On Love and Melanin: Brown Female Bodies and Sex
In identifying with various intersections, I explore how race, in particular, has shaped my sexuality.
Content Note: Explicit Material
Sex and sexuality can be explored in infinite ways through the countless intersections of identity and sexuality. Race is just one of those intersections, but it is one that has deeply affected me. I was not always aware of this; self-awareness has come with experience and coincidentally, age. It is now, in my young adult life, that I see how my brownness has affected my experiences with sexual exploration and reproductive health. It was always taboo to discuss these things — and even now, it still is — but I have found comfort in talking with other women of colour, especially South Asian women who have experienced things similar to me. As a South Asian “desi” brown woman, issues relating to my sexuality and sexual health have never not been intersected with race. Here, I explore two facets of this journey: menstruation and pornography.
On Periods: Learning To Accept a Changing Body
The first time I learned periods were a thing was during the movie Carrie, during the iconic scene where Carrie gets her period for the first time in the shower and is ridiculed by the rest of her gym class in the girls’ locker room.
The girls all threw pads at her, as she curled in the shower. I was eight-years-old and very, very confused.
Why was Carrie bleeding? Did it have something to do with her telepathy? Was it a demonic burden? I was confused for years, and to be quite frank, I was under the impression that periods had something to do with bleeding from one’s armpits (during that scene, Carrie was clutching herself in fetal position, so I had assumed somehow that she had bleeding underarms).
For years after that, I feared the day that my underarms would start bleeding and I would have to wear armpit pads. ‘How did women hide their armpit pads so well?’ I thought. It sounds silly now, but I was kept in the dark about menstruation for years, even though I was actively surrounded by pads and tampons ads that made periods seem like a common thing.
Being the youngest of three Muslim sisters, I was confused when my oldest sister would not pray with us for a few days each month. When I questioned my mother, I was told my sister was ‘growing up,’ so I connected the dots. I figured her armpits had started bleeding, and was too scared to ask more. I never wanted my armpits to bleed.
From an early age, I developed this irrational fear of bleeding armpits that would have been remedied had my predominantly female household been a lot more open about menstruation.
Menstruation is nothing to hide, and I was surrounded by women growing up.
It’s funny how I spent the early years of myself fearing something inaccurate. I feared getting my period because I did not understand what puberty was or how it would manifest itself for me. Two years after I learned about bleeding armpits, I learned about actual menstruation in my fifth grade health class from my homeroom teacher. She did claim that reverse racism was a thing (and if you’re wondering, yes she was), but she was the first woman who taught me about menstruation. We, of course, did not go through the technicalities of fallopian tubes and uterine lining and progesterone, but we talked about bleeding and how pads worked. She showed us how to wear a pad, and explained that if we ever went to the washroom at recess and found blood stains, to let her know so that she could secretly give us a pad inside an envelope. Again, I did not understand why we had to hide that that we were menstruating. I brushed that off. I was mainly relieved that my armpits wouldn’t be bleeding three to five days monthly.
As I grew up, I relied on my health classes to learn more about my body. I rarely talked about what I learned in school at home. I could never really speak to my mom about the things we learned — contraception and Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) amongst other things. I relied heavily on my teachers’ knowledge. There were times I wished I could have spoken to my mom about these things because I had questions that I was too uncomfortable to ask of my unrelatable white teachers, who all came from households where dating and boys and tampons were allowed.
But being a Brown Girl, you rarely speak about sex or sexuality, even if it has to do with your own health.
I remember thinking that it was bad enough that my health teachers were so hush-hush about sexual health; add the intersection of being a Brown Girl, and there was double the culture of silence. White women spoke about the basics of sexual health, but the brown women in my life did not touch on it at all.
When I got my period, my mom gave me no particular talk, except to stay away from boys. Nothing else, nothing more. I learned about shaving and all the things that came with puberty all on my own or from the internet. Some of my closest friends and I shared our tips and tricks in private. It was almost as if our bodies were something to be ashamed of. The few young Brown girls I have grown up with, and who stuck around into my young adult life, have been my most useful resource on menstruation. I think it’s nice that I have a community (even if that community is composed of just a handful of women). We have talked about body hair and the emotions that come with menstruation and even tampon usage.
An under-discussed fact of South Asian communities is that we shun women from using tampons because they can sometimes tear the hymen, and thereby “take away our virginities.” There are so many problems with this notion, and it is one of the most aggravating things I’ve learned in my pubescent years. The idea of ‘virginity’ alone is a social construct meant to devalue women of their right to sexual freedom.
In South Asian culture, virgin women are seen as pure and more desirable for mating and marriage. Athletic injuries can also damage the hymen, but it is tampons in particular — a necessity, in some cases — that I, like my girl friends, were taught never to use. From the age of fourteen, I had to prepare my body to be marriagable, and I was having none of it. By choice, I don’t use tampons now, but having financial freedom means I can buy whatever product it is I need to take care of myself when I menstruate.
Looking back at my teenage years, the only thing I really learned from my elders when I hit puberty was that I needed to protect my virginity. My mom had told me to stay away from boys, and everyone told me to stay away from tampons. No one told me how my body would change otherwise, and how I would fit my clothes differently, develop emotions and feelings I had never experiences, and see myself entirely differently.
We essentialize puberty into this physical experience, when it is so much more than that — puberty is an emotional and psychological experience.
You begin to develop serious body image feelings, and you develop new feelings of intimacy towards others, too. In addition to my other life experiences, I found that navigating puberty physically and mentally matured me faster. I am so much more resilient having felt the rise and fall of emotions, and learning to control my thoughts and experiencing things for the first time without support. I have to see the silver linings.
