Black Television’s Bi-Problem

Lately, I’ve noticed a trend in Black television shows that focus on the love lives of cis-heterosexuals. Girl meets boy, girl and boy go on date or are already dating, then girl notices something about the boy. Maybe there is something about his affect that makes her think he has an affinity for men. Maybe he wears what would be described as women’s feminine underwear. Maybe he had an experience with another man once and that shatters her confidence in what she thought she knew about his sexuality. Maybe it isn’t even speculation because boy tells girl clearly, “I am fluid, bi-sexual, queer, pansexual, etc.” Whatever the case may be, whatever the show, the woman’s reaction is nearly the same every time. A rejection of the man because she cannot get beyond her rigid ideas of masculinity and what she thinks a man ought to be. I like to call this “Black television’s bi- problem” although it’s honestly an LGBT problem, I’m a sucker for alliteration so here we are. It has presented itself on numerous occasions over the years but the last 4-5 years where it has been most poignant as a new generation of television creatives has hit the scene.

In 2016 we encountered the problem in Issa Rae’s Insecure. During a dinner date between headstrong attorney Molly and sweet Enterprise Rental bae Jared, they asked each other about past sexual experiences. Molly confessed to making out with a girl in college which Jared reacted gleefully to–of course. But when Jared shared that he received oral sex from a guy in his early 20s, Molly flew off the handle. Molly presumed he was gay and cut him off.

Fast forward to 2020 in Love is Blind when Carlton, after proposing to Diamond and during their honey half-moon, tells Diamond that he is fluid. Diamond is in a state of shock about this and tries to work through it with Carlton, but she is brutally rebuffed by him in part because of her response and in part because of what seemed like his failure to work on himself.

Finally, Black television’s sexuality problem is currently playing out on not one, but two Black Entertainment Television (BET) shows that air consecutively, Tyler Perry’s Sistas and Lena Waithe’s Twenties. In Perry’s Sistas, doe-eyed Sabrina meets pretty AF Calvin during her shift at the shadiest looking bank in Atlanta. Calvin first encounters her co-worker Maurice, a flamboyantly gay man who thought Calvin was interested in him until Calvin specifically requests to see Sabrina. After some small talk and what looked like the most unsecured transaction for a bank deposit, Sabrina agrees to a date with Calvin but suggests he meet her at a bar she will be at with her friends. In good girlfriend fashion, she tells her friends about her concern regarding Calvin’s sexuality and once they meet him they issue a snap judgment that he is gay. This, of course, gets into Sabrina’s head. Fast-forward to her first sexual encounter with Calvin and it is revealed that he wears lacy bikini underwear. For Sabrina, this certifies Calvin as gay and solidifies the driving plot of the relationship. Calvin goes through pains to prove he is not gay by giving an account of himself and Sabrina keeps looking through the dim light of those doe eyes for all the things she believes make a man gay, ignoring the man’s account of himself. Every episode of this series 20+ episodes manages to revisit Sabrina’s tired perception of Calvin’s sexuality.

The scenario in Waithe’s Twenties is probably the most inconspicuous of the trends, which may only be because the lead on the show is Hattie, a queer Black woman who is not hiding her sexuality amidst her striving in an otherwise heteronormative world. It is, however, Hattie’s friend Marie and her boyfriend Chuck who seem to be wrestling with both sex and sexuality. Early on we discover that Marie and Chuck have an uneventful sex life which viewers might attribute to Marie’s high-strung personality. But as the show progresses we see stereotypical hints at Chuck being the reason why their sex life is suffering. Chuck sings songs adjacent to show tunes. Chuck gravitates toward certain self-help books. Chuck seems to be soft and effeminate. And in an episode,  Chuck lights up when he and Marie watch a porno featuring a threesome of two men and one woman. That scene ends with a tight shot on Marie’s face showing a look of concern and revelation that implies, “Oh my goodness, my boyfriend might be gay.”

