Time and time again we’re faced with the same images of black women – not as doctors, not as philanthropists, not as artists or creators… but as voluptuous asses and heavy breasts. That’s how we’re seen. Or at least that’s how we’re supposed to look.
I was first met with this image when I was just 11 or 12 years old and had just started high school. Immediately, the boys expected me and the other black girls to have the bodies of the models, porn stars and celebrities that they had seen on social media. We were 12.
This just shows how ingrained the sexual image of the black, female body is in society. That’s all they expected from us and when we didn’t deliver (because again… we were twelve years old), we had absolutely no value. We didn’t deserve their respect or attention.
What Is Hyper-Sexualisation?
What does it mean to be sexualised? Sexualisation is to make a character, quality or feature sexual in nature. All women experience sexualisation. Society sees womanhood as solely for a man’s entertainment and satisfaction.
Sexual objectification just takes it one step further. Objectification involves reducing an entire group/person to their most sexually desired feature(s).
For black women, this has led to hyper-sexualisation. White men attach sexual value to black women’s race. This attempts to justify their objectification of womanhood. Black women’s experience with sexualisation goes beyond the confines of womanhood to the point where our experiences with racism and sexism are not mutually exclusive. We must consider black women’s history of racial oppression if we’re going to address sexual oppression.
Black women suffer ‘marginalisation by objectification’. The stereotypes and false images of black women create a social expectation of how black women are supposed to behave. When we fit those stereotypes, we’re supposed to remain silent and comply with the orders thrown at us. But when we don’t meet people’s expectations they refuse to listen anyway. Society silences our voices even before we speak.
How Are Black Women Portrayed?
So, how are black women viewed and what are these stereotypes? Historically, there is a variety – all are degrading and all are designed to promote anti-blackness by the media.
The ‘Jezebel’ is the pinnacle of sexual stereotypes for black women. The Jezebel stereotype is a seductive black woman with no control over her insatiable sexuality. It presents black women as lewd temptresses, willing and accepting of any sexual attention.
Another false image of black women that we see a lot is ‘the matriarch’. The matriarch figure comes from the mythology that black women were “heads of their households”. White male scientists developed the concept after the abolition of slavery and spread by white society.
Due to lower social status, black women worked exhaustingly in low-paying service jobs to provide for their families. Black men were often denied paid work by white employers. As a result, black women were labelled ‘matriarchs’: the head of the house.
Although, this was not the case. This only brainwashed black women into accepting their social, economic, sexual and racial oppression. Black women were convinced they had some form of social power because they were supposedly important to society. However, society continues to disrespect black women at every turn.
Where Do the Stereotypes Come From?
But where does this image come from? During slavery, the Christian ideology from European imperialism saw white women as pure, virginal and innocent. However, this didn’t apply to black women. White men saw black women as temptresses – Jezebels. Lustful and vulgar beings that only provided satisfaction for a white man’s deepest sexual desires.
For this reason, they never applied the crime of rape to black women. White men viewed black women as actively willing participants, regardless of the concept of consent. They felt it was their right to engage in sexual activity with black women whenever they wanted.
White men today are largely the same. The systems of oppression that allowed white men to abuse black women so violently are still very much alive. Sexual abuse was a fear tactic that terrorised slaves into compliance. Today, rape and the threat of sexual abuse still keeps black women subservient to patriarchy and racial hierarchy.
This is true of the majority of women. The threat of sexual assault limits our autonomy. There are hundreds of laws that restrict women’s right to movement and expression, simply because men refuse to control themselves.
Black Women and The Music Industry
In music videos, all the way from Miley Cyrus’ ‘We can’t stop’ to Iggy Azalea’s ‘Work’ to Tyga’s ‘Taste’, black women are used and exploited as sexual placeholders. The black female body is an accessory that people use to translate their sexual desires.
This is extremely common in the rap industry but certainly isn’t exclusive to rap and can be seen in other genres. Rap, RnB and pop are the most mainstream genres at the forefront of the industry. They’re led most popularly by black men and white women. However, the degradation and objectification of black women can be seen in most genres.
