Today is our second blogiversary! The journey of these last two years in community with each other and all of you, our beloved readers, has been exhilarating, soul-affirming, life-sustaining, sometimes challenging and frustrating, but totally completely worth it. Thank you for joining us on the journey!
So on this day when we are celebrating our collective effort to bring into life this space of creative praxis, healing, celebration, and the very hard work of imagining and creating a better world, I find myself thinking about what practices and relationships in our lives facilitate healing, celebration, and creativity.
Yes, sex is not the only thing that can help us to heal, to celebrate, and to create; Our work can do it; our friendships can do it; our art can do it; our families can do it; but nothing does it quite like good sex.
And frankly, in my world, a world filled (though not solely or exclusively) with highly-educated single Black women, sex perennially gets the short end of the stick. Most often because of circumstance, not choice.
One of my close sista prof friends frequently jokes that the last time she had sex, Bush was president. I wish I could say that that she was the exception, but all too frequently among the Blackademic set, she is the rule.
At the same time, quantity is no indicator of quality. All sex is not good sex.
So where in fact, can a sista find good, consistent, sex?
Contrary to pop culture advice in recent days, I can beginning by telling you what and where good sex isn’t.
Good sex doesn’t begin by instructing young boys to take it to the hole, as Too Short recently did. As I said last month, little boys who take that advice become grown men with little knowledge about how women’s bodies actually work. That is, if they don’t become rapists first.
Notwithstanding the title of this post, Good sex is not about letting someone taste your birthday cake, particularly if that person is responsible for nearly shortening the length of the birthdays you might have had.
And good sex certainly won’t come from the Black church’s failure to engage with the ramifications of sexual violence, a continued practice which is reflective of a larger silencing of healthy sexual ethics in the church in general.
During a recent conversation, one of my homegirls and I were chatting about a major career accomplishment. When I asked what she was going to do to celebrate, she said simply I’m “getting some.” Initially, I didn’t know what she meant, not because I’m obtuse, but because I knew how long her most recent drought had been. I also knew she had actively been trying to remedy that problem through online dating. No stranger to prolonged droughts or complicated dating strategies myself (Operation: Get It In 2010 comes to mind), I told her what any good friend would: “Girl, make it rain.”
And she did.
A couple of days later, she called for our standard debrief of the encounter. (I told y’all these are military-style operations.) We chatted about what worked and didn’t, and whether she’d go back for more. And then she said the word that we are taught as good pro-sex feminists should never apply to casual encounters. She felt empty. And I understood. I have felt that way.
But, wait. Emptiness? Didn’t we (monolithic, sex-positive, feminists) already decide that it was retrograde to think that women need emo sex?
Yes. Yes we did. And rightfully so, I think.
But let me go out on a radical feminist limb here and suggest that straight-up fucking in which folks use each other’s bodies for the sexual labor they provide is not necessarily what me and my homegirls are seeking. For so many of us who followed the good girl script that education should always come before sex and boys, we are confronting a reality in which we achieved our dreams in the most extreme sense. We have more education than we can stand, but the partners that we thought would come from ordering our lives the right way are not forthcoming.Our lives may not depend on good sex , but our livelihoods and our feelings of aliveness certainly do. We are looking for connection, not just physicality.
But can connection and the intimacy it implies be a casual thing?
I don’t know the answer to that. But I do know that’s it’s a dangerous proposition, when one considers capitalist histories of bodily exploitation, particularly as it relates to Black bodies, to ask Black women to engage our bodies in ways that make us feel like someone’s blow up doll. That tell-tale feeling of emptiness is a direct byproduct of feeling like your body is being exploited for its sexual labor, with no concern for your value as a person.
And therein lies my own ambivalence about casual sex.
On the one hand, in my own process of getting to grown, and acknowledging my needs as a grown woman, feminism gave me the language to both identify and advocate for my sexual needs, especially as a person who has been officially single for nearly my entire adulthood. Still, I find that sexual assertiveness is often met with suspicion. In the case of hetero interactions, many brothers see care as something that they only give to women they want long-term relationships with. Not fuck-buddies. Not jump offs. Not friends with bennies. Couple that with the fact that many dudes seem to have a terribly unsophisticated understanding of women’s bodies, I suspect because they gleaned many of their ideas from the 2-dimensional portrayals in porn, and you have an equation for terribly unfulfilling sex.
So how do we deal?
Well, I think that good feminist sex comes down to one basic element. No, not love. Care.
Patricia Hill Collins told us a long time ago that an ethic of care is an integral component of a Black feminist epistemology. She suggests that an ethic of care prioritizes individual expressiveness, together with a respect for emotions, and a capacity and commitment to empathy.
Good soulful, healing sex is certainly a reflection of this ethic; for it invites us to be ourselves (individual expressiveness), recognizes that our feelings matter (emotional justice), and demands that we prioritize our relationship to our partner(s) needs (radical empathy).
But in recognizing how integral an ethic of care is to our epistemological orientation (and by this I simply mean, how we know the world), we might have to acknowledge that sex without care can be and frequently is a form of epistemic violence, especially towards Black women.
How did I get there? Well, let me back up. I’m driving at something fundamentally basic.
Sex is a way of knowing the world. It is an epistemological act. There are things that we can only know about the world through sexual engagement. Great sex makes me feel fully alive, allows me to tap in to my joys, my pleasures, my desires, in a deeply embodied way. Asexual people know the world in a different way, and I want to acknowledge that.
But what I find troubling is a situation in which Black women, both those who are highly educated, and those who are deeply ensconsed in the Church, are often forced by virtue of limited choices or limiting dogma to live asexual lives in bodies that are screaming for sexual engagement. My father, who is a pastor, once told me that a lot of shouting that goes on in churches on Sunday morning is repressed sexual energy. Since sexuality and spirituality are deeply intertwined, I don’t see shouting or its connection to sexuality as inherently a problem. But if this act of sexual-spiritual expression is happening in a context that demonizes all non-marital expressions of sexuality, then the church is creating an unhealthy mind-body split for Black women. (And there literally seems to be no fucking way out.)
Free sexual expression allows us to feel fully human. And anything that helps us colonized peoples—Black, Brown, Indigenous—to know how fully human we are is dangerous. That is why we live in a world hell-bent on regulating our expressions of sexuality.
But it is also precisely the reason why we owe it to ourselves to foreground an ethic of care in our sexual interactions. And to know that it is a feminist act to do so.
If no strings attached is your thing, more power. I think we would do well to acknowledge, though, that sex is very much about empathetic, emotional connectivity with another person. When did it become un-feminist to desire that connectivity in a casual situation? I say the desire for care is quintessentially feminist.
Care means that you recognize and respect another person’s humanity. You are attuned to their needs, and to the extent that you can meet their needs, you are committed for the length of the interaction to doing so. Care is not love. We do caring things every day for people we don’t even know: we hold doors open for strangers, let folks cut in front of us in traffic, pick up an item that a person has unknowingly left behind and return it to them. These are acts of care. And yet, sex-positive feminism seems to suggest that the only care required in sex is a willingness to use a condom, honesty about STD status, and a commitment to gaining consent before proceeding. If sex is purely transactional, these ethical practices are enough.
But if we want something more, then respect is just a minimum. As I said in a post last year, sex is a form of creative power. And that power should be exercised with all diligent care.