Recently, students in my “Dating in the Digital Age” course learned about the concept of sexual scripts while reading a research article about Tinder. Scripting theory, proposed by William Simon and John H. Gagnon, offers a framework that accounts for both sociological and psychological processes in understanding human sexuality. In addition, recent research by scholars of Black feminist thought like Dionne E. Stephens, Layli D. Phillips, and Bryana H. French, to name a few, examines the effect of sexual scripts on Black women through the lens of controlling images. Their findings suggest racist and sexist ideologies about Black femininity and sexuality at the cultural level have implications for the sexual experiences of Black women at an interpersonal and individual level.
Sexual Scripts: A Sociological Theory of Sexuality
Simon and Gagnon present scripting theory as a sociological alternative to explanations of sexuality that tend to overemphasize human biology and psychology. Instead, scripting theory considers sexuality significant at a societal and individual level. Comparing scripting to the “creation and staging of a drama,”  they argue scripting guides behavior on three levels:
- Cultural scenarios: The instructional guides for the requirements and practices of specific roles deemed appropriate by various social institutions at a collective level. We can think of this as the training an actor receives to prepare for a role.
- Interpersonal scripts: The adaptation of the contents of cultural scenarios into actions and behaviors that depend on the specific context. As these “trained” actors attempt to align their identities with their desired expectations, they take on the task of not only performing a role, but also acting as scriptwriters.
- Intrapsychic scripting: The internal dialogue actors maintain that attributes social meaning to their subjective desires. In light of their training and need to perform their roles and write scripts, actors do an “internal rehearsal” where they fantasize about the possibilities of realizing their desires.
The relevance of each script varies across and within different social settings for each individual. However, cultural scenarios provide the fundamental source for society’s influences on sexuality. Cultural scenarios give symbolic meaning to interpersonal scripts, thereby reducing uncertainty and increasing legitimacy for those involved in a sexual interaction. Sexual scripts ultimately permit oneself to express desires and access opportunities related to sexual behavior.
How Controlling Images Underlie Sexual Scripts
Sociologist Patricia Hill Collins argues controlling images emphasize and maintain social group differences using a logic of an inferiority and superiority binary that implies an opposition between two groups to reinforce the objectification and domination of one group over another. Racist cisheterosexist ideologies justify the dehumanization and exploitation of Black women because this group has lower value and less purity than white women. Scholars argue this pathologization of Black sexuality shapes how sexual scripting affects Black women in several ways.
From Jezebel to Gangster Bitch
In their 2003 Sexuality and Culture, Dionne E. Stephens and Layli D. Phillips assert that the controlling images that first emerged in the 1800s provide the sociohistorical context for twenty-first-century scripts. The legacy of Saartjie Baartmann paints the portrait of the racialized sexual exploitation and objectification of afro-descendant women by Europeans. Stephens and Phillips purport that dynamic of a Black woman’s body on display for the pleasure of white spectators reinforced colonial social order and provided cultural, sexual scripts that characterized African women as hypersexual and animalistic.
This context informs the controlling images that affect Black women, which include: the Jezebel, the Mammy, the welfare mother, and the matriarch. According to Stephens and Phillips, these images affect Black women today as they provide the foundation for several contemporary sexual scripts such as:
- the Diva
- the Gold Digger
- the Freak
- the Dyke
- the Gangster Bitch
- the Sister Savior
- the Earth Mother
- Baby Mama
The discourses around these scripts primarily circulate within hip-hop media, such as rap music videos and lyrics. Varying by setting, these racialized sexual scripts affect the sexual decision-making of young Black women and girls. For this reason, Stephens and Phillips encourage cultivating social environments that encourage Black women and girls to self-define their sexualities.
Racialized Sexual Scripts and Black Women’s Erotic Autonomy
A critical component of Black feminist thought is the development of realistic representations of the Black experience to dismantle controlling images, for example, through interpersonal or cultural sexual scripts that challenge white supremacist notions of femininity. For Black women, erotic autonomy take many forms but generally vary based on social, historical, political, and even geographical context.
For instance, psychologist Bryana French conducted focus groups with adolescent Black American girls to better understand how they resist sexual coercion in light of how society imposes racist gendered sexual scripts on Black women and girls. These young girls identified hip-hop media as a critical context for hypersexual scripts like “the Freak.” Several girls described a resistance tactic that included assuming a “Sister Savior” persona that demanded a strong moral stance towards sexual relations. However, the disadvantage of this notion of personal responsibility is that some members of these focus groups shifted blame for sexual coercion onto victims who were also young girls.
Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies professor Ariane Cruz arrived at a different conclusion in her study of Black women performers of BDSM pornography.Cruz identified several ways through interviews and secondary literature on internet porn media. Black women rationalize participation in race play, a BDSM practice that explicitly uses race as the sexual script that governs the power dynamics of submission and domination. Among interracial partners, race play can include racist language, role play, or the staging of racist scenes. However, Cruz found that some Black women performers adopted a dominant role where they perceived humiliation of white male partners. In this way, when Black women performers consent to race play, they challenge controlling images in a way that exposes the complicated dynamics that shape how Black women experience pleasure, power, violence.
Ultimately, Black feminist thought teaches us how sexual scripts work as racist and gendered cultural constructs that Black people may resist interpersonally. Therefore, the goal of Black feminist scholarship is to acknowledge and encourage this resistance.
- Simon and Gagnon (1986:110) ↩︎
- French, Bryana H. 2012. “More than Jezebels and Freaks: Exploring How Black Girls Navigate Sexual Coercion and Sexual Scripts.” Journal of African American Studies 17: 35-50. doi: 10.1007/s12111-012-9218-1. ↩︎
- Cruz, Ariane. 2015. “Beyond Black and Blue: BDSM, Internet Pornography, and Black Female Sexuality.” Feminist Studies 41: 409-436. ↩︎