womanism

Deconstructing the Binary of “Holy” & “Horny”

My friends often send me videos, clips, flyers, etc. about churchy (1) things to file away in the “Why do we do things like this?” folder. So, last week, I was introduced to DiShan Washington’s body of work by a friend. She was launching her newest “online symposium” (then titled) Single, Saved, & Still Wanting Sex:  I Still Want It – A Transparent Conversation about being Holy & Horny.

Initially, I laughed (like… a lot). Yet, as the virility of the symposium increased, I decided to do some further research about where it came from, what the goals were, and WHY the insistence on separating Spirit and Body…

DiShan Washington is a writer, speaker, and a primary author of a genre that she calls Christian erotica. The distinguishing point in this genre is that “all of (her) characters are married” which is very much in line with a religious bent that sex is only sacred in marriage. In her personal life, Washington is the daughter of a preacher and was 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 note that many of DiShan’s formative years as an emerging adult were spent as a “First Lady” (pastor’s wife). Depending on the church’s context & relationship to patriarchal norms, this would indicate both learning & practicing wifely subservience, dependence, & service to God, the church, & their husband above all else (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 [of sex]. How do I get Christian women to remove the stigma that being erotic was sinful.”

If we look through a Black feminist lens, we can see certain themes emerging in her specific story and sociocultural context (4). It also helps us understand how tricky the perceived binary of holy and horny is, particularly from DiShan’s context.

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).

However, the rhetoric of the online symposium fell short of that goal. (Yepp, I watched it). 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 (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 in 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.

Feature: Sojourner Zenobia, Healer & Performing Artist

I met Sojourner Zenobia during one of the community events she curates called Stillness: A Meditation for Women & Femmes of Color. It was my first time engaging in group meditation (of any kind) and it was certainly my first time seeing something so targeted towards my own sociocultural identities. This was back in July… and I have barely missed one of her meditations since that time. Sojourner has helped to facilitate for so many women / femmes of color (myself included) “a spiritual return”. From Sojourner, I learned that there was space to dig deeper into my individual self, spiritual self, and sociocultural self – at the same damn time!

It is in this moment, given the shit-show of this current election season and all of the feelings that are surrounding the upcoming inauguration, that I find Sojourner’s words to be incredibly helpful and timely. So, I want to e-introduce ya’ll to a woman who has become a sister and teacher to me this year. [Text below is largely her own, to preserve the intent behind her words].

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SOJOURNER ZENOBIA began practicing Samatha (peaceful abiding) meditation in 2004 at Naropa University a Buddhist inspired school. In 2006, Sojourner received a BFA in Interdisciplinary Performance and a minor in Buddhist studies. She has studied vipassana (insight meditation) at Amaravati, a Theravadan Monastery in England. She currently a resident artist at Life Force Arts Center in Chicago where she studies energy work through strengthening ancestor/guide relationships and vision journeys. She facilitates a bi-monthly meditation for women and femmes of color at the Shambhala Center in Chicago’s West Loop.

As noted above, her work  in both guided meditation and performance art centers women and femmes of color. She notes:

“I have been in ‘spiritual’,’New Age’ communities since 2004. These communities, more often than not, are populated by white people who have no consciousness of anyone else’s experience but their own. Spiritual practices tend to center the individual – this leads to the valuing of one’s own bliss over dismantling any ingrained perceptions and actions that are oppressive to marginalized groups. Since there are generally only one or two token people of color (POC) in these spaces it might seem that there is no need to expand ones understanding of spirituality beyond a personal agenda – which is projected onto the world as a “saving grace”. Often, if token POC have anything to say about their personal experience (and sociocultural realities), they get into a cycle of having to convince masses of white people in this community that a) they are telling the truth and that b) the white spiritual bubble will need to change completely in order to actually have an impact on anyone other than themselves…

I left these communities highly traumatized and with a damaged sense of self worth. This is why I create spaces where ain’t none of that”.

*(This is where your friendly narrator-blogger pauses to snap and YAAAHHHS all over the screen)
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Sojourner finds inspiration for her performance art and meditation practice through / from formative life experiences:

“I grew up in white spaces. I had one particular ‘last straw’ experience and I looked around saw that I was surrounded by whiteness. I was very hurt. I read bell hooks’,Rock My Soul: Black People and Self Esteem and it revealed everything I had ever felt about being the token black my whole life. I embarked on a healing journey that included the trauma of my mothers lineage around self worth and power. I decided that I wanted to cultivate my art and my spirituality to hold space for my black self. In doing this, I can offer my findings to black and brown femmes who are deepening their own self healing work.

The Stillness Women and Femmes of Color meditation is a place where women and femmes can come and workshop themselves. I do have very clear ideas about the mind. I do believe that silent meditation is a clear and effective way to know how our minds work. When we can see that, we have more options beyond habitual patterns. However, I also don’t like telling people what to do in regards to their spirituality. I think there are infinite ways that people can talk to spirit. No person has the same experience of being in a body. So, this combination of training the mind and opening to spirit gives us access to our inner worlds.

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Sojourner Zenobia, in performance mode!

I think our bodies hold all of the wisdom! All of the secrets! In our world, we (especially brown and black bodies) are forbidden from going inward unless it is in a way that is super controlled through religion or media. I want to give our bodies back to ourselves. I hold spaces where women and femmes can listen deeper than we ever do to “The woman who whispers”- Luisah Teish. We sit in meditation, light candles, draw our hearts, ask questions to grandmothers, write letters to past selves and fall in love with breath. I hope people will grow this space of creative self and community love. It will give us ways, never seen before to protest, love, express, resist and evolve.

Her advice to readers is something I will also follow – ESPECIALLY in the weeks, months, and (4) years to come. It is:

Pause.
Slow down.
Cut your pace in half.
take your bath.
restore…
These slower places are where spirit comes to us.

dismantle busy-ness. If possible, make self-care a part of what is making you “busy.”

The inner voice will scream.
Loud
everyday, telling us what we need.
If we never slow down, listen with them, create with them
we lose the opportunity
to become who we came here to be.

To learn more about Sojourner Zenobia and her practice, visit http://www.sojournerzenobia.com/

Click here for more information on / to get involved with Stillness Meditation for Women and Femmes of Color.

A Womanist Album Review: Jazmine Sullivan’s Reality Show

I’m crafting up some fresh new blog posts for you all & can’t wait to share them! As you know, a part of my mission is:

  • To encourage, inspire, & empower readers to thrive in spite of systems that are not inherently set up for their success & affirmation.
  • To offer information, ideas, & counter-cultural narratives  towards these purposes.

Last week, I carried that mission over to ForHarriet.com, and posted about the system of arts & entertainment. The focus of the piece was Jazmine Sullivan’s latest & brilliant work, “Reality Show”. This piece was specifically important for me to review, as Sullivan unpacks some really deep womanist themes in her work & provides a landscape of the realities of a number of Black women in America today. Check out my review here!

Image credit: ForHarriet.com