Unfortunately, the only representation that black women see of ourselves is often extremely problematic. Most of the time, we are masculinized and depicted as "strong black women" capable of handling inhumane levels of mistreatment. Other times, we are portrayed as jezebels, or overtly sexual beings whose only desire is sexual gratification. This type of representation arises out of a desire to dehumanize black women and justify our mistreatment, just like the strong black woman narrative. During slavery, white slave owners justified their sexual abuse of black women, by characterizing us as sexual fiends who enjoyed every sexual encounter, including the ones that were forced upon us.
Although American slavery has ended, many black women still feel the need and pressure to “live up” to these demeaning characteristics and stereotypes. Since the only validation we receive in the media comes when we’re being hypersexualized or masculinized, black women sometimes feel the need to choose one of these stereotypes and play the role unwaveringly.
In an article in Wear Your Voice Magazine, black female writer Sherronda J. Brown wrote about the society’s unfair delineation of black women, “In order for white women to be upheld as pure, black women are first defined as licentious and sexually deviant… This impacts how black women and girls come into their sexual identities, because there are expectations inscribed on us from the very beginning. The idea that we are inherently sexually irresponsible, but at the same time expected to always be sexually available.”
In an effort to fight back, black women have jumped on the bandwagon of movements like third-wave feminism, in an effort to defend our right to sexual liberation over traditional “good girl” standards. Spike Lee’s Netflix adaptation of the 80s film “She’s Gotta Have It” stars DeWanda Wise as Nola Darling, a sexually liberated woman who has multiple sexual partners and has no qualms about it. But is this type of media depiction healthy for black women? Especially when we’ve been hypersexualized for centuries? Unlike white women, who have historically been sexually repressed, black women have had to deal with overly sexual depictions of ourselves which ignore our humanity and our unique feminine identities. As a result, we need to work on corrective promotion. What is liberating for white women, may not truly be beneficial for black women in the same way.
I wonder if it would benefit black women more to defend our rights to be seen as more than just sexual beings who appeal to and excite the white male gaze, rather than to vehemently defend our right to be objectified and exploited. We must reject the continued fetishization of our features and the psychological, physical or emotional abuse that we endure as a result of our hyper-sexualization in the media.
It’s true that black women have just as much of a right to enjoy sex as anyone else and we shouldn’t be shamed for expressing our sexuality. Sex is powerful and it should be a pleasurable experience for both parties involved. However, I believe that black women need to be careful about joining the sexual liberation bandwagon, when we’ve so often been stereotyped as overly promiscuous.
Moreover, we could stand to be more persistent in our vetting process for determining who is worthy of having sexual experiences with us. While I hate the hypocritical standards of purity in Western Christianity—where men are allowed to gawk and stare at women, while women are blamed for “tempting” their fellow male counterparts and leading them into sin. However, I think there is something that black women can learn from the very Judeo-Christian idea that the body is a temple.
As black women, we’ve been taught to disregard our health and safety for the benefit of others, and as a result, we often allow undeserving men to waste our time and sexual energy. However, things could really improve if we collectively decide to value our physical bodies more and develop higher standards over who should be allowed to engage in sexual activity with us.
Having high self-esteem and daring to think of yourself as a rare prize is something that will help you avoid spending energy on men who don’t value you similarly. Instead of allowing ourselves to get caught up in beta males who don’t provide or who neglect and abuse us, we’ll only choose to expend our efforts on men who show signs of leadership, responsibility and most importantly, who respect us.
So, the facts are that black women are hypersexualized. But the solution to this issue is not “sexual liberation” as we think of it today. For black women, true sexual liberation looks like media representation that shows our humanity and that prioritizes our value as human beings, first and foremost. Instead of appearing in 30-second cameos where we exist only to be objectified, we need to be the leads of the films—the love interest who must be wined and dined and wooed, before she gives any attention to her romantic prospects. This will give us the opportunity to express our femininity and unique womanhood in a way that highlights our worth.
As black women, it is in our best interests to be extremely vigilant about our bodies and whom we allow access to it, by choosing sexual partners wisely and only spending efforts on men who truly value us and our bodies. We need to go into relationships aware of the signs you’re being objectified and be willing to run at the first signs of trouble.
All in all, we deserve so much better, and if the world isn’t willing to give us what we deserve, we need to be willing to give it to ourselves.
Grace is a freelance writer and blogger from Canada. Her work has been featured on HerCampus, 21Ninety, Read Unwritten. She is a voracious reader, a dog-lover and a self-professed pop culture junkie. Her other hobbies include watching sappy romantic comedies, consuming too many strawberry-filled doughnuts and people-watching. Grace currently attends university, where she is working towards a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and Pre-Law.