The Archiving of Black Women’s Sexual Lives

(Charlotte Cooper, Flickr)

On November 1, 2016, Ro Elori Cutno shared a picture to her Facebook profile that eventually went viral. The post included a black background with white, blue, and pink text that read, “I feel shocked & hurt by the number of ‘black’ women who argue that they want to work while married; when historically we were not allowed to not work, be provided for by a husband, BE FEMININE, nor focus on loving our own family full time! Only centuries of oppression and brainwashing can explain this. We dishonor the torture of our great-grandparents+! WIFE SCHOOL this Saturday!” A month earlier, Amber Rose hosted her second annual SlutWalk on October 1 in downtown Los Angeles. The mission statement of the SlutWalk says it is “geared toward raising awareness about sexual injustice, domestic violence, and gender inequality;” media visuals of the event focus on participants’ clothing amid claims of public indecency. Initially known as the former girlfriend of Kanye West, Amber Rose has grown her presence within the entertainment industry to include sex-positive feminist activism, including her yearly SlutWalk. A former exotic dancer, Rose has received much vitriol concerning her sexual politics and how her feminism influences her raising of her son.

Ro Elori Custo, a Facebook personality whose posts were widely shared during 2016 and 2017, is known for her “Wife School,” a lifestyle seminar that also includes print materials instructing women on how to be a proper, respectable, and engaging wife. It is important that figures such as Amber Rose and Ro Elori Custo can both thrive on social media with large, diverse followings. Recognizing that each of these women, and indeed each woman throughout the world, has differing lived experiences along the lines of sex and sexuality is central to a cornerstone of my research: doing away with the dichotomy between the respectable and the supposedly transgressive or perverse. These words have been used to characterize actions and figures for decades, but do not come close to the true complexity of Black women’s navigation of sex.

Historically, Black women’s sexuality has been characterized alongside a victimology of unfettered rape, forced marriage and pregnancy, and classed responses to respectability. Archives and historical texts are rife with this characterization. Recently, numerous theorists and historians have shown us the possibilities of finding sexual agency and pleasure in historical contexts we have assumed to be rife with degradation. Jennifer Nash’s Black Body in Ecstasy: Reading Race, Reading Pornography pushes its reader to look at moments and spaces of agency and pleasure for Black female subjects within pornographic films from the 1970s and 80s. Mireille Miller-Young’s work A Taste for Brown Sugar: Black Women in Pornography introduces her theory of “illicit eroticism” to examine individual choices as acts of resistance, no matter how small, on the part of Black women within the adult entertainment industry since the 1980s. Miller-Young’s analysis uses interviews and firsthand accounts while Nash’s depends upon methods of media analysis rooted in Black feminist theory.

The first and foremost question I ask when looking at studies such as these is, “What might be possible in future historical accounts if historians and theorists such as these women had a robust sexual archive?” Social media makes this a plausible reality. I hope to work within similar theoretical frameworks as Nash, Miller-Young, and others to analyze social media as a medium within which archives can preserve understandings of Black women’s sexuality through their own voices. If we look at social media and digital spaces as sites of cultural production, then presences on these sites are aspects of cultural understandings and participation. Social media can therefore function as a window into the lived experiences of Black women in ways that have been largely invisible within historical archives.

My research asks questions of the creation of historical archives, paying close attention to the absence of Black women’s voices concerning their own physical and sexual pleasure. I want to ask what can be done to ensure that the archive being created each day within the twenty-first century does not have these gaps. Though we tend to not think of history as the current moment, it is important to think of the present as history making, and to ask how we can chronicle the day to day to ensure the gaps found in historical archives and texts are not being recreated continuously throughout our present and future. Social media is an opportunity to engage with Black women’s agency and sexual politics in a way not seen in most historical archives. It can be used to show the variety of ways that Black women have engaged with, discussed, and navigated their own experiences with sex and the opinions of others concerning their sex lives and sexuality. This research will not depend upon a rhetoric of progress and therefore will pay heed not only to discussions of sexual freedom and progressive politics, but also those that we consider to be “respectable.” It is my hope that by fully reckoning with the contributions that social media could have to archives in terms of autobiographical data, that we can find a method by which to preserve this information and create archives within which Black women’s voices can thrive and survive the tests of time.

In the case of both Amber Rose and Ro Elori Cutno, their words and the public’s responses to their views have been memorialized across social media platforms. Though Cutno’s post itself has less than 100 shares, screenshots of the post were shared widely across Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr with a variety of captions. Most of these captions outline the poster/responder’s own views concerning sex, marriage, wifehood, and respectability. Due to this, Cutno’s post is not just a window into her own sexual politics, but also the politics of those that engage with it. Her responders’ disagreement or support is a part of their own social media autobiographical data, creating a web of engagement. The same could be said for Amber Rose’s SlutWalk, Instagram posts, and postings on other platforms. By navigating these webs of engagement and archiving such instances over the social media lifespan of an individual, scholars could map out a longitudinal analysis of an individual’s sexual politics. One must also remember that there are numerous social media platforms, all with their own streamlined uses and intended audiences. If we expand our understanding of social media outside of just the Big Three (Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook) and look at political platforms like Gab, a platform that advocates for free speech and is home to many conservative political personalities, or FetLife, a platform intended to be a safe meeting and social space for those involved in BDSM, a new world of possibilities for examining social and sexual politics comes to light. Such resources cannot be left behind in our rush to digital humanities and the preservation of online profiles.

I see technology and the cultural spaces it creates as both the present and the future. It is my hope that we look at social media presences, personas, posts, comments, and all other assets as not only possibilities within future archives but as necessities. I hope to have the ability to donate both papers and records of my online presence to an institution, as I recognize that one will be unable to fully piece together who I am, my growth and existence as a Black woman, my ideas of race, sex, gender, sexuality and everything else if future scholars are only able to find my paper trail. For archives to be truly full of Black women’s voices, the ability to contribute must cross class, region, sexual preference, political affiliations, and all other aspects. It is my hope that work within this field will inspire archives to bridge gaps and find women reaching out for their voices to be heard.

*This piece grew out of a workshop on blogging organized by graduate students in the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at UMass who met with editors of Black Perspectives to craft these pieces. 

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Yelana Sims

Yelana Sims is from Spartanburg, S.C. She received her B.A. in African American and Diaspora Studies from Vanderbilt University and her M.A. in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies from George Washington University. Her interests include Black female sexuality, gender and sexual performativity within social media and popular culture, as well as modern iterations of respectability politics. She has received the REAL fellowship from the University and is on the literature and culture track. Follow her on Twitter @yelanasims.

Comments on “The Archiving of Black Women’s Sexual Lives

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    Amazing, Yelana! I have so many questions for you as a fellow researcher… one is how will you investigate the question of “liberated expressions of sexuality” (patricia Hill Collins) and sex life? Black women’s own voice expressing what they think or do does not necessarily mean they embrace or practice liberation. Historically, there has been so much taboo around black women’s sexuality (for good and not so good reasons). Historically, There has been so many ways in which “being respectable” was not only desirable but also strategic. Are you developing a diaspora framework for your research? I am so looking forward to learn more about where your research will do! From fellow UMASS amherst AFROAM, Dr. Flavia Araújo. Axé!

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