I grew up believing the language of “urges,” “denying the flesh,” and “the body being inherently sinful.”
By EbonyJanice — Written on Jul 27, 2023
Photo: Roman Chazov | Shutterstock
Years ago in therapy, I found that I would often say, “I don’t want to bring shame to my family,” and my therapist would be like, “If I had a dollar for every time you say that in therapy, I would be a very wealthy woman.”
The language of “bringing shame to my family” is intimately related to shame around sexuality and sensuality.
Many of my young adult years were spent believing that the worst thing I could do is “bring shame to my family” by getting pregnant before I was married as proof that I was having sex before marriage.
That or everybody finding out that I’m kind of a nasty freak. I believed that riding reverse cowgirl and throwing that thang in a circle unmarried, and enjoying it, was the worst thing I could do.
Therapy helped me name that it was the fear of shaming my family that was keeping me from authenticity in several areas of my life.
I grew up believing the language of “urges,” “denying the flesh,” and “the body being inherently sinful.” And so there was no connection between my body and my desire for pleasure.
The available language of “giving in to an urge” and “experiencing pleasure” were two drastically different things, and there was no relationship or connection for me.
As that version of myself — the one who was afraid of bringing shame to my family — I couldn’t understand that pleasure isn’t inherently or exclusively bad or sinful. Pleasure is a basic, natural desire most animals experience as a part of their being.
If I could tell my younger self anything, it would be to have more guilt-free sex.
I wasted so much time feeling guilty about sex that I don’t even know if I ever enjoyed the fullness of it.
Guilt was sitting right there at the end looking at me.
If I still acknowledged sex outside of marriage as a sin, I would say that was a wasted sin. I should have enjoyed it at the very least. Not even that I should have had more sex, just more sex without the guilt, shame, and condemnation that I experienced when it was over.
I had been thinking a lot about my unintentional celibacy and the residual guilt and shame that was lingering about desiring sex while unmarried. So I sent a group text to the source of most of my anxiety: my aunts and mother.
I had recently turned thirty-four years old and had been celibate for years. I remember my age, specifically, because I thought, “Welp! I’ve outlived the timeline of Christ. And if Jesus was allegedly celibate when he went to Calvary at thirty-three, he can now no longer understand my plight at thirty-four.”
I texted them because I wondered if they ever thought about me and how I was existing as a single woman without companionship, physical touch, or intimacy. I think a part of me wanted to know if they were even willing to reconsider some of their previous positions on sex and the natural desires of the body.
Out of the six of them, one replied and said, “I’m praying for you, baby.” She never said what she was praying for, but I would bet large amounts of money that she was not praying that I got some good D soon.
My mother replied with words akin to “Ewwww.” God bless my mother. Three of them didn’t reply at all.
One of them called and had a real, game-changing womanist conversation.
In the conversation with my aunt, I asked, “What do I do at this point? I am living inside a container of fear that I may bring shame to my family if it is found out that I am pursuing the satisfaction of these sensations and desires. Especially because there is no one in this group text who can fully relate because you all were married with all of your children by this age.”
My aunt shared some of her personal stories, and I was blown away to experience her transparency on this topic. It was a very liberating discussion that offered language to reflect on how far this conversation around sex, sensuality, and experiencing pleasure in the body had come through our family for generations.
Our conversation helped me to gain clarity about what my responsibility and contribution to that conversation could be for the family and the community of Black women in the future.
Some of my role is to simply have the conversation and not just leave those behind me “on read” in the text thread. Some of my role is also to be clear about what I’m praying for when I reply, “I’m praying for you, baby!”
Largely, I see my role as telling the truth about my journey and offering another language that replaces the shame that women in our family have felt around this issue for years.
Additionally, I see my role as teaching those behind me that it is not wise to allow our own definition of freedom to be formed by people who are not free themselves.
If we’re talking about Black women and liberation, we have to talk about Black women and pleasure.
It would be insufficient to unpack the pursuit of softness, dreaming, my body, and wellness and not acknowledge that pleasure in this body is a major site of liberation.
Black women are both demonized for supposed hypersexuality and also receive harsh religious shame for even thinking about pleasure. Which is it? Are we hypersexual? Or are we prohibited from experiencing pleasure without fear of bringing shame to our family?
It can’t be both. We can’t be both hypersexual and sexually repressed. Especially not in the United States of America in the lineage of Southern Black Christianity where sex outside of marriage is a sin, and the belief intentionally represses Black girls and women in ways that no other group of people experience shame.
In this season, my life and a major part of my preachment, public teaching, and sharing is acknowledging that everything about me is good, that who I am is good, and that I don’t have to equate my body or my desires as inherently sinful or wrong.
That’s why surrendering shame is revolutionary because everything in this society wants me to hate, reject, and resist myself. So any decision to do exactly the opposite of my actual mission and purpose in this life is radical, transformative, revolutionary, and essential to my journey to freedom.
I still have no desire to bring shame to my family. I genuinely just want to bring the promise and possibility of pleasure to my family. This, too, is my very worthy activism and my contribution to a revolution that Black women deserve.
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EbonyJanice is an author and the founder and CEO of The Free People Project and The EbonyJanice Project. The core and center of her work is the professional and personal liberation of Black Women and Femmes.