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.

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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. 

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:

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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.

Selma Wasn’t Snubbed, It Just Is What It Is

Academy Award nominations were announced this morning and with it came headlines that Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” was snubbed. Before I knew of what and who was nominated I knew that “Selma” was snubbed so I nearly assumed that the movie didn’t get any nominations, yet that wasn’t the case. “Selma” received two nominations, one for Best Picture and another for Best Original Song. This is still significant and it looks like DuVernay thought enough of the nominations to symbolically gift them to the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on his birthday.

Alas, everyone else is on the snubbed life and up in arms, but I wonder if this is the reaction we need for something that is par for the course. My title says, “It is what it is,” which is what I say when I decide to just accept something as it is.

2012 demographics of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences

More often than not black films, actors, directors, etc are snubbed more than they are nominated. It is to be expected given the demographics of  organizations such as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. An organization that, despite its black female president Cheryl Boone Isaacs, boasts a predominantly white and over age 60 while male voting membership. It is what it is. Thus it makes me wonder if we need to stop looking for approval by way of these white men and their awards and just affirm ourselves–and also not snub the value of awards that come from black organizations such as the NAACP Image Awards and the like. Popular opinion–also usually the opinion of white people in positions of power–would have it that a nomination and award from the Hollywood Foreign Press and/or AMPAS is proof that we’ve arrived, but to set our sights on that approval as a sign of achievement is a disservice to ourselves. Reality is, we don’t need a Golden Globe or an Academy Award to know that we’ve arrived and done well. And we have to stop hoping for “them” to pat us on the back for telling our own stories. We are worth more than a piece of globe or man-shaped gold. We are history makers and we never needed an award to be the pioneers that we are.

Making history is what we do. We’ve gone from the people who were the victims in history to the people who are slowly carving out victory status in history–even while we are yet still victims. Whether we are making history for turning a hashtag into a movement that declares the value of black lives or because we directed great actors and actresses to retell our history through cinematic re-interpretation, we’ve never needed an award to advance and make known the power of our voices. Who we are seeking recognition from has to change.

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As a close friend said this morning, “Winning. #thatsall”

We don’t have another moment to hope someone will nominate us or throw us an award for work we already know is good. Not another moment to speak of a “snub,” how white the Oscar will be this year, how discriminatory the academy may be, nothing. I say this because I’m tired of us waiting for someone to acknowledge our greatness when it has always been inside us. We don’t need anyone to give us an award to know we are good. We may want the award but we really don’t need it and it really shouldn’t change anything in a world where the scales are rarely tipped in our favor. The biggest mistake we can make nowadays is to be fooled into believing we’ve been snubbed because the collective “they” didn’t recognize us. We aren’t being snubbed, they are snubbing themselves in failing to acknowledge us. We lose nothing, they are the ones missing out. “Selma” was not snubbed because no value was taken away from the film in not getting an Academy Award nomination. Ava DuVernay was doing incredible work before the Hollywood Foreign Press and AMPAS ever thought to nominate her and she will continue to do incredible work. The same goes for David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Oprah Winfrey, et al.

The greatness of our work doesn’t hinge on its acceptance by some board of old white men but in our confidence in our own work and its power to teach and transform our own community. I’ve seen more people talk about how “Selma” has convicted and moved them to action than anything else and I think that’s the best award.

So Long Sabon: Perfume and Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

ZOHAR

The best Musk fragrance ever

I discovered Sabon about five years ago while aimlessly wandering the streets of NY. I was coaxed in by the beautiful smells and the floor to ceiling wood paneling filled with artisan soaps, body butters, and fragrances. I was invited to stay by the store clerks who guided me to the trademark stone sink in the middle of the store where they exfoliate, wash, and moisturize customer’s hands with a variety of sumptuous products. My first time in Sabon I tried a daily perfume called Zohar, a musk fragrance. If you know anything about musk, you know that the fragrance can be hit or miss. But the store clerk encouraged me to try it out for the day and see how I liked it. After an entire day with it just spritzed on my wrists, I loved it. It was fresh and persisted through the heat of a NY summer without ever faltering. A few days later I returned to the store and bought a bottle of Zohar. Since then I have regularly ordered Zohar online or visited the store in NY if I’m in the area, but for the last six months or so, Zohar has been out of stock online. I was in NY a few weeks ago so I figured I’d visit the store and buy a bottle as I had in times past, but such was not the case.

“We haven’t had any shipments come to the store in about six months,” the store clerk said. “Six months?!” I responded in exasperation. A first world dilemma was upon me for I was about to be without my favorite fragrance for an indefinite period of time. She told me to put my name on the waiting list and she would let me know when it came back in stock. That store was at 70th & Broadway and I walked down to the 57th and 6th Avenue location to see if I would be met by the same fragrance-less fate. I was.

