A Not So Sweet Spot: Questioning the Performance of Sexual Liberation

Note: The following post has strong sexual language and content. 

This weekend I had the opportunity to attend Sweet Spot, an evening of “high energy, heart pumping, fist pounding, laugh out loud pop erotica performance art.” The evening featured spoken word artists, singers, burlesque dancers, a sexologist, comedians, a miniature sex toy shop and much more all focused on one thing, sex and the acquisition of pleasure. I must admit that from the onset I was hesitant about attending this particularly after I watched a promo video for it. It looked like it was above my sexual pay grade and like it would be filled with moments that would make me clutch and break my non-existent pearls. It turned out that it wasn’t above my sexual pay grade, it was–in my opinion–beneath me and did a particular kind of violence.

The show started out innocently enough with some jokes, a pledge that included putting our hands over our “hearts”–hearts defined as private parts–and the rules of engagement otherwise known as “How Not to Cockblock Yourself.” The host for the evening, a petite young woman wearing a bedazzled ringmaster costume, told the women that the two ways we cockblock ourselves is sitting with either our arms or legs crossed. She directed us to uncross both and allow our “hearts” to breathe and be free. I appreciated this opener for no other reason than it was clever, not for its ability to help a room full of men and women keep their legs open for whatever may come. What followed the opener was a series of performances which started with a woman reading erotic fiction. I’ve never read erotic fiction, so it was interesting to listen to someone do a dramatic reading. It was also the moment when I realized that “dick” and “pussy” were the only words I would hear for the next few hours and it felt like an assault each time I heard it. This was the beginning of what I felt like was a particular kind of violence. But I tried to suspend that judgement until I saw more.

sweetspotphoto

The son of a preacher man reciting erotic poetry–and I’m not talking about Songs of Songs either.

The show continued with a burlesque dancer from Jamaica who was actually pretty good and had the most amazing back tattoo I’d ever seen, so that was a moment of reprieve. After her were two spoken word artists, the first was the son of a preacher reading from, “Fellatio 3:16.” I’m sure you can imagine my shock at the title but that was just the beginning of the profane as he said things such as,

I will read a scripture off your clit.
You can suck Lazarus back to life.

The violence of those words struck me particularly because I am a Christian woman. I understand it was the play on words given his context and upbringing, but I couldn’t help but be bothered. He invoked the homiletic style of charismatic black preachers to get the crowd riled up and aroused, but, to me, it just felt profane and reckless. I teetered between a dropped jaw and nervous laughter, and trying to find something redemptive about what I was hearing.

Another spoken word piece was performed by Sweet Spot Nation founder, Ainsley Burrows, and featured yet more lust-filled allusions such as,

I will eat the magnesium out your cum
I’ve got enough dick to raise your IQ and make you lower your standards at the same damn time.

His performance was slightly more invasive because he stared me and my friend down intently during moments in his routine.  By this time my reactions were part laughter, part silence, and part observing everyone around me to see their reactions.

In the midst of all of this there was also the condom throwing that was off-putting. Yes, condom throwing. A multi-pack of condoms and lubricants sponsored by the Stand Up 2 HIV Atlanta campaign was provided for each seated guest. I thought it was a nice touch for the evening given the public health concern that HIV is within urban cities such as Atlanta. But at no point in my time there–it could have happened after I left–did I hear a plug for the program or even gratitude for contributing the condom gift bags. Instead I saw many of the condoms being thrown at the artists and performers as if it were a form of currency. I was disappointed, to say the least, in the extreme waste of an important resource in the fight against HIV.

Though I’ve mentioned my feelings about the violence instigated through language throughout the night, it actually didn’t occur to me what was taking place until a sexologist hit the stage halfway through the show. She focused on teaching women and men how to get and give the best possible orgasm and she claimed that many don’t get there because of the aggressive nature in which some approach the sexual event. She encouraged men to take their time with women instead of acting like attack dogs and encouraged all to acknowledge the sensitive and delicate nature of our sexual organs and told women to breathe. But it was the juxtaposition of hearing someone talk about how we should be more gentle and patient in sex while hearing coarse, abrasive language that made me realize the entire situation was troubling and mimicked a particular kind of violence.

So what is this violence? I believe that violence is not just in the realm of the physical, it can be verbal and mental. Thus when I speak of the violence at Sweet Spot, it was violence through speech and through making the sacred profane. Whether it was through using Scripture as a template to talk dirty or language that made sex seem like one long rough porn fantasy, I wasn’t convinced of any sexual liberation.

