Of Denise Zimba, Lena Dunham and Self-Pleasure : The paradoxes of black women’s sexuality

By Sunbeam Nyabose

 A guy I was once involved with didn’t like that I rubbed my clitoris while we were having sex. I asked him why and he said that he didn’t feel like he was in control of my pleasure and “as a man it was his duty” to pleasure me. When I told him that he did pleasure me because he did make me orgasm vaginally but I liked experiencing both a clitoral and vaginal orgasm at the same. Also, it not only seemed impractical to me that he try thrust and rub me at the same time but that I actually enjoyed touching myself. Yet he still insisted that he wanted to do both. I never saw him again after that because it wasn’t about whether he could or couldn’t, it was that he wanted to take away my pleasure in the experience, my sexuality away from me knowing very well that I liked feeling myself just so he could feel “like a man”.

February is seen as the month of love and so, with sexuality being so closely linked to love, it seems only appropriate to explore black women’s sexuality and what it means in present-day society. Like our bodies, our sexuality is often dictated to us by others other than ourselves and whenever a black woman, especially a famous one, is seen to have agency over her own body, society tries to wrestle her autonomy out of her hands, whether it is by the media or a partner she has chosen to be romantically and sexually involved with.

Since the beginning of slavery, black women’s bodies have been dehumanised as pieces of property. Negative stereotypes have been borne from this charged racial history where black women are seen as lascivious sluts, freaky whores who just want to f*ck anything with a penis between its legs and therefore are incapable of being raped. Black women have been seen as sexual fodder for whoever feels like they want us.

Today, it seems as if black women are at a sexual paradox: either we deny our sexuality just to be seen as human beings who are worthy of love and respect in the white supremacist capitalist patriarchal society we live in or we embrace our sexuality only to be labelled by the negative stereotypes that are so ingrained in said society.

From my experience, the majority of black women have done the former. Our upbringings have been puritanical to say the least, as we are brought up on the teachings of a patriarchal moral system that vilifies women’s sexuality. Where white women have been denied their sexuality because of the perception of their chastity, purity and daintiness, black women have been denied the right to exercise their own sexuality because it is seen as crass, dirty and demeaning purely because of the colour of their skin. This is the reason why the likes of Beyonce, Nicki Minaj and Rihanna are seen as hyper-sexualised scantily dressed pop stars who are the worst role models for women, whereas the likes of Madonna, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus (Lord help us) and Lena Dunham (who is literally naked in almost every sex scene of her show Girls) are praised for progressing the feminist movement. It’s perplexing how a stark naked Lena Dunham is accepted into the mainstream feminist movement but a clothed Beyonce is constantly questioned and disregarded as ‘un-feminist’?

Some feminists like to say that the likes of Beyonce, Nicki, Amber Rose, and Rihanna are exploiting themselves or are being exploited by others to pander to the consumerist male gaze. To scream ‘exploitation!’ when these women like shake their derrieres on TV is to ignore that these women are able to control the way their sexuality is presented and have a great sense of agency.  It is unbelievable that a woman like Beyonce, whose staff and band consist mostly of women of colour and who is in charge of the direction of her music would be a victim of exploitation. In her documentary about her latest album Beyonce she says herself that she hadn’t been overtly sexual before because she felt a responsibility towards her fans but she felt like she was repressing aspects of her personality hence the sexual overtones in her new album. Despite this she is still accused of pandering to a male gaze.

Locally, we can think of the many times that our female celebrities from Brenda Fassie and Chomee to Kelly Khumalo who  have been targets for their sexuality. When Pam Andrews and Denise Zimba showed up to the Channel O Awards last year in their revealing sheer dresses they became targets of a vicious gossip mill that questioned their morals and self-esteem. Responding to the criticism Zimba spoke of her agency in choosing the outfit saying, “I was part of the creation of the design, I knew exactly what I wanted to wear. I feel like I’m not gonna be 26 forever, I feel like I’m not gonna have this body forever. I am obsessed with my body because I work hard for it so if I feel like I want to be butt naked  that’s what I’m gonna do.”

When the inevitable comparisons between herself and Pam Andrews came, she said: “Pam for me is a daring woman. I love women that are comfortable in their skin and have no desire to make anyone happy but themselves.”

If black women celebrities have a hard time reclaiming their sexuality, it is a million times worse for the average black woman. I’m a twenty-four year old who has friends from grade one and we still cannot talk about masturbation without feeling awkward, even with friends that I consider ‘sexually liberated’. Need I mention the fact having a conversation about sex in the public sphere can be problematic for a black woman professionally.

But it seems that one of the main reasons a black woman may be unable to express her sexuality freely is because she is afraid of being labelled a slut or ‘hoe’. You only have to follow a couple of twenty-something year old men on Twitter to see patriarchal black masculinity at work to make many black women want to ‘hide’ their sexuality. They love to give relationship advice to women that demands that women be subservient and blame women if their relationships don’t work because they don’t submit to men’s needs. The ultimate objective of these ‘discussions’ is to define and control women to be ‘good’ (that is to be chaste and pure) and if you aren’t, you’re immediately labelled a ‘hoe’. The word ‘hoe’ is reserved for any woman who dares not cook for him, not shut up when the sport is on and who posts photos that show even a little bit of skin.

