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The Historical Roots of the Sexualization of Black Women and Girls

Last week, we explored how the way that our society views Black girls as more mature and less innocent than their white peers may allow predators such as R. Kelly to exploit them. Research has shown that Black girls are viewed through a hypersexual lens — and as a result, are less likely to be believed when they report sexual assault. This begs the question: where exactly does this belief stem from, and how can we combat it?

Like many issues involving race in our country, the view of Black women and girls as hypersexual has its roots in racism. Understanding how our culture came to believe that Black women and girls were more sexually advanced can help us to eradicate this harmful way of thinking — and protect ALL women and girls from sexual violence.

Before the slave trade took hold in America, European travelers to Africa were both fascinated and appalled by the dress and practices of the Africans that they encountered there. The minimal amounts of clothing worn by Africans (appropriate in a hot climate), the fact that some tribes practiced polygamy, and the seemingly suggestive tribal dances led these Europeans to believe that Africans were sexually lewd. William Smith wrote that African women were “hot constitution’d Ladies” who “are continually contriving stratagems how to gain a lover.” The initial stereotype of Black women as sexually promiscuous arose from these writings. Later, these notions (among others) were used to justify enslaving Africans.

During the era slavery in the United States, the idea that Black women had insatiable appetites for sex was used to justify the rape of enslaved women by their owners. For owners, this practice had the added effect of producing additional enslaved people. Under the laws of the time, any child born to an enslaved person would also be enslaved. As a result, an owner would be able to increase his personal wealth through committing horrific crimes. Because enslaved people were considered property, enslaved women could not legally be raped under the law at the time. In contrast, enslaved men who engaged in relations with white women (whether consensually or forcibly) would be put to death.

Other factors during the slavery era led to the view that Black women and girls were highly sexual. First, enslaved women and girls were frequently pregnant. This was encouraged as a way to increase the number of enslaved people on a plantation, and often rewarded. When an enslaved woman or girl became pregnant, it was often used as proof that she had an insatiable sexual appetite. At the same time, enslaved people were regularly put on auction blocks in naked or nearly-naked states. This display of Black women stood in stark contrast to white women, who were clothed nearly head to toe. It reinforced the idea that white women were modest and pure, while Black women were immodest and sexually lewd.

After the Civil War and the end of slavery, the sexual victimization of Black women and girls did not end. The crime of rape was common, yet from the end of the Civil War until the 1960’s, no Southern white male was convicted of rape or attempted rape of a Black woman or girl. If assaulted by a Black man, many Black women and girls did not report the crime to authorities, for fear that the assailant would be put to death.

The portrayal of Black women and girls as sexually promiscuous “Jezebels” continued throughout the 20th century — and is prominent to this day. Memorabilia from the 1900’s often show Black women and girls as highly sexualized, with large breasts and buttocks. They may be pregnant, have multiple children, or simply be shown as one-dimensional sexual beings. Some memorabilia from this era sexualizes children as well, depicting pregnant Black children, or young Black children with breasts covering their genitals with a paper fan. In movies and pop culture, Black women were generally depicted as highly sexualized “fallen women” — when they weren’t being shown as “mammies.” The point being made was clear, and not subtle: in American society, Black women and girls were viewed as promiscuous and sexually deviant, even from a young age. With a history like this, is it any wonder that our culture currently views Black girls in this way?

It is tempting, in 2019, to talk about racism as though it were a thing of the past. It is not. Racism seeps into our subconscious in a variety of ways, including by influencing how we think about Black women and their sexuality. By openly confronting these stereotypes, we can change the way that the next generation of Black girls are viewed — and start to undo the centuries of harm that have been inflicted on Black women and girls through these stereotypes.

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