Black women speak to being socialized to fear their own pleasure, & what we can do about it
It shouldn’t be this hard for Black women and femmes to exist as sexual beings — who openly revel in their bodies instead of wallow in shame
By Caroline Colvin
For a subset of society whose bodies are so sexualized, so desired, and so sought-after, Black women and femmes as a whole feel a substantial amount of shame when it comes to our sexuality. When you’re a Black woman or femme, pop culture encourages you to be the video vixen — or, in 2019, the Instagram baddie — of everyone’s wet dreams. At the same time, it’s common that your parents, aunties and uncles, and grandparents label you “grown” or “fast,” and it’s easy to be an experiment or “adventure” for non-Black lovers.
It shouldn’t be this hard for Black women and femmes to exist as sexual beings — who openly revel in their bodies instead of wallow in shame, and pursue pleasure unapologetically instead of shying away from it.
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With puritanical taboos on sex at play, it’s no surprise that this society demonizes Black women for seeking pleasure. “Society as whole creates barriers for Black women and femmes to exist as sexual beings in their own bodies,” sex and relationships therapist Shamyra Howard, AKA Sexologist Shamyra, explained to the Black Youth Project. “Having to deal with racism, colorism, texturism, fatphobia, and just not measuring up to what society deems as ‘the standard’ of womanhood has wreaked havoc on many Black women and femmes.”
These social attitudes exacerbate whatever insecurities we have. We’re then led to feel isolated, confused, and as if we’re unworthy of seeking pleasure.
It’s also messy, because, as Howard explained, “If you take a look into pop culture, you see various shades and races of women who are flaunting Black women’s features. They now have very full lips, ethnic hairstyles, curvy figures, and bodacious butts — which they get praised for.” Of course, there’s Kim Kardashian, but there’s also Iggy Azalea, @YesJulz, and probably some other women who’ve popped up on your TL or who you’ve seen on homeboy’s Instagram stories.
Meanwhile, Black women who have these features naturally are told, “‘Your hair that grows from your body is not professional,’” Howard said. “Or, ‘Your clothing is too tight,’ because she has a big butt. So many people get to be Black women except Black women, and it’s exhausting.”
Dr. mariel buquè, a psychologist who champions affirming mental healthcare for POCs, explained that this has been Black women’s plight since slavery. “Black women and femme bodies have been stripped, exploited, used as stock, and then hypersexualized and made to appear unsafe,” buquè told the Black Youth Project. “Imagine, with a social history like that, what kind of relationship Black women and femmes have been conditioned to have, with their own bodies and sensuality.”
And despite all of this, we still try to push past the B.S. to reclaim our sexuality — to little avail. As Mickie Woods, sexual anthropologist and dating blogger, pointed out in an interview with me, “Whenever Black women and femmes express their sexuality, it’s continually seen as more explicit, more deviant.” Being labeled as such then leads to repression.
“When people aren’t given the space to authentically express their sexuality, that expression will manifest as shame,” Woods explained. And so a vicious cycle exists for Black women and femmes when it comes to seeking their pleasure.
Sharde*, 24, has observed the effects firsthand as a young, Black, unapologetically sexual woman. “It’s so easy to be labeled ‘a hoe’ for trying to go through the same sexual discovery process as cis men,” Sharde said. “The culture allows men to be hypersexual and openly desire pleasure, while women are struggling to achieve an orgasm due to a lack of information and extreme sexual repression.”
This explains the orgasm gap, a well-documented phenomenon. Looking at straight folks alone, 95% of straight men reported usually or always orgasming during sex, whereas only 65% of straight women reported the same, according to a 2017 Archives of Sexual Behavior study. With all these complex social layers and less access to comprehensive sex ed, we can only imagine the dire statistics when it comes to Black women.
The Black community itself also has to be held accountable for perpetuating the suppression of Black women’s pleasure. “Even though it was my choice, the stigma of a woman — specifically a Black woman — owning her sexuality was something I hadn’t fully grasped,” said Stephanie, 22. In college, Stephanie wrote for a sex blog, became a sex toy associate, and did sex work as a side-hustle to put herself through college and pay bills.
