If I’m being honest, sexuality has always been an uncomfortable topic for me to discuss. I was first introduced to sexuality in the mid-to-late 2000s, through music videos on legendary channels, such as KISS FM. Before the days of smart TVs and YouTube, I primarily watched music videos on music channels, much like many other people. They were constantly playing on our TV at home, and my siblings and I would watch music videos for hours upon hours.
One thing that stuck with me when watching all those music videos was the way black women were represented in this medium, particularly in the music videos of rappers. From 50 Cent to Nelly, black women in their music videos usually played roles such as “strippers” or “hoes”. It’s important to note, there is absolutely nothing wrong with being a stripper or a self-proclaimed hoe. These words should not be seen as negative and need to stop being used against women. The issue with this, and what made me struggle with my sexuality for years was the fact black women were always being represented as “the stripper”, “the hoe”, and “the baby mama”. I internalised this kind of representation. Black women in the media were constantly portrayed as sex objects and I didn’t want to be a sex object, I just wanted to be me.
It wasn’t until years later when my American Slavery tutor pushed me to read Ar’n’t I A Woman? by Deborah White Grey that I started to understand my own mixed feelings about my sexuality and the apparent reasons behind the hyper-sexualisation of black women.
Black women during chattel slavery were often classified as being people who were completely controlled by their libido. The official term for this was a “jezebel”. The Jezebel character was used to completely oppose the moral and angelic behaviour of white women against black women. It reinforced the racial supremacy of white women, in comparison to uncontrollable black women.
“Subconsciously, I started to silence my sexuality. I placed a restriction on myself. My attitude towards sex was extremely negative because of popular cultural representation and the way black women are viewed in general.”
The Jezebel character came into formation when English men went to Africa to acquire slaves, and saw African women in little to no clothing whilst they were working in their hot climates. The Europeans took this as black women being overtly sexual and lustful characters. Deborah White Grey also recounts in her books that even “tribal dances were reduced to the level of orgies”. The accounts written by European men about their encounter with African women created this long-standing and widely believed idea about the character of black women everywhere. The Jezebel character also allowed slave owners to justify raping slave women, allowing the blame to be placed upon them.
Of course, when I was younger I was not aware of this dark history, all I knew was that I did not want to be viewed this way. I never really possessed the words to explain it, but subconsciously I started to silence my sexuality. I placed a restriction on myself. My attitude towards sex was extremely negative because of popular cultural representation and the way black women are viewed in general. Debbie Weekes in her article “Get Your Freak on: How Black Girls Sexualise Identity”, highlights how young black women, attempt to “maintain respectability”, so they are not permanently viewed as promiscuous beings, so we can be seen as more than just that.
“There [are] two ways of viewing black women sexually […] through hyper-sexualisation or invisibility.”
However, it can be seen that the attempt to “maintain respectability”, is a fruitless one for young black girls and women. A couple of years ago, The Washington Post highlighted a study by Georgetown University Law School’s Centre on Poverty and Inequality, stating that “Black girls are viewed as “less innocent” than white girls”. The report also highlighted that black girls – particularly those of the age 5 to 14 – are seen as more sexually mature than white girls in the same age group. Race deeply affects the way black women and girls are perceived. It seems that everything we do, no matter how harmless can, and is considered as something sexual.
I remember seeing this first hand on Twitter in 2015. The music publication Billboard posted a picture of North West, the daughter of Kim Kardashian West and Kanye West sucking on a lollipop. They captioned it, “the apple does not fall far from the tree”. North West was two years old at the time. She was further sexualised in 2017 when her mother posted a picture of her wearing a black baseball cap, Yeezy shoes, and an orange spaghetti-strapped dress with a corset attached to the front like a decoration. North was subjected to people debating and discussing her sexuality at only four years old.
Throughout history, there have been two ways of viewing black women sexually. Be it through hyper-sexualisation or invisibility.
“Sexuality is restricted for all women, however, for black women, sexuality and race go hand in hand.”
The invisibility of black women’s sexuality is rooted in the Mammy caricature, developing from chattel slavery. She was a dark-skinned, unattractive (by white-standards), a mother figure, large-framed and asexual. Historically, black women are either animalistic erotic creatures, a fetish for many, or sexually ignored and deemed as not worthy in a white-dominated society. Growing up, not many young black women have the vocabulary to understand why sexuality for them is so complex. Even though I wasn’t verbally able to articulate the restrictions of sexuality, I felt them. I felt them in the way I was stared at when I walked home from school by grown men, in the way black women were spoken about on television by people of all races, and of course in the way we were visually represented.
All of this collectively made me doubt my attractiveness and my self-worth. Am I just a fetish to someone? Do they really like me? Sexuality is restricted for all women, however, for black women, sexuality and race go hand in hand. Sexuality is not something black girls can freely experience like our white counterparts.
I am forever grateful for activists like Samirah Raheem, who in her interview with ultraconservative pastor Jesse Peterson, reminds black women to be free. She told him that the word slut is not something negative, and that her body is not a political playground. As black women, we need to remember that our bodies, are OUR BODIES, and we can do what we want with them. The historical, racial and cultural weight is still there, and may always be there, but it should not stop black women from living their best lives. Nothing and nobody should ever silence your sexuality, and I’m just starting to learn that, at nineteen years old.
This article was written for Aurelia’s ‘Sex, Openly’ event that took place in Liverpool on the 27th of June. Follow us on Instagram for updates on our next one.