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
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.