The activist, writer, and feminist scholar adrienne maree brown had a revelation when she was working in a New York harm reduction organization, helping others stay healthy and safe even when engaging in potentially risky behaviors.
She saw few Black and brown women educating people on safer sex practices, and “seeing the absence of women of color in those spaces as voices to listen to, as experts, eventually led to wanting to be more in that conversation. They were doing the work but not writing, publishing.”
In that role, she’s joined the small circle of sex or relationship columnists—a group, that with the exception of brown, is very white and Sex and the City Carrie Bradshaw-ish. Just look at Karley Sciortino of Vogue, Gigi Engle of Ask Gigi, Jill Hamilton of Cosmopolitan, and The Cut’s Priscilla Pine.
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It’s not encouraging for an aspiring sex columnist of color. As a Black woman emerging writer, reporting racial injustice and trauma began to overwhelm me. I started exploring writing about sex because, in intimate conversations with friends of color, I learned these women wanted to talk and read about sex in ways that were unadulterated and specific to their lives. And I wondered what would happen if I wrote a frank article about, say, awkward sexual experiences—a seemingly universal topic—but in the African-American Vernacular English dialect and pitched to sex-positive publications. I pitched my work to outlets that had large, broad audiences and weren’t Black publications, which tend to do “sex-lite” where they gloss conservatively over anything about sex.
So what happened? Nothing. Zero response. I assume no editor picked it up due to its strong language, that the pitch hit the wrong note, or my apparently incorrect assumption that such a story might appeal to a “mainstream” audience and a Black one at the same time.
Whatever the reason, I asked myself: Why do women writers of color exist at the margins, and where do people of color seeking sexual advice find it?
What About the Pleasure Principle?
Sexologist Bianca Laureano, the Afro-Latinx founder of the Women Of Color Sexual Health Network (WOCSHN) and co-director of the film Black Pervert, isn’t surprised that communities of color aren’t first and foremost in discussions ofhealthy sexuality and experimentation.
“We are often an afterthought when it comes to education unless we are the problem to be solved,” Laureano stated. “Much sexuality information targeting people of color is about negative health consequences or outcomes, i.e., HIV meds like PrEP and PEP, sexually transmitted infections, substance use, and sexual experiences. Rarely is it ever about being worthy of having a Black, Brown, or other body in this world.”
She emphasized that even when educational sex advice is made available to people of color, it’s delivered in an ostensibly race-neutral package. She said pointedly, “Inclusivity doesn’t mean erase what makes us different and focus on what makes us the same.”
A few statistics help explain why sex content targeting communities of color is about problems and prevention. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that, in 2017, chlamydia infection among Black women was at five times the rate for white women. In 2016, a staggering 60 percent of women newly diagnosed with HIV were Black. According to the Guttmacher Institute, non-Hispanic Black women’s rate of unintended pregnancy doubles that of white women. And Asian-American and Pacific Islander women have the highest rate of having had unprotected sex in their lifetimes of any racial group.
But, data aside, Laureano says we need more platforms for “sexperts” of color and more resources that aren’t hyperclinical or simply about education. While sex education is essential to reproductive and sexual health, it is not interchangeable with sex advice and conversations. The key is to strike a balance between public health education and teaching people how to seek pleasure. People who are more at risk for sex-related health issues still want to have good sex while they protect themselves. In addition to having core knowledge in reproductive and sex-based education, it also helps to have a range of sexual experiences and areas to center.
brown, whose new book Pleasure Activism: The Politics Of Feeling Good, comes out next month, similarly thinks that sexual education and pleasure don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
“Pleasure is one of the basic human rights that gets stripped away from us in oppression, so women of color are often twice removed from feeling good. Sex is part of what can make us feel so good, but only if we’re in our power in it, which means being informed, healing, being open, and talking about safety and delight.”
There’s a particular need for sex advice or content that takes into account the ways people of color’s sexuality has been stigmatized. For example, a 2010 study about sexual values and behaviors among Latinx youth found that gender roles, emphasis on virginity, and ideas about whether women should use or hear sexual terms can affect communication with partners and sexual practices. And a 2013 study found some Native women were ashamed to purchase condoms because they didn’t want others in their community to see them. Yet many were engaging in sexual activity and putting themselves at risk for HIV exposure.
Author Denene Millner co-wrote a book called What Brothers Think, What Sistahs Know About Sex, but she’s never thought about adding sex columnist to her list of goals. Sex may be biologically-driven and common, but it still comes with taboos, especially in Black communities.
Black women “are busy avoiding stereotypes. We don’t want to be the Jezebel, the Black whore, the fast ass, all the things pop culture [that] the preacher and our mamas and aunties told us we are if we even remotely admit to doing the do, much less talk about it out loud,” Millner said.
These stereotypes hardly seem a consideration for white women in mainstream publications. They get to have uncensored conversations about harm and risk reduction, sex, rimming, penis size, and unconventional topics like having sex while wearing a colostomy bag, with little scrutiny or judgment.
“Who amongst us is giving us the tools to speak up, get what we want and stay healthy?” Millner asked. “White women in white magazines that we don’t read or give a damn about. So we root in the dark, literally, for info.” Millner continued, “I was married for 21 years and told my ex only once what I wanted [sexually]. And that was toward the end when I didn’t care about his feelings anymore. Or what he thought about my requests.”
That’s what more women of color sex writers can do that white ones aren’t currently doing: tap into a diverse and largely ignored readership that, while not monolithic, sometimes shares stigmas, stereotypes, and cultural vocabularies.
Defining Diversity: It’s Not Just Race
Women sex writers of color do exist, but they “live” more on social media than in major magazines or websites.
Jessi Camille, president of The Pussy Party podcast series, uses online media to voice “the needs and wants of the modern day woman, helping end the war on pussy one laugh at a time.” She started The Pussy Party for fun and friends, choosing online media due to accessibility and freedom of expression.
“Podcasting is a free way to get yourself out there without having to be discovered or have anyone buy into your viewpoint … or express what you want to express. I also thought podcasting was a safe place to discuss things that were risqué.”
The Pussy Party’s conversations run the gamut from talks about what semen tastes like to discussions about sexual fluidity.
There’s also writer and sex educator Cameron Glover. Sex Ed in Color, Glover’s podcast, centers people of color and those with disabilities.
Glover’s own sex writing about intimacy and disability was born not through a disability of her own. Instead, it stemmed from her struggle with chronic pain. “It has forced me to re-evaluate my relationship with ableism, pain, and how I view my body. And that has, naturally, drifted into the work that I do.”
When I asked if was difficult to navigate or exist in the mainstream as a Black sex writer, Glover answered both yes and no: “Sex writing itself is still mostly dominated by white women from similar backgrounds. So [the issue is] having not just [having] women of color but women of color who are disabled, have chronic pain, are trans, queer, polyamorous, working class.
“These are all underserved populations as well, and each have a lack of prominent Black and non-Black WOC at the forefront. I also think that’s why the work that I do and other WOC in the field do exists in more ‘indie’ spaces, though some of us are beginning to be seen within mainstream sexuality spaces. But it’s still a slow process.”