By Guest Contributor Laura K. Warrell
In the June issue of Glamour magazine, spunky rock chick Pink declares herself a “reformed slut,” describing her brush with whorishness as an “unsophisticated” attempt at taking back her sexual power from men.
“I’ve always had an issue with [the idea that]: ‘Okay, we’ve both decided to do this,’” she says. “‘Why am I a slut and you’re the player? You didn’t get anything from me that I didn’t get from you.”
This “anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better” attitude has been key to the burgeoning cultural narrative around slutdom, and it’s an attitude I’m mostly down with. Still, I found myself bristling when I read Pink’s interview. At first I thought my politics were offended: is Pink suggesting that sexual experimentation for women is a moral crime that ultimately requires “reform?” But then I realized, as a black woman, what I was really feeling was resentment, even envy–what a luxury is has to be able to publicly declare her sexual independence without having to worry how the declaration might affect her credibility, career, or romantic prospects.
In recent years, scads of books and other commercial works of art have been tossed onto the pop-culture landscape by white women reminiscing about their “phases” of sexual promiscuity, often told from the comfort of their fulfilled, easy-peasy lives as wives and mothers. In March, comedienne and NPR host Ophira Eisenberg published Screw Everyone: Sleeping My Way to Monogamy about banging everything in Manhattan with a bulge before settling down with her handsome, comic book-writing husband. In 2010, Jillian Lauren published Some Girls: My Life in a Harem about kicking it with the Sultan of Brunei before marrying a rock star and adopting a cute kid. And since 2005’s My Horizontal Life: A Collection of One-Night Stands, Chelsea Handler and many of her sassy gal pals have built thriving careers around being drunk and easy. Then of course, we have the fictionalized slut phase Hannah braves through on Girls in order to bring her creator, Lena Dunham, cultural relevance and Emmy awards.
So why aren’t these stories by or about Black women?
Maybe because slut phases–at least declaring them publicly–aren’t in our best interest. (And, to bring up some history, here’s another explanation why some Black women felt uncomfortable with the word “slut” as used in the SlutWalk campaign.) Sleeping around then being able to tell the world about it without suffering serious damage to your rep is hardly a major feminist achievement. But considering the current slut-shaming trend–along with the age-old expectation to be a lady in the streets regardless of how freaky you are in the sheets–it’s a luxury I doubt most sexually liberated black women believe they can afford.
Certainly, many straight women, regardless of their race, enjoy an exploratory period of brazen hussiness. But if the stats are to be believed, Black women’s tartish journeys toward monogamy aren’t ending as often at the altar. Recent census data suggests that the number of black women living without a spouse is three times as high as white and Asian women in similar circumstances. In 2010, twenty percent of Black women aged 45 and older had never been married compared to only seven percent of white women of the same age.
Certainly, there are all kinds of reasons why black women aren’t marrying at the rate of other women, including the many benefits to remaining single. But for those straight Black women who do want to pair up, it does seem more challenging for them, and the messages from various segments of media in this country about how undesirable they are don’t help: remember the 2008 UC Irvine study telling us white men are apt to exclude Black women from their dating pools, the 2009 OKCupid.com report saying Black women get fewer online dating responses than other women, and the debunked 2011 Psychology Today blog post suggesting Black women are just plain uglier? Published reports, like a 2009 research study from Yale, also try to convince us that high-achieving Black women have an even rougher time of finding a partner often because their Black male counterparts want to settle down with white women. And although the rate of intermarriage in the US is on the rise, Black women made up only nine percent of the newlyweds who married someone outside their race in 2010 compared to twenty-three percent of black men, twenty-five percent of Latinas, and thirty-six percent of Asian women (whites, both male and female, are least apt to date outside their race, clocking in at nine percent of newlyweds). For black women, boasting about the sexy skeletons in their closets might mess up what already seem to be slim romantic chances.
