Author’s Note: This blog on sex and Black women summarizes work primarily on heterosexual women. Research on LBT women will be featured in a later blog.
Sex and Black women is a common theme on this blog. Cultural beliefs about Black women including the hypersexual Jezebel stereotype affect Black women’s sex lives.1
The Sexual Double Standard Affects Black Women’s Health
The sexual double standard (SDS) affects the health of Black women according to a 2014 Journal of Sex Research article by scholars at the Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention at the CDC:
Furthermore, we argue that the SDS is a mechanism of racial and gender inequality and the sexual health disparities for Black women are rooted in these social systems. Thus, sexual health promotion that ignores or merely skims the surface of these social systems will not have the power alone to eliminate sexual health disparities for young Black women.2
They propose that three dimensions of the SDS explain how power is gendered in favor of men. First, beliefs about men and women’s sexuality frames it in terms of polarized (heterosexualities) like the good vs. bad girl or real man vs. wimp. Second, active male and passive female roles restricts women’s sexual freedom because of beliefs that men should be in control sexually. Lastly, the power struggle narrative, defines men and women’s sexuality as opposing, glamorizing male dominance and female submission.
Black Women and Sex in Rap Music
Many Black women identify with rap music despite the way Black men frame Black women’s sexuality within their lyrics. Writer Ayana Byrd questions how rap music interprets Black women’s sexuality in her 2004 essay ”CLAIMING JEZEBEL: Black Female Subjectivity and Sexual Expression in Hip-Hop” published in Reconstructing Gender: A Multicultural Anthology.
In Claiming Jezebel, Byrd asks “Can sexual empowerment be articulated by making oneself a powerful agent in the familiar pornographic images of sexual acts?”3 Byrd describes how the sexualization of Black women in rap music videos began with 2 Live Crew and continued with the introduction of Black women rappers like Lil Kim and Foxy Brown.
Byrd questions the perspective that Black women rappers champion Black women’s sexual empowerment. The continued use of images of hypersexual Black women in Hip-Hop fail to address racist and sexist power dynamics, instead leading to the normalization of the idea that Black women are sexually deviant.
Black Women’s Silence On Sexuality
Historian Evelynn M. Hammond argues in her 1997 article “Toward A Genealogy of Black Female Sexuality: The Problematic of Silence” three sets of issues frame black women’s sexuality from today to present:
- Black and White women’s sexuality are presented as opposing, which shapes the visibility of Black women as sexual beings.
- Black women have resisted to these binaries in several ways over time including the politics of silence
- The politics of silence had limitations
Hammond states Black women have responded to the way society tries to repress sexuality “with silence, secrecy, and a partially self-chosen invisibility.”4
Black women face exploitation and objectification that reinforces white supremacy. Black women reformers adopted a politics of silence to refute stereotypes of Black women’s sexuality. This campaign did not succeed, and yet Black women remain silent about their sexuality. Hammond believes black feminist and black lesbian theorizing offer liberating politics of sexuality for Black women.
Theorizing Sexual Lives of Black Women During Slavery
Black feminist scholars Treva B. Lindsey and Jessica Marie Johnson wrote about the erotic lives of Black women in their 2014 Meridians article “Searching for Climax: Black Erotic Lives in Slavery and Freedom.” They focus on a comedy sketch from Russell Simmon’s All Def Digital titled ‘The Harriet Tubman Sextape.‘ In the sketch a Black woman playing Harriet Tubman and a White man playing a slaveowner engage in consensual sex acts.
Outrage in response to the video cited the history of sexual assault of Black women by White male slaveowners. The authors interrogate both the video and critical responses, arguing that envisioning Black women’s sexuality during the slavery era is crucial for liberation:
To find intimate encounters beyond the dialogic of slave-owner power is to envision enslaved and free black female sexuality as a thing beyond the Encounter, a thing belonging to itself, whether stolen away, self-purchased, or manumitted (Tinsley 2008). It is to reject the characterization of sex acts by or perpetrated on enslaved and free women of color as betrayals of invisible black men or of embodied communities in bondage. It is instead to visualize black female sex as flesh and sensation in bodies betrayed and violated, participating and initiating. To know when and where she climaxes, the whole race may climax with her.5
The authors end their analysis with a call for scholars to center Black women’s sex lives. They build this argument with other forms of artwork about enslaved Black women’s sexuality like A Subtlety by Kara Walker.
Religious Beliefs and Safe Sex
Religious attitude influence how Black women talk about sex. According to a study by public health scholars published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior:
…High-risk HIV-negative Black women who attended church regularly would discuss more sexual health topics with their sexual partners and friends compared to their peers who do not attend church regularly.6
The researchers analyzed interviews of over 400 Black women in Baltimore. They learned Black women who went to church regularly were more likely to discuss sexual health with partners or friends. Churches provide a social network that make them suitable places for HIV prevention programs centered on black women.