Each of the aforementioned shows fumbles the ball on the matter of sexuality by relying on tropes and stereotypes regarding gay and bisexual people. They cast their hetero character as ignorant at best and intolerant at worst regarding the spectrum of sexual experience and what it means to allow someone to give an account of themselves. Some shows have tried to clean this up, such as in Insecure when Issa tries to help Molly over the hump of her closed view on sexuality by lacing together some good Women Studies language on the topic.

So she’s supposed to stop seeing Jared just because he doesn’t subscribe to the heteronormative rejection of sexual fluidity.

But to no avail, Molly lets Jared go because she is unable to fathom the idea of his heterosexuality being uninterrupted by an experience marked as gay. She is unable to allow the man to give an account of himself through his own words that it was “one time, one man.” The other show that has demystified Black television’s bi-problem is Lena Waithe’s other series, Boomerang which avoids the issue by confronting it head-on with Ari, the Prince-like, bi-curious character who wrestles with his sexuality in ways that might be identifiable to those who’ve had similar experiences. Ari’s struggle may be portrayed well because the executive producer of the show, after Lena Waithe, is an out gay Black man, Ben Corey Jones. So Jones’ consultation and direction in this regard may be Boomerang‘s saving grace.

We have no resolve from Love is Blind‘s Carlton and honestly, the internet is already full of think pieces about how Carlton’s revelation about sexual fluidity was received by Diamond and Black women the world over, so I won’t rehash that.

In all of this, I am concerned about what we are teaching people with these portrayals of our community’s bi-problem. And as I write this it occurred to me what the bi-problem might signify. The bi- is not for bisexual but it is for the binary construct that structures portrayals of love in our community. The binary is that one is either straight or gay, there is nothing in between, there is no spectrum and there is no need to wrestle with one’s narrow view of sexuality expressed by Black men. In shows that center heteronormative love, men must fit neatly into a heteronormative box. Anything that transgresses the boundaries of the box becomes a red flag, a thing to be contested, a way to reject a subject because the primary subjects are so tightly wound in the hetero world. Yet I wonder how we can better portray and tell the story of love in consideration of a vast expression of male sexuality, whether that sexuality can be clearly marked or not. Maybe we can even wrestle with the root cause of our need for Black men in these shows to show up as heterosexual Alpha males through and through, which sometimes means these men carry toxic masculinity traits. How can we create a space where we allow the Black man to dwell in liminal spaces and not always be subject to the tired narrative of who he ought to be as a Black man?

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It’s fascinating to me that we are another decade into the 21st century and we are still rehearsing the same issues, making heteronormativity the predominant discourse in Black entertainment and casting anything outside of that identity as an aside or an issue to be managed. Is art imitating life? Have we not really progressed in these matters? Does this mean that shows that feature a queer or questioning character require an LGBTQ writer, executive producer, or showrunner? If the answer is “Yes”  does that let cis-heteros off the hook and still susceptible to making the same mistakes?

It seems I have more questions than I have answers but I am not above wrestling with this as someone who consumes her fair share of television and as someone whose work is concentrated in sexual ethics. The matter of how Black male sexuality is represented on Black television and in Black culture matters. I believe this is a fair discussion to have in consideration of the proliferation of character-based programming coming at us from every angle and streaming service. If we are to persist in the production and consumption of this programming, we have to demand better representation of the stories of everyone and not allow heteronormativity to be the dominating framework.

And maybe there’s a possibility that these shows are actually setting us up well to have the discussions about sex and sexuality that our community sometimes like to avoid. If that is the case, it really is time we have a talk.

Not “Just the Tip”: A Clarion Call to Cavalier Men in the Anti-Abortion Age

“Let me just put the tip in for five seconds, I’m not going to bust that quickly.”

“I know my body.”

“My pull-out game is on point.”