Rap was created by black people as a powerful part of our culture but we’re beginning to see how the industry has (in many aspects) created a strong divide between black men and black women. Rap culture constantly sexualises black women to the point of dehumanisation. Black women have about as much of an identity as the Lamborghinis and gold statues we’re positioned next to in these music videos.
Many men in the rap industry continue to disgustingly perpetuated a vile rape culture in their lyrics, manners and attitudes to social issues. Here are a few examples:
Rick Ross – “Put molly all in her champagne, she ain’t even know it, I took her home and I enjoyed that, she ain’t even know it”
Eminem – “you’re the kind of girl that I’d assault, and rape then figure why not try to make your p*ssy wider? Fuck you with an umbrella, then open it up while sh*t’s inside ya”.
Ja Rule – “Point blank in your Range Rover, pistol whip the kids and rape your stray hoe”
Tyler the Creator – “and you call that shit rape but I think that rape’s fun”
Tyler’s character is satire of a demented mind. However, we shouldn’t tolerate jokes about rape. They only promote violent sexual assault by desensitising people to images of sexual violence.
Black men sexually exploit black women. Black men are complicit in their own oppression by appealing to a white male audience. It’s the industry heads (predominantly white men) that earn the majority of the profit made by this exploitation.
Although, when we talk about how the music industry sexualises black women, we can’t fail to mention WAP by Cardi B (feat. Meg Thee Stallion). This song created quite a controversy when it was released and was described as “unnecessarily sexual” and “vulgar”. The issue that most women and black feminists took with this response is the fact that men in the industry have been rapping about the same explicit topics for decades and had no backlash.
Clearly, society expects women to hide their sexuality. From women’s mouths, it’s considered a vulgar and inappropriate topic. For men, society expects an active sex life. So from men’s mouths, it’s naturally respected.
Sexual Liberation for Black Women
There’s quite a debate within the feminist community about the true nature of sexual liberation. For some people, sexual liberation revolves around abstinence and modesty in their clothing, behaviour and conversation. For others, sexual liberation is exactly the opposite and involves embracing sexual desires and natural inclinations.
Both are extremely important. To contextualise the issue, it’s important to ask the question: are black women engaging in the activities of sexual freedom on their own terms? We live in a white supremacist patriarchy and in this environment promiscuity and sexual liberation are exploited. So modesty and abstinence can be very empowering.
On the other hand, women can also find sexual liberation in sexual expression. Cardi and Megan describe their own sexual desires and it’s clear that they know what pleases them. They are two black women that are clearly very secure in their sexuality. A woman who is in sole control of her sexuality and the image of her womanhood is an obvious threat to the system that oppresses her.
One artist, in particular, that has been pivotal for black women’s expression and identity is Beyoncé. One of the only black women, aside from Oprah, who seems to be somewhat in control of her image as a black woman. Beyoncé uses sexuality as her form of sexual liberation to condemn mainstream feminism’s exclusivity and whiteness.
Although, Dr Bell Hooks (a black academic feminist and author of Ain’t I a Woman) described Beyoncé as a “terrorist”. Hooks claims that by using sexuality to represent black womanhood, she perpetuates the harmful images that black women are trying to escape. Beyoncé portrays black women as sexual beings.
So, is she really in control of her own image? It’s important for women to be entirely in control of their own sexuality. Black women should be able to express that in their own authentic manner. However, the sexuality of black women is systemically exploited by white men, white women and black men.
Pornography is a highly significant topic within the entire feminist community. When a person loads that secret tab late at night, they’re prepared to indulge in their deepest and most stimulating sexual fantasies. In preparation for this, most websites and platforms now have a category labelled “Ebony”, dedicated to profiting off of a race fetish.
Generally, when you enter this category, there is a host of deeply offensive stereotypes for both male and female actors. They show black men as thugs, robbers or criminals. They show black women as strippers, prostitutes or ‘baby mamas’. In most porn, someone is physically dominating the black woman.
The porn industry not only perpetuates degrading images of black women but also encourages people to sexually indulge in our oppression.
There are entire websites dedicated to the exploitation of the black body because race fetishes are so popular. This is hyper-sexualisation at its finest. Patriarchy sexualises our womanhood and uses our blackness to dehumanise black women even further. They attach black women’s sexuality to our race. This justifies the sexual abuse and mistreatment of black women by the media.
