This article appears in our 2015 Spring issue, Law & Order. Subscribe today!
“My son, pay attention to my wisdom…. For the lips of an adulteress drip honey, and her speech is smoother than oil; but in the end she is bitter as gall, sharp as a double-edged sword.” PROVERBS 5:1–4
“When I met you last night, baby/ Before you opened up your gap/ I had respect for ya lady/ But now I take it all back.” — Snoop Dogg, “Ain’t no fun (if the homies can’t have none)”
“We don’t love them hoes.” — Mobb Deep, “We Don’t Love Them Hoes”
Most patriarchal cultures throughout history have not, in fact, loved them hoes, and have believed that every woman’s value is inextricably tied to being attractive—that is, fuckable while not appearing too eager to fuck. Hip hop may be extra frank about its disdain for sexually active women, but Snoop ’n ’em aren’t alone. In 16th-century Spain, Cervantes wrote, “There is no jewel in the world more valuable than a chaste and virtuous woman.” And the Good Book has had more influence over more women’s lives for much longer than the hip hop Hot 100. Proselytizing against female sexuality—usually while excusing the same behavior in men—is ignoble whether the sermon is rapped over a trap beat or preached over a swelling organ. And Black American women’s sexuality is uniquely burdened by the strictures of both the secular and the holy.
One mission of modern feminism has been to dismantle unequal ideas of male and female sexual behavior—the belief that “good” women save the “good good” for one partner, and men, well, they will be men. Every time Lena Dunham awkwardly ruts on HBO, she strikes a blow against the principle that women should always be modest and chaste in public; that sex is never something we should desire or enjoy; and that the female body is only for the heterosexual male gaze. But for Black American women seeking sexual liberation, the wicket gets stickier. Every woman’s sexuality is judged by chauvinist standards, but it is Black women who are assumed to be starting at a deficit of purity. For us, gender-biased concepts of female sexuality intersect with racist ones, leaving Black women fighting the stereotype that we are innately hypersexual, and thus, particularly valueless.
Much of the Black community, rather than rejecting the sexism of the majority culture, doubles down on it, insisting that the antidote for the hypersexual Jezebel stereotype is for Black women to work extra hard to adhere to rules of female beauty, piety, submissiveness, and above all else, chastity. We are assumed inherently loose, even by those who know us best, and asked to demonstrate that we are exceptionally wholesome in response. We must constantly prove that we aren’t what they say we are. This is tied directly to the politics of respectability—a centuries-old philosophy of racial uplift that focuses on correcting the alleged “bad” traits of African Americans, as defined by the majority culture.
Over the last three years, while writing The Sisters Are Alright: Changing the Broken Narrative of Black Women in America, a book due out in June 2015 from Berrett-Koehler Publishers, I have interviewed more than 100 women on multiple issues, including sex. A common lament was how respectability politics has become a limiting force that permeates Black culture and a rule that governs Black female bodies and the ways Black women express their sexuality. And Black female sexual propriety is not just conscribed by popular culture but also by an institution with a lot more gravitas and authority—the Black church.
A 2007 U.S. Religious Landscape Study, conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life, found that individuals who are “more religiously observant” are more likely to report higher levels of conservative ideology, including ideas surrounding S-E-X. It also revealed that Black folks are the most devoutly Christian group in the United States. Nearly 80 percent of us identify as Protestant Christians and eight out of 10 of us say religion is “very important” in our lives. For most Black women, claiming our sexuality for ourselves—whether that means giving it up to no one, a special someone, or everyone—means grappling with God.
When it comes to Black women and our sexuality, respectability politics is the law, and religion becomes a powerful justification for it,” says Andrea Plaid, an analyst who has spoken on race, gender, and sexuality for the Washington Post and Melissa Harris-Perry, among others. Plaid was raised in a Baptist, churchgoing family and attended a Catholic day school. Her stepdaddy was a deacon, her mom “practically” a deaconess. “We were in church every Sunday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and then Bible class on Wednesday.” Her understanding of her sexuality was formed by Catholic reverence for the Blessed Virgin, Baptist stories of fallen women like Mary Magdalene, and one maxim she says both sects agreed on: “Good women of the Lord don’t fuck.”