These are words I have heard during sex from the mouths of men ranging in age from 28-44. Three different men trying to convince me that I should trust them enough to have unprotected sex with them. One of these men even stealthed me–if you are not familiar with stealthing it is the practice of a man taking a condom off mid-sex although their partner only consented to sex with the condom on.[1] This same man begged me to allow him to “just put the tip in,” then looked in my eyes and said, “What are you scared of getting pregnant?” I looked at him incredulously and said, “Why yes, yes I am scared of getting pregnant amongst other things, I have short-term goals that don’t include having a baby with you.” He laughed and persisted with his “just the tip” antics. These are three men within the last year and a half, a surprising number because they most likely represent a microcosm of the men who persuade women to have unprotected sex with them as if it is not a zero-sum game.

Incidents such as these have always been worth our attention as they reveal the cavalier nature of men who prefer condomless sex while ignoring the consequences of unprotected sex.[2]  It is worth our immediate attention and interrogation as women’s reproductive rights and bodily control are in danger now more than ever. I live in Georgia, a state that recently passed the heartbeat bill which bans abortion as early as six weeks into pregnancy. The above sexual encounters all happened in Georgia and, no disrespect to the men involved, I am pretty sure that if I were pregnant as a result of unprotected sex with them, they would not exactly rush to father their children. These are men who put pleasure before protection, believing at the moment that their condomless sex has no consequences or that the only consequence is pregnancy, forgetting sexually transmitted infections among other issues. These are men who, for all intents and purposes, have put themselves in the same seat of control and power that many women are fighting against in the larger reproductive rights war. In each of these intimate encounters, I was fighting for my reproductive rights by asking my partner to wear a condom, a fight that was often futile because some men love pleasure, power, and control more than they love women. Thus it makes me realize that the people who need the reproductive regulation and control are not women, but men, men such as those above who are so bold as to desire and beg for unprotected sex yet most likely would not exercise a similar boldness if they found out the child was theirs. Men who are also not on the frontlines fighting against the forces that want to control women’s bodies, because if they were to do so, they would acknowledge the ways in which they MUST relinquish their desire to control in the bedroom and outside of it.

I have always been cognizant of my body’s reproductive capacity and I have always been careful, particularly as a woman in protracted singleness who does not have a biological clock set for reproduction. At best I am ambivalent about having children, at worst I may not want them at all. But, if I ever bring a child into the world it will be because I decided to with another human being not because it was decided for me. The men mentioned above, their ilk, and the state–which includes both men and women, put my ability to decide and control for myself at stake while men remain free subjects. Most of us learned in Biology, Anatomy & Physiology, or Sex Education how reproduction works. Typically it involves two people with complementary organs that facilitate the process of reproduction, yet the heartbeat bill and other anti-abortion legislation only impinge upon the bodies of one population,  women, and not the men who constitute the necessary other half of the formula.[3] 

Where are the reproductive restrictions for men? Where are the laws that regulate and control penises the way my uterus is currently being controlled? Where is my protection from the cavalier men of the world who are begging just to put the tip in or who are convinced that their pullout game is strong? I understand I am responsible for exercising agency in choosing to engage with these men, but while I exist in a world that is, bit by bit, taking control of my body, I think we should start thinking about how to spread the regulation to control the uncontrollable male body. I am tired of men’s private(s) and public power going unchecked–because rest assured, there is a faction of the same men who exercise public power over women who are most likely exploiting their power over women in private. You do not become the type of person who is comfortable with controlling women’s bodies in the public sphere without being the type of person in the private sphere who wields similar insidious, abusive power–ask the Catholic Church. Anyways, back to the lecture at hand.

