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How Black People Are Shifting Attitudes Around Sexual Well-Being

The inner workings of my own body were intentionally hidden from me.

By now, most of us are aware that sex education curriculums in the United States are in desperate need of a comprehensive rewrite. We’re all on a learning curve when it comes to getting schooled on reproductive health, but the gap remains wide even after all the advancements for sexual empowerment. According to Planned Parenthood, there are fewer abstinence-only programs, but only 29 states enforce a sex education curriculum. Now imagine what that learning experience is like for the average Black girl, who is more likely to be hypersexualized and faced with medical racism throughout her lifetime. Then, consider how Black LGBTQ youth are impacted by hostile environments where they are discriminated against based on race, sexual orientation, and gender identity. Even schools with the most progressive sex-ed programs still lack diversity when it comes to the educators that are meant to support these students. Anti-racism is one of the many missing links within the current agenda for sex education, but there are no federal laws in place to monitor it. 

According to research conducted by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, Black women are "disproportionately affected by multiple sexual and reproductive health conditions." This is due to a variety of social determinants that include poverty, unemployment, and limited education. But, the report points to racism as a "probable underlying determinant." Coupled with the generational trauma that is associated with the complicated history of gynecology, it’s no wonder why distrust in the Black community still exists in regards to medical procedures. The maternal mortality rate is three-and-a-half times higher for Black women. While pregnancy-related deaths are preventable, the persistence of racial and ethnic disparities is what ultimately kills members of this community. Until systemic changes are made across the board, the Black community will continue to suffer in pursuit of their well-being. 

body

@thebodyahomeforlove

My Experience With Sex Education

Speaking from my own personal experience, I can attest to receiving a “sex talk” from my mother that was rooted in fear around the age of 14. Basically, her message was to avoid having sex because an unplanned pregnancy would ruin my entire life (as stereotyped on popular teen shows like Degrassi and Skins.) Masturbation was also a topic that was never open to discussion. If I had ever been caught with a copy of Cosmopolitan in my bag, I would have received a long lecture about promiscuity. While I don’t blame my parents for wanting to protect me from potentially regrettable choices, I often wish that sex hadn’t been such a touchy subject in our household. Except for my closest friends, there were no adults in my life that I felt comfortable talking to about sex. In retrospect, I believe that sharing nothing is far more dangerous than informing a curious mind. While conducting these conversations can be uncomfortable, it’s better to be prepared. 

Despite referring to American Girl’s The Care and Keeping of You as a manual for surviving puberty, there was so much that I didn’t know about the inner workings of my own body because it was intentionally hidden from me. I wouldn’t comprehend the magnitude of this oversight until my early twenties, when I started learning more about the lack of regulation around menstrual products in the vaginal wellness industry. There were so many reproductive health conditions that I didn’t even realize could impact me specifically as a Black woman, such as hysterectomies, fibroids, endometriosis, and cervical cancer. Furthermore, Black queer men are still notably at higher risk for HIV/AIDS infection. As stated in the New York Times, this disparity in diagnoses could possibly be attributed to "a lifelong exposure to racism, combined with limited access to medical resources and a lower overall quality of care." The silence around our sexual wellbeing can feel debilitating.

I didn’t know about the inner workings of my own body because it was intentionally hidden from me.

In my high school health class, we were told about all the forms of protection to avoid STDs and STIs, but nothing about the full range of sexual pleasure. I didn’t use my first vibrator until I was 24. The topic of sex work was completely omitted from any conversations I was exposed to, automatically deeming it as a disgraceful activity. While there was mention of giving consent, we heard nothing about the blurred lines of coercion, harassment, or assault. Nor were we made aware of the signs of toxic relationships and emotional abuse. During the aughts, there was nothing that came close to a show like Michaela Cole’s I May Destroy You to process the full spectrum of sexual violence within the Black community. But thankfully, there are now many programs and Black sexual wellness educators equipping us with the information and resources we need. 

Black Sexual Wellness Influencers and Educators

deun ivory

@deunivory

While Deun Ivory didn’t initially set out to work in the sexual wellness space, her journey as a survivor led to the creation of the body: a home for love. Ivory’s intention is to shift the culture around how Black women heal from sexual trauma, something that she spent the majority of her life avoiding. From her perspective, there aren’t many safe spaces that are accessible to Black women where they are given the freedom to be vulnerable and share their experiences. "We abandon Black women for the sake of social progression, and it really sucks,” she explains. "I feel like most Black women aren't comfortable sharing because they aren't validated in their experiences. They don't have the support that they need, and people don't believe them."

Ivory has committed herself to creating a better world for Black women because it is her unapologetic belief that they are worthy. The body: a home for love has been extremely valuable for Ivory's self-development,  allowing her to tap into her power and expand upon her mission on a global scale. So far, she has been able to offer various classes to help her community reconnect with their bodies, rebuild intimacy within themselves, and unpack emotional baggage. Before the pandemic, the body: a home for love hosted experiential events in partnership with select brands that featured wellness installations. 

