Dr. Jennifer Turner conceived of What the WAP as a series that centers Black feminist scholars and their perspectives on contemporary Black Sexual Politics. View the first part of the series here. In the second part of the series, Dr. Turner and Dr. Brown cover the topic of sexualization and how it affects Black women and girls. They reflect on the messages they received about their bodies and sex during girlhood (particularly, adolescence) and how those messages have shaped their relationship to their bodies and sexualities into adulthood.
They also think through the vitriolic response to WAP and what it says about society’s perceptions and treatment of Black women. In what follows, they discuss sexualization and respond to the questions: (1) Think about your girlhood, particularly during adolescence. What messages about sex did your family, church, school, etc. communicate to you? What was your relationship with the lyrics about sex in the music you listened to growing up?; (2) What do you think is at the root of the vitriol communicated toward WAP from various groups – respectable Black women, conservative white women, and men, etc.?; and (3) Why do you think WAP seemed to cause more of a stir than other similar songs have in the past?
Black Girlhood and Sexual Trauma
We enter adulthood unhealed from childhood sexual trauma and that surfaces in how all sorts of people express discomfort with sexuality including how they reacted to the WAP video. I was raised in Georgia around the time that there was high incidents of sex trafficking in Atlanta, the rise of the strip club industry in Atlanta, and also the proliferation of mega churches throughout Atlanta. This led to a mix of messages around sexuality.
Now, as a sociologist looking in retrospect, I think about how our society does not grapple with institutions of sexualization. For me, these institutions include the school where my female friends and I experienced sexual harassment from male peers but were made targets of further sexualization due to biased dressed code policies.
The next institution is the church where there was purity culture imposed on you and these expectations that you’re going to wait until marriage to have sex. Yet even as a child, I knew that I didn’t know anyone in my immediate or extended family who had waited until marriage because they were either pregnant at the wedding or had kids without getting married.
Finally, I think about the institution of the family. You brought up the ways a woman’s sexuality is tied to her father or her husband. That father piece has really started to disgust and disturb me. Culturally, we have to stop normalizing this because, as many feminist psychologists write about, what underlies this is how parents put their daughters through parentification and adultification.
I think that puts you in a space as a Black girl, where to keep yourself safe from the ways that this dynamic leads to exploitation, you repress your sexuality and others repress your sexuality too. For example, my mother to this day will buy me clothes that are two or three sizes larger than what actually fits my body. She has it in her mind that my curves or my body should not be visible.
I was told that you shouldn’t have sex until marriage because I was raised in the church as well. Actually, I was raised by my grandparents who are married, very conservative, and they always pushed that message of don’t have sex until marriage. But to your point, they were 17 when they had my dad and when they got married.
My mom was pregnant with me, I think, when she and my dad got married, so we received these messages, like you said, when our parents didn’t do that, so they’re projecting their ideals onto us. I think that’s a really good point. And then also the institutional levels of sexuality, too. So, I think back to the dress codes at my high school and probably at yours and many others, and how the black girls would get in trouble a lot more than the white girls for wearing short shorts and things like that. One day, I went to our assistant principal, who was a Black woman, and I said ‘This is unfair. Why is this happening?’ She said, ‘Well, it’s because Black girls develop faster.’ So, already, our bodies were being sexualized. I think I was 14 or 15, but way earlier than that, Black girls’ bodies are sexualized.
Another thing that bothered me during my adolescence was this idea that if a girl chose to have sex with a guy, she was ‘giving it up.’ It just completely takes away the agency from girls or women to say, ‘I want to have sex with this guy.’ Because of that language and way of thinking about a heterosexual sexual encounter, I didn’t see the act of sexual intercourse as something in which I was an active participant. It felt like it was all for the guy–it was all for his pleasure.
