What Early Sexual Experimentation Was Like for this Black Girl

by Nneka M. Okona Some weeks ago when talks about Lena Dunham, sexual curiosity and exploration ...

by Nneka M. Okona

Some weeks ago when talks about Lena Dunham, sexual curiosity and exploration as a child were the hot topics of conversation, all I could think about was how that experience was for me, as a Black woman. And well, my narrative went quite differently.

My first sex talk was in my mother’s bedroom when I was 10 years old. I sat cross-legged on the carpet, at her feet, as she talked. My mother used a children’s storybook with tons of pictures to drive her points home. While none of the words she said I can recall, I remember being utterly mesmerized at the book she absently flipped through as she talked. I remember tracing the pictures with my fingers, feeling as if I’d been granted to this entire new world I hadn’t been made privy to before.

After “the talk,” I skirted off to my bedroom with the book tucked underneath my arm. I carried that book everywhere for months ahead, manically looking at the pictures and re-reading the information on the pages, until it fell apart, the pages eventually sliding loose from the book’s spine.

My curiosity grew over the next few years, mostly with my own body as a female. I locked myself in my bathroom for hours at a time, staring at my naked body in the mirror, touching and fiddling. I begged my mother for The American Girl “The Care and Keeping of You: The Body Book for Girls” which included everything from hygiene to menstrual cycles. I pleaded with my mother to purchase my first bra from the J.C. Penney catalog, soon thereafter. At 13, I read “Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret?” by Judy Blume and did the increase my bust chants and spent other countless moments willing my period to start.

I was 14, and confused, when my period started. I first noticed something was awry during a bathroom break in the late afternoon at school. The discharge in the seat of my underwear, not the bright, bold red I envisioned but instead a deep brown color reminiscent of the rust corroding an old nail was appalling. I stuffed some tissue as a barrier in my underwear and sheepishly breached the subject when I was home in a few hours to my mother.

With this newfound awareness of my body, the things which were happening, the hormonal shifts and changes which were occurring, I began to notice at each juncture the attempts to not encourage further understanding. As a child within a rather devout family, church and religion were always a foremost part of my life. I was raised as non-denominational Christian, then as A.M.E.

Coincidentally at this age of sexual awakening was when the vows to not have premarital sex and honoring my body as a temple were pushed at church. I learned and internalized the temptation, sin and evil my body, as a female, posed to my male counterparts. I learned to rebuke the quickening and throb of my genitals I’d feel when I saw an attractive boy and the waves of warmth I’d feel over my entire body. I shamed myself for feeling what was very…natural.

Years later when I headed off to college, hundreds of miles away from my mother, father, my pastor, my church, at 18 years old, I discovered masturbation. This was a rather haphazard discovery, as a neon yellow smiley face pillow became a prop which I used to relish in pleasure. I soon incorporated my fingers and the detachable shower head in shower whenever I went home during a school break. Two years later, I lost my virginity in my own campus dorm room with my first love. I lied to my three roommates and said I was going to catch up on homework in lieu of attending a party so I’d have the room to myself.

When I first became sexually active, I was plagued with guilt. The Christian teachings I’d abided by said what I was participating in was wrong, but what I couldn’t reconcile is why I enjoyed what I was experienced. I struggled with this duality for several years, on an even deeper level when I converted to Catholicism five years ago.

But what I found, despite stuffing down oppressive theology from the Black for much of my formative years, teachings which center on healthy sexual exploration only being okay for married women, is that in many ways, Catholic teaching was more harmful, especially as a woman of color, a Black woman.

I found within the Catholic church, the tendency to fully disregard women as capable of fulfilling priesthood as well as the the discouragement of abortion, contraception — especially birth control —and even In vitro fertilization, willed me forward to claiming my sexuality.

I recognize as a Black woman this notion of being sex positive has implications, especially for a woman like me, a Southern Black woman raised in the Bible Belt of the country. I also recognize that my agency of owning my sexuality differs greatly from what that of White women, those like Lena Dunham, might have experienced or will experience. I’m also not as naive to think that just the race of a woman in isolation makes up how she views sex. It can vary based on a number factors — family dynamics and upbringing, class and socioeconomics. It’s not as clear cut as it can or should be.

The intersection between sex and race, however, becomes murky when the discourse shifts to the very real discrepancy between how White and Black women’s bodies are viewed, policed and criticized. It’s Black bodies, Black women’s bodies, who have been fetishized, hypersexualized and deemed as something to be gawked at or placed on exhibit since the time of when our ancestors were enslaved, stripped from their homeland. It’s Black bodies that a number of conflicting, negative messages are projected onto on the daily, whether in mainstream media or within our own communities, where many of us have internalized our own self-pity, degradation and self-hatred. It’s our bodies which have been the marker and the site of so much pain and confusion. Our bodies.

As a Black woman, sexual exploration and identity is a slippery slope, but instilling the importance of agency and discovering what that means for you at young age is crucial. Equipping us with the tools to have a healthy, safe and fulfilling sex life early on, rather than encouraging us to repress our sexual nature and thus, possibly, leading us to making reckless, uninformed decisions with our sex lives is dangerous and a double-edged sword.

My sexuality is not some devious monster to be feared and reined in to make men feel more comfortable. My sexuality is a choice. It is the autonomy to construct and decide boundaries — those meant to protect me and those to challenge. These are choices every Black woman should feel free to make for herself.

Photo Credit: Deposit Photos

Nneka M. Okona is a writer based in Washington, DC. Visit her blog, www.afrosypaella.com, her website, about.me/nnekaokona or follow her tweets, @NisforNneka.

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