Black women face greater scrutiny than white women for being polyamorous
Who gets to be a fully sexual being? And who gets to be kinky?
The societal impact of straying from what is considered a norm is greater for Black people than it is for our white counterparts.
by Sarah Thomas
Of the many places to learn about my sexuality, That 70’s Show was as good as any. There were tons of make-out scenes and implied sex during its 8 season run, but one episode in particular stood out to me. Red and Kitty attend a party with their neighbors, Bob and Midge. After a few minutes of conversation and mingling, it becomes clear just what kind of party they’ve been invited to. In one of my favorite scenes, Kitt rises to leave and giggles nervously as she says, “My God. You’re swingers!”
Red and Kitty quickly dash away from the party, whose attendees seem to be having the time of their lives. It was the first time I saw an instance of open relationships on TV. Instead of tapping into the implied humor at the expense of these “debaucherous” people, I was entranced with how free they seemed. The only problem was that I didn’t look like them. That 70’s Show was a snowy-white sitcom, and it would be a while before I saw myself reflected in portrayals of polyamory in media.
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As conversations about sexuality slowly make their way to the mainstream, those that remain at the forefront, specifically about open relationships, are predominantly white. To be a Black person is to always have one’s body under scrutiny. How and why we use them in the ways we choose has been a source of fascination that inspires both fetishism, and in more severe cases, harm. When we choose to act outside of a social norm, that scrutiny is magnified.
While conversations about sex and sexuality have become less taboo, the face of pleasure is still being defined. BDSM gear graces the runways and think pieces about triads are found in major publications. Kink is quirky. Alternative lifestyles such as polyamory are things that can be brought up at dinner parties and people (mostly) don’t bat an eye. When we picture that dinner party, and that quirky person who is empowered by their sexuality, what do they look like? Often, representations of polyamory are able-bodied white people, but how do we change this narrative so that non-white folks feel seen in polyamorous communities?
In an interview with yesyesnonmono, Kevin Patterson, author of “Love’s Not Color Blind: Race and Representation in Polyamorous and Other Alternative Communities,” comments on the responsibility of white people to hold space for people of color. “It’s so easy to not see yourself represented in a thing and then to assume that thing is not for you. Polyamory is one of those things. We need more visible people of color in these spaces,” says Patterson. “But that also means that white folks with platforms need to use them to prop up people who don’t get the same kind of exposure. That means bloggers, organizers, community leaders, etc.”
Like white-feminism, the white sex-positive crowd benefits from white supremacy. White people benefit from the assumption of innocence when exploring their sexuality. Compare this to most Black people’s experiences with kink and polyamory. Enslaved Black women were seen as inhuman, and served to perpetuate the idea of white, female purity.
As said in Shirley Yee’s Black Women Abolitionists: A Study in Activism, 1828-1860, “[S]tereotypes of black and white women were mutually reinforcing images, not simply opposites; the assumption that black women were sensual and physically strong served to buttress the notion that white women were delicate and passionless.” The assumption of this fragile innocence and passivity of white women harms others because we are seen as deviant beings.
Even in niche sexuals explorations, white sexuality holds the assumption of morality at its core. There is less of an outcry from a white community that could alienate those that are behaving outside of social norms. The people that they have to answer to are usually parents and a few friends instead of an entire people. For some Black people, adopting respectability politics is a gateway to acceptance across communities. Mimi Schippers touches on this in her book, Beyond Monogamy: Polyamory and the Future of Polyqueer Sexualities:
“Individual behavior, the black Baptist women contended, determined the collective fate of African Americans. It was particularly public behavior that they perceived to wield the power either to refute or confirm stereotypical representations and discriminatory practices… There could be no laxity as far as sexual conduct, cleanliness, temperance, hard work, and politeness were concerned.”
White women are afforded the privilege of only having to answer to society for themselves, instead of carrying the perception of their entire race with them. This begs the following questions: Who gets to be a fully sexual being? And who gets to be kinky? In the social imagination, that is.
As a Black woman who is polyamorous, I can see how the reception of this practice is a different experience for white women than it is for me. To be openly sexual is often met with misogyny and slut-shaming. While white women may face rejection from a close, inner circle of people, only to later stumble into a welcoming community, Black women may face the rejection of an entire culture.
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Until recently, I have not found modern depictions of open relationships among people of color. Thank goodness for Instagram and its gateway to the Black polyamory community. Finding a community online is a natural next step for those whose lifestyle begins to stray outside of what are considered social norms. Thankfully, educators such as the author of Pleasure Activism, adrienne maree brown, and the team behind Afrosexology exist.
But online communities shouldn’t be the only spaces where Black folks exploring their sexuality feel safe. White polyamorous and sex-positive people who cape for their lifestyle to be accepted often forget to do the same for people of color. If we are going to disrupt the way that white supremacy has shaped our view of sexuality, it has to come from all of us, and more specifically those in places of privilege.
Sarah is a writer and social media manager living in Chicago. Her work focuses on the the intersection of Black culture and sexuality, while drawing from history and current events. Her work has appeared in Blavity and Chicago’s South Side Weekly. She is a firm believer in inclusive sex education and sex positivity. Connect with her on Twitter @CaffeineColors and read her work at linktr.ee/quite_underwhelming