Policing Black Female Sexuality

Nicki Minaj for Paper Magazine

Nicki Minaj for Paper Magazine




Black women have consistently been targeted primarily for being outspoken about their sex lives, or lack thereof.

When Yvonne Orji publicly addressed her virginity and her decision behind it, people on social media criticized her for having her sex life be controlled by a religion.

When #ForTheD challenge became popular on social media and prominent black actresses like Issa Rae, Sanaa Lathan, and Regina Hall participated, there was some side-eying from primarily black Christian women who thought that those women were doing too much and shouldn’t be involved in such licentious behavior. I could imagine all the old church ladies rolling their eyes in chorus.

When Gabrielle Union, on a press tour for her book, discussed that she started masturbating at a young age, people on social media were surprised to hear that a prominent “classy black woman” like Gabrielle Union would be so open about her sex life, as if being classy and having an enjoyable sex life were mutually exclusive.

When Cardi B got engaged to Offset from the popular rap trio Migos, some women were upset that a former stripper and provocative reality star got the ring before they did.

Because of those criticisms, the four instances can be rewritten as the following:

Yvonne Orji has no sex. Virgin. Not because she wants to but because she’s not desirable.

Gabrielle Union had sexual pleasures too early. Too experienced. She shouldn’t share that in her book.

Issa Rae has lots of sex. Awkward, yes. Black, yes. But sexy and openly desiring the dick? Nah.

Cardi B has too much sex, and she shouldn’t be rewarded for it. Stripper. Risque. Ho. Not the right woman to represent rap.

Fast forward about three weeks later, and Nicki Minaj found herself in similar discussion.

Nicki Minaj. Queen of rap, but not queen of her body. Forced sex appeal. Provocative. Too much sex. Too old to be doing the same thing. Where’s the philanthropic Nicki?

Those instances only tell me, a 19-year old sexually active black female, two things. First, people still have this archaic issue stemmed in deeply-rooted classicism  about black women talking about their sex lives, which basically boils down to us being damned if we do and damned if we don’t. Second, a woman’s worth seems to be  tied to what goes inside her body, and if that woman just so happens to be black, then she might as well file a virtual cease-and-desist-order against herself from talking about her sexual pleasures.

Thus, the backlash that appeared in response to Nicki Minaj’s “Paper Magazine” cover reiterated those notions and introduced another one⸺ that black women haven’t fully embraced their sexual liberation to the extent that they claim to be.

The main critique of Minaj’s unsurprisingly eye-catching cover came from black women. It ranged from the “I don’t know where I stand on this” to the “I thought Nicki was over this part of her life; Cardi B must have sher shook”. Those remarks were obviously filled with respectability politics, which has been the main concept that oppresses the black female body. However, I found it interesting that it came from black feminists, black women who claim on social media every day to be actively fighting for against the oppression of black women. Thus, it seems as if they either forgot about that fight or more importantly, and likely the more appropriate reasoning for this matter, respectability politics aligned with principles embedded in Christianity in terms of women owning their bodies have become deeply ingrained into the psyche of black women that, honestly, we still haven’t come to terms with the agency of our own bodies. Furthermore, the previous notion is totally understandable, given how people constantly want to control our bodies.

I will be the first to say that women have the right to do whatever they want with their bodies.Because of the historic oppression of black women related to their bodies, black female sexual agency is a revolutionary act.

The concept is particularly revolutionary because people within and outside of the black community have done everything in their power to suppress it. It’s no secret that black women have always been perceived as more mature sexual beings before appropriately being considered as such. According to a recent study by Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Equity titled “Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood”, black girls, between the ages of 5-14, are viewed as less innocent than their white counterparts. Among the abhorrent conclusions of that study, participants in that survey believed that black girls knew more about sex than their white counterparts. It isn’t no surprise that black women are deemed more sexually mature; it’s a perception that dates back to slavery.

Respectability politics aligned with principles embedded in Christianity in terms of women owning their bodies have become deeply ingrained into the psyche of black women that, honestly, we still haven’t come to terms with the agency of our own bodies

During slavery, rape against a black woman was not considered illegal. In fact, black women’s sexuality was not their own as they were constant targets for sex from their white masters. Consider the story of Harriet Jacobs. She started receiving sexual advances from her white master at the age of 15, and he wouldn’t stop doing it simply because he admired that power he had over her, which is main reason why he had no intention to sell her. However, she did manage to escape in order to save her children. Stories similar to that warrant the case for the perception of black women as hypersexual.

Thus during the early twentieth century, black women (primarily Christian) attempted to dismiss those hypersexual perceptions by instituting long skirts, forcing messages of virginity and abstinence, and promoting other “modest” behaviors under the guise of respectability politics. Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham was the first to coin the term in her “Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church: 1880-1920” in which she discussed how black churches became an integral aspect of racial uplift and self-help for black people and also how black women spearheaded that occurrence by instituting schools and social welfare services.

While I understand the attempt to show people (white people) that black people aren’t the perceived stereotypes and can be participants of a more “respectable” society, thus it became a form of resistance for those women, I better understand that the current state of respectability politics attempts to blame the victim (in this case, black women) instead of the people who created the necessity for respectability politics (in this case, America). Therefore in preaching virginity and modest clothing to black girls in part to disassociate them with the pleasures of sex altogether, people are indirectly contributing to this constant policing of the black female body.

So, no, Nicki Minaj isn’t forcing her sex appeal. This isn’t a phase of hers. She doesn’t need to change to a more respectable image because now she’s more established. She is simply being Nicki Minaj and taking ownership of her body in a care-free, unapologetic way. And if you criticize her for that, then you’re a part of the problem.