Why Do So Many Black Women Have a Hard Time Talking About Masturbation?

by Valerie Jean-Charles

Two years ago I sat in a plaza in Midtown Manhattan with four friends, drinking and enjoying each other’s company. As the alcohol flowed and the Spring sun slowly set, our conversation naturally flowed from work related matters to relationships and sex. Being a person who has never been shy about her body or sexuality, I dropped the “M” word and was met with uncomfortable shifts and lowered gazes. I didn’t understand the big deal—I had only said “masturbation” and yet, three out of my four friends were acting as if I had said something along the lines of, “I’m into doing porn.”

That was the first time I realized just how taboo sexual independence, pleasure, and experimentation are within the Black community—especially when it comes to our women. Soon after that happy hour I noticed similar and even stronger reactions to “masturbation” among Black women in other spheres, specifically social media. Guilt, disgust, shame—these were just some of the words women were using to describe their previous attempts and current beliefs around masturbation. I tried, very much so, to understand what the issue was. I kept screaming out phrases like, “But its your vagina!” and “How can you show your man what you like if you don’t even know how to handle yourself?!” to no avail. My words, regardless of how sensible they sounded to me, could not penetrate the years of conditioning that systematic shaming had built within them.
In order to understand what the issue was I had to go back and examine how many of us were reared. Black women are no strangers to sexual and body shaming. So many of us can remember the first time an elder—usually a woman in our family—told us to stop “acting fast” or dressing like a “slut.” So many of us were taught to keep our legs closed until we were married, that only “loose” women had discussions about their genitals and sexual health, even though these are basic parts of having and caring for a body. In consequence, we have bred a generation of women who still don’t understand how their bodies function, women who believe that sex is something that happens to them rather than something they can willingly choose to participate in. For example, how many times have you or one of your girls said something along the lines of “He gave me an orgasm?” In that sentence alone, we hand over the permission to be our own sexual conduits, to see ourselves as beings capable of learning and satisfying our own urges and desires, to the men we’re having sex with.

Of course we cannot forget the Church. As much as I love the Church and what it has bestowed upon us, there really has been no better tool in restricting Black women’s sexual autonomy. Speaking to a friend in preparation for this piece, she relayed to me that her Church taught her that masturbation is an act of lust, as it may rely on fantasies and porn as tools. In learning this she said she would feel intense guilt every time she engaged in the act and that she felt it lowered her status not only as a woman, but as a Believer before God. She also shared that this teaching also affected her vaginal health, as she ducked from having a pap smear for years. As sad as this is, I’m afraid she is not alone.

Learning to love and value ourselves is a great path I’d say most women are on. And that path is a long one, that requires time and introspection. Therefore it would be callous and insensitive of me to end this piece with “Go forth and masturbate!”

I do ask that women who reject masturbation should look inside of themselves (no pun intended) to see where their issues with the act stem from. So much of what we were told as children and adolescents still dictates much of what we choose to do and not do as adults. Yet, there has to be a time where we examine what we were taught and who we were told to be, and see how much of it can be applied to the people we intrinsically are. We are responsible for ourselves in many ways—financially, career-wise, and spiritually—I think it’s about time we add sexual health, well-being, and satisfaction to that list as well.

Photo: Shutterstock

Valerie Jean-Charles is a regular contributor at For Harriet.

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