Black men need to abandon “pimp” culture and support Black women sex workers
We continue to demonstrate how a Black woman's sex is something of a commodity to us.
by Donnie Moreland
Ruby “Thunderthighs”, portrayed by the immensely talented Pernell Walker (Pariah), is my favorite character from the first season of the HBO Drama, The Deuce (2017-Current). Not for any quantifiable reason, really. In fact, her character was barely on screen. But her presence was noted, each time she strutted, partly nude, down the grisly and overpopulated sidewalk of the Deuce, or Manhattan’s 42nd Street.
There wasn’t anything about her physicality that drew me to the character, but the history in each step she took latched me tightly to her narrative. Ruby was a Black woman. A Black prostitute, earning her ends in New York City at a time where Black life could be a fucking whirlwind of trauma, abuse, and peril, and if you didn’t have a stake to claim in it then you’d better be prepared for a war. A daily battle with the elements of white fragility, superiority complexes, sadism, and general hell.
Ruby understood that, as a Black woman in 1972, if she didn’t own her walk, her voice, and her body then it could all be stripped away. And sadly, despite her wisdom, it was. While trying to fend off a white John attempting to take his money back despite having already been rendered services, she was pushed out of a third story hotel window and died in the penultimate episode of the show’s first season, “My Name is Ruby”.
The equally egregious tragedy is that Ruby was never able to live a life without worry that someone would attempt to claim, and destroy, that which she held most dear. I could see, from the sway in her hips, to the tone of her voice that she’d not let anyone deny her access to the joy of simply being a woman. Yet, beyond this joy, the royal-like posturing and the breadth of pride, was also fear. Whether it was the fear of obscurity, or even death, Ruby was afraid. And Ruby’s fear was histories long.
The fears of Black sex workers, especially Black women, is deeply embedded and understood as part of our society. Their voices and their cries are but a nuisance to the masses. The safety of these women, some with families to provide for, rests with people who often use them like disposable pawns.
It is nothing more than the nature of the services offered that grants these women such scrutiny and dehumanization. So many of us still fear sex. It’s meaning. The physicality of it. The intimacy of the positioning between two, or more, bodies. The emotionality associated with the aftermath haunts us. We hide our fears beneath the cloth of religious logos and ethos that pin the ecstasy of sex near the seat of something demonic.
To be clear, we don’t know a damn thing about it. And that scares the hell out of us. Especially, Black men. Though pimp, porn, and player culture has invaded the Black Male aesthetic and vernacular in contemporary medium, from Stagolee to Snoop Dogg, Black men, en masse, are still ignorant to the realities of sex.
What we identify as sexuality, especially as heteronormative men, is often devoid of ideas of pleasure, touch, and longing for all involved, but is instead about conquest and instant gratification for ourselves. This, more often than not, affects how we interact with our sexual partners, often Black women, and informs much of our anxieties around their, and our, sexuality aside from our own ejaculation.
Our fear of sex lies in an age old institutional tradition of others using our sex to dismiss our humanity. Because the bodies of Black women have historically been used sexually as tools of degradation, humiliation, and even psychological warfare — and because Black men still “reign” above Black women, and below white men, on some arbitrary social measuring stick — the need to protect Black women is often conflated with needing to bear the onus of their bodies, in our imagination. If a woman claims agency to her sex, and enter into sex work, out of force, need, or curiosity, then let them be damned, say many.
For years, I have seen Black sex workers, from pornography to prostitution, be stained by the irritability of the Black male ego, for “giving their bodies away”. Pornographic performers involved in explicit interracial pornogrpahic productions, such as Black Valley Girls, are often titled as, “traitors to the race”, regardless of any dialog regarding fiscal or sexual autonomy.
Our disdain for Black sex workers even exists in our everyday vernacular. Just look at how we classify a woman, especially one with various sexual partners, as a “whore” or a “ho”. In using terminology associated with derogatorily classifying sex workers, we continue to demonstrate how a Black woman’s sex is something of a commodity to us. A commodity to be measured by a worth arbitrarily dictated by men, and the classification of women who have sex for profit or of the least value in our eyes.
And even though sex workers may have, as they or others may regard as, quantifiable and fiscal worth, their having sex away from the eyes of “moral” men is egregious enough to be bound to an identity associated with a “lower caste”. As if these women were not given the permission needed by men to have sex away from the house that is Black woman respectability, then they are often damned to socio-moral apathy.
This claiming of sex is similar to that of the pimp. Even more insidious, I’d say, because the concern is more so regarding male comfortability and psycho-sexual impotence, than it is about protecting bodies from harm. There is a line of dialogue from The Deuce which echoes this very sentiment: “Daddies, husbands, and pimps, they’re all the same. Love you for who you are, until you become someone else.”
In the minds of men who don’t want to believe that women can, should, and will have sex without their permission, if men can’t determine how and with whom a woman has sex, then she is to be banished from womanhood.
This seems doubly true for Black men. Not only do we view Black women doing sex worker as stepping out of the bounds of gendered respectability but also as stepping out of the bounds of racial respectability. The shame of it all is that as Black men we cry out for empathy when this country wraps its fingers around our necks, but women like Ruby are being imprisoned, brutalized, and murdered at a rate which would denote an epidemic if they were considered higher in the social caste system.
We can be more than silently complicit opponents of peace in the lives of these women, but this is only possible if we reconcile our histories of trauma related to our own sex and recognize the humanity of Black women, their sexual autonomy, and uplift their voices. We need to offer them support rather than moral disdain.