Your Sex Acts–And Partners–Aren’t Uplifting the Race

By Sexual Correspondent Andrea Plaid

My gurl S., who followed the Justin Timberlake/Ciara post and thread very closely, just about fell out while we talked on the phone.

She was apoplectic over Timberlake pulling Ciara’s chain in the video, of that salient image of BDSM (and possible race play) as well as the article about race play I linked to in the comment thread. Too through, she told me she “had to get up from the computer when I read about race play.” “I mean, I knew about it, but I never read about it in detail. I just can’t believe it!!”

“I know,” I told S. “I know.” ‘Cause I’ve heard this reaction to race play before. Talking to another blogger, she flipped out pretty bad about it. I had to calm her down by saying, ‘I feel you. Personally, I think of race play and, yeah, I feel the body memories of slavery, too. And, yeah, I even felt a negative undercurrent in Hernandez’s piece, one of ‘This isn’t uplifting The Race!’ But, S., I’ll tell you what I told the blogger: the reality is–whether we like it or not–people are into it.”

“And, I added, “you can’t flip out about race play [with the Racial Uplift] argument because some folks can use the same argument about your liking anal beads: ‘The slavemasters–and white men–have stuck all kinds of objects into us to violate us. Why would you want to do something like that? That’s not uplifting the race!’”

S. got quiet. “Yeah, you’re right.”

Unfortunately, this argument gets whipped out among people of color when a PoC steps out of sexual line of “acceptable” sex practices and partners, especially in a public space, like Ciara did in her “Love Sex Magic” video. On the thread from the other day, she gets “read” as a slut corrupting the youth or a victim of the patriarchy or both. Some of the comments:

“Ciara is clearly desperate…her albums aren’t selling like the execs thought they would…in sense she is a slave…so the video is perfect fit.”

“The video is way sexualized to a point that’s unnecessary…My issue is with the fact that Ciara chose to go so far that she came off as tacky.”

“I don’t know that I’ve witnessed this much (grand plié in 2nd position) crotch, thigh waving and close-up butt rumbling by non-brown bodies in a music videos of late…She is dancing around and below him, she is an armrest for him, she is performing for him (and us – not an essentially bad thing, but a thing I’m keeping in mind) . . .”

“Ciara tends to be very sexualized in general. Did anyone see her performance with Chris Brown at the BET awards? This is how she markets herself…But I feel Ciara’s video is too sexual, and I blame that all on her. We need to start making women accountable in these situations.”

“I think the portrayal of Black women in general, rather a Black rapper or rip-off artist like Justin Timberlake, is discraceful no matter who does it. We have girls and boys, Black, white, latino, asian, in middle school watching this crap, and thinking this is how men and women act, and women should have to get half naked to get status while boys have to be immature, crass, and disrespectful, its alienating to the self and destroys creativity. What ever happened to convincing and natural sexuality?”

“I find it hard to believe that a lot of people can read Ciara’s performance in this video as one of powerful female sexiness. She goes out of her way to get his attention, performs for him, and is used as an object by him. Given the music industry as a whole and the way it has a double standard for the sexualization of men and women (cool vs. sluts) I think this plays into that mentality. The girl is suppose to do whatever to get the cool, calm, collected man. If that was what she was going for Epic Fail, she only reinforced the sexist mentality of the music industry.”

“I’m more interested on why so many sisters are willing to go along with this stuff. Our ancestors had no choice in the during slavery and Jim Crow. These wom[e]n can’t say the same. Why are so many women of all color willing to be treated like this by men of all colors? Men who do it are disgusting, but it’s the women I don’t get.”

“It is the idea and practice that women have to be overtly sexual, in a way that is geared towards the male gaze, in order to sell records…As someone mentioned up thread, Ciara’s not been shifting the units, hence the increasingly sexualised videos…It’s not like we even get a nuanced version of sexuality, it’s always “I am sexy, don’t you want me? I want you to want me?”…Finally, what message does it send out, when even someone as successful as Beyonce feels the need to behave like a Video Girl whenever Jay Z is in her videos?”

“As for Ciara and Janet-both “grown women”-give me a break. You want to know all the women who-as “grown women”-refused to be sexualized in their own video and still made it?”

And not only is Ciara a “slut” and/or “victim,” she’s a racial amnesiac. Or folks were done with the BDSM and/or race play imagery in general:

“A WM with a chain around a BWs neck, our ancestors are crying inside.”

“From the piece the Cruel Secretary linked: “White master seeking black slave, however, seems the more popular of the combinations. ”::: re-reads sentence:::“White master seeking black slave, however, seems the more popular of the combinations.”::: rubs eyes and reads sentence again, aloud this time:::
“White master seeking black slave, however, seems the more popular of the combinations.
::: folds top lip into mouth:::
::: quietly exits internets:::”

I need to work this in reverse. First of all, let me grapple with BDSM, race play, and racism.

