such divisions to collective our detriment.

Today, I  can say without any reluctance or shred of dishonesty that I for one love the brown skin I’m in.  Yet complexion has informed my conception of myself for as long as I can remember.   Whether it was growing up and questioning if my brown skin was really beautiful, or wishing for long silky hair; the issue of colorism crystallized for me well before I could intellectualize it in a useful way.

At five-years-old I did not know about America’s tradition of slavery and legalized discrimination. Then “Jim Crow” would have sounded like a  funny name for a Sesame Street character.  However, I could observe and it was made clear to me through film, television, and even family dynamics that light-skin was preferable.

My father’s family were very dark-skinned people, and in contrast my maternal grandfather could have passed for white.  This led to an interesting color politic between the various households I moved through.   I grew up hearing pejoratives and stereotypes associated with both light and dark skin that definitely colored my self-perception and how I perceived others. Some of the malarkey I heard growing up included stereotypes like: “dark-skinned” women are naturally mean and could not be trusted.  In contrast, “light-skinned” or “yella” women—though beautiful—were highfalutin.   Children were embraced and doted on for their beauty  based on their complexion. Light eyes and soft hair were rewarded, and dark skin and kinky hair were resultantly penalized.

My grandma checked my ears at birth to either confirm or deny what my complexion was going to be.  However, to be fair she was born in 1916 and a lot of her ideas around race were a product of being raised in a segregated South.  My father once told me he wished I had his soft curly hair instead of my mother’s less than soft and curly hair.  As a little girl, I can even remember asking my mother why I was so much darker than her, and expressing that I wished I was her complexion.  It is memories like these that formed the foundation for my  self-conception as a dark skinned Black woman.

School reinforced this original conception.  When I played pretend with my schoolmates, we would imagine we were light-skinned with long hair.   In the 80’s and I would argue even now, fair-skinned beauties were the dominant representation of  which Black was beautiful.  We wanted to look like Vanessa L. Williams, Tracey Spencer, Pebbles, or The Good Girls. From where I stood, the girls in school who were considered the most beautiful and popular were those with fairer skin and long hair.  I am positive that this experience was felt entirely differently from the girls who embodied these traits.  In fact, since my adolescent travails around color, I have talked to my girlfriends who have the light skin, the green eyes, the soft hair.  Guess what?  They experienced just has much hurt and color confusion from being ostracized, stereotyped, and otherwise harassed.

Dating  in the DMV is always an interesting experiment in color politics.  This area is probably more susceptible to this kind of nonsense because of the transient nature of the residents and  the area’s historic ties to Black Bourgeoisie or African-American elite.   As a very brown girl, I have had the experience of being told I was beautiful–with the caveat.  Those who have this experience know exactly what I mean.  You know the whole “your pretty for a brown-skinned girl” or “I don’t usually date dark girls” spiel.  I frankly cannot stomach this kind of talk and it is an immediate turn off. It is fine to have a preference around what you find attractive; however, I would challenge those with these kinds of ideas about complexion to look at their own experience. I’d ask you to consider how much of what you deem attractive has been informed by the media, hip-hop, the beauty industry?   Similarly, I say to the women who say they want their kids to be light-skinned or have good hair, you are simply fueling a disgusting cycle of self-hate.  Please stop.

You may have seen the trailer for the soon to be released documentary film “Dark Girls”.  The film—produced by Bill Duke for Duke Media and D. Channsin Berry for Urban Winter Entertainment— documents dark-skinned African-American women recounting their painful experiences around their color. The amount of sadness, self-loathing, pain, and denial in this brief preview is demoralizing.  Yet the film has ignited  a long overdue public conversation around colorism and intra-racism.

Ultimately, we need get away from these toxic and misinformed conceptions born of a racist past.  We should not let this ugly tradition fuel what and who we are today.   Beauty is socially constructed and hence can be deconstructed.  Accordingly, we need to start embracing various representations of Black beauty.   However, if we look critically at this issue, I think more than diverse representations we will find the need for a catharsis.  The hurt caused around this issue is what troubles me more than anything.  I hope that “Dark Girls”  will be a platform for this.

