If we’re going to talk about sex, we ought to know something about sex, right? As someone who’s been writing about sex and sexuality for a few years now, I’ve grown accustomed to conducting my own research to find answers to various related questions. I continue to educate myself in an effort to increase my knowledge and understanding of sexual behaviors so that what I write is backed up by facts. I never want to give people advice tips based on faulty logic or arbitrary opinions.
I’ve noticed, however, that there’s a certain lack of diversity in sex-related research, particularly in reports based on studies performed by doctors and scientists. As African-Americans, how much can we rely on the outcomes of these studies, and how applicable are they to our lives, given our often culturally nuanced approaches to sexuality?
On September 29, Showtime debuts Masters of Sex, an exciting new series that tells the story of William H. Masters, a physician, and Virginia Johnson, a psychologist, who in the 1960s founded the Reproductive Biology Research Foundation, a research institute for human sexuality. The two conducted mostly observational research, so they watched people have sex while recording physiological responses and conducting interviews. They sought answers to questions like “How does an orgasm feel for a woman?” and published two bestselling books based on their important, radical studies.
Given the time period (1960s) and their location (Missouri), it’s highly unlikely that they used many people of color, if any. The South was still segregated, and medical research was done intra-racially for the most part, unless the focus was race-specific. The racial climate and circumstances were similar in the 1940s and ’50s for Alfred Kinsey, the internally renowned and respected “sexologist,” and his work has been criticized for omitting African-Americans. Despite this omission, his books on human sexuality and the infamous Kinsey Scale are still considered groundbreaking and have been credited with having a significant role in sparking the sexual revolution of the 1960s and ’70s.
There are so many elements of our sexuality that are often as fluid and evolving as our beliefs about them. For example, some people believe our sexual orientation is something we’re born with, while others believe that we’re all born heterosexual and any other orientation is a lifestyle choice. Sexual behaviors are also heavily influenced by societal norms and expectations; we’re governed mostly by religious beliefs, parental guidelines, legal parameters, and social rules of acceptable behavior. Given what we know about this, we have to wonder how accurately these controlled studies about sexuality and behavior reflect our unique cultural experiences.
Not only is America moving towards acceptance of sexual identities outside of the binaries of heterosexual man and heterosexual woman, the world is also making progress recognizing sexual fluidity. Several countries have legalized same sex marriage, and sex-positive activism (particularly on behalf of sex workers) has gained momentum in recent years.
Many of these shifts are encouraged and supported by the findings of several studies conducted about sexuality and behavior, but some have shifted because of advocacy (i.e., the American Psychiatric Association’s removal of homosexuality from their list of mental disorders, due to advocacy on the part of LGBTQ activists).
Stacy Patton, Ph.D. writes that in recent years, African-Americans have begun to break their silence about their sexual identities and experiences, and these voices are being captured in scientific studies and reported in academic publications. Patton notes that sexuality has been the one topic that Black academics have largely avoided for years—mainly because of the stigma and stereotypes forced onto Black men and women (hypersexual, sexually violent, promiscuous, etc.) and because of our generally conservative religious upbringing. We’ve avoided researching and answering questions about our sexuality because we don’t want to appear deviant from the norms established by the dominant culture.
In remaining silent, however, we are doing little to adequately study and understand the nuances of our sexual development and experiences, which can help us provide better support and services for those who need them. We’re also allowing others to shape our narrative, and not in the best ways.
Fifteen years ago, we had within our community the emergence of the “down-low,” a unique cultural framing of the behavior of African-American men who secretly had sex with each other. One study actually looks at all of the literature surrounding the “DL” phenomenon and how it portrayed Black men as being particularly deviant and menacing, though they did nothing different than White men engaging in the same behavior. This type of work matters because it can debunk the dominant, often negative, thoughts about who we are and how we behave.
There are people doing the research, and we should take it upon ourselves to see who’s out there studying our experiences, what conclusions are being drawn, and what recommendations are being made. Tamera Coyne-Beasley, MPH, does research on African-American sexuality and risky behaviors among adolescents. Patricia Hill-Collins has written about African-American sexual politics, and Tricia Rose has written about Black women’s sexual intimacy and their desire to be more open about their sexuality. Robert Staples is a sociologist who has studied and written about stereotypes about Black sexuality.
Research about sex and sexuality is important to people of every race, class, orientation and religious/spiritual faith. Much of it can answer questions that are universally applicable; I don’t think we should automatically disregard studies as invaluable because they didn’t focus primarily on our experiences. It’s important, however, to provide context and framing, and dig a bit deeper to get a better understanding of how we get down—because we are unique, and we deserve representation in this important field.
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.