A Black feminist pleasure praxis acknowledges and affirms the possibility for Black women’s sexual pleasure
A Black feminist pleasure praxis could never center on anything other than the survival and pleasure of Black women.
We must do the work to detach Black women’s sexuality from violence and we must start with our foremothers.
by Haillee Mason
This essay contains discussion of sexual violence.
The myth of white supremacist history suggests that sexual pleasure and intimacy that enslaved Black women endured were unable to be detached from violence. While I agree that the use of the word “mistress” offers an incomplete and misrepresentative idea on the awful positionality of enslaved Black women and its formation in violence and coercion, I cannot dismiss the possibility of sexual desire and autonomous sexual behavior on the plantation.
I believe that our inability to disassociate violence from Black female sexual desire in slavery is constituted by our reluctance to understand Black female sexuality unsecured from violence, violation, and trauma as a whole.
I am advocating for a simultaneous critique of misgynoir and the ongoing exploitation of Black women while also being open to the possibilities of pleasure—possibilities that function outside of the limiting boundaries of white heteropatriarchy.
Enslaved Black women were not completely helpless. They did not cease to exist, or to feel, or to desire once enslaved. To believe this fiction, is to believe in the pathology of white supremacy and that enslavement succeeded its goals in absolving Black people of our humanity.
I have not written this essay to debate nor interrogate the possibilities of consensual sexual contact between enslaved Black women and white slave masters. Instead, I am curious about how we as crusaders for sexual freedom and personal autonomy acknowledge the sexual terror that existed on plantations while also understanding sexuality as an experience, not always sutured to violence?
I am interested in erotic possibility and self-possession for Black women, which need not be legitimized or made legible by an assumed proximity to whiteness or heteronormativity—a Black feminist pleasure praxis.
In the midst of rampant capitalism, racism, and misogynoir, Black women must seek out ways to possess ourselves and have desire, while simultaneously being objects of sexual exploitation. In the face of this ongoing objectification, a Black feminist pleasure praxis could never center on anything other than the survival and pleasure of Black women.
A Black feminist pleasure praxis positions sex, desire, and sexual intimacies as a means of liberation and agency, urging Black women to seek pleasure and active desire in the midst of economic depravity, violence, and societal dejection. It permits Black women to be our own subject, rather than another’s object, by constituting our pleasure as paramount to our existence and an affirmation our humanity.
At its center, this praxis creates the conditions for erotic possibilities which reject prevailing racist notions of Black intimate inferiority, offering autonomy and pleasure amidst conditions of enslavement or sub-human subjugation which are reliant on perpetual Black death, degradation, or commodification. They allow for Black women to feel desire, or pleasure, or any kind of intimate emotion for ourselves—selves previously and continuously imagined to have no proximity to humanity at all.
I understand that the possibility of Black women’s sexual desire is considered scandalous and blasphemous in the context of the plantation. The impossibility of imagining enslaved Black women as sexual beings is cemented by the fact that their forced reproduction constituted the workforce that bolstered the entire institution. As such, the memory of these women has relegated them to the roles of mother, mule, and prime receptacle of slavery’s sexual terrors.
The history of racial domination is also a history of sexual terrorism. It is true that the plantation was a site of violence, and that violence was often coupled with sexual terror, but what if we acknowledged that enslaved Black women were still able to feel sexual desire, even in the midst of systematic sexual exploitation?
Could enslaved resistance look like intimacy and quiet expressions of desire that subverted the power-exchanges and sex economies occurring on the plantation? Conceding the possibility of enslaved Black women as the architects and initiators of their own desires could open up opportunities for better understandings of Black women’s sexuality and pleasure on the whole.
The inability to unshackle Black intimacies and desire from its function of labor and production of slavery commodities ignores the realities that enslaved Black women were fully capable of being sexual subjects, having sex for recreation, liberation, and in order to reaffirm their own humanity and ability to feel pleasure.
It is important to acknowledge these possibilities of pleasure for enslaved Black women and develop a strong Black feminist pleasure praxis, because the denial of these things is clear today in the ways we conceive of Black women’s inability to become or exist as subjects of our own sexual pleasure.
We must acknowledge and normalize the reality that Black women are fully capable of seeking pleasure for ourselves and having sexual experiences outside of trauma, and we should begin by reckoning with the truth about the possibility of enslaved Black women’s sexual agency.
Camp, Stephanie M. H. “The Pleasures of Resistance: Enslaved Women and Body Politics in the Plantation South, 1830-1861.” The Journal of Southern History, vol. 68, no. 3, 2002, pp. 533–572., www.jstor.org/stable/3070158.
Davis, Angela Y. Women, Race & Class. New York: Vintage Books, 1983. Print.
Lindsey, Treva B. & Johnson, Jessica M. “Searching for Climax: Black Erotic Lives in Slavery.” Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism. Vol 12, no. 2, 2014, pp. 169-195. Web.
Owens, Emily Alyssa. 2015. Fantasies of Consent: Black Women’s Sexual Labor in 19th Century New Orleans. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
Thompson, Krissah. “For Decades They Hid Jefferson’s Relationship with Her. Now Monticello Is Making Room for Sally Hemings.” The Washington Post. WP Company, 19 Feb. 2017. Web. 03 May 2017.
Voltz, Noël M. 2008. “Black Female Agency and Sexual Exploitation: Quadroon Balls and Plaçage Relationships.” The Ohio State University. Department of African American and African Studies Honors Theses. Web.
Editor’s Note: Due to an oversight, this essay was initially published without the writer’s sources, which are now listed above.
This Sexual Health and Awareness month, we will be exploring related issues at BYP, and we are interested in publishing works that address these topics. What does sexual health look like outside of cishetero norms? Where does the #MeToo movement go from here? What can we do to better support survivors, including survivors of childhood sexual violence? We want to hear from you! Send us your pitches at firstname.lastname@example.org