“No, Thanks and Bye”: Talking Sex, Grey Spaces, & Millennial Agency with Our Mothers

.@ asiabrown No, thanks and bye. It ain't 13. — Goldie Taylor (@goldietaylor) March 15, 2013 It happened in the midst of a late d...

It happened in the midst of a late discussion yesterday evening, on the popular social networking site Twitter. Upon tuning in after class, I noticed chatter on my timeline surrounding the arrest of three 19-year-old men charged with child molestation of a 13-year-old girl, after their admittances of having sex with her.

Initially, I learned of the event through a vile tweet from celebrity blogger Sandra Rose, who called the girl a “slut” in a tweet linked to a news article. After expressing disappointment and disgust with Rose’s headline, I read the piece and surveyed the commentary atmosphere. As usual, after any controversial news occurrence hits Twitter, opinions ran the spectrum. Some tweeters expressed disgust with the men’s actions and sympathy for the girl. Others faulted the girl. A few opened discussions about assumed irresponsibility of her parents. For the most part, the opinions appeared traditional and cyclic—the ones we expect to hear and read anytime developments involving adults, minors, and sex come forth in the news.

My reactions to the article were similar to many. A 13-year-old involved in sex with three men is, in my opinion, obviously not a case of clear, cogent consent. It’s a disturbing example of patriarchal predation on young women in sexually repressive atmospheres—often poverty-stricken areas laden with underperforming schools, crime, drugs, and violence. However, as a young, evolving Black woman culture critic, I find it rewarding to employ unique, non-traditional frames to my opinions and perspectives on events in popular culture.

The news event yesterday fell right in that arena, as far as my beliefs rested. Those beliefs—that the entire conversation on teenage girls, sexual agency, and desire vs. patriarchy, sexual predators, and vulnerabilities needs to happen from a more modernized angle—received general praises and criticisms alike. The conversation went smoothly and ended satisfactorily, by my own account. However, one part of it bothered me. It served as what I believe to indicate a problematic road-block in the communication avenues between older Black women and younger Black women, when we discuss sex.

Using the news event as a text to base the conversation on, so to speak, I approached Goldie Taylor wanting to talk about teenage girls and the grey space between blossoming sexual agency and lingering vulnerability to sexual predation. The conversation went like this:

I had not been referring to the 13-year-old girl at the center of the news event, with my question about agency. I simply thought it was an appropriate time to engage. But, to avoid accusations of “trolling” or harassment, I didn’t tweet Ms. Taylor again. She made it clear of her desire not to entertain my proposal for a nuanced conversation, which stood respected on my end of the Twitterverse. Still, I remained frustrated with the quick, short, non-negotiable nature of the response.

From her service as a public affairs Marine, training in broadcast radio and television journalism, to her positions as a heralded corporate branding executive to her achievements as an author of two critically acclaimed novels, and soon a third, Ms. Taylor’s past experiences and career-path emblematize my own aspirations, almost to the T. I am a communications air(wo)man with the North Carolina Air National Guard. I received my undergraduate degree in communication and journalism two years ago, after serving as the editor of my university’s newspaper and in several internship positions, including one as an institute selectee of the New York Times. As a college sophomore, I formed an independent publishing company and released my first novel in 2009. Since then, I’ve began graduate school with a specialization in rhetoric, media studies, and popular culture. I’ve gotten back to authoring and publishing. I’m excited about my career as a writer, scholar, author, and publisher.

So naturally, women like Ms. Taylor represent career stardom to me. I can align myself, my identity, my career, and my goals with her lived experiences. I appreciate her perspectives on life, politics, and cultural issues from a personal, relatable standpoint. That’s why, in part, her response to my question not only confused and saddened me, but solidified my suspicions of a borderline dysfunctional communicative relationship existing between older and younger Black women—a relationship with potentially damaging effects on the developing sexual identities of young Black women. Something that often only happens during discussions involving sex.

Though somewhat certain of Ms. Taylor’s shortness, after the exchange I immediately took inventory of my words. Did I use harsh or offensive language or tone? Was my question random, inappropriate or nonsensical? I didn’t think so. Others, who witnessed the brief “conversation”, seemed to hold my sentiments—that Ms. Taylor shut down an opportunity for valuable, necessary discourse, for whatever reason.

I hold no entitlements or expectations that anybody, public figure or not, has an obligation to converse with me. We pick and choose our dialogic battles as they pertain to our values and perspectives and tolerance levels. I certainly do. You must, if you’re to maintain your sanity on Twitter. Nevertheless, I make no claims about the reasons why Ms. Taylor rejected my bid for dialogue. Maybe she thought my question was baseless, non-negotiable, or superfluous. To Ms. Taylor’s credit, maybe the question was asked during a time when she wished to tweet specifically about the 13-year-old girl.

Here, I’m not dissecting that. Rather, I’m interested in the sole fact that the conversation was shut down, at the will of Ms. Taylor.

The dynamics of Black mother-daughter communication as it pertains to non-traditionalism in conversations about sex—the proverbial “mother” simply meaning older Black women, and “daughter” being younger Black women—are worthy of critique.

