Sexuality in Color: The Jezebel, Grandmother Willow, and Sexual Racism

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A few weeks ago, I dedicated a post to: "every person of color who's ever had the vision of an exotic sex goddess or a sideshow attraction or a hunk of meat slapped on top on of their bodies." In rereading that sentence, it struck me that's a pretty weighty statement, even with context, and it deserves some dedicated time in which we specifically address the intersections of cultural understandings of sexuality and racist stereotypes.

In order to provide a framework for thinking about these things, I'd like to borrow a core concept from the Our Whole Lives sex education curriculum, which states: Every human being is inherently sexual, from birth to death. To what degree a person is sexual is absolutely individually-defined, and some people may not feel particularly sexual at all. But all of us are born with some sexual anatomy, and almost immediately after birth we begin to be inundated with social and cultural messages about gender and sexuality.

This understanding of each individual as a sexual being fits on a spectrum — with hypersexualization (in which a majority of a person's perceived identity and worth is based on their potential sexual value) on one end, and desexualization (in which a person is not considered to be of any sexual nature or value) on the other. Most people who occupy dominant positions in society fall in the middle range between these two extremes; sexuality is a part of their lived experience, but they have many other facets of their character/identity that make their existence valuable.

You may have already heard of hypersexualization as an issue that pertains to adolescent and teenage girls in the media and pop culture industries. Ellen Friedrichs over at Everyday Feminism put it best when she said: "The element of force — applied physically, psychologically, and through the inescapable onslaught of media messages — is a key component of the sexualization of children." It's not just that young people are being exposed to messages about sex or sexuality, but also that these sexual characteristics are being forced on them. These messages often rely on strict and oppressive gender roles and stereotypes, which reduce these individuals to merely sexualized caricatures of themselves. Think ads with children in heels and sexually suggestive poses. Think pacifiers that say "Hunk" and "Flirt." Think onesies that say "lock up your daughters." Yikes.

On the flipside, desexualization occurs when the sexual aspects of a person's identity and experiences are erased because of the way that "people like them" are viewed by the privileged majority. Ageism fuels the most ubiquitous example of desexualization; elderly (or even just not-young) people are considered to be "out of their sexual prime" and their sexualities are rarely addressed or acknowledged in popular media (or if they are, the focus is usually about problems with decreased sexual feelings or "performance"). Commonly shared notions about age and sex operate as if a person's sexuality decreases directly proportionally to how many years have passed since they were 16, when in reality, sexual experiences and feelings are present in various capacities throughout a person's life. Disabled people are the other major targets of desexualization — the privileged majority tends to leave these people out of the "sexual beings" category because of obsession with (and fear of) difference. There are way too many instances of jokes on TV about whether or not "the equipment downstairs" works for people who use wheelchairs. Ugh.

But we're here to talk about more than just the effects of forcing sexuality on young people, and desexualizing people who aren't considered to be part of the large population of "desirables." We're here to talk about how hypersexualization and desexualization work hand-in-hand with racist stereotypes and fetishization to create a slimy intersectional uber-monster: sexual racism. Let's take a second to think about some of the most pervasive sexual stereotypes that have to do with race. How many times have you heard or seen the following stereotypes in advertising, social media posts, and in music and film?

Black men have bigger penises/higher sex drive. This myth is one of many antiquated and horrifying ideas that sprouted out of the scientific racism of the pre-slavery era, in which black men were considered to be less human and more animalistic than their white counterparts. On more than one occasion these beliefs contributed to falsely accuse and convict black men for the rape and/or assault of white women (Emmett Till, the Scottsboro boys, and Walter Lett, whose trial inspired the semi-biographical To Kill A Mockingbird). This also contributes to harmful narratives about black men being inherently violent, aggressive, and dangerous, which in turn leads to systematic violence against black men through police shootings and mass incarceration.

Young women of color (especially Native, Black, and Latina women) are seen as "exotic", sexualized "goddesses." Conversely, Asian women are often seen as quiet, passive, and sexually submissive. While it may seem like a compliment to call out a woman of color as particularly beautiful, promiscuous, or sexy, it also robs them of their own agency in their sexuality. It puts all kinds of pressure on that individual to behave a certain way (which often includes sexual servitude to white men). These stereotypes are particularly present in the pornography industry, in which an entire category called "Interracial Porn" dedicates itself to capitalizing on these stereotypes. I'm not going to link to these examples, but suffice to say that the titles are peppered with terms like "mandingo," "geisha girls," and "spicy Latina," in order to capitalize on these racist notions of the sexualities and bodies of people of color.

Asian men have smaller than average penises or are considered to be sexually impotent. Slightly older women of color from all backgrounds are seen as maternal figures who have little to no sexuality as compared to their younger counterparts. These stereotypes may seem like they come out of nowhere, but they all have at their core ideas about POC bodies and experiences being different (and less desirable) than those of whites. Similar to the Jezebels and "studs" of hypersexualization, folks who are desexualized have their multifacetedness as individuals stripped down and replaced with a racial archetype. Asian men, for example, are popularly seen as intellectual, effeminate, and unable to be as sexually aggressive as white men or other men of color. Women of color are automatically cast into the role of the strong, enduring caretaker (think Sacagawea, or the mammy figures of the South), or the wise old woman/healer (think Grandmother Fa from Mulan, or even Grandmother Willow from Pocahontas). Although these women may be a part of romantic or sexual relationships, the narrative that surrounds them does not often focus on their sexualities, or makes a joke out of them (see Grandmother Fa's jokes about handsome young men that Mulan interacts with).

These are the representations that we see of ourselves in popular media every day. These harmful messages dictate how we as people of color come to understand our own sexual identities, as well as how others perceive and interact with us. Navigating the development of a sexual identity as an adolescent is hard enough by itself, without having to grapple with a history of your people being objectified, sexualized, and subjected to sexual violence simply for having a different skin color or body type. And just as the hypersexualization/desexualization phenomenon gets more complicated when we think about it through the lens of race and gender, we also have to acknowledge all the other identity categories and lived experiences through which people of color are made to experience prejudice and systemic oppression. What about the bodies of people of color who share multiple identities? What about people of color who are queer, poor, disabled, and/or immigrants? What kinds of messages do we read, hear, and see about their sexual value in popular culture? How are their experiences and identities erased? How are people at opposite ends of the sexual spectrum (hypsersexualized and desexualized) pitted against each other?

Things are getting better on this front, I will admit. There is more and more positive representation of people of color in popular media than ever before, and there are movements and activists all over the world trying to combat the racist stereotypes that are placed onto their bodies and sexualities (the folks over at the Unapologetically Brown Series or The Body is Not An Apology or Rest for Resistance!). But as fellow people of color and allies of people of color, we need to do more to call out instances of sexual racism when we see them, and we can only do that if we understand the underlying beliefs below this prejudice. For as long as there's an "Interracial" category of porn (and long after that), we need to continue these conversations about projecting racist sexual notions onto the bodies of color, so that every individual is able to develop a healthy sense of sexual self, free from prejudice, erasure, and harmful stereotypes.

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! Queer and trans writers of color of varied abilities and experiences are always strongly encouraged to apply.