As a culture we’ve long struggled for and against sexual liberation for years. Those who have fought for it are the pioneers and offspring of the sexual revolution. Those against it have primarily been conservative Christians. I want to clarify that though I am Christian–I consider myself progressive–I am not opposed to sexual liberation. I am, however, opposed to sexual liberation that results in uncritical ways of being sexual. I believe in responsible freedom which still requires some limitations and reflection on what is expedient. As it pertains to sex and sexuality narratives, I’m interested in what repeated narratives do and how they form and/or inform us. So, in the case of my time at the Sweet Spot where I was assailed by coarse language–and flying condoms, I wondered what that language did to people. How that language might have been the reason that men attack women in the sexual act–I’m not talking about rape here but the aggressive way that some men descend upon women in the sexual event because they heard that is the way. I thought about what it means to be a black person whose sexuality has almost always been regarded as animalistic and aggressive and I wondered if words such as “dick” and “pussy” play into that or are they part of our culture’s way of expressing ourselves sexually. Are the words our own or did we get them from someone else who is still determining our sexual selves? Are there different ways of speaking about sex that don’t rely on an allusion to violence? (Think about the popularity of the phrase, “I’ll beat the pussy up” in urban music.)

There are so many questions that came out of my Sweet Spot experience that made me wonder if the artists and audience were truly sexually liberated or sexually oppressed and just performing an idea of liberation. And of course the question of whether I’m the sexually oppressed or repressed person is up for discussion too. That is another reflection I’m taking up, but that is also much too predictable a conclusion to draw at this point. It’s too easy to say that the person who walks away from an event such as the Sweet Spot feeling anything but aroused and liberated is sexually repressed. It doesn’t leave room for a critique that could be useful to all parties involved. This is not to disregard pop erotica as a genre, but it is to stretch our understandings of the genre’s form and function in our communities, psyches, and selves.

PS: Lest anyone read this and think I had a completely bad experience I did enjoy myself during the break between acts when they played a lot of ratchet Top 40 music and, like I mentioned earlier, the burlesque performer and her awesome back tattoo was great too. Maybe my next excursion should be to a burlesque show. 

Advertisements

Being Mary Jane Lesson #2: Coming Out of Darkness

Note: This week’s recap is a little late because the episode was a lot to digest. As usual, if you haven’t seen you may want to watch first and then read.

The week’s episode of “Being Mary Jane” was, in my opinion, one of the best episodes thus far. Mara Brock Akil took Mary Jane and viewers into the uncharted territory of discussing sex trafficking, coming out to a homophobic parent, and navigating inter/intraracial relationship issues. In each of these issues there was a journey through darkness that either enlightened the character or submerged them even deeper into the void.

The episode starts with Mary Jane continuing a light dalliance with David which turns out to be a nightmare starring a white baby named Andre–a reminder of her past. She is swiftly kicked backed into reality by an infant’s blood-curdling cries and she realizes that her life is actually nightmarish because of her niece’s takeover of her home. But this is minor. One of the major plots is revealed when we see Mary Jane in a car watching a young woman sitting in front of a motel. This is our introduction to Mary Jane’s research for a segment on sex trafficking. In the car Mary Jane gains insight into the world of sex-trafficking in Atlanta–the sex trafficking capital of the United States. Note: Atlanta is, in fact, a major hub for sex trafficking in the United States. And so art imitates life on this episode as Mary Jane learns about the reality of life for a teenage girl caught in sex trafficking. It is hard to say that there is such thing as a refreshing take on sex trafficking but, if I could say it, Brock Akil gave us that. In my observation, I usually see white people at the forefront of the anti-sex trafficking movement and young black girls as the victims and the stars of the narratives. Brock Akil casts Mary Jane in the role of “person with a Messiah complex” in order to do saving work for a young white girl caught in trafficking. Unfortunately what viewers discover is that Messiah complexes don’t necessarily yield fruit. Mary Jane’s best attempt to rescue a 15-year-old white girl from sex trafficking most likely gets the girl into bigger trouble. Thus, both the girl and Mary Jane were cast deeper into darkness. Following this botched rescue, we see Mary Jane at her desk watching video of another young victim of sex trafficking. The young victim speaks glowingly about her pimp, and Mary Jane stares at her in disbelief. And scene.