If, as it alleges in some anti-abortion bills, a woman who miscarries is in danger of committing a felony–even though she largely has no control of that–then shouldn’t we be reporting men and having them convicted in the court of law for that which they perceive themselves to have control of–their penises, the wearing of condoms, the flow of their semen, etc? I’m here for Georgia state representative Dar’Shun Kendrick’s “testicular bill of rights” that would include a ban on vasectomies, force men to obtain written permission from their sexual partners before getting a prescription for an erectile dysfunction medication, and make sex without a condom punishable under law as “aggravated assault.” Like Dar’Shun, I am not pushing an anti-male agenda, I am advocating for a human rights agenda that interrogates how regulating reproduction problematically defaults to women and reiterates the practice of controlling women’s bodies while allowing men to run recklessly free. I desire to bring men into the larger conversation about women’s reproductive rights since so many of them have so much to say during the sexual act that typically begets the reproductive act. I am interested in talking about how, if governing bodies are really concerned about life and possibility–which we all know is not their concern because no anti-abortion legislation includes increasing support for mothers via covered healthcare, childcare, etc.–they should actually pay more attention to men’s role in the reproductive process. I want men to hold themselves responsible by relinquishing their power to control and their desire for pleasure.

At the end of the day, I don’t want the state to control any of our bodies. I’m not interested in a both/and plan where women cannot have abortions and men cannot spill their semen. I want the preoccupation with and control of women’s bodies to end, but in the absence of that, I want men to take a critical look at their role in the process of reproduction. I want the same government that has so much to say about a woman’s womb to look at their fallible phalluses and make them a subject of the state in the same way my uterus is a subject and is now subject to the state of Georgia. I want them to acknowledge how the issue is not with women but it is with men, their desire to control and their abuse of power which goes from the bedroom to the bench–the Supreme Court bench where the heartbeat bills may edge us toward an overturning of Roe v. Wade which will throw women’s reproductive rights and personhood into infinite precarity, and efficiently take away women’s control of their own bodies.

What I want is for men, such as the three who inspired this essay, to recognize their role in women’s reproductive rights. The role does not start at the polls, it starts in private in instances such as I mentioned earlier. It starts by taking seriously the requests of women during sexual encounters. It then branches out to the way that you advocate for women in public spaces. It starts by believing and understanding that the war on women’s reproductive rights is about women but not just about women. The war ought to be fought not just by women but by men who are just as zealous about our vaginas in the streets as they are in the sheets.

[1] https://www.elitedaily.com/news/is-stealthing-illegal-how-guys-get-in-trouble/1892968

[2] I am intentionally using the language of “condomless sex” and “unprotected sex” because it occurs to me that the former is a euphemism for men whom see pleasure as a first end. When these men ask for or demand sex without a condom they imply that their pleasure not the possibility of procreation comes first. And though these men probably theoretically know the possible negative consequence of unprotected sex, they seem to suspend that knowledge for their pleasure even as their partner encourages otherwise.

[3] And it should go without saying that I am referring to reproduction through the sexual act not reproduction through insemination, in vitro fertilization, etc. Reproduction through the sexual act involves, ideally, two people who have entered the sexual event consensually and two people who are aware of the possible consequences of having sex which

Teaching Christian Sexual Ethics: Reflecting on Week One

Last Thursday marked the beginning of my time as an adjunct professor teaching Christian Sexual Ethics at the Candler School of Theology. I’m grateful for the opportunity to teach this class not only because once upon a time I was a Candler student who wished that such a course was offered during my matriculation, but also because I understand the necessity and value of a course such as this at such a time as this. So, with the first week behind me yet ever on my mind, I want to reflect on it.

The first day of class is often “getting to know you” time and my first day of class was no different. I spent time, with varying levels of success, introducing students to the overall structure of the class, though in telling them about the structure of the class I completely missed telling them about the class as in, “What is Christian Sexual Ethics?” I did a brief lecture that laid a foundation for the first quarter of the class, the section that will deal with historical documents that have influenced the discourse of and on Christian Sexual Ethics. I trotted out the usual suspects: The ones such as Paul, Plato, and Augustine who set the body against the soul or flesh against the spirit. Aquinas and his virtue-based approach to the body and sex. Then we quickly went through how sexual ethics turns topical in the 19th-21st century. Finally I asked the students, what is it that they want and need from the course. The answers were varied. We spent the second half of class discussing a few chapters in Michael Coogan’s God and Sex, a book that I recommend to people who are interested in beginning their study, in sober fashion, of what the Bible really says about sex. It was a lively discussion where students shared their understanding of the text, their theoretical perspectives adjacent to it, and personal experiences within their lives and their contexts.