Within the employment sphere of this industry, there’s a strong pay gap between black and white women. Black women are currently earning 50-75% of what white women earn for the same work. Nikki Darling (an African-American actress) explained “In some ways in mainstream porn there’s this idea that black women aren’t as marketable, that we’re not as innocent as, say, a blonde white girl” in the Independent.
“In some ways in mainstream porn there’s this idea that black women aren’t as marketable, that we’re not as innocent as, say, a blonde white girl.”Nikki Darling
The Commodification of the Black Body
The influence of slavery and hyper-sexualisation reduced black women to physical features. They attached sexual value to these features and labelled black women as hyper-sexual beings. As Iman Cooper states, “the humanity of the black body was ruptured into an object to be bought and sold, in order to satisfy the economic desires of the white slave owners”.
“The humaity of the black body was ruptured into an object to be bought and sold, in order to satisfy the economic desires of white slave owners.”Iman Cooper
Saartjie Baartman was a South African woman in the 18th century. White men enslaved and traded her to exhibit in freak shows because of her large buttocks. White people saw them as an abnormal deformity. They used her body to emphasise the theory that black Africans were hyper-sexual by nature and, therefore, not human.
They reduced black women to products – the economic and sexual property of someone else. This has led to political and social control of black women’s sexuality and reproductive rights.
In the 1950s there was a popular set of swizzle sticks that hit the shelves: “ZULU LULU”. They’re designed in the image of black women’s bodies. They show black female bodies with big, rounded curves at the buttocks and breasts, large lips and afro hair. This is the basic silhouette but different versions presented black women’s bodies at different ages, beginning with childhood. The “perkiness” of the woman’s body parts signals the age of the woman. Many online retail platforms still sell ZULU LULU swizzle sticks.
The cosmetics industry grossly commodifies black female body parts. White women are praised for having the features that black women are mocked, ridiculed and degraded for having.
Saartjie Baartman was enslaved, assaulted and killed for having large buttocks. White women today are profiting off of these and similar features. Misogynoir and colourism run rampant in society. Society hates dark skin but sells self-tanning kits to 11-year old white girls for £60.
Kylie Jenner promoted her lip kit, saying it was supposed to make lips look bigger. However, she did this after getting lip fillers to enlarge her own. Today, society hails her as the youngest self-made billionaire in the world. The cosmetic industry targets white women. The industry profits off the Afrocentric features that black women are abused for.
Beauty standards negatively impact almost everyone. The only people that truly benefit from beauty standards are those that sell them. The goal isn’t for black women to be a part of the beauty standard. The aim is for society drift away from forcing restrictions on women that mean we all have to look the same way to be deserve some level of respect.
It’s also very problematic that black females and Afrocentric features have only majorly integrated into Western society as part of a sexual aesthetic (beauty standards).
Black Women and Social Life
Vanessa Ntinu describes the sexual harassment and objectification she experienced moving from Canada to Kenya and then through Europe in an article for Gal-dem. After moving from Canada to Kenya, Ntinu describes how the objectification was far more explicit.
She experienced a lot of sexual harassment, which led her to naively idolise the white man for his “decency”. Although, moving from Kenya to the Netherlands, she noticed how white men attached their sexual desires to her race.
Read: Hyper-sexualisation: the realities of my black, female body by Vanessa Ntinu
The Adultification of Black Girls
A 2017 study from Georgetown University, USA, suggested that adults genuinely view young black girls as “less innocent” than white girls. The study looked into the “adultification” of black girls, specifically those aged 5 to 14.
The study showed similar results to another study. It found that black boys (beginning at age 10) are more likely to be viewed as older. This means law enforcers are more likely to suspect black boys guilty of a crime than white boys.
Rebecca Epstein, lead author of the report stated “What we found is that adults see black girls as less innocent and less in need of protection as white girls of the same age”. This includes the false perception that black girls know more about sex than white girls. They don’t.
Partly because this perception of young black girls leads to educational neglect. Society teaches black girls even less about their bodies and the wide world of sex. This forces young black girls to navigate this lifestyle on their own.
