Elevate Difference

Erotic Revolutionaries: Black Women, Sexuality, and Popular Culture

Shayne Lee, an Associate Professor of Sociology and African Diaspora Studies at Tulane University, sets out to make feminism more “chic” and release black women from the shackles of respectability in his latest book Erotic Revolutionaries: Black Women, Sexuality, and Popular Culture. To accomplish these goals, Lee applies a combination of scripting theory and third-wave feminism to numerous women in popular culture whom he sees as models of empowerment, thus diversifying black sexual politics, which he sees as too focused on women’s sexual victimization and objectification.

The introduction presents a clear foundation by providing the reader with background information regarding past and current scholarship in black female sexuality, establishing the methodology for his study, and outlining the overall trajectory for the book. Then, Lee jumps in with a quick rundown of sexuality’s social construction before treating his readers to a succession of eight relatively short chapters, each offering snappy observations of “erotic revolutionaries” from such popular culture arenas as music, sports, comedy, talk shows, and books. A few of these revolutionaries include Beyonce, Serena Williams, Wanda Sykes, Tyra Banks, Karrine Steffans, Mo’Nique, Laila Ali, Zane, and Sheryl Swoopes. Clearly, a strength of Lee’s analysis is the shear variety of women he includes in the study as well as the fact that his focus is not exclusively heterosexual.

However, while I appreciate the breadth of Lee’s scope and number of textual examples, I couldn’t help but want a more nuanced, complex analysis of them. Too often Lee’s discussion of books, songs, videos, images, etc. read more like a review than a careful examination anchored in precise features.

As Lee asserts, such cultural studies are vital contributions to the scholarship of black female sexuality because they are sorely lacking, and a more complex vision of what it means to be an empowered woman who enjoys a healthy and active sex life is needed. For that reason, this book is a notable contribution to the field. Yet, for me, there is a fundamental flaw in Lee’s project. He claims that “flipping the sexual script” ushers in a new discourse of black female sexual expression and in some ways, he’s correct. Women having and talking about sex “like a man” graphically exposes the sexual double standard and denaturalizes conventional gender roles as they relate to sexual practice and expression. This certainly offers women a wider range of roles to play and provides them with venues in which to practice more sexual agency.

That being said, the script seems to essentially remain the same. Sure, the actors performing the script are exchanged, but they are reciting identical lines. So, while “flipping the script” permits black women a greater range of sexual expression and certainly challenges the politics of respectability, I’m left wondering if it’s truly revolutionary. For instance, Lee praises Carmen Bryan’s memoir It’s No Secret because its “vivid descriptions of the physical anatomy and sexual habits of powerful famous men expose how memoirs embolden women with the rare opportunity to objectify men.” This is just one of many such instances where Lee praises men’s objectification. In another example, Lee praises Zane’s novels featuring the secret sorority Alpha Phi Fuckem (APF), whose members treat “men like disposable resources or ‘cum daddies.’”

I, for one, would like to see more representations of female sexuality that don’t walk within the well-established footprints of conventional male sexual expression and don’t rely on using men as a means to an end rather than as equitable partners of pleasure. That said, I’m heartened that the conversation about an empowered and active black female sexual landscape has begin in earnest with Lee’s book, but I am also left wondering: what does an empowered female sexuality look like that doesn’t repeat the vision of sexual agency assigned to men? Give me an expression of female sexuality that is not predicated on acting “like a man” and that would be truly revolutionary.

Written by: Dr. Jennifer A. Smith, November 22nd 2010

Interesting review. I would be very interested in seeing what this higher level of female sexuality that you're alluding to looks like; a new vision of female sexuality to subsribe to that you would offer as truly revolutionary, going beyond the subversive scripts offered in Lee's book. I'm pretty sure this new higher purer ethic or vision of sexuality would somehow bring us right back to the very same puritanical norms and politics of respectability that Lee aims to deconstruct.

compelling book title!

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

More information about formatting options

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.