“You have those DSL lips— dick-sucking lips.”
That’s what he called them. One day, a white boy turned to Lexy, now 24, in the cafeteria and declared how great her full lips must be for blow jobs. She was 13—and mortified. One of just a few black girls in a predominantly white middle school, she was already self-conscious. “He didn’t say anything like that to the white girls at the table. He just felt like it was okay to say that to me and my big lips,” Lexy remembers. Suddenly, it was clear to her—as it becomes clear to so many African-American women—that being black and female often get you labeled as oversexed…even when that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Every woman has to deal with antiquated BS tropes like “good girls don’t sleep around.” But black women, no matter how “good girl” we may appear, are expected to always “be down” for sex—that’s the unique tax we get stuck paying. After all, our juicy lips and thick hips must be proof of…something. Right?
From black women’s earliest days in the Western world, we have been branded as wanton and sexually voracious sirens—Jezebels—a far cry from white women who were, for the most part, seen as inherently pure. And that myth of the Jezebel continues to shape the way we’re regarded today. Low black marriage rates? Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free! Teen pregnancy? Bill O’Reilly suggests it’s Beyoncé’s fault! Twerking? It was black, bouncing booties led Hannah Montana astray! And speaking of Miley, while her nude photo shoots and sexual exploration are seen by some as avant garde examples of feminist boundary pushing, by contrast Beyoncé’s “surfbort” wizardry is just eye candy. That assumption of black women’s freakiness runs deep, and it springs in large part from the antebellum era, when enslaved women were routinely subject to sexual violence and white plantation owners sought to justify it (think: poor Patsey in the 2014 Oscar-winning film 12 Years a Slave). Centuries later, black female sexuality is still a source of moral panic because change takes ages, and stereotypes—especially entrenched ones—are hard AF to undo.
“We are constantly seen as these oversexed, irresponsible, out-of-control women who create havoc with our sexualities,” says Mireille Miller-Young, PhD, associate professor of feminist studies at UC at Santa Barbara and author of A Taste for Brown Sugar: Black Women in Pornography. ” People think we have too many children or we’re too promiscuous for marriage. We are seen as sexual criminals.” This may be part of the reason that, in many American cities, black women are more likely to be arrested for prostitution than women of any other race. “Our sexuality is seen as a problem, something that gets us into trouble,” Miller-Young says. And while black women are more likely to be victims of rape than our white counterparts, per the most recent CDC data, we also tend to be less likely to be believed. (See the victims of former Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw, a man who was found guilty on 18 charges of raping and sexually assaulting women. He reportedly felt assured the women he assaulted wouldn’t be believed if they turned him in because most had past troubles with the law and all were black.)
So how do you figure out what an emancipated sexuality looks like when society at large assumes you’re hypersexual?
Unfortunately, many people think the answer is for black women to hide our sexuality—proving we can be as restrained in 2016 as white women were in 1816. This message is reinforced in the lessons taught in many black churches, through the legacy of fear caused by the threat of HIV/AIDS in black communities, and in a hip-hop culture obsessed with ferreting out “hos” and THOTs (an acronym for “that ho over there”). But simply squashing our sexuality doesn’t allow black women control. In fact, it leaves many women struggling with their natural desires…and that sucks.
“Growing up, I was taught that sex was something you grin and bear once you get married, and until then, keep your legs closed,” says Lexy, who works for the government and still lives in the small Southern town where she was raised. “And while I shouldn’t be having sex with a boy until I had a ring, I definitely should never be having sex with a girl.” Message heard—except that Lexy identifies as queer and, at 24, has never had sex. “I still feel shame in allowing myself to be sexual, even though I consider myself a sex-positive feminist. I was told not to be sexy, and I internalized that. I wish someone would have talked to me about how it’s okay to receive pleasure or masturbate. It kind of hurts that I didn’t get that,” she admits.
“My black guy friends told me, ‘keep your body count low,'” says Ebony, 27. “I learned that if I was hooking up with a guy, I wasn’t supposed to be aggressive or experimental.” Seeming too into sex was seen as “white girl stuff,” she says. These messages left her conflicted. “I wonder if I’m a bad person or less deserving of love because I want to have sex and enjoy it.” Plus, it’s tough to admit that the messages given to black girls and women differ majorly from those given to black boys and men, who, like all men, are usually encouraged to be sexually insatiable to prove their masculinity.
