[TALK LIKE SEX] Blacks and the Madonna-Whore Complex

In 1991, hip-hop trio Salt-N-Pepa released “Let’s Talk About Sex.” In a male-dominated genre, they dared to assert themselves as sexually liberated women and demanded that we talk about sex, openly and honestly, to foster communication and make for a safer, more pleasurable experience. “Let’s Talk About Sex” was heralded as a song that shaped rock-and-roll music and paved the way for one of the largest HIV/AIDS awareness campaigns in the Black/hip-hop community. Still, there was backlash, and as they lyrically predicted, some radio stations wouldn’t play the song because it was too “taboo.” Why? Well, they talked about sex.

The idea of women being open about their sexual desires and behavior continues to make people uncomfortable, and women are often castigated for asserting themselves as being in control of their bodies and sexuality. In the Black community especially, this idea that a woman should be a “lady” in the streets and a “freak” in the sheets is pervasive, and I wonder if it harms us more than it helps.

Shaming women into silence has discouraged many of us from asking important sexual health-related questions and talking about some of the bad experiences we’ve had. According to two studies, between 40 and 60 percent of Black girls have experienced sexual assault before age 18. We tend to discourage any talk about what happens sexually with Black women and girls, and too often blame them for what happens. We often call sexually active teen girls “fast” and blame them for leading men astray, without considering their behaviors might be a result of sexual trauma. Then, Black girls and women categorized as either ladies or freaks are often assigned long-term relationship value accordingly.

What is a “lady” exactly, or a “freak” even? Part of the issue is that we ascribe almost mutually exclusive characteristics and attributes to our understanding of the lady and freak archetypes, categorizing women as one or the other and assigning polarizing values. Sigmund Freud described the “Madonna/Whore Complex” as a condition in which men can’t allow themselves to feel certain sexual attractions or do certain sexual acts with women they loved and married (ladies), preferring to only participate in such behavior with women they deemed worthy of sexual degradation because they were akin to prostitutes (freaks).

My primary issue with the perpetuation of the madonna/whore dichotomy is that it assigns women’s sexuality value like currency, which uncomfortably harkens to the times when women were bartered during marriage arrangements. It assumes that valuable women are tainted by having and enjoying sex, and if women are too knowledgeable and talented during sex, their worth is somehow reduced. Why should women be deemed worthy or unworthy of love and long-term committed partnership based on whom they’ve slept with (or how much they enjoyed it)?

In the Black community especially, this idea that a woman should be a ‘lady’ in the streets and a ‘freak’ in the sheets is pervasive, and I wonder if it harms us more than it helps.

It’s easy to point the finger at “The Church,” or religious mandates of purity and chastity, but I think we have to dig a bit deeper. Black folks aren’t exactly going to church like they used to, and many are at least a generation removed from the anti-premarital sex indoctrination that occurs with regular church attendance. I’d argue that the answer lies both in pride and in power, or the lack thereof.

As women, we’re subjected to the narrow limitations that patriarchy places on our freedoms. As Black women, we bear the weight of racism and the legacy of sexual abuse and hypersexualization that comes with racist stereotypes. Part of our projecting the outward “lady” is not wanting to be connected to the Jezebel and Venus Hottentot images we’ve seen. This history also includes the emasculation of Black men with regard to their status as “head” of families, which has been society’s idea of what makes a man a real man. A man who cannot control his woman’s sexual behavior, then, stands to have his masculinity questioned—and for Black men, that’s been done more than enough.

We’re left with men and women who do what they can to shun the bold sexuality of women because of the negativity so readily attached to it. Both want to enjoy the pleasures of the sex, however, so keeping things on the hush has been the go-to approach. Is it fair? Of course not, but it continues to permeate almost every corner of our communities. Is it safe? I argue that the more secretive we are about our sexual behavior, the more risky it becomes.

I’m not saying that women need to brandish the most intimate details of their sex lives on their chests like scarlet letters. We owe no one any explanation about what we choose to do. Women shouldn’t be forced to play certain public roles that hide what we enjoy, or be subjected to being shamed for affirming our enjoyment. Judging women based on sexual histories is also problematic because the