So where do you stand on this complexion thing?   How has colorism affected your self-conception?  How does it affect your dating choices and options? Where do you see historic remnants of colorism playing out in our modern time?  Do you subscribe to the Team Light Skin and Team Dark Skin parodies? Do such attempts to make light of this obviously complex issue help or hurt the matter?

Dear Editor: Copy, Cut, Paste, Delete….Writing my Own Story


Funny thing about introspection: it’s just so damn personal!  You see, I had a post all ready written about the perils, trials, and tribulations of dating for highly educated Black women in the DMV.   It was witty, charming, and beautifully constructed.  Trust me.   However, my inner voice suggested that the content was not entirely accurate or perhaps it was simply to simplistic.  I was regurgitating a narrative that I have heard from women like me who are looking for love in seemingly all the wrong places. It was a story of rejection, heartbreak, loneliness, and even shame—albeit not without its light moments.  Yet, it was a story framed from the point of view of a victim.  I am not a victim, though it occurs to me I have operated as one for way too long.

In thinking of matters of love and life, I am resigned to be the editor of my life.  In this role, I have the power to decide who stays and who shall go.   I can write a better story, by way of smart choices based  first and foremost around loving myself and consequently not based on the fleeting opinion of others.  Within this paradigm, I determine my self worth from a higher truth: I am a person in progress, but I am worthy of  pure and genuine love.  As editor, I can redefine the storyline as I go along, being confident not to settle and faithful enough to take a risk in pursuit of my dreams.  However, this is much easier said than done.

I am the kind of girl that thrives on male attention. There I’ve said it.  For as long as I can remember, it was very important to me that boys and men found me attractive and worthy of love.  I  had a boyfriend pretty consistently since the second grade and let me tell you the melodrama of that puppy love affair could rival that of any daytime soap opera.  I kept boyfriends through middle and high school, and married in my early twenties to  further solidify a pattern of serial monogamy sprinkled in with a few regrets.   Divorced by twenty-eight, I was devastated, angry, bitter, and sad.  The man who was supposed to support me, love me unconditionally, and protect me—let me down.  Yet in retrospect, I had let myself down. I am my own editor.

A little armchair psychology will easily connect my “boy issues”, as  I call them to my relationship with my father who loved and spoiled me incessantly, but was limited in his ability to provide the real guidance, nurturing, time, and wisdom I craved.  You see my parents were divorced when I was still a little baby and my father remarried raising a family outside the one he created with my mom.  I do not begrudge him any happiness his choices may have brought to his life; I am just realistic about how they colored my experiences in love and relationships.

I also watched my mom move through a series of boyfriends—none of which ever really deserved her. I know she did this in a failed effort to bring a father figure into my life  as well as to provide the love and security she wanted and deserved.   Yet, as I see this pattern repeating in my life:  toxic relationships, broken homes, anxiety, and depression; I am making an active choice to stop it right here.  The call on my life is too big not to;  I am my own editor.

God is my north star and I always felt very attuned to the universe and what it wanted for me.  I know that I was given a voice, talent, and a passion for living that is worthy of the kind of love that will last a lifetime.  Accordingly, it is not worth it for me to waste the energy and time investing into thin relationships based on my own insecurities, fears, or simply a desire to get the love that has alluded me, thus far.  Yet to say that it alluded me would be somewhat of a misstatement.  I have had great guys—though flawed—love me in healthy and nourishing ways.  However, I am learning that I need to come into a place mentally, physically, spiritually, and emotionally where I am able to first recognize and then form healthy romantic relationships.

Ladies:  I ardently urge you to do a mirror check.  For all the complaining we do about the foibles, fumbles, and general fuck ups the men in our life enact upon us, it is important that we don’t lose sight of how we are contributing to our own destiny. Of course this not to say that the guys out there don’t require their fair share of introspection, healing, and calls for accountability. They surely do.  The relationships between Black women and Black men are  plagued by historical consequences and cultural baggage.  Accordingly, it is that much more important that we become more intentional about recognizing and valuing the love within ourselves and others.