A five-second video clip floating on twitter of a woman having sex doggy-style with a black man and being hit on the head by the man was tweeted with the words “when she makes you wait 90 days for the box and its trash” was retweeted with laughing crying faces by a shameful number of men. It is sickening that men would laugh at such blatant sexual abuse and misogyny. Twitter has become a space for some black men to exert dominance because they are unable to in a society that denies them patriarchal power because of their race.

 

These are the same men who may also try to execute their power in the bedroom where a woman’s sexuality is denied in order for them to assert their masculinity. A guy I was once involved with didn’t like that I rubbed my clitoris while we were having sex. I asked him why and he said that he didn’t feel like he was in control of my pleasure and “as a man it was his duty” to pleasure me. When I told him that he did pleasure me because he did make me orgasm vaginally but I liked experiencing both a clitoral and vaginal orgasm at the same. Also, it not only seemed impractical to me that he try thrust and rub me at the same time but that I actually enjoyed touching myself. Yet he still insisted that he wanted to do both. I never saw him again after that because for me it wasn’t whether he could or couldn’t, it was that he wanted to take away my pleasure in the experience, my sexuality away from me knowing very well that I liked feeling myself just so he could feel “like a man”.

As black women we should be able to freely express ourselves sexually and not be humiliated because of it. We should be able to be show off our bodies without being called sluts and hoes. We should be able to pleasure ourselves without shame. We should be able to share in the sexual experiences with the man we love and not be made a vessel for him penetrate just so he can assert his masculine identity.

In Beyonce’s Partition there is a French quote nicely slipped into the song:

“Est-ce que tu aimes le sexe? Le sexe, je veux dire l’activité physique, le coït, tu aimes ça? Tu ne t’intéresses pas au sexe? Les hommes pensent que les féministes déstestent le sexe mais c’est une activité très stimulante et naturelle que les femmes adorent.”

Translated, this means:

“Don’t you like sex? Sex. I mean sex, the physical activity. Fucking. You like that? You’re not interested in sex? Men think feminists don’t like sex, but it’s a very fun and natural activity that women love.”

We should all own and fall in love with our sexuality and not need to take into account how the world will judge us because of whatever way we choose to express it. We have a right to enjoy and love sex without shame, especially when experienced with someone we love. We as black women have a right to be seen as human beings and not by the negative stereotypes that pervade our gender and race.

30 Comments
  1. I disagree and find it concerning that “owning sexuality” has become synonymous with performing my gender along very conformist lines. In my opinion neither Rihanna nor Beyonce seem to me to be examples of women “owning” their sexuality. I say “seem”. They may well be in full ownership but I have no proof of that. There is nothing radical in how they reveal their bodies particularly because their bodies are the convention: they are slender and curvy in the places society dictates women ought to be. Having obtained (in some cases gone to great lengths to do so) these hairless, blemish-free bodies that society deems “perfect” they display them. I’m not saying that this isn’t possibly an example of “owning” ones sexuality (displaying) but I object to the assumption that it automatically is. Similarly someone who isn’t choosing to display her body could be no further or closer to “owning” her sexuality. I just think we need to unpack what this notion of owning sexuality really is and not automatically connect it to how a person dresses; automatically applaud someone (especially singers, movie stars and the like) in a revealing outfit for owning her sexuality. I think it’s more complex than that. Here’s an example of the complexity: Part of living in a patrirchal society is the objectification of women by men and women; the reduction of woman to body parts and orifices. However in celebrating and owning my body, my sex, possibly I display these parts, I rejoice in these orifices. How do I proceed to do so without simply replicating how society has already objectified me? I don’t shame Beyonce for being risque in her display of her body (free world that it is) but I do feel sad that she’s merely doing what a patriarchal society has already done to her and many others. Because she’s doing it to herself, does that make it okay? A white supremacist tells me my black skin is ugly. If I then tell this to myself, does that make it powerful and radical? I’m being deliberately provocative (using a rather drastic parallel) but I want to challenge the whole-sale notion of Beyonce (or whoever) as the poster woman for the owning of sexuality. Respectfully, it’s not that straight forward and simply going with that is potentially dangerous. Last point, Beyonce and Rihanna are incredibly wealthy and successful women, class is an issue here too. The reality is most women cannot dress that way without verbal and physical harassment. The poorer you are the more vulnerable you are to this. So the notion of owning sexuality based on dress becomes something only certain parts of society can partake in. What would be really radical is to start to look at what it means to own my sexuality regardless of how much money I have, what I do for a living and where I live. Yes, part of it might involve putting on certain garments, taking off others but that’s the low hanging fruit. I assert there are whole aspects of “owning sexuality” we haven’t even begun to consider.

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