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Lecturer discusses concept of black female sexuality

| Friday, February 6, 2015

Gabriel Torres, director of undergraduate studies in anthropology, explored Thursday the intersection of race and sexuality and how these shape perceptions of black female sexuality in a lecture titled, “My Anaconda Don’t: Portrayals of Black Female Sexuality, from Saartjie Baartman to Beyonce.”

The lecture was the first in a series of talks and discussions hosted by Notre Dame’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)  in honor of Black History Month. The discussions center on topics such as black sexuality, reproduction, love and family and were co-sponsored by the NAACP, Africana Studies department, the Africana Studies student organization, Multicultural Student Programs and Services and the Gender Studies department.

Torres said perceptions of black female sexuality in contemporary culture historically has been shaped by racism.

“Race has always been gendered,” Torres said. “Racism has never existed in a non-gendered form. Everywhere we find an ideology of discrimination of one group of bodies against another. There are always sexual and gendered norms that go along with it.”

Torres said current conversations on race are “grossly misunderstood.” He said that, although he recognizes there are certain trends in perceptions of black women across the world, current conversations on black female sexuality do not take into consideration the multiple cultural perspectives that shape black female identity.

“There is no ‘black female,'” he said.  “We know that there is more diversity, heterogeneity and differences in lived experiences that determine what black female accounts for.”

Torres said perceptions of black women and black female sexuality are largely influenced by the white European colonial perspective, which has consistently devalued and sought to both desexualize and hyper-sexualize black women.

Torres said in order to gain a better picture of how black sexuality is shaped, observers should look at cultural expression in everyday life. He said that, although iconic figures such as Beyoncé have shaped ideas of black sexuality, it is critical to look at the context in which these ideas surface and grow.

“I am going to suggest to you that [everyday life] is the primary site we should all be paying attention to when thinking about the embodiment of difference, the embodiment of blackness, the embodiment of gendered blackness,” he said. “… There has to be a socially and culturally viable way of understanding black sexuality and black female sexuality that helps us put Beyoncé in a political, social and cultural landscape.”

Torres referenced the works of prominent black feminists such as Andrea Elizabeth Shaw and Patricia Hill Collins. Torres said Shaw and Collins provide critical insights on not only race, but also on how race, gender and body politics function in modern society.

“In contemporary times, hyper-sexuality is much more multifaceted,” he said.

Torres said dominant indexes exist that shape people’s receptions of black women in contemporary culture, including the invisibility/bitch index and the desexualized/hyper-sexualized index. The first refers to whether a black woman is perceived as threatening or non-threatening, while the desexualized/hyper-sexualized index refers to how people perceive black female sexuality depending on body type and social presentation.

Torres said these indexes have shaped black women’s experiences and how they decide to portray themselves in order to achieve acceptance. Torres said the hyper-sexualized index is “much more multifaceted” and involves a complex relationship between black women and sexuality.

“No matter how you sit in between these extremes, the way it’s set up in our society is that who you are and your experiences are out of your control,” he said.

Torres later opened the floor for discussion and debated how the representation and perceptions of black women in different areas of life, such as entertainment, politics and STEM fields, could help overcome these extremes.

“How do we change the frame through which these images — these extremes — are experienced?” Torres said. “To what extent does a black woman have the right to objectify herself without being judged?”       


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