I say all this to say, I am taking a break to be with myself.   That is right folks—you heard it here first. I am pulling myself out of the game.  I am sure that with this bold proclamation that every guy I ever wanted will come knocking down my door—the universe is not without a sense of humor.  However, my dating sabbatical isn’t about self-denial, but more about self-actualization.  I am taking sometime to embrace the skin I’m in and to learn to love myself fully—flaws and all.  I am taking some time to know the God within me, to tap into my full potential, heal a few wounds, jump over a few hurdles, knock down some road blocks, and most importantly write my own happy ending. I am the editor of my life.  More to come…stay tuned.

What Happened to Ciara?: R&B and the New Sex Entrepreneur


It seems like it was just yesterday when little Ciara was singing an ode to the benefits of keeping one’s cookies in the jar.  Six years later,  her now delicately cultivated sexual Lolita image has been either co-opted or manipulated into outright hedonistic vixen.  I for one am not happy about it.  With  her recently slumping album sales, this new level of sexuality reeked of desperation and was bad form for a clearly talented young woman.

I was extremely disappointed with the video for her gym friendly single “Gimme Dat”.  The single has her once again leveraging the southern fried hip-hop laced stylings that put her on the map, except this time around the audience is distracted from the intricate choreography and gravity defying dance moves that made her famous.  Instead, we find her in a full sexual spectacle popping it on a handstand, gyrating, and clad in her underwear dancing in the rain.  Her dancing is amazing, but the imagery makes her come off like a glorified pole dancer; she even performs much of the dancing in the ubiquitious stipper shoe—the glass heel.

Make no mistake that this exotic dancer/stripper imagery is by design. It is not an accident.   With the recent popularity of Amber Rose, Maliah—others, it makes sense that the largely patriarchal music industry sees an economic opportunity in co-opting the images of its female R&B starlets to  evoke a similar aesthetic.

I do not want to get all judgmental big sister on Ciara because sexuality has always had its place in R&B and soul, but there is a thin line between sexy and trashy.  Take for instance, Christina Milian.  She was carefully managing the naughty good girl image—up and until—her video for “Dip It Low” found her sliding across the floor and gyrating in pools of oil.  Her singing career tanked soon there after.  Even Janet Jackson—the master of the naughty good girl image—couldn’t survive the nipple slip seen round the world.  She blurred the line between trashy and classy for a good run, but one near fatal move finds her musical career barely gasping for life.

With Rihanna giving us a lot of manufactured S&M imagery and both Keri Hilson and Kelly Rowland  following much of the same path, it seems to succeed the modern R&B star must become a sex entrepreneur.  She must balance equal parts talent, sexuality and purity−so as not to appear “deflowered” to their male fans (see inside image of Rihanna’s Loud CD). This seemingly impossible challenge has been mastered by few.  Remarkably, Beyonce has managed to walk this tightrope for over a decade—balancing sex kitten, with empowered feminist, diva, and business woman.

I would hate to prematurely morn the loss of Ciara, as I believe she has the time and talent to rebrand and redeem her image.  I am not suggesting she take the sex out, but instead she remember the importance of artistic integrity to her fan base.  She is certainly not a strong vocalist like a Melanie Fiona or a Jennifer Hudson, but she was well positioned to inherit a Jacksoneque like role as a consummate entertainer.

So what do you think?  Are the sexualized images of R&B stars like Ciara, Rihanna, Rowland and Hilson simply the norm now for a music industry plagued by poor album sells?  Does legitimate talent allow artists to avoid the trappings of the over-sexualized image?  Does the male consumer drive this trend or are women—as consumers—equally responsible for our representations?

Falling Like The Rain: We Ain’t Running Out!


Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking around the idea of “scarcity”.  In psychology and economics, the Scarcity Principle describes our urge to obtain something that we believes we may not be able to get in the future.

In the economy of human relationships, the media treats single Black men as a “scare commodity”.  Within this paradigm, Black women are conditioned to believe that the quality partners they are looking for are a rare and limited resource.  However, I would  like to offer a bit of critique of this now widely held and statistically backed perspective.  I am concerned that this narrative only amplifies the problems for men and women in the dating pool.

News Flash:  Men are falling like the rain.  We are in no danger of running out, despite what any number of blogpost, news reports, and articles in women’s magazines will tell you.  They will cite numerous measures around the number of Black men who are in prison, exclusively dating outside the race, or homosexual.  For instance, this article on mybrotha.com states there only 27 available Black men available for 100 Black women. The statistical soundness of this dataset is more than questionable, but for all the barriers to finding a partner; I am not readily convinced that it boils down to a sheer numbers game.

