As the mother of a young child who is approaching his tween years, thoughtful consideration of our social dialogue as it relates to sex and sexuality has been of great personal concern. Along with assuring that my child receives accurate information to make the correct decisions for him, ensuring that he understands that even the options that are available to him are strictly a result of his race and gender are an essential part of an evolving conversation on sex and sexuality.
When educating black children about sex, it is not enough to speak about the mechanics of the act. Though it is an absolute necessity to stress safe sex in a time where AIDS has reached a truly epidemic stature within our communities, the why we choose to engage in sex can and should be an equally important conversation.
Children come to an understanding of our world by interacting and confronting the agents of socialization. They will receive clear and direct instructions on performing gender, race and sexuality. These intersections are internalized and accepted as normative, despite the fact that they are often damaging on multiple levels.
Black children in particular must deal with the social idea that their bodies are hyper sexual. This can be seen in the overtly sexualized images of black women in rap videos, or the black male as rapist construction. In both of the aforementioned examples, sexuality is perverted in that it is presented as overly aggressive, and existing outside of normalized engagement.
The virgin/whore dichotomy is continually reified through the lens of race wherein white women exist with the construction of purity and the black female is reduced to the ever wanton Jezebel. This construction has its foundation in slavery. It was meant to justify the repeated rape of black women by their white male slave owners.
Though we have long since moved beyond slavery as a condition of living in the broader culture, its shadow continues to interject itself into our discourse about sex and sexuality. Young black girls quickly internalize the idea that their bodies exist for consumption based in the falsehood that they are continually desirous of sex. This construction removes the agency from the decision to have sex and implies that sex must occur because that is the foundation of the black female identity. It further reifies a hierarchy of beings wherein the black female is routinely located at the bottom. Bell Hooks theorizes that the black woman has no institutional other, and when we examine the discourse of sex and gender what immediately becomes clear is that the politics of colonization and oppression continually manifest in ways in which foster a negative sexual identity in black females.
Reducing black women to simply sexual beings without agency or autonomy over their physical beings translates into high rates of teen pregnancy and a low cultural self esteem. If your identity is based on sexual performance rather than achievement in education, it perpetuates the idea that success can only be achieved by conforming to the role of eternal Jezebel. This creates an unhealthy sexuality in that sex is no longer something one engages in to share pleasure or manifest a loving relationship, but to assert a form of self worth.
While a healthy sexuality is important to achieve a well rounded sense of self, the overvaluation of it is detrimental. Reducing women to what they do with their vaginas rather than with their brains serves patriarchal interests. For black women who have a history of slavery the perpetuation of the Jezebel complex amounts to the continued colonization of black female bodies.
This form of sexuality is also heterosexist nature in that it constructs women as existing solely for the purposes of male sexual pleasure, while ignoring the existence of same sex loving women. Lesbian love is delegitimized because it does not actively serve patriarchy; and therefore its erasure is not only a slight on black women, but on all women that identify as lesbian. Queer culture is very much a part of the black community, but when sexuality is controlled by outside forces instead of individually, certain identities become invisible if it is deemed that their existence does not help to maintain the race/class/gender hierarchy.
The model held for the black male is quite similar to the black female. It once again finds it origins in slavery; wherein the black male was constructed as the sexually aggressive savage to promote distrust between black men and white women. In this way white men are assured their place at the top of the race and gender hierarchy, while constructing themselves as the saviour of white women and the socially evolved masters of black men.
The hyper masculine sexuality that is presented as a model to black men can be seen in rap videos, and throughout mainstream media. The black male sexuality that is offered is one that is desirous of continues conquest; wherein the pleasure of the act itself is over looked. Black men are perceived not to engage in sex because it is an act of intimacy between two beings; rather it is construed as an act that reifies their masculinity. In a world where in the black male is continually reduced to an exotic “other” combating such images can be difficult. If masculinity is derived through sexual conquest, then this reinforces a problematized identity.
Just as same sex loving is detached from black female sexuality, a queer identity is similarly not associated with black male sexuality. Black masculinity is forever measuring itself against that of the white male. Due to the historic imbalance caused by racism any form of sexuality that is deemed “socially deviant” is actively denied. This has given rise to living a life on the “down low”. Though black males are certainly not the only ones to lead closeted lives, the tendency to deny sexual orientation is higher because of the association of black masculinity and sexual conquest. This is not healthy and is ultimately damaging to the individual on many levels.
We have a tendency to speak about sex as though it is divorced from other social elements, yet it is one of the most complex forms of human interactions. When we ignore the complexities of race, class and gender in our discussions it has a tendency to minimize the ways in which different groups of people not only understand but experience sexuality. What must be paramount when we seek to educate our youth is that they be made to recognise that though they are the products of social construction, as individuals they exist with ability to transcend norms and create a sexuality that is not only more positive, but a reflection of their right to possess a sexuality in which the onus is on individual agency.
When we begin to discuss sexuality with black children, it is important to make connections to the ways in which racism has affected our understanding of what it is to be black, while at the same time exist as a sexual being. Reclaiming sexuality from the race infused dialog would foster a more positive understanding of what it is to be sexual thus encouraging youth to see this as a decision that is not synonymous with claiming their gender identity, but in sharing an experience of intimacy with another.