It Does Matter

*crossposted at elle, phd*

My mom is visiting, which means my T.V. has been on some. I'm having quite the experience. On Sunday, she was watching Keyshia Cole's "The Way It Is." "The Way It Is" is a reality show centered around singer Keyshia Cole's life, but more broadly about a black family reconnecting after having been torn apart by poverty and addiction. Keyshia's sister, Neffie, was speaking to a group of black girls who were pregnant and possibly had high risk exposure to STDs. Neffie shared the story of her own repeated sexual abuse and assault that had begun when she was nine, then encouraged the girls to value their bodies and their sexuality.

One of the girls asked, "What do a female supposed to think, if they've already been touched by eight different people, so it don't matter if I have sex?"

That question, for me, embodied a number of issues, primarily the fetishization of virginity and the horrible silence surrounding the sexual assault of black women.

That girl, 18 and pregnant, believed that because she had "been touched," she no longer had the autonomy, the right to say no. Her "value" was significantly lessened because she was not "innocent."

Every black woman that the camera cut to in that room had tears in her eyes. A symbol of a collective knowing: According to the National Black Women's Health Project, 40% of us "report coercive contact of a sexual nature" by the time we're 18. (Note that's just what is reported.) And no matter our age, we are less likely than white women to report the assault, less likely to seek medical and psychological help.

There are a number of reasons for those facts. Black women have been characterized as "unrapeable" in our society, a stereotype that goes hand in hand with the one that paints us as "insatiable"—always sexually ready and available. These are characterizations that have a long history in the U.S., beginning with the classification of black women as (sexual) property during slavery.

In the aftermath of emancipation, white men justified their continued assault of black women by developing pseudoscientific theories that claimed African Americans were prone to "sexual madness and excess." Thus, while any sexual relation between black men and white women would "damage" white women (because of black men's aggressiveness and large penis size), black women, with their "deep" and "wide" vaginas and their voracious sexual appetites, could not be physically or emotionally hurt by rape.

Rendering black women unrapeable excused the widespread sexual assault and terror that black women and their families experienced during Reconstruction and afterwards. It also thwarted "emancipation"; as Tera Hunter asserted in To 'Joy My Freedom, "Freedom was meaningless without ownership and control over one's own body."

For black women, then, there was no legal definition or protection: "'Rape,' in this sense," noted Angela Harris, "was something that only happened to white women; what happened to black women was simply life."1

This historic lack of legal recourse is but one factor that discourages us from seeking legal justice. Inviting police into our communities is an attempt fraught with danger—they might disrespect us, paint us as liars, dismiss the significance of our assaults, act violently against community members.

Then there are the barriers that African Americans experience in attaining medical and psychological care—our complaints are not taken seriously, many of us don't have health insurance, we are part of a community that has been regarded as "dirty" or "diseased," treatments and interventions have been typically based on the experiences of white women.

There is often a hesitance to bring negative attention to our communities. No, not because we're "obsessed" with appearances or not airing our dirty laundry, but because we know that we will be treated as a monolith, all cast as violent or criminal. And, so often, black women remain silent, even as Aishah Shahidah Simmons noted, at our own expense. (Also see related video at her site.)

Finally (though this list is not complete), there is the persistent stereotype of the black woman as somehow superhuman—able to "take it," tough, affected differently by assault than other women. Within my community, for example, assault and incest are cast as something that black girls and women just have to deal with. It is not just the victims of sexual assault remaining silent, but whole families and communities. It's as if it is "normal," it happens, there's little we can do, so we must learn to cope.

I wonder how much of that this young woman had internalized, this idea that it "just happens," that it's not a big deal.

And I wonder how much she has internalized the idea that her worth as a sexual being is totally defined by her status as "non-virgin."

When her mother was asked what she had taught her daughter about sex, she replied, "Not to have it." That is a response, I believe, rooted in the influence of religion in African Americans’ lives and a defense mechanism, an attempt to combat the persistent Jezebel stereotype that haunts black women. For example, in the first two minutes of this clip from "Luke's Parental Advisory, Luther Campbell not only tells his daughter to abstain under threat of disease, but also explains to her how many partners will put her in "H-O territory," delivering a double-threat of fearmongering and slut-shaming.

So, what happens when we do "have it?" How many of our parents tell us simply not to have it and leave it at that? I mean, there are plenty of people out there telling girls that having sex makes them "used" or "soiled," that virginity is a gift, something that belongs to a future husband long before they've even met him. Once it is gone, they are dirty and have nothing to offer. They are less desirable as partners.

They are worthless.

It's not as if exemptions are made for rape victims. Sure, people speak of rape as more traumatic, more damaging if the victim was a virgin, but survivors of rape are often characterized as damaged or irreparably harmed, less than whole.

Less, in general.

And, as has been so frequently discussed at Shakesville, the persistent conflation of rape with consensual sex means that young women, in particular, who have been told to "hold onto" their virginity and associate their personal value with it, don't make any distinction when they are raped before consenting to sex. They view themselves as diminished not only by virtue of their victimization, but also by having lost their highly-valued virginity. And they are left with no reason to abstain—because no one's ever given them any reason other than fiercely guarding their virginity.

So, what happens when we do "have it?" My black mother told me, "not to have it," too. But that is a woefully shortsighted reaction, especially given that kids who take chastity pledges tend to break them. For black girls, who are sexually active at an earlier age than other girls and who have higher rates of STIs, we need to answer the question.

We need to help them break the silence surrounding sexual assault.

We need to help them negotiate hostile health care institutions—black girls don't report engaging in riskier behavior than their peers, but barriers to health care prevent diagnosis and treatment of STIs in black communities.

We need to talk to them about healthy, guilt-free sex—when I read that teenagers who take chastity pledges are less likely to use birth control methods, it made perfect sense. Birth control requires forethought, an admission that you plan to have sex, something many teenagers who have simply been told "don't have it," can't do.

We need to tell them that no matter how many times they've "been touched," or how many partners they've had, they still have bodily autonomy, the right to say yes or no. That the language used to fetishize virginity—"saving it" or "giving it" to someone—is not accurate. Their sexuality, their bodies are their own.

We need to tell them that their worth is not tied up in their virginity.

I never want to hear another black girl say, "It don't matter."


1 Angela Harris, "Race and Essentialism in Feminist Legal Theory," Stanford Law Review, February 1990.

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