"We compare our lives to the stories we know."
Few things are as gratifying as a good conversation with trusted women friends. Finding time for it, though, is a struggle. Unscheduled time is such a luxury that when I do manage to connect with my women friends, we usually work it around something else we both have or want to do: eating a meal, exercising, shopping, getting a manicure, scheduling a book club session. But no matter where or why we meet, we end up talking about sex, intimacy, and relationships. It is as if since the last time we spoke with each other we have been holding our breath, and only with each other do we have a proper place to let it go. We desperately need to hear and tell. We are always surprised at how similar some of our intimate circumstances are and hang on each other's every word to find out how the other has handled it.
We are looking not only for reflection but also for affirmation, advice, and a space to hear our side of the story told without taking into account someone else's agenda, needs, or expectations. And yet the stories we tell and the frustrated questions raised by us and by many women are not without connection to these surrounding forces. Why can't I find a decent partner? Why is it that I work forty hours out of the house and another twenty at home and then he wants to know why I don't feel like having sex at 11 p.m.? How is it that even the over-forty women on TV, straight and gay, are considered attractive only when they weigh 120 pounds or less? Why does it take me thirty minutes to have an orgasm (now that I know what it is) while he can have one during commercials? Was that fight we had really domestic violence? Why does enthusiasm for my career take away from my children but my partner's career enhances them?
As numerous black women know, many of these heartfelt concerns have racial dimensions. How is our sense of sexual belonging affected by the fact that the desirable women over forty on TV are all skinny and almost always white? Why can't I find a black man to date? Should we break up over his cheating, and if we do, will I ever find another decent black man? Will my family disown me if I date outside the race? How will I find another black gay lover in this town, since I already know them all? Why did my doctor assume I was a single mother when I went in for prenatal care? I know my man has it tough out there as a brother, but why do I feel that I always have to absorb and care for his injuries as well as my own to keep this relationship going?
The stories behind these questions are rarely heard in our everyday lives, even though our society is fixated on issues of race and sexuality. In our popular culture, we are bombarded by stories about sex and romance, but we almost never hear what black women have to say. The sexual stories that black women long to tell are being told in beauty parlors, kitchens, health clubs, restaurants, malls, and laundry rooms, but a larger, more accessible conversation for all women to share and from which to learn has not yet begun. As will become evident in the stories that follow, sisters have kept quiet in public for ample reasons, even though there is so much to be gained from sharing these stories widely.
"Audre Lorde is one of my sheroes, and I don't believe that silence will save us . . . I work at the juvenile court, and daily I see sisters dying from the silence, and it's painful. So my belief is that the more of us talk about it, the better. (Rhonda, 35)
Many of the women whose stories are gathered here discuss their fears of being sexually misseen and misheard. As twenty-two-year-old Veronica says, "At times I question being open about sex. I question whether people compute that and use words like 'promiscuous' that I think are linked to this idea that black women are jungle things, that we are sexual people, the way we dance, the way we move."
Simply telling one's story isn't simple at all. Black women's sexual lives, like those of many women, sometimes involve abuse and mistreatment at the hands of men. For black women, though, this means making public statements about black men that might serve to support stereotypical images of black men as violent, dysfunctional, and criminal. Black women's sexual lives are pinned between the powerful uses of distorted myths about black sexuality to fuel racist, demeaning stories about black men and women and the sexuality myths used to maintain the subordination of women as a whole. The afterword explores in greater depth some of these myths and the silences they have provoked.
How silences are broken is as important as breaking them. Sexual storytelling generally follows two approaches, neither of which can properly counter the historical forces that shape black women's sexuality. In the first, the author-expert frames bits and pieces of women's sexual stories around a central thesis. In this approach, we can see how a selected group of women has grappled with a specific issue or circumstance. While this helps us to see similarities across a wide group of people and provides insight into our similarities and differences, it breaks up the stories into fragments that are animated through the analysis the author provides, rather than appreciating them for their own logic and form. We do not hear the women's voices in all their glorious, sometimes contradictory, complexity. Nor do we see how elements of the story work together or come apart. Cutting up such intimate stories into bits and pieces repeats a kind of silencing even as it claims to give voice.
The second approach involves placing sexual stories in what I call "Story containers" such as "rape victim," "incest survivor," "married woman," "single mother," "lesbian," "virgin," and "prostitute." Aspects of sex or sexual parts such as stories about "the vagina" or "losing one's virginity" have also become popular framing devices. Although they have been helpful in bringing denied experiences, quietly held sexist stigmas, and crimes into public view by isolating and illuminating them, they give us a neat and sometimes one-dimensional understanding of how sex and sexuality are experienced. Defining a sexual life by enclosing it within any of these containers may be reassuring, but makes it difficult to understand the complexity of women's sexual experiences.
It is impossible to understand a woman's coming-of-age experiences without having a sense of the larger contexts that shape them, such as family dynamics, expectations surrounding gender and sexuality, economic and educational circumstances, religion, race, color, and weight. If a woman tells the story of losing her virginity, then aspects of her life such as how she was raised, how expectations were communicated, and perhaps what her religious beliefs were become crucial to any understanding. Using simplistic categories may also encourage women who are looking for a way to express difficult experiences to grasp at the most socially acceptable label for their experience, thus collapsing complex and important aspects of their sexuality into this master narrative. It could be the case that a "single mother" might also be a "rape victim" and she was also likely at some point a "virgin." How do we tell a story that moves across so many labels, as all of our lives do? And, most important, how can we given the histories of manipulation, fragmentation, and denial of space for black women's own sexual stories in good conscience subject black women's sexual narratives to these fragmenting strategies?
The stories you will read in Longing to Tell are presented to limit this kind of fragmentation, to allow the stories to move relatively freely, and to link sexuality to everyday life. Rhonda, for example, a lesbian/dyke who survived incest abuse, has also survived drug addiction, is finishing law school, has had an abortion, hopes to be a mother, is in a loving relationship, and is a committed social activist. It is my hope that such an approach makes it more difficult to caricature black women's sexual lives, or to force these women's stories into powerful yet destructive images and assumptions. It is my hope, too, that readers will be able to see just how central race is as a defining force in black women's sexuality and yet also see similarities among women despite racial differences. Unable to rely on easy labels, the reader, I hope, will come to the stories with fewer assumptions.
I approached my conversations with these women as an open process that generally centered on their sexual experiences and reflections. My questions were primarily about their individual experiences, but I also asked them about their perceptions of larger issues in society relating to race, gender, and sexuality. I deliberately avoided using a fixed list of questions, and chose a topical, conversational style that touched on key areas. I asked questions about their background and why they wanted to participate in such a dialogue. Then I asked questions about intimacy, how they learned about sex and sexuality, masturbation, orgasms, the experience of first menstruation, virginity, pregnancy, and motherhood; about sexual abuse, race and its import for sex, sexism, sexual fantasy, and regret. The shape of the actual questions emerged from the conversations; many times, the women told stories that included these topics long before I thought to ask.
Copyright © 2003 Tricia Rose
have done us all a great service. (Naomi Wolf, author of The Beauty Myth) about who we love and what we desire. . ." (Barbra Smith, author of The Truth That Never Hurts: Writings on Race, Gender, and Freedom)