Tuesday, September 01, 2009
Elan Reprint - Interview with Dr. Gail Wyatt
Below is part of a 2000 Elan interview that I conducted with behavioral psychologist Dr. Gail Wyatt on her then-recent book, Stolen Women, which critiqued how race and racial perceptions impacted the sexuality of African-American women. Unfortunately, many of the assertions presented in the book are still operating today, especially with a newer generation of AA girls and young women.
Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Gail Wyatt, professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral science at UCLA and author of Stolen Women: Reclaiming our Sexuality, Taking Back our Lives in which she discusses the myths surrounding Black female sexuality and how those myths have taken a toll on our identities. During our discussion, we touched on issues of race and sexuality, sexual abuse, sexual harassment as well as the relationship between Black men and women. The dialogue was an illuminating one. Below is a transcript of our phone conversation:
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.
I also think the legal system has been very discriminatory when it comes to handling cases of rape where the victim is an African-American woman. There is no question that we have a history in the U.S. of ignorance and just a basic lack of attention to rapes of African-American women. Unfortunately, the problem has not been remedied. Even with feminist groups speaking out, we still have cases where people are still in a quandary as to whether sexual harassment is really something we ought to be concerned about, especially in the African-American community. Even some women feel this way. We get real confused about whether women should speak up. So essentially, you have all kinds of people condoning silence.
That goes to my next question. We had two prominent watershed cases in the early nineties with the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings and the Mike Tyson rape case. In both instances, a Black woman stood as accuser and, in a very painful sense, as the accused. The most regretful backlash against these women came from the African-American community itself. Were you at all surprised by the public demonization of Anita Hill and Desiree Washington, who were basically branded neurotic liars, or women with an agenda? At times, it seemed that they had more support from the non-minority mainstream (with some notable exceptions, of course) than they had from their own community. What were your thoughts on these cases?
I attempted during the Clarence Thomas hearing to get some of my data to Congress so that they could hear a different perspective. In one of our studies, we found that African-American women were less likely to report sexual harassment, even when the incidents they described met the criteria of what sexual harassment is. I think they had tolerated so much confusion in this area as to whether they had a right to speak out. For so long there wasn’t anyone to report it to. We also have to recognize that the system has not been very sensitive to these issues. It has only been in the last decade or so that we really had any attention given to this. Anita Hill did us a great service by bringing sexual harassment to the forefront as did Desiree Washington with regards to rape or attempted incidents of rape. Still our community is not clear on it.
We haven’t done enough talking about it. We are just beginning to talk about sex in the church, even though a lot of abuse occurs in the church. We saw ministers supporting Mike Tyson, standing up for him and not one of them said anything about Desiree Washington. We had congressional people standing against Anita Hill. These cases demonstrate that our community doesn’t have leadership in this area. A lot of people were confused about the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal; we were on both sides of the fence. This confusion just speaks to our need to have more dialogue, certainly for people to educate themselves more and to raise our children in a very different way from the way society condones that we continue to be silent.
Do Whites and Blacks perceive sexual harassment differently, especially regarding the appropriateness of certain behaviors? Are Black women more likely to laugh off certain comments and actions that White women would take offense to? And if there is a difference in perception, is this perception cultural?
I don’t think it’s a cultural issue at all. I think it’s an issue of who has been protected and who hasn’t. I think that African-American women have had to laugh off these incidents in order to work, in order to maintain some sort of dignity. We have not had experiences where anybody has shown that they cared whether somebody groped us or propositioned us with a promise of a promotion. That’s not to say that this hasn’t happened among other women of other ethnicities, but when you don’t have anyone who believes that you have a right to your body, then it is very difficult to advocate for yourself. European-American women have a lot more privilege than African-American women do. It is not as tolerated today to sexually harass a European-American woman, and if you are in court, and you are European-American, the likelihood of your being perceived a credible person is much greater. But if an African-American woman makes the same allegations, her sex life is going to be looked into a little more carefully because of the assumptions that we don’t have control of our bodies anyway, so why should we protest if somebody else takes advantage. But there is another side to that, and that is the way some women control themselves, the statements they make at work, the gestures, the clothing…all of the things that convey to men that their bodies are available and their sexuality is palpable. For example, one day I was waiting to get into my gym and was listening to this young woman talking about how she and her man were “getting it on”. This was in a public place and everybody, all ethnicities, were looking at her. She got a lot of attention from sounding like she was a very sexual woman.
Is there a difference between African-American women of various socio-economic backgrounds in how they relate to sex?
Yes, there is definitely a difference. I think that lesser-educated, lesser-exposed women have a very different experience; they have less protection of their bodies and they have less socialization about the range of experiences that people have. There are many mixed messages out there; it’s either do nothing and wait until you get married, or ‘I had you when I was fifteen, therefore, it’s OK to bring a baby home’. You do see other people having children outside of relationships and certainly outside of marriage. I see more middle-income and professional women making decisions to have children outside of relationships simply because of the unavailability of a mate and because they can afford to care for a child, even though they are more educated and more exposed to other options and do have more protection of their bodies. And this is something that we have to talk about because there needs to be some morality around this issue.
With regards to our romantic choices, many Black women would like to be in a relationship with Black men. However, given the disproportionate male-to-female ratio, a BM/BF relationship may not always be possible. This is probably the main reason some Black women tend to feel "betrayed" when they see Black men with non-Black partners. However, these same women are hesitant to date interracially themselves. Why the hesitancy? Is it cultural, sexual, or simply personal preference?
I think it’s historical. I think it’s a mistrust of White men as well as of men of other ethnicities who have assumptions about Black women. But I think the more exposed a woman is, and the more exposed other ethnic groups are, the more likely that people will get together simply because of common interests or just being attracted to one another as individuals. But when there is a divided society where people don’t get a chance to have experiences with other groups, then people will live with stereotypes about one another and these stereotypes limit their options. So what you may see are better-educated women marrying "out" than women who are poorer, who have fewer choices.
Last question: what inspired you to write your book and how did you conceive its title, Stolen Women?
The book grew out of the research I have been doing most of my career. "Stolen" means just that – we were stolen. We were taken and placed in a situation where we had to learn to survive, learn how to operate in a very different system. We have to understand our own history, our own issues and realities in order to know what to do in this new century. I think the reason I wrote this book is that we don’t have a book like Stolen Women. It addresses issues that we continually need to battle or struggle with. Sexuality is not a secret that we need to be silent about. We need to be realistic about it and we need to help people make healthy decisions and not just condemn them when they make a mistake.