[TALK LIKE SEX]
From Slavery to Sexual Freedom

[TALK LIKE SEX]
From Slavery to Sexual Freedom

For Feminista Jones, ‘12 Years a Slave’ raises important questions about sexual agency and our community’s history of sexual abuse

by Feminista Jones, October 22, 2013

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[TALK LIKE SEX]
From Slavery to Sexual Freedom

Embrace your own sexual liberation

I recently had the opportunity to see director Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a free Black man kidnapped and sold into slavery in the mid-19th century. The movie presents the most honest, albeit heartbreaking, portrayals of American slavery that we’ve ever seen on film, and touches upon so many issues that remain relevant within Black communities. What moved me the most was the commentary on sex, sexuality and agency, particularly as relates to Black women. 

As a self-identified sex-positive feminist, I’m always interested in depictions of Black female sexuality in media and literature, and McQueen’s 12 Years is provocative in its statements about sexuality during those times. As there was a time when African-American men and women didn’t own their own bodies much less their sexuality, we should be even more inspired and motivated to take ownership and thrive in the liberation of sexual agency and ownership now.

In the opening scene, a Black woman struggles to sleep positioned on a palette in the slave quarters next to Northrup, who is also awake. She reaches out to him to get his attention and takes his hand, placing it on her body. With it, she begins to rub herself. (It’s suggested that his hand has been placed on her vagina.) She stares and him and silently urges him to take over and he does, ultimately bringing her to orgasm. His expression doesn’t change much, but he appears to have a moment of understanding that he helped her in some important way. 

After the movie, I met with a group and we broke down some of the scenes in the movie, including this one. Jamal Calloway is a student obtaining his master’s of sacred theology at Union Theological Seminary, where he’s studying philosophical theology with a focus on African-American literature. I was surprised when he articulated the same interpretation of the scene as I did. He explains:

The opening scene of 12 Years a Slave helped me to think about the orgasm as an act of resistance, sex as an act of reclamation for the enslaved Black body. Since slavery, the Black body has been sexualized almost exclusively from the perspective of and benefit to the White gaze, but the woman in the opening scene resisted and defied. She resisted the temptation of completely eradicating her sexuality from herself, even though it was a site of violence, of trauma. She defied the notion that her body was only property by demanding pleasure from another Black body on her own terms. I argue that by reclaiming and owning her sexuality in that small moment was ultimately her reclaiming her humanity.

A struggle for many Black women is the reconciliation between wanting to enjoy the pleasure of sex, but not wanting to be seen as less than a “real woman” or “lady” by making those desires known. We’re often made to feel there’s a hierarchy of womanhood where what’s acceptable doesn’t include complete ownership of our sexuality in openly affirming ways. Be it religious piety or the fear of inadvertently advertising ourselves as being “for the taking” (as so many of us have been for centuries), we tend to shy away from speaking up and asserting our sexual agency on a whole.

I, too, believe that embracing sexual liberation is an act of defiance, especially for descendants of enslaved Africans. Both men and women were subjected to inspections on auction blocks where their physical beings, particularly their genitals and reproductive capabilities, were given monetary value. Women and men, boys and girls, were raped and sexually abused. Women were forced to bear their master’s children and men forced to “breed” with other female slaves for the sole purpose of generating more profit-earning property. If we consider the implications of these things and the lingering effect they’ve had on us, it’s no wonder sex and sexuality remain so taboo within our communities.

I am a survivor of sexual assault, and one of the hardest things for me to do was convince myself I wasn’t damaged and totally worthless as a woman. It took a very long time for me to accept that I was not only a whole being who could be healed, but that I also retained my humanity and capacity to trust, love, and eventually enjoy sex again. It was through my reclamation of my body and my sexuality that I was able to overcome the things I experienced and it is why I speak out so frankly about sex; it is mine to speak about, and no one can take that from me.

I encourage people to speak up and speak out, in safe spaces when able, and move away from harboring those among us who perpetuate this type of abuse. Female survivors often feel they won’t be desirable to partners, and male survivors often feel their value as “men” will decrease if they admit to it. I encourage healing and offer support to those who believe they can never be whole again. You can and you will be!

We too often deny ourselves the opportunities for empowerment that were robbed from our ancestors. It seems to me that one of the last areas in which we need further affirmation and empowerment is with our own bodies, our abilities to define and express our sexuality, and our acceptance that we are whole and sex is a beautiful gift given to us to safely enjoy with each other.

We need to continue the conversation about the ways in which sex has been used as a weapon against us and within our communities. We need to continue the conversation about making sex enjoyable and safe for all of us who consent to participate in it. We need to continue the push to end the silence that prevents us from fully healing from historical abuses of our bodies. We’re better than that, we deserve more than that, and we now have the power to erase the ugly scars of historical sexual abuse and embrace the beauty of ourselves.

Feminista Jones is a sex-positive Black feminist, social worker and blogger from New York City. She writes about gender, race, politics, mental health and sexuality at FeministaJones.com. Follow her on Twitter at @FeministaJones.

 
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