Note: For those of you who watched last night, you probably realized that I’m recapping this out-of-order, just stay with me though? I’m going somewhere with this.

bmj-aaron-spearsThe second issue that took place was coming out to a homophobic parent. Mary Jane’s best friend Mark has hidden his true sexual nature from his parent but it all came to a head last night. During a staged dinner where Mark and Mary Jane play the role of happy couple, Mark’s mother realizes that it is all a show. Frustrated with the farce, Mark’s mother tells him that she knows he is gay and has known for sometime. But it is not his mother’s reaction that is startling, it is Mark’s father. He rises up with such great anger that first situates itself in his son’s preference to stick his penis in another man’s anus but then it becomes more complex. It turns out that Mark’s father is angry because his son preferred to live a lie rather than tell the truth and risk his father’s displeasure. Again Brock Akil takes an issue that has its place in the lived experience of many black men and women and brings it to life. Traditionally the black community is sketched as being homophobic but only recently are we seeing stories bring that to life on primetime television. For instance, Lee Daniels’s “Empire” features record mogul and father Lucious Lyons battling with his feelings of homophobia toward his same-gender loving son–feelings that were once so vitriolic that he threw him in a garbage can. And now we have another father in primetime verbally discarding his same-gender loving son. Mark came out of darkness, in a way, but he didn’t experience much relief as it created tension between him and his father and resulted in the loss of the lover he shrouded in darkness. This brings us to the third issue, navigating inter/intraracial dating.

Our first encounter with navigating interracial dating occurs when Mark and his boyfriend Lance have a fight before his parents arrival. Lance doesn’t understand why Mark kept his sexuality a secret from his family nor does he understand Mark’s difficulty with navigating not only his blackness but his gayness. Again, art imitates life and Brok Akil taps into the nuanced issue of the black gay lived experience. The reality is that some black gay people feel they have two identities to navigate and, sometimes, it is easier–but still challenging–to be just a minority rather than the double minority of being black and gay. I, being a black woman, understand the struggle of being a double minority but I dare not say I understand the struggle of being the double minority of black male and gay. Over the past weekend I did have some thoughts about the privilege that white gay men have because they still have their whiteness to protect them, but that was the limit of my reflection. The black gay man, on the other hand, cannot throw off his blackness and even if he can put off his sexual identity it will not protect him.

Then we have the intraracial dating issue that Kara presents when she tells an otherwise good suitor that she doesn’t date Latino men. Kara was previously married to a white man and that didn’t work out. She dated an intern who was Mexican and that didn’t work out. And now an eligible bachelor is in front of her, who it seems she has chemistry with, but she sabotages it with her “No intraracial dating rule.” We don’t know much about why Kara has that rule, and it actually seems a little illogical given her track record with men across the board, but maybe we’ll dive deeper into that as the season continues.

As you can see this week’s episode was chock full of issues. Issues that needed to see the light in primetime particular in black households. I called this lesson “coming out of darkness” primarily because Mary Jane’s pending segment on sex trafficking reminded me of a series of conversations I’ve had over the past few days/months and my responsibility. I’ve not said it here because this blog is fairly new, but my hope is that the next chapter of my life will be spent researching and studying issues in sex and sexuality and ethics. The “Out of Darkness” tag has particular significance to me because it is the name of an anti-sex trafficking organization here in Atlanta that I trained with a few years ago. I remember, vividly, what it felt like being one of the only black faces in a white space dedicated to saving young women from sex trafficking. I remember what it felt like to watch the videos of young girls in sex trafficking and have most of them look like me and not like some of the lily-white faces I’ve seen plastered on billboards around the city. I remember feeling at odds because at once I wanted to help but I didn’t want to do it under the banner of a group where almost everyone was “other” treating the young women they were saving like the “other.” I didn’t like the rhetoric used to do this saving work. And yet, now that I know about this problem, I am responsible for becoming a part of the solution not just a critic of it. As many times as it and other issues around sex and sexuality come up, I am responsible for becoming a part of the solution.

“Being Mary Jane” reminded me of my responsibility. My hope is that many other people saw this week’s episode and realized their responsibility. Their responsibility to do saving work on behalf of victims in sex trafficking. Their responsibility to welcome their brothers and sisters. Their responsibility to be empathetic to those of a different or same race/ethnicity. Mara Brock Akil brought us out of darkness on Tuesday. We can no longer plead ignorance about some things, so now the ball is in our court. What are we going to do?

A final note: The one critique I will make about Tuesday’s episode is Akil’s neglect in providing people with information about what to do if they suspect a young person is involved in sex trafficking or information about sex trafficking in general, at least not on the show. BET.com did dedicate a page to sex trafficking education, and I also provided some additional links.

Report Trafficking 

Alliance Against Human Trafficking

International Rescue Committee

If you know of any other reputable organizations, please leave them in the comments.