“We haven’t had it for a long time, matter of fact, we haven’t had any perfumes for a long time.” At this point I had to ask, “Why?” The store clerk told me that the fragrance ships directly from Israel and sometimes the shipment gets held up in barrels at customs. My mind flashed back to the boxes the perfume comes in and the writing that indicates the manufacturer location in both English and Hebrew characters. Of course. Why didn’t I think about that? Who has time to deal with your exports when you are in the midst of a crisis such as is occurring now? Then the reality set in. It’s made in Israel. What then is my ethical responsibility? Do I continue to patronize Sabon assuming it means nothing in the grand scheme of things? Or do I stop patronizing Sabon until there is a lasting end of the violence and a return of the land to Palestinians–or an agreement to the two-state solution? Some might think these are big questions to pose over a little bottle of perfume but, to me, they are important to how I place my stake in the sand on this issue and they stem from a longer personal connection with the region.

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West Bank Barrier watchtower

In the summer of 2012 I traveled to the Middle East as part of a travel seminar for seminary students and lay leaders. We traveled to Jordan, the Sinai-region of Egypt, Israel, and Greece. During that trip we went to the West Bank along the barrier that separates Israelis from Palestinians. As our guide told us, Palestinians are shuffled through the barrier like cattle, sometimes people are arrested, and all the time Palestinian people are made to feel less than human so that the Israelis can maintain their sense of peace and security during the occupation. Hearing the stories about how people’s houses are demolished on a moment’s notice–and within moments of that destruction they are given bills to pay for a destruction they didn’t order, seeing the barriers and the water towers that are controlled by Israelis, and the graffiti painted on the walls with outcries for return, redemption, and a sense of freedom, it was hard for me not to choose a side. After all, I’m a black person in America who isn’t too far removed from the enslavement of my ancestors and the daily systematic oppression of darker people. I say this not to compare the struggles but to make an empathic connection. I know it’s not a black and white issue–in terms of simply marking one side good and the other bad–but I can’t ignore the overwhelming power one side has over the other and the ways in which that power usurps one very important dynamic, love.

 

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West Bank barrier in Bethlehem

This picture has been my Facebook cover photo for the last two years because it represents the one thing the IP conflict and the world needs, love. I don’t care how cliche it sounds, it’s true. You can’t say that the Israel, a nation of people who live under the belief that they are God’s chosen people, are acting out of love. How does love order the destruction of people’s homes, kill women and children and hundreds of civilians, and cling to selfish desires? How does love see violent retaliation as a reasonable response without recalling that an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind? Love is missing. Love of the land which would require gracious stewardship and sharing. Love of humanity which would demand an interest in the preservation of lives in general but especially those of children, our future. I see love missing on both sides even though I am also clear about the position that I am taking. I have a heart for Palestine–DO NOT READ THIS AS “I HAVE A HEART FOR HAMAS.” I take seriously what it means to speak of this conflict as a “humanitarian crisis” and watch the bodies–largely Palestinian and children–pile up. As a Christian I can’t idly stand by and say I believe in what or how Israel is fighting to not share land. I won’t be scared into the silence that many have taken up on this matter. I’ve seen too many Christians and people of color stay silent when they have more in common with Palestinians than not. I know no one wants to take sides because people are scared or they feel they don’t now enough about the conflict but I implore everyone to arm themselves with wisdom, knowledge, and most importantly, love. Maybe the loving way is not to choose a side–or to stop buying perfume–but it is to do more than sit idly while lives are being taken and communities are being destroyed on the daily. And this brings me to my concluding point, the point that started all of this.

My decision to stop buying Sabon products is what I feel I can do at the moment–aside from prayer and staying abreast, it’s my version of divestment. As Americans we know how to pour into our leisurely and luxury goods without much thought as to where they come from, who it supports, and who that money can help–and chances are most of us can only afford to buy our luxury/leisurely goods or donate to charity, not both. It’s true that I don’t know if Sabon has a vested interest in the conflict in Gaza but as long as it remains an Israeli-based business–with more stores in Israel than anywhere–I can no longer be a patron. We vote with our money even when we remain silent and on this day I choose not to remain silent and personally divest from Sabon. Instead I will look toward donating money to causes supporting Palestinians and Gaza because however this conflict ends, Gaza will need to be rebuilt; Palestinian women, children, and family will need resources to start over again; and some semblance of peace will need to be restored. (Shout outs to a friend who compiled this list, it’s not exhaustive and as she suggested, everyone should do their own research, but it’s a start to putting our dollars in the places that need them most over putting them toward the things we want the most.)

Palestinian Children’s Relief Fund

ANERA-American Near East Refugee Aid

United National Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East

Muslim Aid: Gaza appeal 

Medical Aid for Palestinians UK