Em-URGE-ing Voices

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My Introduction to Pleasure and Sexual Liberation 

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March 30, 2023

Disclaimer: This blog includes references to sex and implicit erotic and nude imagery 

As I raced home from school, I immediately turned on Music Choice, a TV channel that aired popular music videos. I heard Slim Thug’s voice over a silhouette of Beyoncé doing body waves against silk, pink backgrounds. Everything was pink—pink wigs, pink suits, pink leather, pink eye shadow, and pink lip gloss. I remember mimicking Beyoncé’s choreography in the video and trying to keep up with the flexible, agile, and sensual movements of the dancers while following along to the lyrics, “dip it, pop it, twerk it.”  

A few phrases that repeatedly stuck to me were “check on me tonight,” “boy, I know you want it,” and “lookin’ like you like what you see.” I did not know what these phrases meant but figured it had something to do with a boy and a girl. Regardless of the larger meaning, I liked the music video and was obsessed with Beyonce. Watching the video was particularly important because it challenged the societal messages I received as a young Black kid that shamed people with curves and for having a “big booty.” I remember my Caribbean parents placing restrictions on the type of jeans I could wear to avoid unwanted “attention,” even though I did not understand where this “attention” was coming from. I, myself, was starting to develop a body aligned with this criminalized, outcasted figure, so it was refreshing to see Beyoncé embracing her curves and body. Dancing like her in the video made me feel normal. 

The lyrics to “Check up On It,” the underlying message surrounding desire and “attention,” and the suggestive choreography all went over my head as a child. At one point, while I was watching Beyonce’s music video, I asked one of my parents what “Check up on it” meant. They replied, “it means sex,” and that was the end of the conversation. This blatant avoidance of sex was common in my household. We did not engage in further discussion on what sex and “attention” were, nor the messages displayed in Beyoncé’s video. The main takeaway from our exchange was that “sex” was part of a secret world for ‘grown folks’ and that I had no business meddling in it. This interaction left many unanswered questions and was representative of the culture of sexual shame I grew up with. 

Fast forward to the summer of 2020, following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, I was scrolling through my media on Apple music and came across “Episode 29: Black Pleasure Matters” of the Sensual Self podcast by Ev’Yan Whitney. Whitney invited the founders of Afrosexology –Dalychia Saah and Rafaella Fiallo –onto the podcast to discuss their journey to do work centering on Black pleasure and well-being. Saah and Fiallo describe Afrosexology’s main aims as “to educate, explore, and reclaim Black sexuality and promote Black self-empowerment through sexual liberation.” 

Using the themes of the podcast as a jumping-off point, I began making sense of my own experiences in a sex-negative household, lacking information about sex as well as the racialized messages that sexualize Black people’s bodies, especially their “booties.” Like Whitney, Saah, and Fiallo discussed in the episode, I also had difficulties feeling seen and represented in the field of sexual health and was interested in unpacking the messages I received in my youth. I was particularly intrigued by their discussion of Black sexuality and pleasure and how, historically, we’ve been deprived of these experiences. This named how deeply Black sexuality is connected to systems of oppression, including capitalism, white supremacy, and imperialism. Whitney, Saah, and Fiallo emphasized that pleasure was not only integral to sexual liberation but, overall, to Black liberation. Having pleasurable, consensual experiences outside of the context of fertility and birth allows individuals and communities to actualize their sexual freedom, autonomy, and agency. I never imagined as a kid that sex, sexuality, and “attention” were ever that deep. Coming from a background of poor sex education, it was new yet empowering as an adult to find tools to navigate my sense of self, sexuality, and pleasure. 

The discourse around Black pleasure also impacted the way I viewed myself, my body, and my identity. I began revisiting media, music, and information from the Sensual Self podcast. I had time to sit down and really think, “What does sexual liberation mean and look like to me?” “How does the way I define my own identities and experiences impact how I define sexual pleasure for myself?” and “How can I engage in decolonizing sexual pleasure?” These thought-provoking questions had an impact on my own journey, and I’d like to share how they allowed me to evolve in my understanding of pleasure. 

What does sexual liberation mean and look like to me? 

Sexual liberation is intrinsically linked to the liberation of Black people. Sexual liberation to me means confronting the messages surrounding sex, sexuality, and broader oppressive ideologies that have been associated with Black experiences. The systems under white supremacy, capitalism, and imperialism continue to impact us in various ways historically, socially, culturally as well as sexually.  

Additionally, infusing liberatory ideologies when we teach and educate one another and communities about our sexual health, sexuality, and pleasure is essential. Furthermore, sexual liberation means unpacking messages that have been internalized and confronting them. 

How does the way I define my own identities and experiences impact how I define sexual pleasure for myself? 

Coming from a background where we rarely discussed sex and sexuality, I view pleasure as pushing our understanding of our own bodies and desires. Additionally, my own experiences as a Caribbean-American heavily shape how I navigate pleasure as an adult and my interest in exploring Black sexuality through diverse media. 

I decided to approach sexual pleasure by critically engaging in art. My first digital painting series, “Nightmares,” was influenced by a Caribbean folk style of visual art and evoked spiritual imagery through the sensual poses depicted in the images (see Figure 1). My longtime fascination with movement and the accentuation of our bodies through dance is also depicted in the series. Through my artistic practice, I engaged in eroticism and pleasure and challenged myself to visually represent what it means to me. As I continue further with my digital storytelling work, I also explore pleasure as it relates to Trans and Gender-expansive identities and queerness. I also incorporate nonsexual dimensions to my paintings while still engaging in pleasure.  

Figure 1. “Nightmares,” Digital Painting, 2020 

How can I engage in decolonizing sexual pleasure? 

Tv and Media such as Beyoncé’s “Check Up on It” music video and the Sensual Self podcast have influenced how I view sexuality and pleasure. I continue to use art and storytelling in my practice of decolonizing sexual pleasure. I have sought out literature, music, and media to help inform my understanding of sexual health beyond face value. 

My understanding of the ways we can decolonize sexual pleasure is also heavily informed by my peers and other sexual health advocates, which emphasizes the importance of sexual pleasure and liberation within community. Decolonizing sexual pleasure involves community-building, and altering our understanding of sex and sexuality does not entirely occur in isolation since the world around us informs us. 

Things to Think About

As mentioned before, music and media have influenced my understanding of sex, sexuality, and pleasure. I invite you to use the following guiding questions to interrogate how you came to know about pleasure and sexual liberation.  Here a few questions to consider: 

  • What song, podcast, or tv show had an impact on your awareness of sex and sexuality? 
  • What does pleasure and sexual liberation mean to you? 
  • What are ways we can collectively engage in decolonizing pleasure and sexuality? 

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