And I’m going to work it like this:

1) All slavery isn’t wrong. There, I said it. And I mean it like this: nonconsensual slavery—the taking and owning of people and forcing them work or do whatever else the slaver wants, i.e. American slavery—is wrong because the slaver is making the enslaved person/people do this against their will. However, in a BDSM (bondage/domination/submission/sadism/masochism and their various combinations) usage, “slavery” isn’t wrong because the arrangement is agreed upon and that consent is continuously talked about and negotiated. As stated at Center of Human Sexuality’s (CHS) sexuality.org:

Modern BDSM is premised on consent — informed and freely given. The word “consent” is so fundamental to BDSM as it is practiced today that there are a large number of tools, vocabulary, and customs available to ensure that activities that are nonconsensual do not occur.

What happened in, say, American slavery of Africans isn’t the same thing happening when Justin Timberlake, an individual white man, is pulling on Ciara’s, an individual Black woman’s, dog chain. The Black folks who got hauled over during that slave trade didn’t give white folks permission to put us in chains and drag us to the “New World.” Ciara and Timberlake negotiated—again, the core BDSM idea of consent–that particular part of the video. He’s also not standing as a proxy for all white men and their enslaving fantasies no more than she is a stand-in for all Black women wanting to be on a lease. Nor is either one giving people permission to assume that all men can and will go out and do this to all Black women. Every thought need not be acted upon. And, of course, not every word means the same thing in every situation. 

2) Just because the white guy’s doing the yanking doesn’t mean he’s in control. In BDSM—and in race play–the “top” (“the person leading or initiating the BDSM activities” says CHS) can do no more than what the “bottom” (“the person following the top’s lead or being done to,” according to CHS) tells or allows zie to do. Even in some memoirs about stripping, the women have stated they felt in control of the situation, of the arousal. Even though we’re so used to seeing the image (and, in some cases, reality) of White Men at the socio-economic Top and Black Women at the socio-economic Bottom, in this particular instance, Ciara originated the idea of the video and chose her musical collaborator, Timberlake, to play the role that he did in the video. And, actually, they do throughout the video what’s called in BDSM “switching”: 

Although some people are 100% top and some are 100% bottom, the majority of folks switch, at least occasionally. That is, many folks sometimes bottom and sometimes top. This can be arranged in many different ways. Sometimes partners take turns with each other. Other times, someone will only top one partner and only bottom to some other partner.

In many cases, we can talk about continuous white and male privilege and power differentials and sexual aggression and violence and, yes, we can relate various situations where all these things take place with other ones—just not in every case.
Sexual practices, like BDSM and race play, may be one of those situations…because what zie sees may not be what’s actually happening, especially with practices that are considered as non-traditional being viewed through the intersecting lens of oppression.

3) Just because it’s Justin doesn’t mean things are going to jump off. I’m not denying that Timberlake betrayed Janet Jackson, a woman he said he’d admired (if not crushed on), by letting him take the heat for Nipplegate while he went to win Grammys.And, as several commenters and regular contributors have said, Timberlake has gained his cred with audiences through displaying some effed-up race and gender politics in his videos as well, especially concerning women of color.

When we talked this video amongst the special correspondent staff, Wendi Muse commented:


 OK, yeah, this is sexist because he is fully clothed and Ciara’s role is more that of a stripper…and I have to say that Justin’s objectification of women, period, and then on top of that, PoC ladies (does anyone remember “Senorita”!?) helped him gain acceptance as an R & B singer…sounds bad, but it’s kinda the truth. If he only paraded around Britney look-a-likes, it wouldn’t help him gain that industry cred.  Having said all that, I watched the video and my first thought was something along the lines of…wow, who knew Ciara was that hot? Is she the new Grace Jones?!?!

My co-contributor Arturo says about this video, “Call me crazy but that looked rather mild, on the sexy/BDSM meter. Overall, though, I saw Justin as more prop than possessor here. The song was too bland to carry more sinister overtones.” In this particular instance, Justin may be neutralized. Which brings me to Ciara herself.

This is what one of my other co-contributors, Thea, says about her:


In the context of Ciara’s oeuvre (yes I did say Ciara’s oeuvre) I think this is just kicking it up a notch. She has always come across to me as the opposite of a submissive pop princess (like, say, Jessica Simpson). She is seriously fierce and athletic and I appreciate that there never seems to be any attempt to downplay her physicality and ferociousness. I have to say one of my fave R & B videos of all time is Like A Boy, where Ciara and her dancers basically do a Drag King routine at the end of the video. (And if you ask me, I love Beyonce, but both the song and video for Like A Boy are far superior to If I Were A Boy, B’s diluted ’08 take on the same subject.)

