An Advent Study for HIV/AIDS

The Season for Change

Sex and the Church — Black women’s sexuality and spirituality

African-American women’s sexual history in the United States goes back to the auction block. Stripped naked, standing in full view of anyone, black women were on display as objects, slaves, property. They had no rights to their own bodies, so they had to stand there naked, exposed.

“What happened on that auction block centuries ago is still unfinished business for African-American women today,” says Dr. Gail Wyatt, author of Stolen Women: Reclaiming Our Sexuality, Taking Back Our Lives. “In a society increasingly obsessed with sex, too many people, white and black, still hold this dangerous view: that black women must either ignore their sexuality altogether or be perpetually sexually available.”

Slave women had no rights to their own bodies. At any time, a white man could force himself on a slave woman without fear of repercussions. She was his property to do with as he pleased.

A girl’s first sexual experience was likely to be rape. Therefore, virginity was not expected of black women. They had to submit to any white man who made sexual demands, otherwise they would be beaten or their family punished.

Negative image

Such demeaning experiences result in a negative image of one’s own body. The psycho-sexual trauma of slavery is embedded in our black women’s collective memory. For our foremothers, to see their nakedness was to remember the horror, pain and shame of slavery for women. These feelings have a significant impact upon one’s self-esteem in relationship to body image.

For many black women, shame and negative feelings are still associated with being naked.

Even today for many black women, shame and negative feelings are still associated with being naked. Some women will not let partners see them undress, and they can only make love in the dark.

Unfortunately, the remedy some have chosen is to cover their bodies. They don’t wear clothing that compliments their figure, because it is considered too revealing. Such clothes are what “bad girls” wear.

When I’ve visited black churches, especially in the south, I’ve seen women wearing a sleeveless dress or blouse be offered a shawl or sweater to cover their bare arms. The offer invariably comes from one of the “church mothers.”

Significant statement

In 2009, attention is being given in the United States to the arm-baring fashion choices of the nation’s first lady, Michelle Obama. I have no doubt that most people outside of the African-American community do not understand the significance of the statement that Michelle Obama’s arm-baring fashion makes. How and when did naked arms become a symbol of nakedness?

Slavery has left its toll on black people.

When did bare arms become a shame to cover and hide as if genitalia were exposed?

Dr. Cornel West, in his book Race Matters, says slavery has left its toll on black people. In the chapter, “Black Sexuality: The Taboo Subject,” he writes that slavery, “this white dehumanizing endeavor,” has left its toll “in the psychic scars and personal wounds now inscribed in the souls of black folk.” He states that such scars and wounds are “clearly etched on the canvas of black sexuality.”

The black church is the best place to see how these wounds have manifested themselves. Any talk of sexuality invariably addresses what not to do, and which sexual behavior is sinful.

The black church needs to begin embracing human sexuality, and looking at issues of human sexuality in a healthy way. Our sexuality is a God-given gift. It is not meant to be an albatross around our necks.

Most healthful path

We are born with four natural drives: hunger, sleep, thirst and sex. If we suppress any of these for too long, consequences, often not good, will result. Human beings should have balance in their lives: Whatever the pursuit, moderation most frequently is the most healthful path.

Sexuality is like a pink elephant sitting in the middle of the church.

Many church folk are sexually active, but act as if they only “praise the Lord under the sheets at night.” Yet all people are sexual creatures. When we come to church, we don’t leave our sexuality in the parking lot with the car to pick up after the benediction. Sexuality is like a pink elephant sitting in the middle of the church: Everyone sees it, but no one wants to acknowledge its presence.

No one talks about it. But everyone lives with this “unmentionable” aspect of life. It is not healthy emotionally, mentally or spiritually to deny such a wonderful part of who we were created to be. We cannot be whole people if we deny or suppress our sexuality.

We need a clearer understanding of what is meant by sexuality. It is not just about genitalia. Our sexuality is an essential part of who we are, just as much as our intellect or our personality.

Don’t suppress sexuality

I invite black women not to suppress their sexuality, but rather to strive to understand and embrace this wonderful gift from God. Sexuality is as unique and needed in all lives as our heartbeat and our DNA. Understanding sexuality, however, cannot be accomplished if we continue to suppress any candid acknowledgement that it is a God-given gift, not a thing to be associated with shame.

Shame must be replaced with joy when we think of our sexuality.

If we truly believe that we are created in the image of God, then shame must be replaced with joy when we think of our sexuality. Like Adam and Eve, we must learn to be “naked and not ashamed.” Psalm 139:14 says, “I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Marvelous are Your works!”

