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Thursday, May 24, 2007

Throwback to the past

Going through my Elan archives, I found this interview I conducted with sex psychologist Dr. Gail Wyatt in 2000. During a phone conversation, we discussed her book Stolen Women: Reclaiming Our Sexuality, Taking Back Our Lives. As I read over the interview, I realized how pertinent this book still is today. Below is an excerpt of our discussion:

How intricately connected is race with our sexuality, in the ways that we are defined as African-American women?

Sexuality is very integral to the identity of African-American women because of the stereotypes that have been promoted about us for centuries. This issue of sexuality should not be such a central defining point as it is for the African-American woman. However, given our history of slavery in this country and our sexual abuse and sexual ownership by other people, we have had a difficult time establishing and reclaiming our own rights to our sexuality and, along with that, the factual information that accurately describes our sexuality. So we are still countering misinformation that flourishes and continues to flourish about us in the media and we are still having to argue the point that we are not as sexual as we are assumed to be.

Continuing the issue of Black women and stereotypes, given the way that we’ve been negated and diminished throughout history, are we now starting to take control of our own images and, if so, in what ways?

I don’t think we are trying to take control of our images. No, unfortunately, I don’t see much progress in that area at all.

Not even now with more African-American women writing more movies and books?

I think we're writing about sexuality more, I think we're talking about it more, but I don't think we're reclaiming it because I think reclamation is defined as a process - that of understanding sexuality, and then expressing it, as well as controlling the images of it and the way that it is expressed and represented in the media. We have not taken an active part in that process of understanding, of reclaiming and of controlling the images.

Then how can we begin to take control?

Well, African-American women first of all need to understand their own sexuality, and we have not gone through this process. There’s a process of healing and a process of self-discovery as well as a process of group discovery that people have written about, that we have talked about among ourselves. It is that process that I think still needs to occur in every individual’s life.

Before we can start taking control?

Exactly. And when we do start to take control of our sexuality, then we will be a lot more vocal about the images that still flourish, those images that say African-American women’s breasts really ought to hang out, that our behinds should be defined by our clothes, and that our morals are very loose. Not to say that there are not women who actually live these stereotypes and who have attitudes and behaviors that perpetuate them, but we are not all like that. We don’t see the other end of the continuum and our daughters and our little sisters are exposed to information that makes the assumption that this is the way in which they should grow up.

Speaking of younger women, recent studies show that the teen pregnancy rate is dropping, especially in the African-American community. What do you think is contributing to this decline?

Well, I think we have more national programs that address the issue of contraception. Also, I think family planning has played an instrumental role in addressing teen pregnancy, as have some programs in the U.S. that have targeted teens in the last decade. We are now seeing the benefits of that targeting, which should have been done more in the past and which we should continue to do. Just because the rates are finally declining doesn’t mean that the rates aren’t extremely high, especially in communities of color. They are still too high. There is no reason in the world why a highly industrialized nation like the United States still has the number 1 rate of teen pregnancy and the number 1 rate of abortions. Obviously, we are still suffering from a lot of misinformation about sexuality and what responsibility people should have over it.

Given our society’s supposed sophistication about sex, it seems somewhat contradictory, if not hypocritical, that commercials regarding contraception and safe sex are still taboo, at least on the major networks. Is this self-imposed prudery hurting us as a society and are we undereducated as a society?

Yes. Our government really has not articulated a stance and, unfortunately, when Jocelyn Elders attempted to address some of these issues, you can see what happened to her. It is very prophetic that a Black woman was the one who tried to make very strong statements about our need to address sexuality - and the role it is supposed to play. Are people supposed to be educated about sexuality and given options? Or are we simply going to promote abstinence, which we already know doesn’t work. At least half of teenagers in the U.S. are sexually active by the age of 16. Abstinence may be effective for some people, but we don’t want to say that people should remain abstinent for the rest of their lives, especially since many people do not have the opportunity to marry. So, what is our message to them? Basically, we need a variety of messages that help people make informed decisions about sex and show the consequences of their actions. We need messages that extend beyond the point where the government is willing to go.

Essentially the government has passed the responsibility on to the states, and the states, in turn, have passed it on to the parents. And a lot of parents haven’t spoken out at all. We have heard more from parents who have said that they want to be the ones to control the information given to their children. Then these same parents go off to work and allow their children to look at the internet and educate themselves. So, kids are getting an education from watching television, from watching movies, and, although parents say they want to control the information, they don’t.

Sexual abuse is, unfortunately, not only a part of our community, but seems almost accepted in that it is not diligently reported and consistently condemned. Sometimes it seems we are penalized for speaking out for not being strong and just “grinning and bearing it”. What has your studies shown regarding the effects of rape and other sexual abuse against women and girls and the price of our silence?

Well, my research has shown that 1 in 3 women in their lifetime will experience at least one incident of sexual abuse, either before they are 18 or after they reach legal adulthood. Those rates are very high and they are higher than the likelihood that a woman will finish college. That is a very sad commentary in terms of what we can expect regarding ownership of our own bodies. It says that at some point, someone is going to take control of our bodies and, as a result, many women will suffer from very traumatic and harmful experiences and will have difficulty reclaiming their own bodies. The silence around this issue still comes from a lot of people assuming that sometimes these incidents are not as harmful as they really are. These people have not heard enough about the effects of traumatic sexual experiences on a person’s ability to make healthy decisions later in their lives should they decide to become sexually active on their own.

Read the rest of the interview.

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Sharon Cullars Coffee Talk at 5/24/2007 09:09:00 PM Permanent Link     | | Home


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