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January 2014

Black Womanhood, Asexuality and Agency

Last night I had a good conversation with someone about race, gender, asexuality and decolonization, and it got me thinking about a few things about agency. Of course, with literally any sexual orientation, any desire and any actual sexual/non-sexual practices there’s no way to discuss sexuality without including how various oppressions impact sexuality. I alluded to this before when I wrote:

Controlling images that make heterosexual Black women “Jezebels” and asexual Black women “mammies” while oppressing queer Black women for being neither one are evidence of misogynoir. Though the oppression is not uniform, as heterosexual Black women have heterosexual privilege, even heterosexuality for Black women is treated as deviant and as a divergence from “pure” White heterosexuality, let alone the immense oppression that Black women who aren’t heterosexual face, especially when they aren’t cis (or binary gender either).

It’s imperative to not only examine how oppression impacts sexual orientation, desire and sexual practices but in fact how oppression itself is internalized and impacts how people form their own perspectives on their own sexuality. Just as mental decolonization is necessary on other political aspects, the same is needed for sexuality—maybe even more so. Oppression for oppressed people is not just what is happening to us/around us but what is happening inside of us because of the former. But thinking about race, gender and asexuality for me means knowing that it really doesn’t matter what my sexual orientation is, the sheer act of existing in a body heavily sexually politicized means that whatever conclusions I draw about myself, they will be both subject to scrutiny and used as proof of/justification for oppression.

Whether I say that I am asexual because my thinking on sexuality is reflective of colonization, expressed through the politics of respectability and in “reactive opposition” to the centuries of “hypersexual” stereotypes of Black women or I say it is because I know claiming heterosexuality is part lie part performance for my entire adulthood, it doesn’t describe who I am, it never really did, I figured I had nothing else to claim so I did for the longest, and embracing asexuality, even with all of the politicized strings that come with it feels more true to me, people are going to assume the former is my reason. Whether I say that I am not interested in sex because I think it is dirty, wrong, gross and reminds me of abuse or I say I simply am not interested because I didn’t always find it purposeful or pleasurable, I find going long periods of years without it a breeze, I rarely experience sexual attraction and though it is not needed to engage in sexual intercourse, I am at an age and confidence where I don’t have to say “yes” to what I want to say “no” to, people are going to assume the former is my reason. If I ever spoke out on sexuality and made a huge heterosexist claim that anyone who isn’t heterosexual and was abused is responding to abuse versus the truth of what I have always written, that the reality is most Black women are abused and still are a plethora of sexual orientations regardless, most people would prefer the incorrect heterosexist claim over the truth. 

Some people’s desire for the former claims to be true and not the latter ones reveals the impact of oppression on sexuality. It is so encompassing that even considering that someone can recognize the role of oppression on their own sexuality yet still have moments, thought processes and decisions where they exert power and possibly even find empowerment in sexual or non-sexual choices seems to be unwelcome labor. But this means the possibility of agency is dead; not considered; can never matter. And if this is so, if interpersonal agency is not possible, I wonder why even bother? What use is sex positivity talk (though I have critiqued this) and nuanced discussions on sexual orientation if the assumption is that for me as a Black woman, all I can do is react to oppression, not self-decipher who I might be in the midst of said oppression?

This makes me think of a Black feminist writer that I read who writes on BDSM. The constant assumption is that she craves patriarchy because she understands how and when she wants to “submit” in a D/s relationship. Nevermind that she can choose what pleases her and is aware of how she thinks of her sexual orientation, desires and practices. Because the expectation is that we cannot ever have agency and can only be whatever White supremacy claims we are, when anything we think or express even barely resembles what people think is status quo or “reaction” to status quo, we’re relegated back to victim status.

The denial of agency is simply the flip side of the tool that creates the oppression that impedes agency itself. To purposely relegate someone to victim status then deny their ability to decolonize and choose is to make sure that they can only be a victim. This happens regularly regarding sexual politics for Black women because consent is regularly written off as “abuse” and abuse as “consent.” This is why adult Black women who perhaps decide to be sexual are quickly told they’re oppressing themselves while coincidentally, young Black girls who cannot legally consent, are groomed, manipulated and abused are told they consented. In which instance is the person’s humanity affirmed? Neither.

While it is a permanent, not a one time process to unlearn hegemonic lies about who I am, it’s not just me who has to unlearn them. It’s everyone. Thus, to others, there’s never going to be a valid reason for any sexual orientation I claim. They will only see it as reactive to or fulfilling oppression. But these stereotypes and images exist to purposely blanket any identity (whether easily labeled or not) a Black woman thinks of for herself, or worse, pretend such an identity cannot exist because it hasn’t been yet articulated in a hegemonic way.

This space of total freedom or total oppression in terms of how any Black woman articulates her sexual orientation, desires and sexual or non-sexual practices is a binary that doesn’t account for both facing oppression and mental decolonization, both having images and conceptions of Black women and sexuality forced on Black women yet many Black women are still able to be introspective, assert power and make sexual choices that eschew rigid norms about who Black women are. In the same way that the conversations on sexuality have to purposely be complicated and reject hegemonic norms is the same way that agency has to be talked about. Agency is not solely about defiance in the face of oppressive sexual norms but in fact navigating the nuance that forms the interior of those choices, even if the exterior of those choices appear to match some undesired norm. In the case of most Black women, no matter what those choices are, there’s already a primitive norm waiting to be used to justify oppression. But pretending that there is never a space for evaluation and denial of the possibility of agency is also oppression.

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