Now, my sisters and I share when we’re on our periods or about to be. We don’t discuss grooming, or the emotions flooding our heads each month. Things are still hush-hush. After all, brown women who discuss sex or menstruation too often are accused of ‘’promiscuity’’. A woman who is curious about her body, about how she should care for it externally and internally, is only curious about it to please others. All I wanted was someone to explain to me that my armpits wouldn’t bleed, but instead all I got was silence and a lifetime of self-discovery.
On Pornography: Learning About Sex
The dominance of white faces is not a new concept for people of colour. From media to the workplace, whiteness is inescapable. Another domain where whiteness dominates is in representations of love and sex in the media. As someone with flourishing hormones and deepening curiosity, I was eager to learn more about sex and how it worked. My only exposure to sex growing up was from occasional clips in some PG-13 movies , all featuring white actors and actresses. Even those were simply glimpses, as my parents quickly switched channels to hide my siblings and I from a reality we would eventually discover on our own anyways. There is a culture of shame associated with so many facets of sex and sexual health and sexuality. Our parents hid us from these acts so we wouldn’t learn from them and engage in such acts ourselves (out of wedlock).
Not only were these acts entirely perceived as shameful, the only people committing them were white. People of colour were never in love or sex scenes where they weren’t ridiculed or made off to be inferior romantic achievements. My mother always told me that some ‘shameful’ things were only for white people, and that modest, brown women did not do certain things, including but not limited to: wearing short dresses, dating, having boyfriends, kissing, having platonic male friends, and having sex. So, growing up, in addition to thinking my armpits were going to bleed sometime between ages 12 and 17, I thought that sex was a shameful act that only white people committed. The media enforced that: there was no brown love anywhere.
My parents did the most to protect my sisters and me from the perceived and (often times) actual harm of a society they did not grow up in. Unlike the Motherland, sex was everywhere in Canada. Advertisements publicly sexualized women, love scenes were common, and sex was easily accessible for online viewing . I remember watching a 90’s movie once as a child, where the young, male protagonists all went up to a treehouse to stare at pornographic magazines in the likes of Penthouse and Playboy. That was the first time I had seen anything close to pornography.
While my parents tried their best to shelter us, being a child on the internet meant that I was often exposed to content that my parents hid from us. Tumblr culture was strange and introduced me to pornography in my pre-teen years.
Porn can indeed be an empowering art for many. Porn can also be very degrading. Pornography practises are terrible and rough and unethical, for many producers. But, the portrayal of people of colour in that entire domain is especially repulsive. There is a mass fetishization of almost all people of colour in porn, all in their own ways, and that is mainly because the porn industry is dominated by white people.
In particular, brown women are stereotyped as bodies that need to be freed: victims of oppression or obedient housewives. They are treated aggressively, and rarely shown in intimate roles like white women are. There is thorough literature on the racism in porn (and yes, it is racism).
In the same way as Hollywood, the porn industry does little to empower racialized women — we are often subordinate. As someone trying to learn more about how ‘sex’ worked, porn was not useful as upon just seeing a poor depiction of a brown woman,I would often end any exploration there.
Sometimes I wish there was more sensitive, intimate porn with racialized people in it. That way, I wouldn’t hear my mother’s voice every time I surfed the web for porn and sex how-to’s saying, ‘This is stuff for white people only, not us.’ At least that way I would not feel bad about exploring sex or sexuality because other brown people were doing it,too. Sometimes you want to know that you’re not alone.
White porn is what I grew up on occasionally watching it to better understand what the fuss was all about. To be quite honest, many times I was concerned that because I had been sheltered for such a long period of my life, I wouldn’t know what to do if I ever had a long-term partner who I wanted to have sex with. I did not want to come off as inexperienced or immature, and watching other people have sex was one way I learned to familiarize myself with the future.
In a way, it was a bit of an escape — I led a double life online where I was free to surf the web and get answers to questions that I wouldn’t dare speak of in my day-to-day life. Porn was supplemented with reading up on Cosmopolitan articles on masturbation and oral sex. I wanted to be ready. All of this exploration came with the growing self-awareness that I had been kept from a lot of things I would need to know in the future. This included important topics like STIs and how a pap test worked.
What propelled my exploration was realizing that my parents — who had the best intentions for me — were wrong about one thing: a woman learning about sex did not increase her ‘promiscuity’ or how frequently she would have sex. If a woman is to choose to have sex, that is the choice of the woman in question, not anyone else’s business. Porn and self-teaching allowed me to make my own decisions. It is not the decision that matters; it’s the fact that we, as Brown women, have a choice and knowledge to make our decisions. Our sexualiies are not for anyone else’s dictation. I maintained my conventional-virginity for years after I learned about the intricacies of sex. I was well researched and careful when I decided to have sex. I spent hours every day away from them and slept over at my friends’ homes growing up — I could have taken those opportunities to lie and go out and be physical with others. However, I did not, and therefore, my parents — and the generations before them — who assumed that sexual self-awareness was the equivalent of ‘’promiscuity’’ were wrong.
I don’t think my parents know I’ve had sex. I keep it a secret, but I know on my own, that my decisions are smart. Like menstruation, I learned about sex through self-teaching. I have my morals and values that are mine only.
I have learned that brown love is nothing to be ashamed of.
Brown: I am specifically referring to the ‘desi’ or South Asian ethnicity
Sex and U — Your Period
ASAAP — The Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention provides HIV/AIDS, sexual health and support services for South Asian communities in the GTA
Unbound Babes — Our Favorite Feminist Porn: “Feminist porn further aligns with ethical production by practicing intersectionality: it represents marginalized groups without fetishizing them.”
Pornography gets called many things, and it's blamed for even more. Sexually explicit media acts as a cultural catch…www.glamour.com