Why Can’t Black Women Claim Sluttiness, Again?

By Guest Contributor Laura K. Warrell

Black woman orgasm

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.

 

  • pb

    do you ever wonder if those statistics are in part to further the “dirty” narrative around black bodies. while i definitely echo your notions of promoting safer sex and open healthy dialogue i also have to wonder what larger dialogue these statistics speak to. i’m going to have to find a study read that stated that signifact numbers of white women have private health insurances so there information isn’t used in “public” studies, meaning their sti probability aren’t adequately being reported.

  • Bee Johnson

    Great article, but I did take issue with implication that the Slutwalk was a place to talk about a sexual phase. Those women were opening up about being sexually assaulted not consensual acts. The name is commenting on rape culture and victim blaming.

  • mel

    I’ve heard the whole curvy women are automatically sluttier excuse. It’s so ridiculous that people really think that can be any indicator at all of how much or how little you have sex. I think you’re absolutely right that those are HIS issues.

  • http://commentarybyvalentina.wordpress.com/ Val

    “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)”

    Great post. I just have a slight problem with what is done with the stats in the passage above. It says that Black women marry non-Black men at a rate of 9% and that White men and women both marry non-White people at a rate of 9%. But, then you declare that Whites have the lowest rate of intermarriage. How’s that? It’s the same rate as Black women.

    This is only an issue because it seems that when it comes to stats and Black women, those stats are generally used to paint us as so different, as in this case. Yet, the stats really say we are a lot like both White women and men in this instance.

  • Pumpkin

    Thanks for this post! I dislike “reformed slut” narratives because the only voices we hear are those of rich, white, attractive to the current standard of beauty, women. As some have mentioned, I also hate how this discussions are focused through the lens of white men, specifically in regards to the huge focus on power. I’m not saying that sex and power are totally and always separate, in fact a big problem with sexual violence in our society is due to the thought of sex = power. The reasons why a person has sex with another person or doesn’t can be complicated and very personal, and they don’t always include power or power plays. It also seems to reinforce that sex is the only way for a woman to “get power” over a man (provided she belongs in the groups I mentioned above).

  • http://www.danaseilhan.com Dana Seilhan

    For me, my “slut phase” had a lot to do with me feeling inadequate and powerless in my life and I think, looking back, that I wanted to reclaim my own power *for me* rather than *over* anyone else, and I wanted the attention (not to a neurotic level–I’m one of those people with a permanent SEP field, “somebody else’s problem,” and if I don’t push, I get *no* attention, which isn’t healthy either), and of course sex is fun, so that was an element too. When I left that phase it was not because I had become respectable. I have never been respectable. There’s always *something* wrong with me that puts people off.

    And part of me sleeping around like I did (not all of it though) came from guys not sticking around. I wasn’t good enough for them, they’d get bored and leave. The only alternative to trying again is to go celibate the rest of your life. I didn’t want to go celibate for the rest of my life. But if every relationship you get into is over within two years then you rack up quite a few of them after a while. And that was my experience early on.

    That’s just me though, and doesn’t speak to the general trend.

    Also, speaking to the idea of “reclaiming” the word “slut”, to me, the word has to have had a positive connotation to begin with to be reclaimable. Slut never had that. It’s always meant something bad. Being more sexual than some other woman doesn’t make me into a whole new species, fer cryin out loud.

    It might be more useful, rather than having things like “slutwalks,” to put together some kind of protest event where a whole bunch of women get together who all have different sexual histories, and then people have to guess which of them sleep around, which of them are lesbians, which are carrying STDs, and so on. Unless there are people in the audience acquainted with the women in question, no one will get all the answers right. The point being that there isn’t anything about having a different sexual history that makes you meaningfully different from the woman standing next to you. Practically speaking, however, I don’t see this happening because one, it’s too subtle and would be lost on the idiots who are most likely to judge us; two, it’d be tough finding anyone who would want to put up with that level of public scrutiny; and three, it’d all too easily degrade into a humiliation session. Just one of those crazy ideas I get from time to time, I guess.

  • ahimsa

    Good article, thanks!

    Regarding the rate of intermarriage among “Asian” women, I wonder why polls don’t break that category down further? For example, I think that stereotypes about South Asian women are pretty different than stereotypes about East Asian women. Might that not lead to different rates of intermarriage?

