sexuality

“Her Sexuality Should Not Be Pathologized”, Found Poetry

Published in celebration of National Poetry Month, 2017

“Found poems take existing texts and refashion them, reorder them, and present them as poems. The literary equivalent of a collage, found poetry is often made from newspaper articles, street signs, graffiti, speeches, letters, or even other poems” 1

(My source material included free writes, prose, albums, & documents curated and collected as part of a Beauty Breaks workshop, led by Imani Jackson, as well as quotes from my own, unused, draft material)
My parameters included:
1) Using phrases that referenced or envisioned “Grandmother”, “Grandma”, “Gramma”, etc.
2) Using phrases with a color in them
3) Using half of the sentence / phrase for each instance (the meaning was re-imagined through punctuation and / or lack of punctuation, where appropriate)

“Her sexuality should not be pathologized”.

Red and hot like that candy my Grandma loved
I feel you come closer and your blue energy cools me
And then she came, coffee skin, red hair –

more red

The whitest background you’ve ever seen
The velveteen blood orchid
Purple sounds so tasty like sweet and tart
Purple rain
I could still smell its sweet magenta rimmed message
Premonitions of a grown ass woman.

 

“I Still Want It”: A Review

Also titled: DiShan, the Matrix of Domination, & Deconstructing Binaries of “Holy / Horny”

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 require our time and helps us to get free.

Toxic Concepts I (Un)Learned from Church – On Sex & Throwin’ It In a (Prayer) Circle

“Once you know the truth, you can’t ever go back and pick up your suitcase of lies. Heavier or not, the truth is yours now”. – Sue Monk Kidd

“What are the heavy truths that are yours now”? – Journaling exercise

In the past, I’ve chronicled the toxic concepts that I have unlearned from church and / or church adjacent spaces (campus ministries, study groups, etc.).

Today, I’m picking up the series with three more posts on toxic concepts I unlearned (because…word count).

Toxic Concept: Women’s sexuality can be and SHOULD be treated as a commodity, define her level of “purity”, and only be used in the service of gaining & keeping a husband.

Lena, a youth group minister*, sat us all down for one of her infamous ‘talks’. You never really knew what to expect from Lena, so the best course of action was to brace yourself for whatever was coming. In this talk, she took out a box of tissues:

“If I need to wipe my nose, then I use one of these tissues”. She feigned wiping and dramatically dropped one to the ground. “Now that I’ve done that… who wants to use this tissue”.

Of course, the room was enveloped in silence and stares.

“Some of you want to be hoes in the hallway and sluts in the stairwell. But once it’s gone, it’s gone. Once it’s used, it’s used. Have some more pride and dignity in yourself. You ought to carry yourself in the manner with which you want to be treated!”

Humming under the surface of my consciousness, I learned that having sex (and moreover, having it freely) would bring my worth down to the size of a snotty, used tissue – fit only to be discarded.

If you’re not familiar with this type of rhetoric, then this example can seem pretty extreme. To be clear, there are many spaces where similar analogies are made: “Your virginity is a gift – you don’t want to give your husband an opened gift”. Joshua Harris, author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye (and icon of the Evangelical Christian movement in the early 2000s), likened virginity to a rose. “Losing it” or giving it away would result in all of the petals being plucked off – there would be nothing left to give for your someday-husband.

So, I learned to be afraid. Afraid of my own body and its desires.
I learned that good Christian women “keep their legs closed” (as if that’s the only way to… you know what, let me not get ahead of myself) until marriage and that THIS would result in procuring a wonderful husband – and at that point, he would be provided with access to your body as a gift, an unused tissue, a fully blooming rose.

giphy1

I know it sounds like… a lot. But it is this rhetoric that reinforced what we now refer to as ‘purity culture’.

So, why am I writing about this again and why am I writing about this now? First, because this culture still exists and is now being further distilled down / spread abroad via memes. (Help us, Jesus). Second, because many Black churches have adopted, repackaged, preached, and profited off of these ideals. (Help us, Jesus).

It suggests that women who do NOT make the choice to abstain until marriage are unclear about their body’s worth. Not even THEIR INTRINSIC worth. The worth. Of their body. Yikes.