Undoubtedly, older Black women play rich, irreplaceable, esteemed roles in the lives of young Black women. Our close, sometimes turbulent relationship stories are documented across entertainment media. From Troy and Carolyn in Crooklyn to Teri, Maxine, Robin and Big Momma in Soul Food, the essence of our bonds come from shared struggles of existence in often racist, patriarchal institutions. Young Black women skip to our Lou’s along clear paths paved by our grandmothers and mothers’ blood, sweat, and tears.

We are thankful. I assure the masses.

In many instances, young Black women premise life decisions, regarding education, career, romance—and sex—on the lessons and narrative experiences of our mothers, told through knee-slapping stories about their girlhoods and teenage years. While these stories are often comically-toned, they’re home to pains that only Black women can know. Racism on top of patriarchy, with pinches of misogyny and the commodification of our bodies resting heavily on our shoulders, older Black women’s perspectives on love and sex are, many times, shaped by unique, but staunch phenomenon reflective of our historical positions at the bottom of the barrel.

Still, open lines of communication, especially during conversations on sex, are important. Rejection speaks volumes about what our sexual experiences and opinions on sex mean in the grand scheme of cultural identity, comfort, and confidence. We want our mothers to talk to us when it comes to the nitty-gritty. We need to be able to introduce foreign concepts to older Black women, without the prospect of being shunned or made to feel as if our perspectives are intolerable and non-negotiable.

That is often how young people get in sexual predicaments in the first place—feelings of discomfort, embarrassment, or inferiority in confronting figures of authority about sex. Going it alone.

“Mothers overwhelmingly warned their daughters against the consequences of sexual activity, and daughters typically described the tone and content of this communication as stern, negative, or uncompromising. Daughters were taught to be wary of the ill intentions of men, which might reflect the historic social location of Black women in the United States.” Alexis C. Dennis & Julia T. Wood (“We’re Not Going to Have This Conversation, But You Get It”: Black Mother–Daughter Communication About Sexual Relations, Women’s Studies in Communication, 2012)

While younger Black women may not always view initial sexual encounters as concrete, “sacred”, or valid contingent on any particular birthday, older Black women—due to sexually oppressive experiences or coming of age in sexually repressive atmospheres—might want us to hold on, as tight as possible, to this agency for the simple fact that America believes it’s entitled to it. I suggest that maybe they want us to retain this sacrificial element of “innocence” long after we’ve deemed it just another restrictive element of patriarchy, because they, themselves, know the murky waters associated and damages associated with anything less than exercising 110% agency in one’s sexual activities.

In short, blunt, protective, “tough love” styled advice and perspectives can easily translate to the seemingly purposeful devaluation of young Black women’s differing, modern experiences with sex, and our evolving agency in gender.

Do I say all this to say I believe Ms. Taylor holds these sentiments? No. I’m certain she holds fairly progressive attitudes towards the topic at hand, but the way the conversation played out mirrored what I’d call generational resistance to changing the direction of the winds, as far as how we frame discussions on sex and agency vs. predation.

The discussion I wanted to have with Ms. Taylor was about what we do, as a community and moral authority, when girls develop sexual urges and begin questioning whether or not to act on them when juxtaposed against possibilities of sexual predation or the pursuit of sexual satisfaction—regardless of age factors. Somewhere in time, we decided on a certain age that is too young to exercise developed cognizance and agency for purposes of consenting to sex. Complexly, this area of age is older—much older—than when girls and boys begin having anatomical urges to “do it”.

And that’s where we stop talking about it. Silence ends in grey spaces. Grey spaces go uncharted. People go missing in them, and we have no idea where to find them until they’ve wandered back to black or white.

Consequently, young girls and boys are still having sex, even after the silence of ended, incomplete dialogue is replaced with other conversations. With great respect to the overarching issue of sexual predation of young, vulnerable women, it’s about time we position this conversation from the inside out, by not medicalizing or pathologizing these events—but by looking at them as issues of both oppression and repression, by not infantilizing sexual knowledge of self unless it occurs within the confinements of our socially accepted parameters, and by not reducing these smoky instances of confusion, where young girls have sex and we don’t know if she was taken advantage or actively participatory, by immediately jumping to conclusions.

We have to hash it out through good ole’ discourse.

I have no answers. Like I said before, it’s grey space that emerges from changing cultural outlooks on sexual and reproductive health in women’s rights. I’m young. I hold not-fully-realized, imperfect opinions. Although I’m certain I’m on the right path, I am not always 100% sure that my perspectives-in-the-moment tie in to a vision of general sexual health, safety, and happiness of teen, young adult, and mature women. That’s where my question to Ms. Taylor came into play. Cultural exploration between generations, if you will.

I still have no answers.

Asia Brown is a freelance writer, author, and indie book publisher. Brown House Press, her independent publishing company, re-launches this spring. Asia's 2nd novel, White Girl Hair, debuts on July 6th. She is currently attending the University of North Carolina at Charlotte for a Master of Arts degree in Communication Studies, specializing in rhetoric, media studies, and popular culture. Follow her daily musings on Twitter: @AsiaBrown

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