    Speaking just about the words (“slut” or “player”) I prefer not to use words like that at all. They have become very gendered terms. To me they simply reinforce all the double standards around how folks view sexuality when it comes to men vs. women. So, I think the words are beyond reclaiming. (But maybe it’s just because I’m “too old”, LOL!)

    I’m even leery of the phrase “slut shaming” because it’s kind of like “don’t think of an elephant” — by framing the problem as having to do with sluts doesn’t it bring up double standards and stereotypes, at least subconsciously, making it harder to get rid of them? But maybe I’m overthinking this.

  • LauraKWarrell

    @JessieLaneM:disqus Great point! The issues that come up around race and sexuality are challenging for all kinds of relationships. Thank you for writing this: “Ideas about Black sexuality impact all Black women regardless of where they want to end up relationship-wise at 45.” It’s an idea that bears repeating. Thanks for reading and I wish you happiness, too.

  • JessieLaneM

    I think this article was really great, with a lot of really cognizant
    ideas about racialization, “slutiness”, and finding partners. Thank you for the article. I identified with it a lot, and shared similar experiences in my own life. I
    do think that this article excludes the realities of the label of slut
    and ideas of sexuality for Black women and WOC who are happy with
    uncommitted, non-monogamous, poly, gay, bi, etc. relationships who are
    still damaged by ideas about Black sexuality and “slutiness”. While
    there are outcomes and issues related to Black women and long term
    partnerships, there are also lots of issues related enjoying any form of
    healthy expressive sexuality, whether or not it leads to marriage, and
    whether or not marriage or partnership is even the goal, that are
    impacted by ideas of Blackness and sexuality. Ideas about Black sexuality impact all Black women regardless of where they want to end up relationship-wise at 45. Again, thank you for this, and wishing you success and happiness in your future:)

  • LauraKWarrell

    Thank you both for your comments!

    @Janell Hobson Great comments! Like you, I’m skeptical about how these “sexual power performances” are “inherently about ‘feminist’ resistance.” (Love the way you put that!) It’s frustrating how often the greater dialogues around sexual empowerment and feminism too often fail to take into account the nuances of race. When black women, including those who are married mothers (apparently, the ultimate signs of female achievement and respectability), assert their sexuality they are often torn down in ways white women often are not (like the current discussion about whether Beyonce is a feminist or not).

    @Anita Thanks for sharing your experience! I have heard from white men that intimidation is an issue when it comes to dating women of color. And you’re right, considering how we’re portrayed in the media, it’s no surprise that men have so many preconceived notions about who we are and what we want. Hopefully, more people of color will find ways to achieve positions of power in these spheres so the narrative can change and everyone can find ways to understand and connect with one another.

  • Janell Hobson

    This post is so on-point! Thanks for writing this. What I have found most troubling about white women’s “reformed slut” narratives is how their empowerment derives, not from their gender, but from their race. Their means of “sexual liberation” is always about proving they have as much power as the white male patriarch (this also gets strangely worked out in their interracial relationships, or what James Baldwin once described as the white woman’s “my white skin is more powerful than your black dick” power play). That’s why they can go through their “sexual experimental” phase – in a competition to show white men that, through their white supremacy, they can sexually conquer the world the way their white male counterparts have done. Their white skin makes that permissible.

    Which is why I’ve always been skeptical that such sexual power performances were inherently about “feminist” resistance. These “reformed slut” narratives are STILL too invested in the politics of respectability. How many of these women writing about their sexual exploits would feel empowered to do this if they were NOT already respectable wives and mothers, hence they will always be read through that lens of “purity and propriety,” while all the black women remain “irredeemable” in our black-skinned hypersexuality?

    Black women get caught up in “respectability politics” because it’s just not a given that we ARE. Heck, you can be the First Lady of the United States and STILL someone will call you out your name, making lewd references to your big booty (see Obama, Michelle). So, it is what is. Racism. Intersecting with Sexism.

    I’m still not sure how to effectively dismantle this, but white women’s sexual exploits narratives are sure not contributing to MY liberation, I know that! More importantly, they don’t contribute to women’s collective sexual freedoms – not when the point of their “reformed slut” narratives is to reinforce their white privilege and power.

