One reason why I focused my dissertation on Black women’s sexuality is because of the messages the Christian church teaches on the topic. I attended churches affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention for most of my childhood. At some point during middle school, the youth pastors pushed us adolescent churchgoers to pledge our virginities to God and promise to wait until marriage for sexual intercourse.
I had no idea how common this practice was at the time. In fact, I had completely forgotten about it until I started reading Passionate and Pious: Religious Media and Black Women’s Sexuality. In the book, Monique Moultrie, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Georgia State, proposes womanist sexual ethics to encourage Black churchwomen to move beyond the messages around sexuality and spirituality given in the contemporary church.
Who is Teaching Black Women in the Church About Sex?
Moultrie points to faith-based sexual ministries that market to single and married woman as a culprit for some of the contemporary messages Black women learn about sex. Faith-based sex ministries do encourage sexual pleasure, but only in the context of heterosexual marriage. As a result, single Black women aren’t given an opportunity to advocate for their self-pleasure because any type of caring and catering to one’s sexual appetite outside of marriage is considered a sin.
Black evangelicals also participate in purity culture, which emphasizes the idea that anything outside of marital heterosexual intercourse is a sin. For example, some churches claim that soul ties are exchanged during intercourse that can never be disentangled. By this logic, the spirit of premarital sexual partners contaminate an individual and their future marriage.
Sex for pleasure is seen as contradicting the rhetoric of the contemporary church. Additionally, some churches oppose same-sex relationships on the basis that these couples do not reproduce through sexual intercourse. Furthermore, oral sex is considered an act reserved for spouses.
Churches also teach that women should adopt celibacy as a way to get closer to the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, women should adopt modest clothing because they are responsible for how their bodies affect men. Modest clothing also helps keep them distinct from “street women” or Jezebel, a stereotype of Black women’s hypersexuality that dates back to slavery. Therefore, these churches also spread a myth of sexual redemption from promiscuity through celibacy until marriage.
Many of these churches oppose forms of self-pleasure like masturbation because they are considered a gateway to infidelity or same-sex desire. Women are expected to reject self-pleasure in favor of total celibacy and after marriage, they could engage in self-pleasure with their partners, though many churches discourage this as well.
Evangelicals emphasize submission to men for girls and women. Nowadays, some churches attempt to encourage mutual submission between married partners, however the emphasis remains heavily on women’s submission. Not only should women submit to men, but also God and scripture.
Due to these teachings, Black women having sex outside marriage feel compelled to justify their actions because the church construes their behavior as having no remorse for the consequences of oral sex. These teachings can also be a source of shame for Black women in long-term, monogamous nonmarital relationships who look at their premarital monogamy as a place to satisfy sexual needs.
Developing a Womanist Sexual Ethics
Alternative theologies from feminist or Black liberation perspectives also do not address how society has pathologized the sexuality of Black women. Even today, the politics of respectability for Black women expect that they practice sexual constraint and overemphasizes self-management of physical and spiritual uncleanliness.
Moultrie proposes a womanist sexual ethics because of the lack of attention mainstream theology ignores the reality of being a Black woman. According to Moultrie, Black women can develop a womanist sexual ethics through lived experiences of sexual pleasure, agency, and love.
Moultrie also argues that if churches that serve Black women adopt this model, they will make space for conversations about their congregants actual daily lives. A ministry accountable to its parishioners in this way provides support for diverse sexual experiences rather than a rigid commitment to celibacy.
Through a “womanist model of erotic justice,” sexual acts prohibited within mainstream theology can be treated as normative. This model includes being in control of your sexual decisions, compromising with sexual partners without ceding your erotic power, and demonstrating self-respect.
Womanist sexual ethics do not chastise sexual behavior without assistance and mentoring for those seeking it. Additionally, this model emphasizes sexual freedom that embraces responsibility and respectfulness for one’s self and their partners through accountability, applicability, and accessibility. As a result, healthy relationships don’t have to be framed as marriage or God-given, male-headed relationships, teaching instead about nonmarital sexual pleasure with honesty and respect.