Tumbling further down into the rabbit hole, we find an uncomfortable truth, which is that sexual adventure can be–not always, but often–a markedly different experience for Black women and even more politically loaded than the power tussle dominating the dialogue currently. As sexual partners, Black women, like many women of color, are often considered by white and other non-Black men as an exotic other, fetishized as wanton. So a man-loving black woman fulfilling her and/or her sex partner’s needs may be being used to fulfill an even bigger fantasy, including the common (though easily sated) urge to “try out a Black chick” (or Asian chick or Latina). Perhaps one of the greatest challenges for the sexually liberated Black woman is avoiding this tendency some men have to turn her into a fetish object while she expresses her erotic power in whatever way feels healthy and satisfying.
Not only does the fetishized woman lack human dimension in the eyes of her beholder–as a device with a purely sexual function she can usually only trigger a purely sexual response–she lacks power. “Reformed slut” Eisenberg told the New York Post she enjoyed her sexual adventures, in part, because she wondered, “Why did the guys have all the power? I just wanted to take them down. Refuse them so they could be put in their place.” The dating game is not a titillating power struggle for the fetishized object who has no power to take back.
The other maddening aspect of this “reformed-slut narrative” is how the default setting for white female sexuality continues to be purity and sexual propriety. Meanwhile, animalistic exoticism continues to be both the fantasy and the default of Black female sexuality…when their sexuality is talked about at all. Perhaps the fear for some Black women is that deviating from sexual norms, or letting the cat out of the bag once they have, contributes to an already oversexualized mythology. Managing one’s public image and maintaining an air of “respectability” becomes more important for Black women as we try to build relationships, careers, and lives. The slut phase may be the liberated white woman’s coming-of-age, both its moments of bliss and humiliation. But ultimately, so says the narrative, it’s an undesirable situation from which they will undoubtedly be rescued by the love of an understanding man. The same narrative says that Black women with a similar past might remain in their (sometimes gilded) cages without the prospect of marriage, depending on the race of the man who’s doing the courting.
Thus, the “reformed slut” narrative becomes more complicated when race is an issue, though the culture doesn’t appear comfortable digging deeper into it. Considering the flak shows like Girls get for excluding Black women from their casts–and the lack of interest the producers of these shows have in answering to it–one can’t help but wonder whether Black women’s sexual adventures just aren’t as compelling to the general population. Fifteen years have passed since the debut of Sex and the City, yet few if any of the sassy, sexually open single-chick shows that have cropped up since then have featured prominent Black players. Even the dating reality shows have stirred controversy for failing to include Black people in their casts.
Like many women, I have a past, one that includes struggling to find long-term love (including with Black men) and, thus, fearing the scary stats and reports are true. I have failed on more than one occasion to get a man past his fantasies of Black women, which he may voice by telling me how “exotic” I am, how “wild” he expects me to be in bed, how “mysterious” my skin coloring is. Non-black men I’ve loved have told me they “just couldn’t do it” and talked about what people might think or what their babies with me might look like. All kinds of men have approached me with the confession that they’ve “always wanted to be with a black woman,” as if I’d be flattered.
I’ve watched some of the booty-call flings my white girlfriends have had turn into full-fledged, marriage-bound relationships, while zero of my black girlfriends’ flings have gone anywhere but into bed. Zero. All of my black female friends have similar stories, including one pal who, on a first date with a white man, was handed a chestnut off the ground because it reminded her date of her “big black booty.” For black women, embracing the “slut” label may not propel us further on the path to liberation.
Perhaps what I envied reading Pink’s “reformed slut” comments was the white female privilege the singer enjoys to be a woman in whatever way she wants. Statistically speaking, most straight white women will end up in committed partnerships by the time they’re 45, it can be sussed, no matter how promiscuous they are. White women may worry about ladies like Hannah on Girls and her counterparts in the real world. But some of us Black women know those women will more than likely end up with soulmates at some point more quickly than we will. Beneath it all, they’re white women and so, says society, they are redeemable.
I want my white sisters to find love and happiness, and I cheer on their phases of sexy experimentation. I just want my Black sisters to enjoy the same freedom.