This is extremely dangerous for any teenage girl to have to do. It will often lead to sexual assault, unplanned pregnancy and STIs among many other things.
“Adults see black girls as less innocent and in need of less in need of protection as white girls of the same age.”Rebecca Epstein
White men have always felt entitled to sexualise black women because of their own preconceptions. Even from childhood, they expect that black girls naturally understand sex and have insatiable sexual appetites at all times.
Violence From Black Men
European imperialism and the transatlantic slave trade introduced black men and women to white society and colonial culture. White patriarchy had its own expectations of gender roles. Patriarchy demanded men were the ‘breadwinners’ of their households and that they provide for their wife and children.
However, during the early 19th and mid-20th century, white people refused to offer paying jobs to black men. As a result, the new class system emasculated black men because they were economically impotent. Since black men had no public spaces to exhibit any power, they did so at home.
They reclaimed their power by exerting dominance over their wives and children by physical violence. Black men used physical and sexual violence to secure their dominance in the household. This meant black women had to suffer abuse from toxic work environments and toxic home environments. In both spaces, black women were still being treated as someone’s slave.
This included rape. It’s a myth that when a man rapes, he is only seeking sex. Men have often used rape to assert dominance by weakening another person (male or female) and violating them.
Men used rape during war and slavery as a fear tactic. During slavery, white men occasionally raped black men to emasculate them and tyrannise them into subservience.
Today, black women (and women of all colours) are taught that rape can happen at any time, in any place, by anyone. We are taught to fear sexual assault, which restricts our movement, our expression and our identities. The fear of sexual assault keeps black women compliant with the oppression ingrained by patriarchy (anti-woman) and by white supremacy (anti-black).
Impact on Black Women
Society Ignores Black Women’s Abuse
The case of Recy Taylor shows how the system treats black women. Recy Taylor, 25, was an African-American woman living in Alabama during the Jim Crow era. In 1944, six white men kidnapped and gang-raped her at gunpoint while leaving church. She pressed charges and took the men to court.
In spite of confessions of their crimes to authorities, the men were acquitted of all charges after just five minutes of deliberation. The case was heard by an all-white, all-male jury and is just one of thousands like it. This shows exactly how black women’s experiences are ignored even before they’re told.
Socially, the issues black women face by hyper-sexualisation do include sexual assault. Mass media perpetuates images that invite sexual attention. This attention is unwanted, which means the media only encourages sexual assault and harassment towards black women. Society’s anti-black dehumanisation of black women justifies sexual abuse from white men.
Recently, a young woman named Sarah Everard (33) disappeared. Unfortunately, police found her body days later. Her case has promoted greater social awareness of sexual harassment and sexual assault, which is very important for women.
However, just last year, police also found the body of Blessing Olusegun (21) on a beach in East Sussex. They almost immediately decided “there was nothing to investigate” – similarly to Recy Taylor’s case, which was almost 80 years ago.
Yet again, we’ve made a white woman the face of a crucial movement that that’s designed for all women… against an issue that disproportionately impacts black women.
Mental Health Neglect
The myth that black women are stronger and have a higher pain tolerance only validates abuse. The media sweeps public attacks, assaults and hate crimes against black women under the rug.
The claim that “black women are unbreakable” only allows these attacks to continue. Black women have endured a lot as a community and an oppressed class. But black women aren’t unbreakable. Human beings are very easily broken. This claim is only used to gloss over the issues that black women face. When people say that black women are unbreakable, they act like black women are prepared to endure another 4 centuries of oppression.
On an individual level, black women face constant battles with mental health issues because of overwhelming social pressures.
Many of my friends have had very draining uphill battles with things such as body dysmorphia, eating disorders and PTSD from their own traumas. These are things that they have felt they can’t talk to anyone about.
With the issue of hyper-sexualisation, the media and culture reduces black women to their most sexually desired features. This stops black women from having any authentic identity beyond those features, even to be acknowledged as human. This limits black women’s ability to discover their own identity in all aspects. It restricts our expression to something purely sexual – as if at all times we’re trying to lure in a man.
People like to talk about how “unbreakable” and how “powerful” black women are, but refuse to acknowledge the depression, anxiety and fatigue that comes with being a black woman.