When asked which is the greatest commandment in the law? Jesus answered: “Thou shall love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shall love thy neighbor as thyself.” (Matthew 23:36-38)

Self-love is critical to a healthy attitude toward one’s own sexuality. To love oneself is to be able to love others as well as God. If black women are to be able to affirm the fullness of their sexuality, then they must claim that power of spirit within themselves that urges them towards a full life and wholeness. It is this inner power, propelled by self-love that moves women to not settle for anything less than an abundant life, mentally, physically, spiritually or sexually.

Union of sexuality and spirituality

The Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, in her book Sexuality and the Black Church, says, “For black women to be able to affirm themselves is for them to be in touch with that most profoundly creative source, … that which is female and self-affirming in the face of a racist, patriarchal, and anti-erotic society.”

A more powerful force can be a child’s parents.

When black women embrace the union of their sexuality and spirituality, then they can talk frankly to their children about human sexuality. If the shroud of silence is not lifted soon, then our children may be fated to the same shame, or finding their sexuality in the wrong ways, at the wrong times, and with the wrong people.

Popular culture can affect teenager’s behavior, but a more powerful force can be a child’s parents. Granted, talking to youths about sex is not the easiest thing to do. Adults have been able, though, with training to engage in such successful discussions using resources from various organizations dedicated to comprehensive human sexuality education.

Black Church Initiative

One organization that exists to help the African-American faith community with issues of sexuality education for youth and adults is the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice and its Black Church Initiative. The initiative encourages and assists African-American clergy and laity in addressing teen childbearing, sexuality education, unintended pregnancies, and other reproductive health issues within the context of African-American culture and religion.

The program's projects include the National Black Religious Summit on Sexuality, in which black clergy and laity continue the dialogue on critical issues affecting the African-American community. These include teen pregnancy, sexuality and religion, domestic violence, HIV/AIDS and other issues of reproductive health.

Many adults, of all races and religious beliefs, are not ready to discuss sexuality with youths because they still need to explore their own related issues. Some of our black mothers and grandmothers instructed us about sexuality out of fear of what may happen to us. They have passed down misinformation for generations.

I highly recommend seeking help from a certified sexual therapist. Therapists can be found through the American Assn. of Sex Educators, Counselors & Therapists website.

Pastors and religious leaders who want resources for sexuality education in their church can contact The Sexuality Information & Education Council of the U.S. (SIECUS). This national, nonprofit organization affirms that sexuality is a natural and healthy part of living. Incorporated in 1964, SIECUS develops, collects and disseminates information; promotes comprehensive education about sexuality; and advocates the right of individuals to make responsible sexual choices.

The church cannot afford to ignore the realities of sexuality in the lives of its members, and the people we serve. The late Rev. Dr. Samuel DeWitt Proctor, pastor emeritus of Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City and professor emeritus at Rutgers University, once said, “We know what the ‘oughtness’ of religious teachings are in relationship to sex, but we must minister to the ‘isness’ of people’s lives.”


Questions for reflection

 

  1. When you were a child/teenager who first explained sex to you, and what did they tell you? Was it helpful? Would you pass this same information on to a teenager in your life?
  2. As an African-American woman, have you ever thought about the impact of slavery on black women’s sexual psychic? In what other areas of black life do you see slavery’s effect?
  3. In what ways is your sexuality expressed in your everyday life?
  4. What are some steps the church can take to become more affirming of human sexuality?
  5. What issues related to human sexuality would you like to see discussed in educational seminars in your church?

Editor’s note: The Rev. Dr. Susan Newman has had a 32-year career as a pastor, a community advocate, a teacher, a chaplain, and author. A native Washingtonian, Dr. Newman is president of Sincerely Susan Ministries, and is an adjunct minister of Peoples Congregational United Church of Christ, Washington, D.C. She recently assumed the position of Interfaith Outreach Associate at the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.

Susan Newman

Newman

Hailed by Ebony magazine as one of the “Top Black Women Preachers in America,” Newman has been called “down-to-earth,” powerful,” “life-changing,” and “a reality check for the church.” She consults as an HIV/AIDS and Teen Pregnancy Prevention Educator and Trainer, and has worked with several community organizations and faith-based groups, including the D.C. Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, Planned Parenthood, AIDS Action Foundation, and Damien Ministries.

Newman has several publications, including With Heart and Hand: the Black Church Working to Save Black Children, Oh God! A Black Woman’s Guide to Sex and Spirituality, and Your Inner Eve: Discovering God’s Woman Within. She received a B.A. in Journalism from George Washington University, a Master of Divinity from Howard University School of Divinity, and a Doctor of Ministry from the United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio.

Letter to the Editor