Sexuality in Color, Rebooted
Let's face it - the U.S. is a difficult place to live in right now for people of color.
(Just right now? you say. Well, in addition to every instance before the current moment, I reply. But also very much right now.)
On one hand, we face systematic oppression through overt actions (the Muslim ban, the border wall, Flint's water crisis, Standing Rock, and the ongoing attacks on and increasing hurdles to reproductive justice to name a few), and on the other we go through daily life experiencing countless incidents of subtle prejudice and bias that gradually wear down our bodies, minds, and souls. Not to mention the various intersecting oppressions that color in our identities and make experiences that much harder to process and parse out. It can be incredibly overwhelming to try and contextualize one's own place among regular tragedies, white supremacy, and social injustice, much less figure out how to function and take care of yourself on a daily basis.
So in light of all of this, why start a conversation specifically about POC sexuality, sexual relationships, and sexual health?
I was eleven, and had just started my period. I remember reading and rereading a book called The Care and Keeping of You, published by American Girl. I had gotten my period for the first time, and was just beginning to get the hang of putting a tampon in by myself. One day, I decided that I wanted to take a look at my parts in the mirror the way that my book had told me to do. And being a child, I remember getting naked and clambering up onto the bathroom counter to look at the ol' vulva in the mirror. And lo and behold, I saw my vulva for the first time.. and was devastated.
It didn't look like the one in the book.
There were lips! There were folds! It looked squishy and gross! And unlike Chelsea, the red-headed girl whose vulva I was remembering, my inner parts didn't comprise of a tiny pink oval with two dots in it. (Not to mention, when I tried inserting a tampon for the first time, I most certainly didn't share the all-knowing serene womanhood that she seemed to have.) After staring, poking, and prodding, I pulled up my pants and I ran to my mom, crying, because I thought that I was dirty. That's right - in my adolescent mind, the big brown nipples and brownish-pinkish labia I saw in the mirror were something that was wrong with me.
It was just another way, I was beginning to realize, that I didn't look like the white and pink, clean, innocent, freckled girls on TV and in magazines. Luckily for me, my mom was kind and supportive (and probably fielded this conversation before with an older sibling), and she reassured me that there was nothing wrong, and that that just had to do with the color of my skin. That she had brown nipples, that my grandma did, and that her grandma's grandma did as well. And while it reassured me for the moment, I can't help but feel a twinge of that same terror every time I am naked with a partner. What if they think I'm too hairy, too fat, too dirty? What if these stretch marks (normal), ingrown hairs (normal), dark labia (normal) aren't what they want?
But, slowly but surely, I am learning to undo these assumptions, and I can only do that when I see actual representation of bodies like mine. While American Girl did their best to represent different stages of development, body types, and skin colors in their book, when it came to my first exposure to a depiction of a vulva, I was left with some pretty confusing ideas of what I was supposed to look like. It wasn't until later on, when my parents showed me It's Perfectly Normal, did I see myself reflected among a full-page spread of different types of bodies, skin colors, and genitals. And it wasn't until I started coming regularly to Scarleteen that I started to realize just how much experiences of bodies, sex, and sexuality vary from person to person, and, which is more, that talking about this stuff is something that I'm really passionate about.
A lot of damage can be done when people don't see themselves represented in the media they consume, especially when it comes to forming early ideas about one's own body and sexuality. Those negative images or misperceptions about what's "normal" are another form of misrepresentation and isolation that we can carry with us for life, alongside the more obvious instances of racialized sexism, abuse, and assault. Conversely, there's a lot of freedom and healing to be had when folks are finally able to access information and content that affirms and addresses as wide of a spectrum as possible of bodies, identities, and experiences. At Scarleteen, we're committed to empowerment and education centered around a holistic and positive view of the self, and part of that commitment means giving extra time to acknowledge and signal boost the experiences of folks who are, at best, left out, and at worst, whose rights to everything from bodily integrity to expression of of unique identity and experience are systematically denied and erased.
That's why I'm excited to announce an effort to revitalize Scarleteen's Sexuality in Color series, with a focus on highlighting and amplifying the voices and experiences of people of color through a weekly curated list of resources from across the net (and world) that focus on sex, relationships, and sexuality. We have a diverse group of staff and volunteers at Scarleteen that spans across lived racial experiences, but we always want to make more space for the experiences of people of color in our conversations on our site whenever we can. In this current incarnation of Sexuality in Color -- curated by myself, a queer person of color -- we'll be dedicating every Sunday to featuring articles and resources here that focus on the experiences on women, queer and/or trans people of color, by and for women, queer and/or trans people of color.
To start this reboot off, a poem from the folks over at the The Unapologetically Brown Series:
don't forget /
when your crown hangs low /
when they tug at your sleeve asking you for more
when you feel alone /
when your voice shakes & you're feeling low /
look inside yourself
you are more than they know
covering the streets with your
The Unapologetically Brown Series is a series of visuals and videos created by Johanna Toruño, a self-identified "Brown girl" and Salvadoran visual artist based in NYC. Her mission is to try to "empower POC communities by any means necessary". Check out their instagram to see more beautiful and life-validating work.
Also, Sister Song, one of our favorite resources, just celebrated their 20th anniversary of their founding at the Let's Talk About Sex conference in New Orleans. They're a network of women of color dedicated to securing reproductive justice through fighting for every person's right to access and make their own reproductive choices, as well as have them respected. Sister Song provides trainings, resources, and guidance to women of color who are leaders in the field of sex education, and all sorts of opportunities for outside folks to learn more about comprehensive reproductive justice and get involved. Check out the hashtag #SisterSongTaughtMe on Twitter to learn more about these folks' good work.
Today's blog post is short and sweet, but be sure to tune in next week for more things that would had made a younger, sitting-in-front-of-the-mirror version of al very, very happy.
Know of a blog, organization, or resource that belongs here? Send it to our curator, Al (that's me!), at al AT scarleteen DOT com.
Interested in contributing as a guest writer for our Sexuality in Color series, or any other part of Scarleteen? Check out our information for writers and then take it from there! Experienced queer and trans writers of color of varied abilities and experiences are always strongly encouraged to apply.