I believe what is required is a paradigm shift by Black women en masse. If we continue to treat the identification of a quality partner as a desperate endeavor—grounded in jealousy and competition—we are only fueling the spiral of scarcity.  In this environment, Black men who do not even have the characteristic or desire to build genuine or profitable relationships with quality Black women are reaping the benefits of being a valued commodity–without actually being one.

Accordingly, our dating marketplace has become Canal Street.  Canal Street is a notorious bastion of fake designer goods.  The public flocks here to purchase cheap facsimiles of exclusive items—like the elusive Birkin Bag.  The Birkin is a handmade purse by Hermès.  It is the ultimate symbol of wealth and privilege.  Birkins are released on unpredictable schedules and in limited quality creating scarcity in the marketplace.  Now Canal Street is full of knock-off Birkins.  These bags are not unique, handmade, or otherwise special.  My point: LADIES STOP TREATING THE KNOCK-OFF LIKE THE REAL THING.

In any situation where you have scarcity you have panic and acts of desperation.  Ladies we have to stop selling ourselves short, in order to obtain any kind of man.   Compromising your real desires for connection, authentic relationships, love, and good treatment only fuels the cycle of scarcity.  We have to be wise consumers to get what we really want: genuine relationships and authentic love.

Scarcity is tied to our survival instinct, but there are lots of good guys out here.  They may not be the Alpha male, or fly, or otherwise jiggy—but they do exist.  However, the marketplace will react to the way we interact with  it.  If as a collective, Black women decided to  diversify our markets, and more importantly set our own price to align to the real value we bring, we might get better outcomes.  If we treat ourselves cheaply, we are no better than the knock-off Birkin we so detest. I am making a call for us to stop competing with each other for minimal treatment, hurt feelings, and disappointment.  Let’s raise up our standard to get what we TRULY deserve: the kind of love that will hold us for a lifetime.

My Girlfriends….There Through Thick and Thin


I am a girl’s girl—through and through.  My relationships with the women in my life have been sources of inspiration, strength, and motivation.  I consider these relationships simply invaluable, from the loving counsel of my mother and grandmother to the laughs and tears shared among my girlfriends and Sorors.

The women in my life hold me up, listen to me bitch, moan, cry and complain.  At their best these friendships are an education, they challenge me and push me to the next level. Therefore, it saddens me when I hear Black women talk about how they are immediately distrustful or suspicious of other Black women.

Unfortunately, I think a lot of the parody and misrepresentation of Black women and our relationships in popular culture has been internalized.  This creates an insecurity that extends to our relationships with each other in our everyday interactions.  It lessens our ability to love ourselves and our ability love the reflection of ourselves—our sisters (and brothers too). Mainstream society has taught Black women in many ways not value ourselves and this collective sense of inadequacy threatens one of the most valuable cosmic connections in the universe. If we think of friendships as living things, I would argue the relationships and friendships between Black women are created and bound by a unique DNA of shared experience.

As Black women, I believe our human experience throughout history has been and even today remains unique.  How we do and define womanhood is special and beautiful and we need to embrace the magic of it.  Our relationships need not be fraught with jealousy, pettiness, malicious competitiveness, and distrust.  When I see my sister, I see the God manifest within in her.  I see her capacity (but not necessity) to be strong, her Grandmother’s wisdom, her courage, and creativity.

I believe one of my purposes in life is to interpret and voice my experience,  and more importantly the collective experience of the Black women around me.   I see so many parallels in the lives of  my sister friends, from the well-worn narrative around the perils of singleness to the weight of negotiating identity in the workplace.   I rely on my girlfriends for advice, to help me frame an experience, heal through hurt, and to make me laugh until my belly aches.

Toni Morrison said, “The loneliest woman in the world is the woman without a close woman friend” and it is in this spirit that I encourage you to treat the women in your life with love and understanding.  Be a friend and to make a friend.  Love your sisters, encourage them, and treat them with the kindness, respect, and devotion we all deserve.

“Beloved, you are my sister, you are my daughter, you are my face; you are me”
Toni Morrison
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