Heaux Tales, R&B singer Jazmine Sullivan’s fourth record and her first full-length project in six years, is a 14-song EP with a concentrated mission: leveling the erotic playing field for all Black women. In 1978, the self-described “Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, and poet” Audre Lorde delivered a speech at Mount Holyoke College about the uses of the erotic, broadly defined as a person’s desire for pleasure. In that speech, which Lorde later adapted for her 1984 book, Sister Outsider: Essays & Speeches, she described the erotic as “an internal sense of satisfaction to which, once we have experienced it, we know we can aspire. Once having experienced the fullness of this depth of feeling and recognized its power, in honor and self-respect we can require no less of ourselves.” Heaux Tales pleasantly greets listeners with a diverse set of relatable stories—about Sullivan and about other people in her orbit—that encourages Black women to reflect on our own heaux tales without shame.
“I wrote Heaux Tales to give a voice to every woman,” Sullivan said in a statement about the album. “We’re deserving of respect whether we work as a CEO of a company or we stripping. It’s about unity. It’s about boldness. It’s about ownership and confidence and also about vulnerability and self-reflection. It’s about a woman deciding how she wants to present herself to the world and not being told or influenced by anyone but her gotdamn self. It’s about women writing their own imperfect stories. Unashamed.” Heaux Tales sends that message loud and clear, encouraging Black women to unapologetically express our erotic power. “Pick Up Your Feelings” reminds us that we must always prioritize our own self-respect, while “Antoinette’s Tale” makes it clear that Black women are having sex on our own terms without apology: “[N-words] cannot handle if a woman takes the same liberties as them/ Especially with regards to sex…That they forget we’re sexual beings as well/ Plus, their egos are often way too fragile/ To ever handle a woman who owns and has any real agency over her body.”
And if that wasn’t enough, “On It,” which features Ari Lennox and welcomes listeners in with intoxicating guitar playing and sensual vocals, offers titillating details about how exactly Black women celebrate our erotic selves: “I want to sit on it/ So tell me why you deserve it/ Come on and prove (Prove)/ Why I should move/ Spit on it.” Lennox and Sullivan are both soul singers with well-deserved reputations of lyrically expressing their eroticism, and “On It” definitely doesn’t disappoint their faithful listeners. Line by line, we’re invited into the unabashedly provocative minds of two bold Black women who would “__ on it” leaving us saying, “Wait, did they really just say that?” Yes, indeed they did. It’s a welcome change of pace for Black women listeners, in particular, who haven’t always been encouraged to be sexually assertive.
Thanks to a traumatic history of sexual objectification that includes rape and reproductive slavery, Black women have been aggressively stigmatized as hypersexual objects or “hoes.” Combine that history with respectability politics and a culture of dissemblance, coined by historians Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham and Darlene Clark Hine, respectively, and we have Black women being indoctrinated into a silence around our own erotic voices for protection. Heaux Tales combats this silence, encouraging us to loudly declare our eroticism. Though Sullivan sings about only having sex with people who can prove they deserve it, what sexually active cishet Black woman hasn’t been dickmatized by someone undeserving of experiencing our erotic selves? This type of hypnosis not only applies to penis owners but also to anyone with exceptional sex skills that keep us in a trance. Who hasn’t spent money, changed themselves, and/or even endured unhealthy relationships because the sex is good? Sullivan chronicles this experience on “Ari’s Tale,” in which Lennox states, “That dick spoke life into me/ Invigoration, blessings, soul, turmoil.” Similarly, on “Put It Down,” Sullivan confesses, “It’s a shame what he do to me (Me)/ My girls ask me what it is, I say, ‘It’s the D.’”
Sullivan doesn’t just focus on heaux tales on a personal level; she also expands the conversation into the social realm. On “Amanda’s Tale” and “Girl Like Me,” she addresses the conflicting labels of “good girl” and ho. In her 1999 book When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: A Hip-Hop Feminist Breaks It Down, journalist and scholar Joan Morgan, PhD, describes the tension between Black women who deem themselves “good” and therefore turn their noses up at those who choose to buck those narrow conventions. Referring to the ho as a “chickenhead,” Morgan writes that “the hatred we have for your chickenhead asses is in part the mask of bravado we wear to camouflage our fears…we look at you and wonder if chickenheads aren’t the ones who have figured it all out. Is being alone the price [good girls] will ultimately pay for doing it the ‘right way’?” Patriarchy created the “good girl” and “ho” labels to police our erotic autonomy and dictate who deserves honor and respect. Fortunately, women, particularly women musicians, have reclaimed the term “heaux” as a means of self-defining our own erotic agency.
Heaux Tales is a musical masterpiece that brilliantly levels the erotic playing field for all Black women to have healthy, unabashedly provocative, and luxurious sex lives.
“Girl Like Me” explains how frustrating it can be to be boxed in to the good girl/ho dichotomy, especially when you’ve bought into the idea that being “good” should usher in certain benefits, including being chosen and prioritized by men. “Yeah, you gon’ make me a gold digger (Gold digger)/ Maybe I should look like a stripper,” Sullivan sings. “Wearin’ Fashion Nova dresses/ All these dudes be so pressed and impressed with it/ You leave me with no choice (Oh, oh)/ I can’t do this good girl shit no more.” On “Price Tags,” Sullivan calls out women who look down on those who haven’t bought into the “good girl” label but who still believe that “money keeps [their] pussy wet.” She even sings on “The Other Side,” “Yeah, I got dreams/ To buy expensive things/ And I know that he’s out there/ So where’s my millionaire?”
Sullivan also takes it a step further on this album, exploring how whorephobia allows women to benefit from sex-worker aesthetics while looking down on actual sex workers. Mireille Miller-Young, PhD, an associate professor of feminist studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and author of the 2014 book, A Taste for Brown Sugar: Black Women in Pornography, coined the term “illicit eroticism”—or the use of the body for material survival—as a popular strategy utilized by women in the sex industry and unadmittedly adopted by women in relationships to achieve financial mobility and sexual autonomy. Illicit eroticism can be compared with the well-known technique of “trickin’,” which Morgan describes as “using sex [or the suggestion of it] to gain protection, wealth, and power.” Two of the songs on Heaux Tales, “Precious’ Tale” and “The Other Side,” illustrate the fact that money may make us cum, but we don’t always have to financially please ourselves. In fact, on “Donna’s Tale,” Sullivan raises an important issue: “Women think, ‘Oh no, I don’t trick, I don’t ho, I don’t do none of that shit’…You have tricked in your fuckin’ marriage/ You have sex because you know your husband is gonna give you what the fuck you want the next day.”
Heaux Tales is a musical masterpiece that brilliantly levels the erotic playing field for all Black women to have healthy, unabashedly provocative, and luxurious sex lives. Regardless of where we are in our erotic journeys, all Black women should embrace our inner heaux and not shame the heaux tendencies in others. Our erotic solidarity as a form of collective resistance against any sexual oppressions is key for true sexual liberation. In other words, we all have heaux tales to share—and Sullivan was the perfect Black woman to remind us that our eroticism is our superpower.