(WOMENSENEWS)–As with all things racial, the intersection of race and sexuality is complicated. It’s complicated by the ways race and economic class intersect, by the history of slavery in the United States and around the world, by the fact that race is both an utterly bogus way to look at people and simultaneously very real.
And yet while it’s definitely not simple, it sure is important to think about.
Consider, for example, the image of the "innocent virgin." Picture her in your mind’s eye. Maybe take a moment now to draw a picture of her, or write down a description of what she looks like.
What did you draw or describe? Was it a white girl with long hair? Maybe blond, blue-eyed, or freckle-faced? If it was, it’s not an accident. Because we live in a racist society that values white girls more than girls of color, we tend to imagine that purity is pale.
That assumption has a terrible flip side: Girls of color are often viewed as always sexually available, simply because of their race. Just look at the specific stereotypes: Latina women are "spicy," Middle Eastern and South Asian women are simultaneously "exotic" and "repressed," Asian women are "submissive," black women are "wild" or "animalistic"–it doesn’t matter what disgusting stereotype you choose, it boils down to the same thing: Women of color are assumed to be always available for sex.
"It’s easy to feel cheap when you have dark skin, frizzy hair and a big butt," says Mag, one of the women I interviewed. "TV, magazines, people on the street, people in class–it seems like everyone feels like they have a need, no, a right, to your body that you don’t have. I’ve had random white children come up to me and slap my ass. I’ve had men take photos while I wasn’t looking, or strangers come up to me and ‘compliment’ me on how luscious my backside looks and what they’d like to do with me."
You’re smart enough to see how ridiculous assumptions about the sexualities of women of color are. Of course every individual woman wants different things that have nothing to do with her skin color. But the problem with this paradigm goes past how reductive it is. By treating women as though their race dictates their sexuality, we’re also telling women that their actual desires don’t matter and probably shouldn’t even exist. Nothing could be further from the truth.
But it gets even more twisted: Because of these racial stereotypes, many girls of color are pressured by their families and communities to live the stereotypes down by (sing it with me if you know the tune by now) being unimpeachably innocent of sexual desire. So the wider culture is sexualizing girls of color right and left, and yet, in the end, they still often get shoved into the same virginity trap as do white girls.
On top of all of this, it’s important to keep in mind one of the main reasons women of color are expected to be always sexually available–because in countries where they’ve been historically enslaved or colonized by white cultures, the white men in those cultures felt free to rape them with impunity. That women of color in colonized countries should have any say-so in what happens to their bodies, sexually or otherwise, is a pretty new idea in the grand scheme of things, and one that women of color have had to fight hard for, and still have to fight for today.
Healing, Liberating Attitudes
For some women of color in colonized countries, getting in touch with their ancestors’ pre-colonization attitudes toward sexuality can be profoundly healing or liberating. Jessica Yee, founder of the Native Youth Sexual Health Network, explains it this way:
"As I have listened to my grandmothers explain to me, sex used to be sacred and even upheld as an enjoyable part of our life as First Nations people. . . . Colonization, Christianization and genocidal oppression have drastically severed the ties to traditional knowledge that would enable us to make informed choices about our sexual health and relationships. The fact is that many of our communities are reluctant to go anywhere near the topic of sexual health because it is viewed as ‘dirty,’ ‘wrong’ or a ‘white man’s thing.’ We carry a long history of being sexually exploited, from the early Pocahontas and squaw days right up to the modern oversexualization of ‘easy’ Native women that permeates so much of the media . . . In generic sexual health campaigns, I often hear the slogan ‘Respect Yourself, Protect Yourself’–which I have always found to be incomplete. In our communities, I say, ‘Respect Yourself, Protect Yourself, and Be Proud of Your Culture’–because that last element will enable us to accomplish the first two."
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From the book "What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide to Sex and Safety" by Jaclyn Friedman. Excerpted by arrangement with Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright copyright 2011.
Jaclyn Friedman is a writer, performer, activist and co-editor of "Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World without Rape." Friedman is a founder and the executive director of Women, Action, and the Media and a charter member of CounterQuo. She speaks on campuses and at conferences, and has been a guest on Democracy Now!, To the Contrary and numerous other radio and television shows. Her commentary has appeared in multiple outlets including The American Prospect, Bitch, CNN, and The Washington Post.
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