But perhaps most importantly, I bring it up now because these beliefs have such harmful ramifications in day-to-day life. These ramifications are things that some of the people I love are STILL living with & through. The No Shame Movement chronicled an entire chat  regarding some of these lasting impacts.

I want to tell you about the countless moments of attempting to comfort friends who really & truly felt like / feel like “losing” their virginity means losing their greatest “commodity” and “asset”. (Shudder). I want to tell you about the private spaces I’ve curated with the help of some good friends – in order to address the feelings & even questions that come up when you’ve grown up with this type of toxic belief. I could tell you about the women I’ve known who married hastily – simply because they had sex with their partners and felt that penance meant marrying that person.

I could tell you about the panic attacks that came over me in waves – even after I knew that my sexuality wasn’t a bargaining chip. Even after I knew I could make my own decisions about my sexuality AND have a secure relationship with the Divine. Even after I knew that my virginity wasn’t just some commodity for a husband to enjoy. And I want to tell you that I’m not the only one who experiences this – that after healing from this, I went on to curate private spaces for other women to process unlearning this shame & to ask basic questions about sex & sexual health after the gaps that abstinence-only education left in their path. I could tell you, from first-hand conversations I’ve had, that sometimes your body has to unlearn the trauma of this toxic concept… has to learn how to experience pleasure without guilt. But the word count it would take would be too great for just one post…

So, I’ll end by sharing a story about its ramifications in my own life.

A friend of mine is doing research on this very topic (and it’s going to be amazing when it comes out). I’d agreed to help out with a research query she had – and responding opened up my own experience to me in a way I’d never considered before. I told her:

I saw the toxicity of this belief first-hand when I ended up in a pretty bad relationship with an aspiring minister. I was beginning to do more formal study into this topics at the time, which really wasn’t agreeing with this partner. So, asking for what I wanted resulted in being seen as “domineering” and / or a temptation to deviate from the Gospel. I listened to their stories about they repressed their own sexuality and was told that even passionate kissing paved a way to the slippery slope of eternal damnation. (This is not hyperbole). It was clear that the only circle I was going to be throwing it in… was a prayer circle.

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The hilariously awkward Netflix show, Chewing Gum, does a great job of showing this type of dynamic

Who knows whether that choice was actually mine – I was too busy worried that my “feminine wiles” would steer us “off the path”. Hashtag the patriarchy is a mind-fuck.

Of course, over time, I had to re-imagine my role in that relationship (read: chile, we broke up – Mama didn’t raise no fool). But after debriefing this period of time, I realized two major things:

1) My partner got this from somewhere. They got these notions from the pulpit, from their Bible college, and from their socialization into male privilege.

2) This didn’t just happen to me. 

There is an unbalanced pressure on women in religious spaces to view their sexuality as nothing more than a commodity – something to preserve and give away in service of a husband. Given the huge industry that purity culture makes through selling rings, books, and multimedia efforts – sex is selling – even the lack of it.

So, what I’m saying is this… and this alone… WHENEVER we feel we have the right to be prescriptive about every woman’s body & sexuality… we’re already in the wrong. And although not under the same circumstances, it’s still helpful to ask the question that James Baldwin posited (one that gets me free every. single. time): Who benefits?

Who benefits from the mass sexual repression of women? And how does it point to making money off of our bodies?

Ending Notes:
In the pursuit of answering this question, do feel free to check out Dr. Tamura Lomax’s work on religion & the erotic, NoShameMovement.com, and the #Blackchurchsex thread on Twitter.

*The title “throwin it in a prayer circle” stems from a popular meme which made its rounds on Twitter & Instagram

This post is a part of a larger series. You can read the other posts in the series here.

Jade’s Faves Features: Coriama Couture

Amazing initiatives have the power to bring amazing people together. This past fall, I facilitated a Beauty Breaks workshop session on style & resilience. [Beauty Breaks is is a life-giving and innovative series on Black beauty & holistic wellness, founded by artist Amina Ross (who is one of my favorite people, truly)]. Coriama Couture was also presenting on affordable grooming & beauty practices. [You can click here for the recap].