"Oftentimes, when you struggle with sexual trauma, you don't want to have sex again," Ivory says. "You don't even know how to be connected to anybody else or your own body because you deal with dissociation. We know that healing isn’t linear, and because of that, we try to make sure we have different types of mechanisms for healing. We want to honor everybody in their journey because everything is so nuanced."

enby

@shopenby / photograph by @emmawondra

For the founders of Enby, their business holds space for Black queer visibility. While Jay and Maya were growing up in their respective Caribbean households, they didn’t have anyone to guide them through sexuality because of the shame, bias, and stigmas associated with LGBTQ lifestyles. As a result, both heavily relied on Tumblr as a resource for learning about their sexual identities when they were teens. At the time, that platform served as the only place where Maya and Jay felt like their existence was validated. "Being queer, you have to figure out your own rules for negotiating space around your sexuality because your life is not by the hetero playbook,” Maya says.

At Enby, they strive to eradicate stigmas and shift perspectives around gender by mixing sexual liberation with education. Jay’s negative experience with navigating sex shops as a Black non-binary, trans person ultimately inspired them to launch the store last September. 

"We wanted to create an experience that was gender uplifting and focused on pleasure without focusing on anatomy too much," Jay explains. "Our core mission is serving our community, educating the broader community, and making everybody feel welcome."

In addition to supplying affirming tools to their non-conforming community, Maya and Jay hope to educate others by offering classes and workshops that demystify different aspects of sexuality. Their vision is to collaborate with more educators and provide resources that help elevate the community. Instead of making Enby a capitalistic endeavor, Maya and Jay donate a portion of proceeds from all sales to a rotating list of underfunded organizations committed to improving the lives of Queer and Trans people of color.

Ev’Yan Whitney’s work as a sexuality doula stemmed from wanting to educate themself about their own body and sexuality. From a young age, they were in touch with their sensual side in the most unsexual way, which was seen as a threat to their parents. Instead of being given the freedom to explore the range of senses within their body, Whitney was shunned into thinking it was wrong to be curious. "That's what really confused me a lot of the times because it was like ‘Okay, y'all are telling me that I'm fast, but also I'm very visible,'" Whitney explains. "There's that dichotomy of Black women and Black femmes as sexually perverse, kinky, and all of these things. But we're also made invisible a lot of the time. That was my experience growing up. I wasn't being picked by anyone when it came to being somebody’s girlfriend or partner."

evyan whitney

@evyan.whitney

As a teenager, they found refuge in digital spaces like Scarleteen's message boards, which were moderated by sex educators and sex-positive adults. Whitney says learning about sex and consent in a comprehensive, non-shameful way made a huge difference. While embarking on that journey during adulthood, Whitney recognized that certain areas in their life needed more attention. In choosing to address their intimacy issues directly, the path toward something greater began to develop. Over the past ten years, Whitney has become of service to others and helped them along their healing process.

"I feel really grateful that there are a lot more people who look like me who are doing this work," they say. "It's been really good to see that there is a lot more diversity within the field. When I say diversity, I'm not just talking about the color of people's skin but also how they identify. The way that they teach the people that they're trying to reach. It's really cool to see that there are a lot more accessible spaces that people can join and create a community within." 

While there is certainly more inclusivity within the modern sexual wellness space, Whitney points out how Black femmes and educators are still dealing with a number of obstacles, including racism, plagiarism, miscrediting, and pay inequity. As Whitney says, "It's getting better, but we still have a long way to go, and it's frustrating.” Within any profession, BIPOC individuals are often set up to compete with each other as opposed to sharing the space that they are reclaiming. Whitney has noticed how the tokenization of Black sex educators makes you feel like there can only be one. 

"Because of how few spaces we occupy in this field, it creates those divisions within us,” they explain. "It really comes down to that scarcity mindset, but there's enough room for everyone. There's enough shine for everyone, and I think it's really important that we are critical about the ways that we put certain people on a pedestal and the way that we tokenize other people."

Black bodies aren’t vessels meant to absorb pain and be deprived of pleasure. They belong to beautiful human beings that deserve to be loved, respected, and desired. 

Final Thoughts

If anthems like “WAP” and “Buss It” are any indication of where our society is headed, Black sexual liberation matters now more than ever. Even in the midst of this political climate, the Black community must remember to prioritize their own health and sexual well-being for the sake of preservation. In dismantling the systemic racism that has been upheld for centuries by white supremacy, we are building equity in healthcare and beyond. Black sex educators and reproductive health practitioners play the most pivotal role in shaping a future without oppression as part of our reality. The time for reproductive health justice for the Black community has arrived. Black bodies aren’t vessels meant to absorb pain and be deprived of pleasure. They belong to beautiful human beings that deserve to be loved, respected, and desired. 

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