There seems to be confusion about what a “sexually liberated woman” is these days . No one seems to be more confused than Kiely Willams, but I digress. Particularly among black women, even those of us who are aware of the role that labels such as “slut”, “jezebel” and “freak” have in our oppression, we are not given many other options. If the media is to be our guide, we are either over-sexed rump-shakers or under-sexed “ladies” who pride success more than companionship and, according to various publications and media outlets, are paying for it with loneliness.
It doesn’t help that this oppressive binary regarding sex is reinforced by women ourselves. Even the most progressive of us are vulnerable to these pressures. Last summer, I was visiting my best friend and her other best friend, who we’ll call Carmen. I didn’t know Carmen very well, but I figured any friend of my best friend was a friend of mine, right? We had interests in common, and she was fun and edgy. I was beaming with the glow of having made a new friend-until we were kicked out of a private party because Carmen was caught having sex with at least two other people in the host’s bathroom.
As we stood on the steps outside of the party, I was embarrassed. Not for being ousted out of the party, but for the wave of judgment I felt towards Carmen. Me, the first one to stand up to people who throw around terms like “slut” “whore” and “buss-down” (A Chi-town favorite), was judging this woman for having different views on sex from me. Even worse, I feared that being friends with someone with more liberated views on sex would reflect badly on me. If your friend gets down a certain way, do people assume that you get down that way as well? Moreover, why is that a bad thing? Why, after so many decades of fighting for gender equality, do some of us still care what people think about our sex lives? I wanted to see if these were just my hang-ups. A survey of 56 women, ranging in age from 24 to 57, predominately black/African American (75 percent) gave me the following insights on the connection between our friendships with other women and our sex lives:
- Most women talk with their friends about their sex lives, either “Sometimes” (48 percent). “Frequently” (26 percent) or “Always” (4 percent).
- 67 percent said that they have judged a female friend for their sexual choices.
- Over 78 percent of women said that they have the same sexual values as their friends.
- The majority of women (56 percent) said that they don’t feel that the behavior of friends has an impact on their sexual reputation, but only 2 percent said that they didn’t care about their sexual reputation in the first place.
When asked what kind of situations elicited judgment towards their friends, the responses has similar themes:
Unsafe sex: Any friend (especially my best friend) who engages in unprotected sex, whether in a relationship or not, is an idiot.
Having relationships with married men: I have a friend who has sex with married men. She’s always talking about guys are no good but yet in still she doesn’t look herself in the mirror. Your perception is your reality so if you are constantly messing around with guys who are unavailable then that’s all you are going to meet.
Casual sex: Before I became sexually active, I judged my friend for having sex with men who she was not in a relationship with or interested in being in a relationship. My opinions on this have since changed after becoming sexually active.
Using sex as an ego boost: A certain person I used to associate myself (with) would not only validate herself through men and sex, but then became very proud of how much “ass” she got and the variety. This made me uncomfortable because she was seen as a harlot, and we, in this case, did (not) share the same values. We are no longer friends because of another situation, involving a man.
When looking at the results, I realized that my judgment didn’t come from a need to put Carmen in a category, or out of the desire to appear more chaste than her. Like the women who participated in this survey, I was concerned about what was behind the need to be sexual in such a public and casual manner. I wondered if Carmen was truly liberated, or was her liberation a cage itself?
It’s important for women to remember that terms such as “whore” and “slut” not only diminish female sexuality; these terms are manifestations of a patriarchal society that wants to separate the “good” women from the “bad” women. In heterosexual relationships, it means that “good” women get stable, sex-starved marriages and “bad” women get sexual freedom, but not a commitment. For black women, this binary thinking regarding sexuality still impacts us the same way is did during slavery by justifying the mental, physical and sexual abuse of women who are deemed “over-sexed.”
Women, like men, are sexual beings. Women, like men, make mistakes and need the people who love them to help them see clearly. And women, like men, need to have honest and open dialogues about sex with their friends that are about solutions, not categories.