Of course, we’ve graduated from Josephine Baker and Pam Grier to Lil Kim, Beyoncé, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, Megan Thee Stallion and Lizzo, to name a few adored Black sex symbols. “But I still feel the judgment from my own family and friends,” Stephanie said. “Especially since I’m a ‘retired’ sex worker, I often have to hide it… Unfortunately, most of the backlash about sex work and my sexual expression comes from Black women themselves.”
Kris, 30, a non-binary Black femme who has worked toward their sexual liberation, also felt the sting of the community internalizing misogynoir. “Stigma from the Black community feels worse, as it carries the shame and weight of antiquated ideology and familial guilt,” they explained to the Black Youth Project. “The feeling is heavier, even in contrast to the white world.”
For Sharde, religion played a part in the shame game. “As a young Black woman growing up in the deep South, around an extremely Christian family, I always felt the pressure and stigmatization of Black female sexuality.”
From a sexologist’s perspective, Howard said she attributes shame around Black women’s pleasure to “the effects of racism” as well as “patriarchal and religious views” in the Black community.
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To begin unpacking stigma and unlearning the shame around our pleasure, buquè said she sparks up conversations with her clients that are rooted in history. “I specifically start with engaging Black women and Black femmes in a collaborative understanding of how we got here, and what messages have been historically internalized about the Black body, sensuality, and pleasure,” buquè explained. She’s a strong believer in mental health as a means of enlightenment. “It can be revolutionary in that way.”
As a sex therapist working in the Bible Belt, Howard said, she frequently sees Black women who are ashamed, embarrassed, or simply feel guilty for seeking pleasure. For some, these feelings even extend to seeking pleasure outside the bedroom, in their everyday lives — especially if the woman is partnered or a parent. Howard’s advice? Remember that pleasure, in all its forms, is your birthright.
“All humans have the right to seek, experience, and create pleasure, as long as it doesn’t violate the rights or safety of others,” Howard said. Prioritizing pleasure in your life can mean anything from indulging in an hour-long bath to eating a nice piece of cheesecake.
Taking it a step further, Kris advised thinking long and hard about what your pleasure specifically truly entails. “Actions, feelings, experiences,” they said. “For me, I had to listen to myself and not care what others thought about my life choices. I had a written account of what brought me pleasure and then used that list as a basis for what I wanted in my world.” A book Kris recommends is Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good by adrienne maree brown.
“Masturbate: The best advice I’ve given myself or anyone else,” Stephanie advised, point-blank. The more comfortable Stephanie became with her own body and the pleasure she could bring herself, the freer she felt. With every orgasm and every discovery as to what she truly enjoyed, Stephanie said, it was “like removing a block from the prison of slut-shaming.” And piping up about your own journey — if you feel comfortable — can help other Black women and femmes in your social circle, too. “Shame dies when stories are shared, and resonation and empathy take place,” Woods said.
Still, they added, these things take time. “Healing is a forever thing. Even as someone who speaks openly about sex, goes to sex clubs and conferences, and poses nude on the internet, the shame still creeps up on me from time to time,” Woods explained. “It’s not a switch you can just turn off.”
While difficult, finally grabbing ahold of the pleasure we deserve as Black women and femmes isn’t impossible. Both society-at-large and the Black community itself have a lot of growing to do. But with patience, compassion, and devil-may-care commitment to “doing you,” a fresh era of Black sexual liberation can be right around the corner.
Caroline Colvin is a sex and culture journalist based out of Washington, D.C. They love reporting stories that illuminate the experience of marginalized people and unpack social stigma. When they’re not covering sex and dating as an Elite Daily staff writer, they’re running Cherry Magazine, an LGBTQ+ fashion, beauty, and wellness journal. Hit them up on Twitter: @petitangebrun and @_cherrymagazine