On bell hooks, Sexual Agency And Combating Sexual Stereotypes Of Black Women

On Tuesday afternoon, legendary author, feminist, and academic bell hooks led a panel entitled Are You Still A Slave? Liberating The Black Female Body at The New School. Joining her were author Marci Blackman, author and activist Janet Mock, and film director Shola Lynch. What followed was an instructive and interesting dialogue about the politics of black womanhood, sexuality, and creating anti-imperialist images within a heteropatriarchial, white supremacist society.


One point of contention that stuck out to me however, was bell hook’s comments about Beyoncé, and her belief that Beyoncé’s brand was harmful to young black girls. bell even went so far as to say, in response to a question about creating liberatory sex positive framework that honours the agency of black women, that she believed black women should embrace celibacy as a political means to counteract stereotypes of hypersexuality (around the 1:25:30 mark).

If you’ve been following my writing at all in the last few months, then you know that I vehemently disagree with this point of view, and have written on several occasions about why I believe that Beyoncé’s new overtly sexual image is empowering and instructive to black women when viewed through a womanist lens. But I’ve been thinking about why bell’s statement’s bothered me so much, and I think I’ve finally figured out why.

bell essentially asserted that she believed that the way to counteract our sexualization by a white supremacist society was to, in effect, render ourselves asexual, thereby destroying the canvas upon which white supremacy projects its ideas about black female sexuality. While I see the value of this viewpoint in theory, I think that the fatal flaw in that logic is that it puts the onus on black women to refocus the derogatory images being created and disseminated about us, through self policing.

Because we are human (though our humanity is often questioned), black women are by and large sexual people, just like everyone else. Our sexuality is something that is inherent to our person, and it’s something that we should be allowed to freely claim (or reject, for that matter) without fear of reprisal or repercussion. To move forward in a reactionary way by refusing to be sexual simply because it may be expected of us (because of our black female bodies) is to deny ourselves a part of our own humanity, in order to claim our humanity. In my mind, that’s counter-intuitive. No one should be required to reject sexuality in service of humanity, because sexuality is part of humanity.

As I detailed in my essay Est-Ce Que Tu Aimes Le Sexe?: Yoncé Brings Feminism To Its KneesI believe that claiming our sexuality with agency is a revolutionary act as a black woman. To be sexualized is to be objectified against our will. To be sexual is to become an active player in our own sexual journey. Given the historical context of black female sexuality being used in service of others through rape and forced birth, I believe that taking control of one’s sexuality, is the ultimate rejection of misogynoiristic sexual stereotypes.

And this doesn’t not mean that all black women need to be sexual at all times. The issue here is that black women should be given the choice of how to engage sexually with their bodies. That choice can be to be sexual, but it can also be to not be sexual. It’s the choice that matters; the ability to freely decide which option is best for them on their own terms, without pressure from outside forces, whether they be social or political.

To me, forcing oneself into celibacy in order to reject hypersexualization rather than “allowing” oneself to be sexualized in service of the white supremacist status quo (because in truth, these things have never really been a choice that we can “allow”) is to simply substitute one ideological jail for another. The goal should not be to get white supremacy to reframe its perspective of black female sexuality, but to re-engineer our understanding of our own claim to our sexuality, and the agency we should be free to explore through sexual contact.

Sex can be a beautiful thing, and its peaks and valleys should be accessible to black women in the same way that they are accessible to everyone else. While combating the sexual stereotypes of black women is important, I think that it’s essential that we find ways to do it that don’t necessitate denying ourselves access to our own sexuality.

This post originally appeared on the author’s blog BattyMamzelle. Republished with permission.

2 replies on “On bell hooks, Sexual Agency And Combating Sexual Stereotypes Of Black Women”

I have so many mixed feelings about hook’s comments on Bey, on the ongoing Black feminist and womanist debate around Bey. I will say that while I understand hook’s stances and appreciate them, I really do (I have a lot of critiques of Bey, or rather, the discussion around her, both the praise and derision) as a Black woman, sometimes I get so…exhausted with theorizing and methods of resistance that, however unintentional, center a white, capitalist, patriarchal, gaze and instructs Black women to carry ourselves and conduct ourselves in ways that center that gaze.

And, I feel like hook’s slipped into that mode of thinking here with her comments on Bey’s sexual expression. I say that with much love and respect for bell hooks.

Anyway, great piece, and thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Seconding what you just said. Terrorist is the wrong word. Beyonce does participate and perpetuate the value of the male gaze and she can’t be excused because she owns her image. She’s a hard worker, I’m always happy to see a woman succeed but her “power” lies in her record sales, not her image. I’m glad that more people are striking down the respectability politics and focusing on how she perpetuates white beauty ideals because I feel that that (and the idea of a woman having agency…so long as it doesn’t threaten her man) is the real issue. I get that there is a fine line between being sexy and being objectified and a lot of people differ on where Beyonce falls on that line. Do I think she’s a feminist? In the sense that she’s a businesswoman, yes, but in terms of her image, a resounding NO.

Also, I wish we could hear about the topic of feminism and other black pop stars, not just King Bey.

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