Black Girls In the Margins: How Erotica Shaped My Sex Ed
I learned about good sex in my grandmother’s bookshelves. The summer of 2004 was spent reading on the sun-drenched, living room floor of her house in the suburbs of Chicago. At twelve years old, I read as easily as I breathed. Though the content was questionable, I could tear through a YA novel in a few hours and be bored again by lunchtime. What that often meant, was my selection of books considered to be “age appropriate,” ran out pretty quickly. At a time where internet access was nonexistent, my only choice was to peruse the selection of books my grandmother had on hand. My days that summer soon became an investigation into the first chapters of a Toni Morrison novel (and realizing it was way above my reading level); a growing love of horror in Stephen King; and most importantly, cultivating my love of erotica from the pages of Danielle Steel.
As an only child with access to cable television and my own bedroom, I was no stranger to sexuality. I knew I was queer fairly early in life, though the word didn’t exist for me until much later. What I knew was that my Barbie dolls were pretty and too intelligent to put up with Ken (who was always juggling several other dolls). Danielle Steel however, really expanded my horizons. Let’s be clear, I wasn’t here for the narrative. I would skillfully skim from one love scene to the next. I probably raced through at least 30 novels that summer alone. Passages describing heaving bosoms, tender caresses, and most importantly: the female orgasm.
My sex education from that point on, can be summarized fairly quickly. In the Chicago Public School system, I was receiving the general biological requirements, your body and you style. Boys and Girls, from what I recall, were separated into classrooms and given the 300 minutes of required sexual health education every school year from 1st to 4th grade. While in high school, half a semester was spent on sexual education, sophomore year; while the other half was designated for drivers ed. I can honestly say with clarity, that not once was the vagina discussed without referring to its biological purposes. Abstinence was the only way to prevent pregnancy completely. Menstruation, as most of us already knew, was mostly a pain in the ass. And the discussion of female pleasure was nonexistent.
As a girl of color, the messages I have received about my sexuality through society and culture have always been confusing. When I was in grade school, I remember my parents were quick to keep me away from girls they thought were “fast.” A loaded term for Black girls meant to convey that they were too adult, on the edge of sexual promiscuity. What I later learned was that Black girlhood was precarious: we are the source of the general male gaze, compounded by a history that has sexualized and commodified Black women. The Black female body has been the source of historical exploitation, and continued hypersexualization. When Black girls are labeled as fast, it continues this narrative, it doesn’t allow them a chance to be innocent or experience their sexuality ahistorically.
What I got out of reading erotica was the ability to explore my sexuality without the input of others. My love of Danielle Steel made way for my entry into fanfiction (which if you don’t know, is lit written about characters from preexisting books, films, etc.). Fanfiction, to this day, is my favorite form of erotica. I already like the characters, it’s free, and full of smut. I received notions of Black female sexuality from characters who crossed racial and gender boundaries. Characters who were not criticized or shamed from investigating their sexuality. Who practiced monogamy, or chose not to. Who asked for consent and negotiated their kinks. It gave me the ability to vocalize as an adult what I desire out of my sexual and personal relationships and what I will not tolerate.
What I desire now is for Black women and girls to have a platform to discuss our bodies and rights in a supportive community. It is possible to build spaces where questions of same sex relationships or non-binary partners can be openly discussed without stigma. Black and Brown women are cultivating the shit out the wellness market: for clarity, for fitness, for health. Yet, if I need a source for sexual education or guidance relevant to the experiences of women of color, I’m left empty handed. The mainstream narratives or blueprints for Black sexuality is embarrassingly stark. I refuse to solicit advice from Steve Harvey and the like, who critique and offer advice to women as if our only goal is marriage and children. Black sexual health and female pleasure needs to be a part of our idea of wellness. Our bodies need to be a topic of conversation that isn’t stigmatized and our experiences need to be valued and centered, instead of in the margins.
Oluremi Olufemi is a Reflections Editor at Spoken Black Girl. Generally social media makes her tired, but she can be found on Instagram @oluremi_sohpia