“Let’s Talk About Sex”: Sexuality, Reproductive Freedom and Empowerment

Let’s talk about sex, baby
Let’s talk about you and me
Let’s talk about all the good things
And the bad things that may be…

As I was heading into the Sixth grade Salt-n-Pepa dropped the song “Let’s Talk About Sex”. I’d adored the all girl group ever since I saw the video for “Push It” back in 1988.  Boldly clad in black spandex, colorful boots and rocking asymmetrical hair Salt-n-Pepa exuded confidence.  When I hard “Let’s Talk About Sex” I was intrigued. Salt-n-Pepa discussed sex in a very straightforward, casual way. Their no-nonsense approach was revolutionary in my world. See in the working-class, Southern-influenced  Missionary Baptist environment I inhabited ‘decent black women’ didn’t really talk about sex to young girls. My female elders talked at us about sex. They threatened us with warnings of how terrible our lives would be if we did not save ourselves for the husband that God himself had waiting for us. If we lost our virginity before our wedding night we would be ‘ruined’. Sex itself was only acceptable and good within the confines of marriage, and even then it was only about pleasing one’s husband. There was no room for the idea that we could and should enjoy sex as well. Sex was something that a man would do to us. If we went against the ‘word of God’ and had sex outside of marriage  the only possible outcome would be disaster. We were told that if we became pregnant outside of wedlock we would be an embarrassment and threatened with being kicked out on the streets if we did. My church and my family filled our heads with fear and shame but skimmed on the practical information we needed. The women in my family wouldn’t discuss condoms and birth control with young women. They wouldn’t tell us that our feelings of desire were normal and to be expected at this age. No, such feelings fell into the category of lust-a sin which had to be stamped out. As good ‘saved’ girls we were supposed to keep our legs closed and remain blissfully ignorant about the most basic aspects of our own reproductive systems and sexuality. Indeed, my elders couldn’t even bring themselves to utter words such as ‘vagina’ and ‘clitoris’ to us. If I depended on what my family taught me about sex I wouldn’t even be able to draw a picture of what my uterus looks like!

Thankfully, however, my family and my church were not my only resources. One plus of coming of age in the Pacific Northwest was living in a city that is decidedly progressive and secular in nature. So in the 1990s my school district-much to the chagrin of my elders-made sex ed mandatory. When I was twelve years old I would sit and listen as my art teacher held up a lemon to illustrate the size of the uterus and broke down the female and male reproductive system to our class. Three years later representatives from Planned Parenthood would periodically come to my high school to teach us more about sexuality and birth control. Teen health centers would open in select high schools in my district. I’m extremely grateful that I had access to a vast array of resources and information. I was not sexually active in high school. But thanks to what I learned in middle school and high school I had the knowledge I needed in order to make wise decisions when  finally decided to engage in sex.

Mandatory sex ed and Planned Parenthood gave me the tools I needed to ensure my own reproductive health and that of my partner(s). But they could not rid me of the warped, guilt-ridden and conflicted view that my family and faith had given me regarding my sexuality as a young woman. I associated masturbation, sex and lust with ‘sin’ because that is what I was taught. Sex was not discussed in a positive fashion. Even showing signs of a crush towards a boy one’s age or smiling warmly at one was enough to get us labeled as ‘hot in the pants’ or ‘fast-tailed’. Good girls and ‘ladies’ were supposed to carry themselves as well-lacquered robots who didn’t flirt or show any signs of desire towards the opposite sex. Just the suspicion of being sexually active was enough to get one in trouble. I still remember the sheer terror I felt when one of my aunts got me alone and interrogated me about my (non-existent) sex life. I was sixteen years old at the time. She took me one day after choir rehearsal, telling my Grandma that we were going to lunch. As soon as we got in her car she started.
“D are you having sex?”

“No Aunty I’m still a virgin.”

“NO you’re not! Why are you lying to me like this?”, she thundered back. For the next hour and a half my aunt would yell at me as  pressed myself against the passenger door in a vain attempt to get as far away from her anger as possible. Nothing I said to her got through. My Aunt was convinced that I was ‘hot’ and was leading some secret life of debauchery that she had to save me from. So she droned on about all the diseases  I was supposedly exposing myself to and how I was jeopardizing my ability to bear children in the future by having premarital sex now. Most of all she reminded me of how I was supposedly ‘sinning’ and displeasing ‘God’ by disregarding His word and not engaging in abstinence. I wasn’t having sex, but even if I was there was no way I would have gone to her with any questions or concerns. Her judgmental attitude and attempted shaming made me deeply uncomfortable with the idea of opening up to her at all.My aunt would conclude her lecture with a plea that I stop having sex, get on my knees and call out to God in repentance for my sexual ‘sins’.

My experience with my aunt that day-indeed all of my experiences with my female elders as a teen-left me thoroughly bewildered, scared and confused when it came to sex. Church was no better. ‘Abstinence only’ was the official line, though it was clear many adults in our church community didn’t practice what they preached. The pastor of my church stated it was disgraceful for a woman to know-let alone demand-what turned her on sexually. In the climate I came of age in, adults only wanted to talk to me about ‘the bad things that may be’ regarding sex. So even when I became sexually active later it was impossible for me to separate all of the guilt and shame that I’d been indoctrinated with regarding sex from my life. Like many others raised in conservative religious households I jumped on the merry-go round. We act on our innate, human desires only to feel like the scum of the earth after, crying and repenting to a God who supposedly has a deep and abiding interest in our sex lives. My indoctrination was so powerful that it affected me even after I walked away from Christianity and organized religion altogether. Trying to come to a healthier, balanced view of my sexuality as a woman has been a complicated and painful process-one which is ongoing.

So what’s the point of me sharing all this? It’s quite simple. I share my story to remind people of the various factors that influence the choices that women-Black ones from religious backgrounds in particular-make regarding their sexuality and reproductive system. When the sexuality of Black women in particular is discussed I find I often get frustrated with people, as these factors are often not taken into account. Though I am no longer that fearful and confused teenager who couldn’t trust her female elders, I remember that time like it was yesterday. I can’t act brand new. I know grown women who won’t make their male partners wear condoms because in their twisted logic using condoms makes having sex premeditated, and premeditated ‘sin’ is worse than ‘accidental’ sin to them. I know young, poor women of color who wouldn’t ever consider abortion because they’d been told it was a grievous sin(though the same folks telling them this damn sure weren’t there to help them with their babies later). I know women who endure passionless, orgasm less sex with their partners because they’ve been taught that good women don’t like sex. This is the atmosphere that I and many others grew up in and is the background in which we make choices. There can be no meaningful discussion on our sexuality, reproductive choices and empowerment without acknowledging this.