(The following blog post is for grown folks and the generally mature. Words that could be considered sexual and vulgar as well as NSFW links will be included without warning.)
The internet is such a weird place. One minute you’re surfing along, watching Chinese uncles criticize gloopy rice and the next you’re tumbling down a rabbit hole of misogynoir and racism after looking at the comments on the following music video:
I don’t really like this song (mostly because I can’t stand the Frank Ski tune it samples) but I still think the backlash to it is beyond ridiculous. Everyone from right-wing pundits to corner store hoteps are having a field day decrying the overt sexuality displayed in this video. Nobody will shut up about it. The criticisms are a firm example of the paradox that all women find themselves in–too much and too little, all at the same time.
While everyone’s entitled to their personal preferences, the thing that I find most annoying about the W.A.P. discussions is that folks are acting as though Black women having agency over their own sexuality–and displaying that–is something brand new. It’s not, of course. Countless Black women before Cardi B (who I guess is Black this week) and Megan Thee Stallion have expressed their sexual desires, agency, and power in song before–from relatively recent tunes by Salt N Pepa and Trina to classic blues divas like Ruth Brown and Lucille Bogan (whose tune Shave ‘Em Dry is one of the few dirty blues tunes I’ve never been able to listen to all the way through due to its awkward, obscene hilarity). Women of all races express their sexuality, but it seems as though only Black women are treated as though self-possessed, open sexuality–whether or not the viewer appreciates it–is somehow worse than any other woman’s sexual expression. Black women are often presumed sluttish until proven chaste, and even if we manage to survive the harsh morality gauntlet culturally imposed upon us, our sexuality is often dismissed as the property of whatever man legitimizes its expression, rather than a personal source of pleasure and self-expression that we control and appreciate for ourselves.
Fortunately, there’s a long literary tradition of Black women writing about sexuality factually, erotically, exploratorily and all ways in between, dispelling some of the harsh judgments of wider society through sharing the reality of our own experiences. I’ve created a booklist of some of the best writing by Black women about sex, sexuality, and our sexual selves in society.
Let’s go ahead and start with this highly controversial, groundbreaking erotic novel from 2001. I’ll tell you upfront–I personally can’t stand this book. It’s not hot and the sex scenes are…strange. (There’s a memorable scene where movie theater nacho cheese is used as lube that I’m pretty sure caused my lifelong aversion to processed cheese products.) That said, Zane’s erotic thriller about a businesswoman juggling multiple extramarital affairs was revolutionary for its time. Millions of women love it for a reason. It focuses graphically and unrepentantly on a Black woman reclaiming her sexuality as a source of pleasure and power while in a stale, loveless marriage, and for that reason alone it gets a spot on this list. Fair warning though, for those who choose to read it now–it’s a bit dated because of its rather unsophisticated take on sex addiction. Also, I’ve already told you about the nacho cheese scene–the erotic potential of the sexual content here is pretty hit or miss.
Zane’s novel was groundbreaking and entertaining, but it’s notably lax in its discussions of sexual health. (Remember: nacho cheese.) That’s where a book like Pussy Prayers comes in. It’s a sex-ed book for Black women written from a foundation of pleasure and self-care, rather than the more clinical books we might be used to from middle school health class or the hush-hush “don’t be a fast-ass” conversations many of us had with elders growing up. Pussy Prayers takes an approach that is both physical and spiritual. It’s also a great guide to the vital work of both destigmatizing the pussy–it’s a body part, not a portal to hell–and connecting women to their bodies independent of the desires of men or the eyes of society, which is a very necessary part of learning how to claim personal pleasure through sexuality.
Long before I had ever kissed a boy, I read a passage in Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy in which the title character sensually contemplates the taste of a man’s tongue while kissing him and I thought–umph. Can’t wait to try that! While this short novel from 1990 is not primarily about sexuality, it’s notable for being a coming-of-age novel about a teenage girl from the Caribbean who immigrates to America and learns how to navigate all sorts of relationships in her new country, including sexual ones with men and women. Discovering sexual preferences and relationship styles is a critical part of growing up, and the open, matter-of-fact way that Lucy approaches the subject in such a distinctively Black cultural environment is literary treasure.