Since that time, coriama couture has taught me a great deal about the ways in which we can de-stigmatize sexuality, beauty tips for Black women / femmes (especially ones that can fit my budget), and more. Of course, I wanted my readers to meet her too and get a chance to see her work! Text below is largely her own, used with permission, in order stay true to the heart of her work & mission.

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Photo Credit: Kamali Whitney, 2015

Coriama Couture is an Artist, Activator, and Aesthetician who utilizes the ABCS (Art, Beauty, Culture, and Sexuality) to encourage radical dialogue and community building. She sees the ability to explore and challenge taboo topics within culture as a rite of passage; a necessary element for liberation and freedom that should be celebrated. Currently, she is curating a community popup forum called sex KiKi and hopes to encourage more radical dialogue and safe spaces for queer black femmes* in Chicago and beyond. sex KiKi is inclusive space that privileges the spectrum of black femininity so trans* and cis women are welcome, as well as allies.

Her work primarily serves femmes of the Black diaspora, ages 21+, as she notes:

The Beauty Industry is constantly bombarded with images of a European aesthetic, the policing of the black femme body, and an overall lack of resources for us. For example, the beauty industry is saturated with beauty advisors who often don’t know how to color match for foundation or choose to tell black femmes anything (in terms of beauty practices / products) to get our dime. In addition, we already deal with economic oppression, so the resources we have might be limited and contingent upon what is necessary to live.

In this field, sometimes I deal with community members (black femmes) who prefer to only see white colleagues / beauty advisors to find the proper cosmetic products. My hands-on experience has been that this may be connected to deeper issues of acceptance (and internalized pop-notions of “beauty”). I have much compassion for that, since I have had to deal with my own issues with embracing my black beauty.

Honestly, I believe your trauma can often be connected to your work! I grew up with serious self-esteem issues. I hadn’t grown into my full lips and feared my melanin. The beauty industry happened to be one of the first places I landed a job; since my temper in my younger years caused me to switch jobs often.

Now, I believe that beauty is a tool for empowerment. I continue to challenge myself to utilize it for that purpose and not to mask insecurity (as it can be / has been used). I encourage with warmth and enthusiasm. I always lead with kindness and compassion in these situations because I have been them and see myself in this process toward liberation. I am still undergoing the decolonization of my own lifestyle and mind, as well!

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Educating & brow mapping at Beauty Breaks workshop, Photo Credit: Ally Almore, 2015

Coriama Couture is also the curator for pop-up community forum, titled, sex KiKi. In regards to this area of work, she says:

“Sexual liberation is really important to me. Sexuality was always apart of my life. In my late teens, I can recall enjoying lesbian porn (the good kind; there is a difference)! Yet, there can be a lot of trauma that comes with being a sexually free person. People can equate / conflate freedom with having no boundaries at all, which isn’t true!

Oppression and internalized oppression is also a part of the battle when it comes to sexual wellness and conversations about sexuality. For example, we can deal with some very problematic ideas – about gender, gender roles, notions of what family is / can be, harmful views about homosexuality. I’ve also seen misogynistic views expressed, even coming from cis-het* (cisgender, heterosexual) black femmes in the space (I understand much of this phenomena as a coping mechanism, to somehow fit into the constraints of the patriarchy while simultaneously being denied access). These challenging conversations have their pros and cons but ultimately, I believe are powerful and pivotal when breaking the mental chains of colonization”.

Her advice to readers:
“Exploration is apart of growing and sometimes the worst judgements we experience are the judgements we put on ourselves. It can be liberating to do things for our own lives! Keep a beauty journal, a sex journal, or just journal. I feel fresh and renewed each day that I decipher my own thoughts from those of others. The more I worry about others, the less effortless my life becomes… the less I am able to live on my own terms. This process is difficult but I feel less anxiety living this way.

Find rituals that help ground you – music, chanting, dancing, or bitching in front of the mirror for 10 minutes to get the bull out! Hey, it works! Lastly, don’t be scared to explore another lifestyle option. I’ve found that hetero and married doesn’t always equal happy and in love (as is often suggested). So, we have to be sure to love on our OWN terms”.