So my first sexual experiences were really negative and very traumatizing for that reason because I wasn’t taught to explore my sexuality. At school or at home, many of us weren’t taught how to practice safe sex. We were mostly told not to have sex. The extent of the sex ed we received at my high school (which was through our health class) include teachers showing us slides of pictures of STDs, with the implication being, ‘This is what will happen if you have sex.’
We as adult women struggle through the shame of these experiences because we are still internalizing that purity culture thing of like, well I have to suffer through these negative sexual experiences because, I’m not even supposed to be having sex in the first place.
I also remember reading Omar Tyree’s Flyy Girl and Zane’s books as a teenager and those books having a huge impact on my understanding of my sexuality.
Same for me! Now that I’m older, I realized Omar Tyree or The Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah still tell these stories that respectability is the key to mobility as a Black woman. So that’s still not a necessarily a healthy way as a Black girl to encounter sex.
Furthermore, even when we did encounter sex in rap music, respectability still came into play. For example, I remember my friend talking about “What’s Your Fantasy” by Ludacris and Shawnna and she’s like “Oh yeah, I endorse this… for my future husband.” Ultimately, respectable Black girls repurposed the meaning of the song to once again restrict the notion of sexual expression to their future husbands.
Exactly. We are only taught to imagine sex in the context of a heterosexual marriage–not pleasuring ourselves, not anything queer, and not pre-marital sex.
Cultural Attitudes Toward the Sexuality of Black Women
I think what’s at the root of the vitriol is a general contempt for black women (Moya Bailey’s concept of misogynoir comes to mind here) that we still haven’t reckoned with as a society and as a culture. It made me think of Zora Neale Hurston, who wrote in Their Eyes Were Watching God that Black women are the mules of the world, or Malcolm X saying black women are the most disrespected and the most unprotected–those things are unfortunately still true. White women, specifically middle- and upper-class, white women are still seen as the pinnacle of femininity.
So, Black women like Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion, who assert their sexuality and stand outside of those cultural norms and ideals are very much seen as threatening.
What you said about the contempt for Black women is so real. WAP is a song that has this message about race, gender, sexuality, and money that doesn’t map onto historically what the Americas claim to value from Black women. So to me a song like this causes such a commotion because it challenges the logic that has led to the widespread denial of the beauty and desirability of Black women.
I think a lot of that shows how we are taught to feel shameful around sex. In our culture, we’re never really taught what healthy sex looks like.
Yeah. You’re so right. That’s so true. I also think we never address how cisheterosexual men’s sexuality facilitates some unhealthy practices that we’ve normalized and accepted. Negative reactions to Cardi B result from how, historically, strippers were the objects rather than the subjects of the songs written from the vantage point of a male rapper’s voyeuristic and pornographic gaze.
Additionally, many men believe the women they desire should be shorter, slimmer, lighter, etc. relative to men. So Megan being tall, muscular, curvy, and brown skin – men cope with their desire for her by masculinizing her. They police their own sexualities and punish women for violating what other men told them they were supposed to be attracted to.
Yeah. Do you think part of the negative response could have been triggered by the way that we look at vaginas in our society?
We are taught that vaginas are dirty and that we should try to make them smell better, look better, and do all these things. So, the concept of a “wet ass pussy,” in and of itself, is foreign to many people, or it’s just something folks don’t want to talk about.
It’s so strange, the ways that we’ve been taught these really negative messages about our vaginas, but then we become adults and suddenly we’re supposed to know what to do and to bring a lot to sex that nobody taught us to. I think that’s also why a lot of women like the song though, right? It’s about being able to shut off that stigma for once and embrace that this is what a vagina does.
How Sexualization Harms Black Girls and Women
Black girls suffer sexual trauma due to practices of shaming and violence normalized by churches, schools, families, and other social institutions. Further, cultural beliefs and attitudes about the sexuality of Black women that profit from them as sexual objects but also denigrate their displays of sexual agency. WAP communicates a message that asserts sexuality as a source of pleasure and power for Black women from out of the mouths of Black women themselves.