It felt like a good class but it was only the first day. Since the class I have been thinking about the kind of space I want to create for the students, something that I could not have decided until I had an opportunity to meet and engage with them in the classroom. Now that I have done that once I am reflecting on what I think the task of a Christian Sexual Ethics teacher is, particularly as I see the ways in which students are hungry for knowledge, knowledge that will deconstruct the myth and production of sex and sexuality as the Christian Church has constructed it, for the sake of church contexts they may be leading or will lead in the future, and the knowledge that will give them a new ethical code to follow.

It is my belief that in teaching Christian Sexual Ethics one does not, necessarily, just prescribe a way forward. That is, the job of the person who teaches Christian Sexual Ethics is not to promote what to think but it is to promote how to think about what we have been thinking about the discourse at large. It is to test and approve or disapprove the ethic of Christian Sexual Ethics, particularly that which is prone to be regulatory. Thus I promote no new ethic that can be conceived of as in line with a new normal or that which would be conceived of as liberal, but I desire to take every side of the discourse, consider it in context, consider it outside of its context regarding the way it has been taught, and then think through the ways in which we might move forward with or from it.

I consider what one student said on the first day about presenting “alternative ideas,” which, in her definition, was not about actual alternative ideas but about how we make room for those who believe in the tradition–or what more progressive to liberal Christians might call the “conservative” teachings of the church. How do we talk to those for whom abstinence before marriage is still the model, purity is de riguer, marriage is between one man and one woman, etc? I felt this student deeply because it reminded me that space must be made for a multitude of views and that there is a possibility that someone could believe in the traditional teachings of the church on sexual ethics and if that is the case, how do we make room for that and ensure that if one stays close to traditional views they do no harm in the process? Because I am under no delusion that one can remain within the realm of tradition or the traditional and not toe the line of doing harm that can do violence either physically or metaphysically. How do we hold views that may be considered more liberal without making them the norm and categorical imperative? How do we help people own their sexuality wherever they fall on the spectrum not presuming that an interest abstinence denotes being a prude or a robust sex life denotes a whore? Can we break the binary that both implicitly and explicitly suggests to be tradition is to be repressed and to be liberal is to be liberated? Is there something in between all of this?

To teach Christian Sexual Ethics toward the end of liberation cannot always mean teaching liberal, it includes teaching what is considered liberal but it is not only that. It talks to tradition and contends with it and permits space for separating the wheat from the chaff in those teaching so that it might be possible to utilize the theoretical frameworks of a tradition to more liberating ends. Just as we are fully human and fully divine beings, we require a full conversation that includes all we can consider about how we move through the world as the embodied divine, little words made flesh. With this in mind we move forward entrusting one another with a full range of being and thinking through who and how we are on this earth and we wrestle with that on every level. We create space to wrestle with the implications of our commitments to our bodies and to God and to help determine for ourselves how to reconcile these two seemingly disparate modes. It is not only about how we live as faithful and sexual beings but how we think about how we live in accordance with that way of being.

At the conclusion of this course I hope that students might be able to articulate where they have been and where they are going in light of the sources and resources that have been set before them over the course of the semester and that given all of this they might leave different than they came, whatever that looks like.

So once more unto the breach I go to teach Christian Sexual Ethics, hoping that I do the topic justice, uncovering what is unjust and just about our reflections on and utilization of sexual ethics in our tradition and hoping that I help students see a way forward for themselves and their contexts.

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