Bristol Reminds Us: Shaming Women and Policing Their Bodies Doesn't Work

by Inda Lauryn

I remember the day the Lower 48 was introduced to Sarah Palin when she ran as the Republican candidate for Vice President during the 2008 Presidential Election. Palin strategically used her daughter Bristol's pregnancy to ironically promote her platform on conservative “family values.” In this case, it meant forcing her 17-year-old daughter to carry out a pregnancy, whether or not she wanted to.

The Palins represent a microcosm of Christian fundamentalists that the Republican party latched on to in the 1980s when it realized the party did not connect with voters on social issues the same way Democrats did. And Bristol Palin represents what happens when these conservative “values” come home to roost.

Late last week, Bristol announced her second pregnancy on her website. Even though she is now 24, her announcement was apologetic in tone, as she described the pregnancy as "disappointing." The sad interpretation is that she is disappointed not because she will not share in the experience with her now ex-fiance but because she is again pregnant without being married. Because of this, the younger Palin views her pregnancy as less valid, at least within the conservative view.

Her disappointment may further stem from the fact that for years Bristol has been a spokesperson against teen pregnancy, promoting abstinence and waiting until marriage before having sex. In other words, she failed to live up to the conservative values she had literally been paid to promote. Because of her adherence to conservative ideals, Bristol is not allowed to see her sexuality, her reproductive choices, or even her body in her own terms.

Yet Bristol Palin still has the privileges afforded to white, well-off women. Conservative rhetoric applied to Black women is much more extreme. The policing of Black women's sexualities, bodies, and reproductive rights has a long and dangerous history in this country, leading to myth that Black women cannot be raped and the trope of the Black welfare queen who breeds children in order to receive more welfare benefits.

While there will be criticism of Bristol Palin’s plight, Black women have always been the villains in the right wing’s view of family values. If a Black woman is not pegged as the “Welfare Queen,” she may be pegged on the other end of the spectrum as Wahneema Lubiano’s “Black lady,” described as the one who manages to reach professional status but still should not have children, as it would interfere with her work life. Lubiano’s essay from Race-ing Justice, En-gender-ing Power further explains that while the Black lady is financially able to support children, she may be portrayed as unmarried and in any case not suitable to rear children.

In either case, a Black woman’s reproductive rights and ultimately her sexual autonomy are not seen as hers. Black women experience some of the harshest consequences when reproductive rights come under attack and primarily find our lives used as the rationale when conservatives hope to score political points. For instance, we have seen billboards erroneously claiming that the most dangerous place for a Black child is in a mother's womb and the spread of false information that most abortion clinics are found in Black neighborhoods. By extension, Black mothers are not given the opportunity to watch their children grow into adulthood, as state-sanctioned violence against Black people claims lives, which is also an offense against Black women’s reproductive rights.

Black women have always been connected with deviant sexuality, and thus, our bodies have always been marked and othered when it comes to reproductive rights. We are taught that marriage is our way to salvation, yet we are still not granted the license to express our full sexuality within the confines of this institution. For example, consider the criticism Beyoncè receives for her sexy performances, even though she is married to the father of her child.

Conservative values deny Black women the right to define ourselves in our own terms and to show the full range of our humanity, especially when it comes to our bodies and our sexualities. We are expected to succumb to the strictest politics of respectability and still face criticism just for existing. We are expected to suppress our own sexual desires yet bring sexual experience to the bedroom because that's what Black women do as sexual deviants.

Bristol's position as a white woman in the conservative movement gives her license to embody the hypocrisy of the so-called family values platform. She was literally paid to endorse abstinence, shaming girls for their sexualities in the process. Yet she could not live up to her own propaganda. Time will tell if right-wing conservative leaders will be as ready to forgive her as they are male political figures such as Mark Sanford, who disappeared for days to carry on an extramarital affair, for their sexual indiscretions.

In the meantime, the policing of Black women's and girls' bodies inside and outside Black communities continues to contribute to a number of ills including sexual violence, interpersonal relationship violence, and state-sanctioned violence. Black women are not afforded the opportunity to make "mistakes" with our sexualities and reproductive choices, nor are we given the opportunity to repent, leading to the type of “disappointment” Bristol Palin expressed on her website. Such is the danger of shaming women and girls for their choices and denying us ownership of our own bodies.

Photo: Helga Esteb / Shutterstock

Inda Lauryn has previously been published in Blackberry, A Magazine, Interfictions, The Toast, and Callaloo, as well as had her work featured on blogs such as Black Girl Nerds, Bitch Flicks, and AfroPunk. She is currently working on a novel and countless other unfinished writing projects, occasionally blogs at Corner Store Press and shares music playlists at MixCloud.

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