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Facials, brow waxing, and refreshments from coriama couture’s Wax Day Off

Check out more of her work on http://www.coriamacouture.com/ and if you live in the Chicagoland area, check out sex KiKi or Coriama’s Wax Day Off! 

Jades Faves Features: Center for Inclusivity

This is a post I’ve been wanting to do for a very long time! Last year, I met a ‘play-cousin’ of mine through an online forum that is geared toward Women of Color who operate in Social Justice Ministry. Little did I know that she would become one of my dearest friends in the city of Chicago and that she would co-found one of my favorite non-profit organizations while pursuing her graduate degree (…aaaaand doing a billion other things. Alicia Crosby is badass)!

We had many lunch / brunch / wine-on-the-couch chats about the work of Center for Inclusivity (CFI), “a faith-engaged, 501c3 public charity rooted in the city and people of Chicago that promotes and facilitates healthy exploration and growth for individuals affected by the perceived divisions surrounding issues of spirituality, sexual orientation and gender identity”. They do this through facilitated conversations and open gatherings with community members on these very topics. They offer training and education for individuals and organizations who are looking to foster more inclusive atmospheres. They offer pastoral care and officiate non-denominational wedding services for same-sex and different-sex couples. In the years to come, they are moving toward offering even more services, including webinars, counseling, pre-marital counseling, and more.

CFI

This past weekend, CFI had a Gala to commemorate their first full year of service! I was asked to share a bit about my experience with the organization and why I valued this work. You can find the edited and abridged remarks below, as well as some fun pictures from the incredible photographer, Lizzy Bilbrey:

“A few years ago, I began crafting a personal mission for my life and my work. It is ‘to offer information, ideas, and counter-cultural narratives that will empower people to thrive – and to lovingly & creatively challenge systems toward greater inclusion’. I believe it was this mission and Divine Providence that led me to meet Alicia Crosby and subsequently, to CFI.

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CFI Co-Founders Alicia Crosby & Jason Bilbrey, Photo Credit: Lizzy Bilbrey

Initially, I trusted the work of CFI because I trust Alicia. From our conversations, I knew her heart for justice, her love for others, and I knew that I would be walking into a safe atmosphere where she was involved. It takes a special person to get me to not go immediately home after work on a Monday, but to go to an open gathering instead. So, I figured, I’ll go once to support and then… we’ll see…

I was very quiet at the first dialogue I attended. The co-founders and community would quickly realize that I love talking after that initial meeting. But at that time, I wanted to get a feel for the community itself. Everyone was greeted with respect and dignity. We shared our gender pronouns and we shared our experiences. Multiple perspectives were honored, even if the conversation was uncomfortable. I especially appreciated the care that Jason Bilbrey and Alicia (co-founders) brought to the work. Jason shared beautiful words about the importance of sharing a meal with community members. He made conversational space for those who were quiet at the gathering.

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CFI Gala, 2016, Photo Credit: Lizzy Bilbrey

So many things come to mind as I reflect on why the community at CFI is important to me. I could say that it is because this organization is on the prophetic edge of a movement for social justice. I could say that what’s special is the way they open both physical and emotional space / access for those so often pushed towards the margins. Yet, all that I would say is wrapped up in the framework of Ubuntu.

In his book, ‘What is Not Sacred’, Laurenti Magesa (2013) explains that the concept of Ubuntu is prevalent in many forms of African spirituality. This ideology represents highest and fullest humanity built through deep, sustained community. So, I understand that to become the most actualized version of myself, I need to be in community with others. I need to grasp their joys and triumphs. I need to understand that the systems used to oppress others, oppress me as well. I need to get that liberating works, liberate me as well. CFI is an organization, but it is also a liberating work – for that, I am immensely grateful”.

Click here to explore more ways that you can support the work of CFI.

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If you or someone you know would like to be featured on JadesFaves, check out the submission form here!

Photo Credit: Lizzy Bilbrey 
Image Slideshow P.S. *(Ya’ll see how she caught me and my partner giving the camera some at this fancy Gala event?! LOL! #Twerkliberationtime)

Resources:
What Is Not Sacred? African Spirituality. By Laurenti Magesa. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2013. Pp. xii + 220