Black women are (still) being held back by sexual double standards
Listening to some of my favourite sex podcasts, I’m always surprised by how carefree the White, sex-positive women seem to be — not just about their sexual escapades, but in their experiences with STIs, and how they regale the peaks and troughs of their dating lives.
Their stories are wildly entertaining, and for the most part, their romantic relationships don’t seem to suffer at the hands of their sexual freedom (because, you know, patriarchy) — and that’s the way it should be. Exercising your right to bodily autonomy and sexual freedom is liberating, super fun, and hopefully filled with orgasms. But Black women are not afforded the same leeway in sharing their experiences: not by other women, romantic interests, or society.
We are judged more harshly for our desires and actions, exploitatively fetishished, and viewed more sexually — often from a young age.
It seems that everyone feels entitled to Black women’s bodies, yet the moment we choose to share them, it’s deemed as vulgar and troublesome. White women, in comparison, may be more likely to be seen as innocent, quirky, or even empowered.
The hypersexualisation of Black women is complex and longstanding, with institutionalised racism and stereotypes painting us as available for consumption. There’s the idea that our bodies only exist for procreation and the sexual gratification of men, and then, of course, the misconception that we sexually mature faster than other ethnic groups — innocence and vulnerability aren’t attributes commonly associated with us, even as young girls . A study found that at least since the late 17th century, Black women have been portrayed as ‘sexual aggressors’, which still influences public perception and media portrayals today.1
“Promiscuity for White women at university is seen as a right of passage, they even get excited and competitive about it, while we would be worried about being labelled a ho, instead of being able to enjoy the same type of sexual adventures”
Multi award-winning erotica author of Jamaican heritage and co-host of the outrageously unfiltered sex podcast Laidbare, Shakira Scott, better known as Scotty Unfamous, says this culture of entitlement, shaming, and oppressing black women for their sexuality starts from an incredibly young age.
“Young Black girls’ bodies are hypersexualised from the moment they start developing, sometimes even before,” she says. “This is because we typically have curvier body types, so it’s instantly seen as sexual.
“Because I’ve always had larger breasts, there was always this idea that I was purposefully trying to entice men. There’s this general feeling that as young Black girls, we were always ‘inviting’ sexual attention.”
She points out that we don’t typically see the same sort of thing to the same degree for White women growing up, or generally.
“For White women, snogging literally anyone randomly in a club is normalised, but we would be judged for it,” she explains. “Promiscuity for White women at university is seen as a right of passage, they even get excited and competitive about it, while we would be worried about being labelled a ho, instead of being able to enjoy the same type of sexual adventures.”
She says that fellow sex-positive podcast creators, Florence Bark and Amber Reed, both White women who host the popular Come Curious podcast, told her that they had a banterous competition at university to see who could sleep with the most men. Laughing, we both agree that they deserve brownie points, before highlighting that this wouldn’t be a typical experience for Black women.
“As a Black girl in university, if you sleep with two people from the same friendship group — everyone’s talking about it and you’re the local ho,” she says.
While change does seem to be happening, much of the sexual shaming Black women experience today is a hangover from harsher patriarchal standards that previous generations were held to. Abortion rights and sexual health executive Barbara Ntumy says that for second-generation Black women of African heritage in the UK, there’s pressure, usually from older family members, to ‘be respectable’: not just in the eyes of their community but also generally, and especially in ‘white’ environments that are already institutionally programmed to think negatively of them.
“For Black women, particularly young women, whose parents have worked hard to build a life for them here, there’s this feeling that they can’t ‘mess up’ or make even the smallest mistake because they won’t be forgiven, by society, or other members of their community, or given another chance,” she explains. “It’s also this idea of, you have to work so hard to build a life here, you don’t want to be bogged down with the possibility of pregnancy — it’s that sort of thing.”
Barbara also explains that religious attitudes are used to justify values of abstinence, ‘purity’, and the fundamental importance of marriage. If you’re conditioned to think that validation from a man in the form of marriage is the only way your life can hold true value, it’s easier to control you by instilling a sense of fear that, if you behave in a particular way, men are less likely to want you as a wife.
The idea that to make the cut as a wife, you have to adhere to a certain set of sexual behaviour standards is ridiculous, and has only ever existed as a control mechanism to scare women, and particularly Black women, into ‘keeping our legs closed’
Scotty says that while Black women will grow up in an outside culture that obsessively and aggressively polices their sexuality, this is likely to be pushed at home, too.
“I’m quite lucky because my parents were always quite liberal and open about contraception and that sort of thing,” she says. “But I know my experience is unique. Religion was a huge factor for most Black women growing up. Many of them grew up in Christian households where you are taught, and there’s this unspoken rule that you can’t go around presenting yourself in certain ways, because you’ll be deemed as ‘loose’. You have to be seen as ‘wife material’.”
The mention of ‘wife’ or ‘wifey material’ makes me nostalgic, but not in a positive way. I cringe at the mention of it, thinking back to my teenage years where I was governed by it: wanting to be seen as sexually fun, but not so fun that I tipped the scales over to ‘whore’ territory. To be deemed as ‘not wifey material’ was a criticism I probably would have struggled to stomach, whereas now I’d revel in it.
The idea that to make the cut as a ‘wife’, you have to adhere to a certain set of sexual behaviour standards is ridiculous, and has only ever existed as a control mechanism to scare women, and particularly Black women, into ‘keeping our legs closed’. Meanwhile, men are encouraged to explore their sexuality as aggressively, frequently, and freely as they please.
As someone of mixed Indian and Jamaican heritage, I felt the cultural pressure of puritanical sexual standards from both sides, but like both Scotty and Barabara have pointed out, the sex standards that exist as part of Christianity probably had the most significant impact on me. This lead me to make decisions about my body in the name of acting out and rebelling against an oppressive set of parental rules and family morals.
They got pats on the back, mostly, while I often felt forced to explain my choices in a way that made them seem more palatable
I don’t regret them, it was all a part of my coming of age, but I probably would have made different ones had I really been free to make my own mind up about sex. The difference between the way I and the White, middle class girls I went to school and university with were viewed as we exercised our right to sexual freedom was also stark. They got pats on the back, mostly, while I often felt forced to explain my choices in a way that made them seem more palatable.
Being a person of mixed heritage, with medium brown skin, a body that’s not overtly curvaceous, and curls that are deemed ‘acceptable’ in a whitewashed beauty and media landscape, I’m hyperaware of my privilege. I know that Black women with more voluptuous figures and darker skin are fetishised to a much greater degree than I can relate to.
Black women deserve the same freedom and agency to explore their sexuality in whatever way they see fit, without the disproportionate pressures of hypersexualisation, body policing, patriarchy, and religious structures looming over them. It’s not feminism if it’s not intersectional, and the sex positivity movement can never truly reach its full potential if Black women are always being left behind.
The head image features a black women with a flower crown circling her head, and apples levitating around her, representing uncertainty, independence, growing into your sexuality, and the false concept of ‘purity’
Page last updated September 2019
- Szymanski, D., Moffitt, L., & Carr, E. (2010). Sexual Objectification of Women: Advances to Theory and Research 1ψ7. The Counseling Psychologist, 39/1: 6-38.