  • Anita

    I loved this piece, so much truth. I’m a South Asian female in a
    relationship with a white male and he has admitted to me that at first, he was
    intimidated and felt like I wouldn’t give him a chance, I assume because most
    brown females only date brown men. In the same way, seeing a black female with
    anyone other than a black male is rare but I know that these
    “inter-racial” (God, I hate that term) relationships exist or at
    least there are men out there who want to build relationships with WoC but feel
    the same way as my boyfriend, intimidated. The intimidation has a lot to do
    with the way we’re portrayed in the media, the angry black girl, the sassy
    Latina, the de-sexualized brown female. These stereotypes stick with not only
    white males but men of colour. It frustrates me to see these representations in
    2013. As demeaning as it is, I feel like there needs to be more “We are
    just like you” and “We’re also beautiful” (this is why I love
    awkward black girl and f*ck yeah black girls on tumblr) campaigns. I know the
    show has major issues but I would love to see a black male or female lead with
    a diverse cast on The Bachelor/Bachelorette… the ratings are down for this
    season, this is a sure-fire way to peak interest in the show again, it’s beyond frustrating that it’s taking this long.

    • nicthommi

      @Anita, it is good that you have a healthy interracial relationship. The point is, many non-black men or white men have no interest in dismantling the steretoype or engaging in healthy, respectful relationships with WOC. They aren’t intimidated. They want to try it out and then move on.

      It’s important to recognize that difference rather than minimize the factors that cause many men to publicly avoid women of color. You let them off the hook far too easily.

      And as a black American woman descended from slaves, I am familiar with the place I occupy historically in regards to sex. White men have been procreating with my ancestors for hundreds of years, without having to obtain consent, b/c first they owned us and then b/c they had so much power they might as well have owned us (so when my grandparents and even parents were growing up, you did NOT want to catch a white man’s eye b/c if he decided he wanted some “time” with you, your consent did not matter).

      This article was written by a black woman. You are a South Asian woman. Our sexuality is not viewed the same. We have different histories with white men in this country (although your ancestors have their own relationship with white people b/c of colonization). Every WOC has a different stereotypes attached to her as it relates to her race, and it means very different things in terms of their relationships with men of other races. So for example, one HUGE difference is that men with Asian fetishes will want to actually publicly date and marry those women. I actually don’t envy that position b/c it makes it harder to weed out the creepers. Men desirous of “crazy jungle sex” have no desire to ever date or be seen publicly, let alone marry, black women. It is lucky for me that it’s easy to avoid them. They don’t think they need to try to court a black woman b/c she will clearly have sex with anyone who wants it from her, no strings attached.

      A man who says that he wants to “try” a black woman isn’t intimidated by her. I’ve encountered men who had no problem saying that they would never date a black woman but would like to sleep with one. Those men don’t view me or any other black women as humans and they have no interest in correcting their views. They just want to dip their wicks in a chocolate inkwell and move along.

      As the author stated, we (black women at least )can’t own “sluttiness” b/c it has already been assigned as our nature. Therefore it is no real FEAT for us.

      Let’s look at what happens when black women open up about their “sluttiness.” You have both Superhead and Laurence Fishburne’s daughter as examples of the “whore” label that attaches itself to you when you have sex for everyone to see or let everyone know whose bed you’ve been in. I saw Karrine Stephens on Oprah, and she more or less got lectured about her choice(and in general, when her name is mentioned most of the commentary is quite ugly), which I wouldn’t have a problem with me were it not for the hypocrisy I see when I compare her to her “white” counterparts the Kardashians (let’s be honest, despite having partial Middle Eastern roots they do have white privilege)- not once have I ever seen anyone really confront the Kardashians about the fact that their entire empire has been built upon the world seeing Ray J get between Kim’s legs.

      A black slut is just a slut. She will always be a slut if her sluttiness is revealed. A white slut can become a multi-milionaire with multiple commercial and endoresement deals, and is given clothing lines, perfume lines, too much to even list. She can become a respected and honored wife, mother, and anyone who dares bring up past will be lambasted. Wealthy men will marry white sluts. And then probably look for black “sluts” in secret so they can cross them off their bucket list.

      • Anita

        I’m sorry if I came off as trying to excuse these men and their racist notions. Of course, I can never understand what it is like to be a black female in this situation. The point I wanted to come across was that stereotypes steeped in history (whether it be slavery, colonization etc.) are contributing to the formation of these racist notions in men. Someone like Issa Rae who portrays a healthy relationship between a black female and a white male on television is opening the door for these discussions to take place. I want to see more of this.