 

Being Mary Jane Lesson #1: Closure Is A Dangerous Desire

Join me every Wednesday as I share my lessons learned from “Being Mary Jane.” 

SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t already seen it, you might want to watch it before you read.

mary-jane-paul-resizeLast night was the season two premiere of “Being Mary Jane,” the Mara Brock Akil drama starring Gabrielle Union as a single, successful journalist with an appetite for unavailable men. Last season we left off with Mary Jane ending things with married man Andre and resolving to leave emotionally and relationally-unavailable man David alone. But last night’s season premiere revealed that old habits die-hard and closure is a dangerous desire.

So let’s cut to the chase.

Last night we discovered that Mary Jane is not over David and she is searching for an explanation as to why it didn’t work out between them. But just as she looks for love in all the wrong places she also looks for closure in all the wrong places. We watched Mary Jane search David’s friends for answers and project her frustration on them. Almost everyone around her is telling her to let it go but, as humans in love are wont to do, she refuses. Then in “Be careful what you wish for” fashion, Mary Jane gets an opportunity for closure when his friend–the one whose house she showed up at unannounced–calls David and forces Mary Jane to get on the phone. It is then that David tells her that his girlfriend is pregnant and, the viewer assumes, he tells her to leave him alone. Unfortunately that isn’t the end of the story.

Later in the show we see Mary Jane decompressing in a suite at the Loews Atlanta Hotel and then, suddenly, we see David next to her on the couch. (But does anyone remember her calling him? How did he get in there? And I digress.) It is then that the real closure conversation happens but it becomes less about closure and more about sneaking into an open crack in her heart. This is when closure becomes dangerous and much of Twitter agreed with that last night.

And it goes on.

Last night many women and men were reminded that closure is not what is needed more than it is what is wanted–and an unhealthy want at that. I put myself in the number of people who re-learned a lesson last night as I watched Mary Jane get her so-called closure but come no closer to personal healing and wholeness. She showed us that chasing after closure when it isn’t coming to you puts you in danger because you are vulnerable. In Mary Jane’s case, she was so vulnerable and, seemingly, still in love with David, which is probably the worst time to seek closure. Some people prey on that vulnerability and that doesn’t aid in your healing. This is why closure must be up to you and no one else.

Often we claim to seek closure because we want answers for why it didn’t work out with a loved one. But if we are to be honest, deep down inside we seek it because we hope that they might either heal our broken hearts/egos or even jumpstart something that’s dead. I can say that because I’ve been there. Not so much the jumpstart of dead things but for the healing of a broken heart and ego. You want someone to piece it back together with their words and compassion and to tell you that you were, in fact, the best they ever had in every sense of the word. But that piecing back together isn’t up to them, it’s up to you.

Life goes on with or without closure. Most often it has to go on without closure. And so we have to begin to cultivate the strength to declare that it is no one else’s responsibility to heal us but our own. It is also important to ask whether this closure will add or subtract anything from our lives–especially if you have already gotten comfortable with the completion of the relationship. This is what a friend asked me a few weeks ago. In no uncertain terms he asked, “If you are already 80% there in your recovery process, what’s 20% going to do for you?” I wanted to say that it was going to help me be done with the situation, but I knew that wasn’t the case. I knew he was right. I knew every person I’d spoken to about the relationship over the past year was right. But finally I had to find the personal wherewithal to decide that the only person who is responsible for closure is me. So I’m thankful for last night’s episode reminding me of that.

I didn’t need Mary Jane to tell me that but I sure appreciated watch how painful and awkward the process of seeking closure can be for the individual and for their community. My healing, our healing, is in our hands. The work of closure is in us.

Amber Rose v. Michelle Obama: The Problem with the Respectability Meme

It was just a few weekends ago that Amber Rose became the umpteenth person to attempt to “break the internet” with her balcony bikini shot. But this past weekend I saw this:

photo

A man posted this on Instagram along with the caption, “My mother always told me there are only two types of women in the world…Those you marry and those you ‘date.'” Needless to say, I was mad for Amber Rose and tired of comments like this.

For the last few weeks I’ve been thinking about respectability down to what it means for a woman to wear a certain color suit to an interview and risk not being respected because of it. I realized that respectability is largely in the eyes of the beholder and for women that beholder is usually men–but also sometimes other women. In this instance, the beholder is a black man–although quite a few black women chimed in to affirm the message of this image and his caption and, of course, his mother is the origin of this thinking. But there are so many problems with this respectability meme.

