My friends send me videos, clips, flyers, etc. about churchy (1) things to file away in my “Why do we do things like this?” folder. Last week, I was introduced to DiShan Washington’s body of work through her newest “online symposium” (titled then as) Single, Saved, & Still Wanting Sex: I Still Want It – A Transparent Conversation about being Holy & Horny.
Initially, I laughed (like… a lot. It turns out there’s a large bandwidth of things to cackle on given how this was rolled out). Yet, as the virility of the symposium increased, I decided to do some research about where it was coming from. It is important to walk through that context for the purposes of this piece. Please bear with me for a moment:
DiShan Washington is a writer, speaker, and primary author of a genre that she calls Christian erotica. The distinguishing point in this genre is that “all of (her) characters are married“. In her personal life, Washington is the daughter of a preacher, married to a 20 year old minister at the age of 16 (2). During this time, she experienced “bouts of low self-esteem, depression, two suicide attempts (3)“. After her marriage ended (due to infidelity), Washington writes that she went “from living a life of luxury to homelessness and even days of wondering where her next meal would come from” (3).
It is important to call out that many of DiShan’s formative years as an emerging adult were spent as a “First Lady” (read as: pastor’s wife). Depending on the church’s context & relationship to patriarchal norms, this could indicate learning & practicing wifely subservience, dependence, & service to God, the church, & their husband above self (3).
In an NPR interview, Washington clarifies:
“I was raised by a generation of women that said sex was for the man […] (I thought) when this marriage ends, what will I deem the cause[…] How do I get Christian women to remove the stigma that being erotic was sinful”.
All of these things are important to note. If we look through our Black feminist lens, we can see certain themes emerging in her specific story and sociocultural context (4).
Washington, like many Black churched women, seems to be (publicly) navigating the “matrix of domination”: the oppression that is connected to racial stigma, gender, mental illness & ability, & class (Collins, 1993). The context provided above allows that the church served as a primary institution in perpetuating the aforementioned “axes of oppression”, in addition to sexual subservience, and economic dependence through marriage & patriarchal norms. In my lived experience, I have also seen similarities of story with many other Black churched women – age differences, notwithstanding.
From the NPR quote above, as well as various live feed posts, it seems that Washington is attempting to create new ways to navigate these spaces. Creating genres such as Christian erotica & affordable online symposiums that deal with holiness, being horny, & transparent conversations about sex & sexuality might be intended towards this goal (4).
The rhetoric of the symposium fell short of that goal. This was not necessarily surprising, given the way that this symposium was framed (i.e. the symposium itself was not accessible to “men”; a prelude video states that within this conversation, the goal was to “still remain saved” which is read here as coded language for upholding puritanical beliefs on sexuality).
The conversation went back & forth without imagining new pathways of destigmatizing sexuality & the erotic for Black churched women. For example, I could see Washington’s attempt to complicate our understandings of the Bible (she did this in context of masturbation). However, this was situated along her point that masturbating (as a single Christian woman) promoted lust, which was still a “slippery slope”. I appreciated the assertions that our sexual desires are good & can occur at many different moments (i.e. “sometimes, my hand will graze my nipples and they will get aroused”) but cringed at the suggestion of disembodying ourselves (i.e. “our hormones aren’t ‘saved”). A few of the final notes included smoking as a metaphor for premarital sex (or as my good friend Anaya* said, ‘Fuckin’ is to your spirit as smoking is to your lungs’).
In the case of Washington’s symposium, there is an underlying premise that sex & erotica can only be normalized IF it is within the scope of marriage, patriarchy, and heteronormativity (briefly defined here as the assumption that heterosexual coupling is the “norm”, the standard, and the preference for all persons). Let me state plainly: this premise is dangerous. It allows no room or space was given for persons who identified outside of the “man / woman” gender binary or have chosen partnerships / relationships outside of the gaze of heterosexuality. It allows no space to craft an individual sexual ethos inside of or outside of state sanctioned marriage (which costs money & has gatekeepers). We cannot decrease & disrupt sexual stigma by attaching additional stigmas. We further marginalize ourselves & others by functioning within the realms of heteronormativity & patriarchy.
These impacts cannot be overlooked, regardless of intent (5).
I’m working on a longer form article & what I’ve found in that process is this: Black churched women, at various ages, have capacity to internalize gendered oppression even within efforts to resist gendered oppression. Disrupting internalized oppression is key in gaining sexual & gendered freedoms for self AND for others. This is what I wanted to see in Washington’s symposium… despite the sense of knowing that I wouldn’t likely see it.
I’m writing about this because “a great deal of my work (coincidentally or in-coincidentally) points to dialogue with and about Black church(ed) women. I facilitate & curate resources on sex & sexuality for a private space for women (primarily WOC) who have been and / or are currently church(ed). This is important to me, because there are so many spaces & scenarios where parents weren’t talking about sex, sexuality, consent, etc. and churches / private religious schools weren’t giving that information either. It is important to me that particularly church(ed) WOC have a space to ask these questions to better discern how they prioritize their sexual health” (6)… and construct their sexual ethos OUTSIDE of patriarchy & heteronormativity dressed up as ‘holiness’.
(Black church-ism: You oughta shout right there. Nods head churchily).
In other words: We have to find better, freer, more expansive ways forward.
Washington stated that a key reason she chose the path of celibacy included a moment of unsatisfying sex. She also announced a forthcoming book on the topic of “remaining holy while horny”. With this in mind, a neat “summary” doesn’t seem appropriate. There are questions yet to be answered and modalities of thought yet to be ironed out, including:
- How might the sexual lives & choices of Black churched women look different if we prioritized pleasure & found instances of sexual pleasure in sacred text (7, 8, 9, 10)?
- How can we more readily recognize when gendered oppression is masquerading under the guise of holiness? How do we disrupt, disengage, & divest from in commitments to White, Western norms of morality (10), gender (11), and sexuality?
- Who can / should partner in this work?
There are a great deal of scholars who are coming back to these questions (and more). I plan to commit to these questions as well. I believe that working towards the answers requires our time and helps us to get free.