“Ooooh, that’s nasty!!” “That’s that stuff only White people do!” “That ain’t normal! Who does that?” I’ve heard expressions like these, more often than I’m comfortable with, from Black folks when discussing the edgier side of sex. I’ve spent a great deal of time engaging Black people in discussions around sex and sexuality, and to be honest, sometimes it seems as though the Black community is among the most sexually conservative group of people in society.
A quick survey on Twitter resulted in people identifying BDSM, anal sex and open relationships/swinging as what we collectively think of as the top taboo sexual behaviors. There are a few explanations about why we tend to err on the side of conservatism, however, and we ought to think about how much of it is truly about not liking a particular sex act versus not wanting people to know that we like it. With that, there’s also the fear of being judged based on what others think our sexual proclivities represent or say about us as individuals.
“[Blacks] are too quick to write variety and adventure off as ‘White People S—t.’ Not all of us but way too many,” laments Drew, who’s tired of using race as an excuse to avoid kinkier sex. There’s history to this though; I argue that it’s a defensive response to both how our ancestors were treated during slavery and also to how White-run media has historically portrayed Black men and women as uncontrollably hypersexual beings.
Dr. Stacey Patton writes about the fear, even in academia, about discussing Black sexuality and how hypersexual tropes have shaped mainstream perception about Black men and women. Out of concern for being thought of as merely sexual objects, some Black folks shy away from engaging in any discussion or activity that’s too overtly sexual. This desire to not live up to these stereotypes often leads to a flat-out rejection of sex acts that seem to be engaged in primarily by White men and women.
In the BDSM/kink community, for example, there is division even among Black participants about “acceptable” kinks, some of which include exploring racial dynamics. There are ongoing debates about whether or not we should accept the term “slave,” a common moniker within BDSM culture, and if it’s acceptable to enjoy being flogged or whipped (as many of our ancestors obviously were).
Internationally known and respected BDSM educator Mollena Williams is a Black woman who identifies as a submissive and speaks openly about her participation in “race play” with White Male Dominants. She stated in an interview: “For me, claiming my sexuality is as important as claiming my racial identity. It’s not separate from being Black. It’s part of who I am. It doesn’t make me less Black or more Black.”
Many Black men and women find pleasure and fulfillment in the Master/slave dynamic, and see it not as a “race thing” at all. Still, despite BDSM being discussed in more mainstream media today (see Fifty Shades of Grey), it’s still pretty taboo in our community.
Religion is also responsible for the more conservative views about sex within the Black community. As the church was once the center of the community, our core values and traditions stemmed from the mandates of those who ran our churches, and from the Bible itself. “I remember being told sodomy, threesomes/group sex, fellatio, bondage, and any type of sexual encounter with the same sex was considered lasciviousness that would send me straight to hell,” says Nicki*, who also admits to a continuing struggle with her own identity and sense of sexual freedom.
From the rejection of homosexuality to the condemnation of premarital sex, and even masturbation, people have used the Bible, the Qur’an and other religious texts to substantiate their conservatism. Out of fear of being not only judged by friends and family, but by the deity in which they believe, some of us avoid certain sex acts (like performing oral sex, engaging in anal sex, or getting it in with someone of the same sex). Many of these remain among the “taboo,” despite the plethora of X-rated videos and modern music that normalize them by depicting these acts in candid, often gratuitous ways.
Finally, the representation of respectable manhood and womanhood factors into what kinds of sexual activity we engage in (or admit to engaging). Almost anything that diminishes our perception of Black masculinity is seen as taboo. There’s an almost universal rejection of any kinks that make Black men appear weak, “soft” or homosexual. Such fetishes include male sexual submission (to women particularly), masochism, anal rimming, and cuckolding (man enjoys being forced to watch his female partner have sex with another, usually more well-endowed, man).
Conversely, when women engage in behaviors where they assume control or shirk their “ladylike” demeanor, it’s also often seen as taboo. Some examples include swallowing semen, having sex with more than one man at a time, and sexual domination (i.e., BDSM Dommes/mistresses).
Black folks are both invested in and fiercely protective of how others perceive and represent us, so it isn’t exactly that we’re not doing these things at all. I find that many of us do participate in these kinkier behaviors. We just don’t talk to other people about them because we fear being judged and ostracized from our circles. We’re afraid of being condemned by the socially conscious, academic echelon for making the race look bad because we enjoy being nasty. We fear rejection from our spiritual guides and safe spaces who tell us we’re “going to Hell.” We definitely fear judgment from family and friends who always feel the need to weigh in on our personal lives.
In all of this fear, we often miss out on what could be some of the most amazing sexual experiences we could ever have, the things we secretly desire and wish we felt safe enough to explore. Maybe the answer is to become more comfortable discussing these things. Because ultimately, the more open we are, the better we can promote safer sex practices without shaming, and reduce a lot of the negative sexual behaviors and consequences that result from our collective silence.
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.