They don’t talk about it either. While writing The Sisters Are Alright, I asked women in a Black feminist social-media group to anonymously weigh in on the messages they received about sex growing up. Their stories had many common refrains. One woman said she was taught “‘Don’t do it.’ Unless I was married, and then it was: ‘Do it, but don’t like it.’ I had some real cognitive dissonance going on when I discovered I liked it. Like, really liked it.” Another woman said, “Nobody talked to me about sex. Not after I was raped, not before. My friends were turning up pregnant with no understanding of why.”
Another shared, “My grandmother told me when I was 7 that if I got pregnant she’d never talk to me again. My mother is a doctor but said nothing about sex except, ‘Don’t.’ Sex-ed was mandatory in fourth grade. All my questions about ‘the mechanics’ were answered, but I struggled for decades in the dating area. I had my first orgasm, which I gave to myself, at 29.” The denial of female sexuality, buttressed by the Bible, means not only are young women shamed for sexual behavior but that discussions of sexual pleasure and health are verboten. Black communities stay mum on sexual and reproductive health, even as many leaders lament the out-of-wedlock birth-rate and the fact that HIV infection has become the leading cause of death for Black women aged 25 to 34 years. Plaid says, “Of course there were no discussions around sex education, abortion, or birth control. The Lord should be keeping your knees locked together. Jesus was your birth control.”
This experience may sound familiar to non-Black women raised in evangelical cultures. The difference for Black women is that for many in our communities, the success of African America rises and falls at the junction of Black women’s thighs. Our alleged irresponsible fornicating is blamed for everything from the welfare state to urban violence and poverty. To fail at sexual purity is not just to let down God (as if that isn’t enough), but to let down 39 million African Americans, while confirming racial stereotypes. For instance, becoming an unmarried mother—thus providing proof of sinful fornication—holds a stigma for women regardless of race. But it is single Black mothers that prompted Bill O’Reilly to suggest that #BlackLivesMatter activists trade in their “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts for ones reading “Don’t Get Pregnant at 14.”
It is single Black mothers that columnist George Will called a bigger threat to their communities than the “absence of rights” while appearing on This Week with George Stephanopoulos to discuss—wait for it—the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington in 2013. “When religion and respectability politics converge, and the sole focus is the control of Black women, there is something inherently wrong with that,” says Francena Turner, a Black doctoral student. “To beat sensuality and sexuality out of [us] and then demand that it only resurface with an ‘I do’ is so dismissive of women who don’t even want men and women who don’t even want to marry. And coming out from under all of that damaging and controlling pressure is difficult and sometimes impossible to do. Black women are out here scarred from the experience.”
Brandee Mimitzraeim, an African Methodist Episcopal pastor and theology doctoral student, says that, historically in Christianity, male sexuality has been unfettered, while “female sexuality isn’t really a thing. [Women] don’t really have a right to our own sexuality…. We exist in relationship to and for men to do what they want.” That way of thinking leaves room for some to support Black holy men accused of sexual misconduct, while castigating Black women for having sex. Pastor Jamal Bryant, the leader of Empowerment Temple in Maryland, has admitted that infidelity ended his marriage, but can still make headlines in 2014 by literally preaching “These hoes ain’t loyal” from the pulpit. It may also be why, while awaiting trial on charges of having sex with an underage Black girl in 2004, singer R. Kelly was honored by one of the oldest Black civil rights organizations in the country with an NAACP Image Award in 2013.
Many of the Black church’s oppressive views on women, including female sexuality, are driven by its vastly male leadership, says Mimitzraeim. “How do you get these women who are the majority [of the Black church membership] to maintain their positions as followers instead of being leaders? There has to be some way to maintain the hierarchy and that’s usually done through sexuality, honestly.” The idea that women’s sexuality is God-given to men not only excuses male misbehavior, but also leaves no room for women who love other women.
