Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Stopping Jezebel: Some Thoughts on the Complexities of Black Women Owning their Sexuality

I was thirteen and a freshman in high school when I got my first boyfriend. I didn't know anything about dating or relationships. It wasn't "serious" although I thought it was at the time. He would walk me to class. I'd watch him perform. We'd sit in the hallway giggling and holding hands. I even shared my first kiss with him.

Then we broke up. And one of the ways he used to get back at me was calling me a ho and a slut.

Later, I distinctly remember being taken aside by an older Black woman. She explained to me that I was called a slut because that's what men do when they're angry. And I could have avoided it if I had never been alone with him in the first place because once you do anything with a man he will expect you to have sex with him and if you don't he will begrudge you for it.

That's because boys will be boys. And it's because you are a (Black) girl.

That was my introduction to the politics surrounding the Jezebel image.

Black girls need to read more and twerk less. Black girls need to stop having babies and stay in school.

These are prevalent statements all Black girls hear whether they are twerking or sexually active or not. And the message isn't so much that twerking and having babies is bad as it is about how being a Black girl is bad.

Existing as a Black girl is bad. And it's fair game that every negative sexual stereotype be projected onto me no matter who I am as an individual or what I wish to do with my own body or how I wish to be viewed.

I exist to confirm or dispel a baseless stereotype.

This is not new. Black girls have been made to shoulder the burden of the Jezebel image since its creation. Because it is a stereotype directed at Black women, it has never been considered to be a serious form of racist ideology that needs to be eradicated throughout the Black community.

Yet, the Jezebel image is a direct result of white supremacy. It is a myth created by whites to justify the sexual assault and rape of enslaved (and free) Black women during the times of slavery and after.

In this sense, the Jezebel image is a racist attack in the same way notions of Black people's lower intelligence or physical ugliness is. Yet, we've had movement about Black being beautiful and about how Knowledge is power. But never a movement to directly attack the idea that Black women are hyper-sexual.

In her book Sister Citizen Melissa Harris-Perry has written, "The idea of black women's sexual wantonness was important to late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century nation-building efforts. Race and gender science informed public ideas of who was capable of citizenship as the country reestablished the basis of political participation following the Civil War" (57).

It's amazing then that the Black community hasn't as a whole found it urgent to dispel of this idea. Instead we grasp unto it: Black men to keep intact patriarchy and Black women to enforce a hierarchy among Black women. I have written about how hierarchies among Black women help nobody in my piece "The Good Black Girl Complex."

Another example of sexism preventing us from fully attacking white supremacy.

In the meantime, Black girls and women are made to feel as if their sexuality is not theirs to own. An individual Black woman's sexuality is held captive by racist and sexist projections. Any choice she makes will be viewed as being a result of her gender and race.

There is a special type of revolution when looking at Black women who dare to control and exude their sexuality in spite of all of this. They are the blueprint for the ways in which we can all disavow the seemingly pervasive Jezebel stereotype.

Jezebel follows Black women. But must Black women hide in the shadows of themselves in an effort to avoid it?

After all, in reality a Black woman can't avoid Jezebel. Any Black woman daring to live and exist will be victim to the image whether that looks like someone commenting on how Black women are "loose" or a person on the street propositioning a random Black woman for sex.

Jezebel is present when virgin and celibate Black women are looked upon like angels and told that they're so much better than other Black women. Only to be treated like a disposable after sex by the same people who seemed to praise them.

Jezebel was present when I was a preteen and told that I should never be alone with a man because he will expect sex and it will be my fault when he gets angry if I say no.

Jezebel is not present when I view my sexuality outside of the white and male gaze. But that is a continuous struggle. In the meantime, I don't want to be bombarded with the "sex positive" movement or feminism that does not recognize the devalued femininity (and sexuality) I work to re-conceptualize every day.

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  1. I love this post! Especially the last bit about the sex-positive/feminist movement. The sex-postiive/feminist people that I know are very much "My choice is my choice is my choice is my choice is my choice." And it seems like conversation never moves beyond that line - some people don't talk about the consequences of a particular choice, the implications of living out certain choices. It gets really annoying because, as you mentioned, black women like us are "followed" by our choices in a way that we cannot simply dismiss.

  2. Hi! I'll admit I've just spent the last two days reading this blog; you and your writing are incredibly interesting and well structured. I was wondering if you could extrapolate on your last paragraph, especially the comment about 'sex positive movement' not recognizing devalued femininity? What I'm understanding from it is that the sex positive movement often disregards the fact that a Black woman's sexuality and how she portrays it has different & vaster implications than a white woman's?
    Also, do you know what that old picture is a photograph of?

    Have an awesome day (and I'm sooo looking forward to reading more of your posts!)

    1. Hi, thanks for the comment! I'm glad you're enjoying the blog!

      Sure, I can further explain the last paragraph. When I originally wrote this piece it was more of an aside as the body of the post wasn't really about the sex pos movement at all (precisely because I view it as being pretty useless to Black women's sexual liberation).

      I think you got the basic concept though. The sex positive movement is often centered on middle class white women (like the feminist movement in general) and there are implications from this. The Jezebel stereotype makes it so that lasciviousness is the inherent positioning of Black femininity. This is totally different from (middle class) white femininity... where the inherent position is one of purity. Therefore, the sex pos movement is operating from the idea that women don't have to be pure virgins and in that vein it makes sense to work to reclaim words like "slut" and "whore" but for Black women that doesn't make as much sense.

      Why would I want to reclaim the word "slut" when that's how I'm viewed by default just because of my race? And so the last paragraph was a dig at that... and essentially saying that the sex pos movement won't solve the problem of the "Jezebel" stereotype for Black women.

    2. Also, the old photograph is of Spelman College students!

  3. “What if alongside feminism’s focus on making women’s status as equal to men, one of our principles was making women equal to women?”- Paula Giddings, speaking about how women of African descent are marginalized when race and gender are seen as completely separate social categories.