While brainstorming titles for this list, I was at a loss for titles written before 1980 or so. One of the reasons for that is that despite the obvious presence of positive, pleasure-based sexuality in Black women(we’re women, after all), there is still a strong cultural taboo regarding Black women speaking out about sexuality–the same one that has drawn such stern criticism towards W.A.P. This is what 2004’s Longing to Tell tries to address, through a series of collected interviews and testimonials from Black women on the subject of sex. Many of the women are painfully aware of how negatively society views any sort of sexual expression in women, and doubly so for Black women–yet they still share their stories, whether pleasurable, painful or taboo. The result is a brave, sensitive book that helps build a foundation in the normalization and inclusion of Black women in all areas of society.
In case you haven’t figured it out, I came of age in the 90’s. As a result, writers like Terry McMillan, Eric Jerome Dickey and Omar Tyree shaped my literary tastes far more than I sometimes like to admit. Even so, Waiting To Exhale really has a special-ness to it. When it was released in 1992 it was everywhere–even my mother, who is not much of a reader, bought a copy and shooed us kids away while she read it. I snuck and read it as soon as I could. At the time, I was struck by the story, and how it centered friendship between Black women. Now, I appreciate how it portrays sex as something natural, normal, and varied. There is just as much good sex as bad sex in Waiting To Exhale. There’s also boring sex, weird sex (remember Russell the werewolf?), rebound sex, and clinical sex, all with or without love, friendship, or even good decision-making skills. Too often books feature physical sexual acts as an exclusive function of romantic love or a shameful, sinful compulsion, ignoring that in the real world, human sexuality is a far more nuanced and complex thing that depends on a wide variety of factors. Waiting To Exhale is the first thing I remember reading that acknowledged that fact with humor, grace, and good storytelling. It’s also about four fierce, admirable Black women, so it gets a spot on this list.
Speaking of variety, I debated a bit before adding this 2016 scholarly text to this list. While the title promises a discussion of Black women and kink, it’s more about the societal links forged between violence and perceptions of Black women’s sexuality. It’s quite a heavy read with little pleasure included at first. While I prefer to focus on reading about Black women positively and openly expressing their own sexualities and encourage you to do the same, the harsh views of society concerning Black women as hypersexualized or asexualized are very real. This book looks at them in a very different way than usually discussed, using taboo ideas to ultimately highlight the power inherent in Black women exploring kink as a way to contemplate the complexity and disconnect of our sexuality in perception and practice. Also, for all its kink talk and exploration into some pretty unusual places–there is no nacho cheese in this book. So it gets a spot on the list.
The last book on this list is also the only one with a queer female couple at its center, even though they both spend most of the book socially entangled with the same man. Nearly 40 years after publication The Color Purple is still a tricky, complex read with deeply nuanced characters and a multi-layered story. It’s an undefinable experience of a book, and fittingly, the main character Celie is not particularly definable by sexuality or gender when you really think about it. Her past contains unspeakable abuse at the hands of a male pedophile; her future, a long, loving relationship with the woman who has an affair with her husband. Somewhere in between she’s also married to an abusive man, mothers two children that her sister raises, gives her stepson bad relationship advice with horrible consequences, runs a successful business making masculine clothing for women, and navigates the minefields of segregation, racism, and the oppressive polarization of Black women into beings for asexual service or sexual use. I suppose I include this novel here because it uses the expression of sexuality as a marker of character growth and self-actualization–the more healthy and free Celie gets, the more personalized and joyous her sexual expression becomes as well. Sex is often described through metaphors–this is one of the few novels I can think of where sex is the metaphor, through a certain lens. It’s also inextricably linked to Blackness both of the American and African variety, and remarkably candid and authentic about things like orgasms, healing after abuse, and attraction–both homo- and hetero- –in a natural, unsensational way that deserves a spot here.
Sex is natural, and so are books about it–there are thousands more than what I’ve included in this list, of course. Still, these seven are a good start if you’re looking for a book to expand on the ideas being discussed due to W.A.P. You can see the whole booklist at once here.
(This blog is an affiliate of Bookshop. Any clicks or purchases made from links here will result in a commission being earned. Please remember to use your W.A.P. safely and responsibly out here. This blog is not responsible for any babies or prescriptions that may result from reading any of the books or listening to any of the songs included within, ’cause you’re grown and in charge of yourself. Thanks for reading!)