Chavalier Sharps grew up in a Black, Baptist home. Though her family did not attend church regularly, her upbringing was steeped in church doctrine and the culture of Black respectability. For instance, she remembers being lectured on how to dress in order not to tempt men and signal that she is sexually available. She also learned how confusing and hypocritical messages around Black female sexuality can be. Black women were told conflicting messages: to not be available but also, “‘Don’t be a prude. Don’t deny your man.’ [These] unattainable rules on women…they don’t even make sense!”
The denial of female sexuality, buttressed by the Bible, means not only are young women shamed for sexual behavior but that discussions of sexual pleasure and health are verboten.
Sharps, though, is not so interested in what men want sexually. “I came out at 19, but I very much knew I was attracted to the same sex very, very, very early on. Like, 3 years old, I knew. I had a crush on my teacher. She was from Jamaica and I was so enamored with this woman. “My mama started to see those signs when I was about 9. My sexuality went unspoken of except for my grandmama to say, ‘Don’t be no bull dagger. Don’t be no dyke.’” (The Pew Religious Landscape Study, unsurprisingly, discovered a correlation between religiosity and views against homosexuality.)
“This was my narrative growing up,” Sharps explains. “And then I realized these words my mama was saying to me, and my grandma was saying to me, my great-grandmother, my aunties, my uncles—this isn’t just restricted to my family. This is how my community feels at large. I need to be quiet about who I am.” She contemplated suicide and prayed every night, from ages 13 to 17: “[God], if this is so much against your will, then ungay me.” Sharps is unable to reconcile her sexuality with the Christian religion—or any religion. Her decision to identify as a humanist antitheist is driven by what she sees as in-consistencies of religious logic and the fact that “there is no religion where, according to the doctrine, homosexuality is acceptable. You know what I’m saying?”
Sikivu Hutchinson, author of Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels (2013) and Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values War (2011), sees predatory male pastors “spreading this gospel of chasteness for errant Black women on the one hand, while saying, ‘I’m going to fuck whoever I want to,’ on the other hand—in the name of Jesus and in the service of the redemption of Black masculinity.” She says it’s hypocrisy like this in the Black church—as well as associated issues of homophobia, misogyny, and the demonization of female sexuality—that have motivated African American atheist women to be more visible and to identify openly as nonbelievers.
But many, many Black women say they derive strength from their religion and thus must reconcile their sexuality with their spirituality. Plaid’s path led away from the Baptist church, through paganism, Catholicism, and finally, to Nichiren Buddhism. Today she is able to find support for all her passions, including carnal ones, through a new understanding of spirituality that includes some parts of the Christian faith she left behind—like the Song of Solomon, a book in the Old Testament. “It’s so erotic! And nobody talks about that. [Song of Solomon] is like the auntie you don’t talk about, but everybody knows she’s kind of wild. If she comes around, everybody’s really polite, but they all know what her life story is and nobody wants to talk about it lest they encourage her. Song of Solomon is the family secret. It’s the oldest family secret of all—that we like sex.”
The book begins, “Beloved. Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth; for your love is better than wine. Your oils have a pleasing fragrance. Your name is oil poured forth, therefore the virgins love you.” All heat and musk and tortured longing—the Song of Solomon is hotter than a Zane novel. It is a Biblical celebration of sexual love with a female protagonist. For Mimitzraeim, Song of Solomon is canonical proof that a faithful Black woman can also be a sexual being. She says that the church’s views on female sexuality are slowly evolving and that her mission as a religious leader is to help women—and men—understand that God loves them as they are, including as full, sexual beings. She believes the institution is redeemable. And her presence as a progressive, female member of the clergy may hasten a revolution.
“The hearts and minds of people are changed by people, right? We talk to each other and we learn from each other and we grow,” she says. “Institutions can be changed from the outside, but the people can’t be saved from the outside. You can’t protect the people if you won’t walk with them.”