Black men (like Ebony’s friends) can play a major role in reinforcing restrictive ideas of black female sexuality. In fact, coaching black women to obscure their sexuality is a popular pastime for some black male celebrities. Take Tyrese Gibson. In 2014, the Fast & Furious actor, who has a large black female fan base, took to YouTube to tell ladies lonely on Valentine’s Day to take heart: “Most hos, tramps, skeezers, bottom-of-the-barrel-type chicks—they’re never without a man.” To Tyrese, being alone (and not having sex) means a woman has self-respect and loves Jesus and isn’t “giving it away” to every Tom, Dick, and Malik. God forbid.
I knew plenty of guys in the habit of lecturing women about the perils of Jezebelism back in the ’80s, when I was growing up in Gary, Indiana. Plus, such warnings were all over hip-hop radio. (Being a “slutty ass ho” could get you killed, according to N.W.A.) Still, I feel lucky that while I heard lots of anti-sex messages, they did not come from my parents. In fact, my mom and dad said little to me about sex, but they also never used slut-shaming language and did nothing to curb my fondness for reading lusty bodice rippers.
I suspect some of my white sisters can relate to what I’m describing. And it’s true that women of all colors face the challenges of sexual expectations. But the pervasive stereotype that black women in particular are hypersexual adds a whole other area of stress. Many of us are expected to stick to regressive ideas of sexuality—don’t enjoy sex, and forget about having him go down on you—to prove we aren’t the loose women stereotypes say we are and to stay safe from people who think our physical features or very existence is a come-on. And if a black woman says “screw this” to these ideas and gets her swerve on? She’s seen as not just debasing herself but letting down her entire race by confirming a nasty assumption.
“Today, the sexual representations of black women are often seen as being ‘too much’—something that needs to be prevented rather than something that should be expanded upon. But as black women, we’ve felt the opposite,” Miller-Young says. “We’ve felt that our sexuality in some ways has been limited—that we need to explore it more, to expand the representations of our sexuality, and to promote a real image of black women with sexual agency.”
It’s refreshing that in ShondaLand, Olivia Pope is not only the boss of the Beltway, but she gets to bed her pick of hunks from the bunkers of B613 to the desks of the West Wing. But predictably, Pope is also often criticized not just as a Jezebel but, according to author and media personality Tariq Nasheed, as a “Negro bed wench,” i.e., a willing Jezebel for the powerful white man. Sigh. And when celebrities take up the cause—when Rihanna gyrates her pelvis, when Nicki Minaj flaunts her butt, and when Beyoncé sings, “Driver, roll up the partition please”—it’s a radical act precisely because of how society views sex and black women and how black women are asked to limit themselves in response. All three artists are part of a tradition of performers who claim their sexuality and get castigated for it, from Bessie Smith to Tina Turner to Janet Jackson.
The revolt is not just happening in entertainment. I feel hopeful when I hear about everyday black women like Ashley, 30, who are shrugging off biased beliefs and actively seeking healthier understandings of sexuality. Raised in a family of women in Indianapolis, Ashley learned from her mother, grandmother, aunts, and their church that sex wasn’t something a black woman should actively enjoy. She judged her friends who became pregnant, despite their inner-city school’s abstinence-only sex-ed classes, for “setting back our race.”
Ashley had sex for the first time at 18—an experience she calls horrible. “I was like, is this the big deal that everybody’s saying I’m going to hell for?” Then she finally had her first orgasm at 25 and realized that having one again would require an understanding of her body that she was never encouraged to gain. And so, in her late 20s, she took control of her own sexuality and began to embrace it. Her best friend even bought her a vibrator—a development her mother refused to hear about. “I had to start studying on myself,” Ashley says. “It’s an ongoing process, especially if you don’t learn when you’re younger.”
I’m crossing my fingers that black women will keep moving toward sexual liberation, for themselves and their sisters. Helping pave the way is Twanna A. Hines, a sex educator in Silver Spring, Maryland, who leads education programs and advocates for women to pursue healthy, fulfilling sex lives. “Stereotypes, like the Jezebel one, reduce and strip away the humanity in all of us,” Hines says. Her advice to black women (and all women, really): “Love yourself.”
This is a wonderful place to start.
The truth is that for black women, we are the only ones to rely on when it comes to reclaiming our sexuality from history, hip-hop, and the darker corners of Tumblr. We won’t easily scrub away the centuries-old idea that we’re oversexed. Hell, we’re not even likely to convince Drake to stop shaming his old hookups for “wearing less and goin’ out more.” In a culture that finds so much unlovable about black women and so much to criticize in all women, if we want the freedom to express our sexuality and enjoy healthy sex lives, we will have to take it. Loving ourselves enough to believe we deserve great sex on our own terms is one way to start a much-needed revolution.