Amber Rose at the VH1 Movie Awards (Photo Credit: Getty Images)

Is she respectable marriage material now or nah? (Photo Credit: Getty Images)

First, to juxtapose Amber Rose in her bathing suit with Michelle Obama in a dress on two clearly different occasions and imply that one deserves respect while the other doesn’t is not logical. This was Amber Rose relaxing on vacation not Amber Rose in the supermarket or at a formal event. It’s comparing apples to oranges. How about using an image of them both in similar situations and seeing where you land then? (Although it’s pretty hard to find a picture of Michelle Obama in a bathing suit.) Making the case that Amber Rose doesn’t deserve respect because of what she is wearing here–and what she wears on the regular–is no different from claiming that a woman is asking to be raped or otherwise violated because of what she chooses to wear. (Yes I made that connection and I don’t think it’s a stretch because we have evidence to affirm that some use what a woman wears for the “She was asking for it” argument.)

Yes Amber Rose’s livelihood comes from posting pictures such as her balcony bikini and for being a public figure who makes people clutch their pearls, but I don’t regard her as less worthy of my respect than Michelle Obama. If anything, I must constantly remind myself that my respect for her and women like her shouldn’t be based on what they wear but on who they are on a fundamental level–there’s a quote from a theologian or philosopher about loving human beings as ends and means but I can’t find it. And yes, I will address my “women like her” classification because I acknowledge the problematic nature of that statement. Who Amber Rose is, on a fundamental level, is a woman and a human being who deserves respect and regard before she puts a thread of clothing on. She is more than her body.

I hate that man’s IG post and caption because it relies on the thought that a woman’s worth is in her presentation rather than other defining characteristics. It is dependent on making the body the primary site of respectability and for Amber Rose, being as endowed as she is, whether she wears clothes or not, her respectability will always be in question. Is Amber Rose not more than her body–even if all she shows us is her body? And that’s another issue, as people we struggle with issues of embodiment and women such as Amber Rose end up bearing the brunt of the struggle.

I’ve long struggled with body issues related to what it means to grow into being a “shapely” or “curvy” woman–as I’ve heard people call me–and being such as a woman of faith who has lived under a special type of politics of respectability. I’ve watched myself go from being fairly thin to developing larger thighs, hips, and a noticeable backside. I didn’t start wearing figure-flattering clothes until my mid-to-late 20s when I realized that I didn’t have the problem, it was the world around me that made me afraid of my body. Yet, I’m still sometimes weary of what I wear to certain places because I don’t want to draw attention to myself or have someone think I’m “that kind of girl.” That there is even a “that kind of girl” in my mind is all thanks to a society that likes to judge a book by its cover. Bodily comportment matters in our culture and should you choose to put something on your body that is figure-flattering or just revealing, you risk being ostracized or considered a “fast-tailed girl,” a “THOT,” and whatever else they are calling women nowadays whose presentation doesn’t conform to the norm. Or it doesn’t help men flee temptation–because let’s be honest, a part of the problem is that some men project their lack of self-control on women and make us feel bad for dressing a certain way, but we are not the problem. As Jessica Williams from the Daily Show said, “Get some impulse control!”

But Amber Rose is not the only victim of the politics of respectability, even Michelle Obama, our current icon of black female respectability, has been criticized for wearing clothes that are too figure-flattering, revealing, or that are just too glamorous. So maybe we can’t win for trying. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case because there is still more room in the annals of respectability for Michelle Obama than there is for the Amber Roses of the world.

I commend Amber Rose for deciding, day after day, to live out who she is in this moment and obey her truth instead of conforming. I commend her for her expression of her womanhood because that is just what this is, one woman’s expression of her womanhood. I want more people, not just men, to get in the habit of thinking about what is at stake when we judge the Amber Roses of the world. Or anyone else whose lifestyle leads them in a different direction than what we were taught is the respectable way–and I wish we could do away with respectability altogether.

It will always be troubling to me that men, who have fewer options with which to present themselves, have the audacity to judge a woman who chooses to present and express herself in one way over the other. It is also troubling to me that a woman could tell her son that there are only two types of women in the world, the ones you marry and the ones you date. If I have a son I will never reduce women to an either/or. If I have a daughter, I will encourage her to find ways to express her womanhood however that feels natural to her–when she comes of age of course. She may grow up to be like Michelle Obama or like Amber Rose or like another woman who isn’t on the limited spectrum of women who represent respectability and non-respectability that the meme proposes. There are a lot of women between and beyond Amber Rose and Michelle Obama that a little girl could grow up to be like and all of them are worthy of the same respect and love.