Like A Boy, like Love Sex Magic, is interesting in that it really doesn’t feel like a display for the enjoyment of men. (Contrast this with portrayals of women dressing up as men that simply play into male fantasies. Think a Pussycat Doll wearing a fedora.) It feels like an expression of Ciara’s understanding of what it means to be a woman, rather than an attempt to be sexually titillating to men. Even in the Love Sex Magic video, I don’t feel like it’s for men, because it falls just outside of what is considered a sexual ideal in our culture. I think Ciara joins the ranks of artists like Mariah Carey and Kylie Minogue, where a quick glance at their vixen/sexpot/high femme/diva images might miss the depth, joyfulness and sense of fun that underscores the way they play their sexual identities. Sure from a distance Love Sex Magic looks like any other vid – some lady clad in sexy clothes humping furniture – but if you look closer, Ciara is definitely the powerhouse in this video, and she’s also far more aggressive, demanding and powerful in her poses than say, the whole Britney Spears virgin/whore dance routine. “Powerhouse” doesn’t really play into the socially sanctioned male fantasy if you ask me.

What if Ciara, in the midst of her trying to promote this single, is also offering some fantasy fodder–not a mandate or command–for some Black women to sexually express themselves? Not just dom and/or top (the slicked-back hair, sunglasses, the sky-high stilettos; the stripper who feel feels zie is controlling the arousal), not just sub and/or bottom (the chained Ciara, the armrest Ciara), but the switch (where she stands over Timberlake and then leans back and he catches her; after that they slide their hands over her body). And what if she wanted to play out this fantasy with a white man?

As Seattle Slim crystallizes in her comment: 

And to add further to the mix, I wonder how many WOC in IR relationships with white men take issue with this video? I certainly don’t. Quite frankly, it reminds me of a couple weekends at my house. Yes, we go there.

An alternative idea of sexuality meeting with status-quo becomes a battle for some Black folks and other PoCs because it’s the:

1) “wrong” kind of seduction—stripper and BDSM forwardness instead of petal-and-pearls, rain-on-the-pane smoove-jazz romance.

2) “wrong” white guy–Timberlake instead of, say, Robin Thicke (who did a GQ photo shoot with Rihanna not to long ago with an S/M-esque picture of his spank-ready hand above Rihanna’s butt or his D/S-interpreted snap of his biting off her bathing suit strap) 

3) “wrong” sex act–BDSM and/or race play instead of tumbling into said petal-and-pearls bed. In other words, she’s not behaving like a proper, uplifting Black woman.

What folks may not see in the enraged haze is Ciara and Justin are also behaving like the sexual beings that they are, including acting out a possible fantasy. In an upcoming Bitch roundtable on music and misogyny, hosted by our own Latoya, Nuyorican queer activist and academic Marisol LeBron says this about how young women may use hip-hop to explore their own ideas around sexual practices and our thundering about it:

I think they’re not really allowed to …thats the big issue…They’re demonized for wanting to be “sexually scandalous.” I think the question of public and private sexuality is crucial here. [What I mean is] You can be a freak in the sheets but not in the streets. That’s what I mean when I refer to this politics of respectability. We’re concerned with these images of women of color’s sexuality, desires, and practices being seen in a public domain. I think a lot of it has to do with hip-hop’s white consumership. Its like you need to censor yourself because white dudes are watching.”

The white dudes and the ancestors.

Using them as the justification to chastise Ciara’s—and yeah, even Justin’s—publicly played-out fantasy may keep us all intra- and interracially correct for a minute…but it also may flatten our sexual horizons. LeBron continues:

I’ve been doing a lot with psychoanalytic theory recently, and one of the main things is that people don’t know why they desire what they desire and that they often desire things that they’re not supposed to or that are not good for them. In many ways current discussions about hip hop sexuality denies basic tendencies that people as sexual beings are working through.

How do we critique the sexism without critiquing the sexual practices, though?  Perhaps with the working understanding that we can’t police Ciara’s—or Justin’s or anyone else’s—sexual desires, sexual activities, and sexual fantasies because we all may have a sexual peccadillo that’s not “correct” but gives us utter pleasure, wherever we wish to display it. Because, I’m sure, the ancestors could wag their fingers at our own versions of anal beads or, at least, our fantasies about having them used in us.

Many thanks to S., Latoya, Thea, Arturo, Wendi, Mollena, and Bianca Laureano.

(Photo Credits:  Ciara/Justin Timberlake–from lovebscott.com; Rihanna and Robin Thicke–from buzzworthy.MTV.com; Ciara–aceshowbiz.com; Grace Jones–kalamu.com)

  • Dorrie

    Why was Justin Timberlake one of the nominees on the NAACP Image awrds tonight? What race is he?