By Abby Burrows
Graphics by Sophie Bailey
If you identify as a woman, think about when you first realized that your body was seen by other people as “sexual.” You may have been too young to even realize that the language used to describe your body was coded as “sexual.” When your parents told you that if you wore that green bikini you liked, or if you walked home alone from school, or if you spoke a certain way to a stranger, you would give people the “wrong idea.” That wrong idea was that you wanted sex, a message you supposedly could send with your appearance alone. When we police the bodies of young women and little girls, we implicitly acknowledge that men have oversexualized women’s bodies from infancy.
The oversexualization of women’s bodies is a historical weapon of patriarchy, especially in the United States. When European colonizers arrived here, they brought with them the Christian canon. Though some Christian sects may disagree, Christianity paints women as inherently sexual beings (Hooks). Take the creation story, for example. Eve is the one who gives Adam the apple of knowledge. What knowledge does he gain? An awareness of his and Eve’s nakedness: Eve literally gives Adam his sexual awakening. The basic Christian message is clear: women’s sexuality will be the downfall of men. For a long time, this meant that men viewed all women as sexual objects and nothing more: they transformed a woman’s sexual power into the very chains that kept her in subjugation.
In the mid-19th century, however, the intersection of race and gender caused a transformation in the sexualization of women. In her book “Ain’t I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism”, black feminist theorist bell hooks explains that the “Cult of Domesticity” called women to strive to be above sexual desires. If a woman could overcome her sexual nature, she was no longer distrustful and hateful, but pure, virtuous, and uplifted (Hooks). This too is based in Christian canon — Mary, the mother of Jesus, was exalted as a woman particularly because she was a virgin. Mary is the Christian ideal of a woman because she gave birth, procreation being a woman’s ultimate task, while preserving her virginity, a woman’s ultimate virtue. Of course, it is intentional that this ideal is unachievable. However, women could approach the Mary ideal by repressing their sexuality. Men no longer had to censor women’s sexuality on their own — women now did it of their own accord.
The Cult was also explicitly racist. If some women were virtuous and pure, then in contrast, women who did not live by the Cult’s standards were impure and immoral. However, only white women were allowed to achieve the Cult’s virtuous purity. While sexual subjugation may have once been able to unite black and white women against patriarchy, the Cult of Domesticity effectively destroyed that possibility. That’s not to say white women were pawns in the racism perpetuated by white men -- they were and always had been active participants in painting black women as “jezebelles”, or women with evil sexual intentions, in order to create a false sense of bringing themselves up (Hooks). The sexual power of women’s bodies was not just used to suppress women -- it was used to compel some women to suppress other women. In the same sense that a woman nowadays might put down her more promiscuous friends to feel more secure in herself, the Cult of Domesticity encouraged women to police other women’s choices.
Thus we come to the objectification, oversexualization, and sexual censorship that we see today. From birth, women are objectified. Our youthful, prepubescent bodies are sexualized and commodified. For black and brown women, sexualization turns into criminalization. Women are then led to believe that if they censor their sexuality, they will be free of these limitations. We are socialized to believe that our own sexual agency is what drags us under the thumb of patriarchy. What then, is female sexuality? What does it mean for liberation? And how can we reclaim our desires as our own?
Section 1: The Erotic
The esteemed black lesbian feminist activist, author, and poet Audre Lorde would say that these questions are not asking about sexuality per se, but about the erotic. Lorde’s foremost essay on female sexuality, “The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” explores this concept of female power and energy. Her first definition describes the erotic as “a resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling” (Lorde). The erotic is not just sexual desire: it is all of our desires, wants, needs, and connections that we feel from deep within our gut.
According to Lorde, women possess an emotional depth that is purely woman. Critics of “Uses of the Erotic” argue that Lorde is playing into the stereotype of women as “emotional.” Simply, yes, Lorde does play into that stereotype. She agrees that women are capable of coming to true understanding and knowledge through their emotions, desires, and gut feelings. What she questions is the stereotyping of this emotional power as “negative. She does not see emotion as rightfully submissive to logic or reason. Quite the contrary: Lorde believes that the erotic is woman’s truest power. She explains that in order to keep women oppressed, men have convinced women that the erotic is an illegitimate “source of power and information within our lives,” when in reality it can lead us to our fullest truth.
Though Lorde argues that the erotic is about all desire, not just sexual desire, she also acknowledges how integral the erotic is to the sexual. Lorde uses erotic to reframe what is sexuality. She argues that the sexuality we see in our everyday lives is not the erotic but the “pornographic,” or “superficially erotic.” While the erotic is all about feeling, the pornographic is about sensation. Lorde views the pornographic as men’s exploitation of women’s sexuality. By twisting the sexual into something physical and exploitative, devoid of true desire and emotion, the pornographic denies a woman’s humanity by denying the very source of her power. It is the way that men view a woman as simply a vessel for a man’s pleasure. It is the criminalization of black and brown women’s bodies -- in schools, black girls are six times more likely to receive an out of school suspension than their white counterparts (AAFP) and outside of schools they are three times as likely to be sent to juvenile detention (Rhor). It is the commodification of women’s sexuality in the entertainment and porn industries. The “erotic industry” does not make $12 billion dollars a year — the porn industry does.
Lorde argues that the distortion of the erotic into the pornographic has consequences far beyond romantic or sexual relationships. When men sexualize the erotic, they deny the place of women’s emotions and desires in all other areas of life. We see this in all parts of society: the corporate world, educational institutions, religion, etc. Women are constantly asked to be “less emotional” in the workplace. Women who stand up for their opinions are “shrill.” A woman’s passion is stigmatized as “anger.” A woman’s anger is stigmatized as “dangerous.” Women who want to have sex are “whores” and women who do not are “prudes.” We are constantly taught that restraint and logic are more important than emotions, that profit and commodity are more important than humanity. According to Lorde, this is a cultural ideology that explicitly upholds patriarchy.
As Lorde says, women have been taught to censor themselves to succeed in patriarchal societies. But, as Lorde says, “the tools of the master will never bring down his house.” The most important way that censorship of the erotic denies women’s power is by denying connection. For Lorde, the first way the erotic functions for her is in “providing the power which comes from sharing deeply any pursuit with another person.” When women deny the erotic in themselves, they are also denying any true connection between themselves. This does not mean that all women must express emotions in the same way, or feel the same emotions in order to connect. Instead, Lorde argues that connection through the erotic, through sharing deep emotion, can allow women across identities to connect, gather, organize, and empower. So the question is -- how do we unlock our own erotic?
Section 2: Ctrl
In my opinion, the key to unlocking our own erotic is seeing, hearing, or watching the journey to the erotic in other women. In order to free our own emotional and sexual repression, we must see the example in others. To enact the sort of mass “erotic awakening” that Lorde pushes, media and media representation are key. And in my opinion, no form of media better expresses emotion, vulnerability, identity, and empowerment than music.
So where do we begin? How do we find media that allows us to connect with our erotic? In my opinion, for young, twenty-something women, SZA’s “Ctrl” is the erotic in an album. Women in music have been discussing sexuality, vulnerability, empowerment, and insecurity for decades. Whitney Houston, Lauryn Hill, Beyoncé, Solange, and many, if not most, titans of the music industry have touched on what it means to be a woman in this regard. But two things set “Ctrl” apart from the rest.
First is its audience. “Ctrl” reaches for women in their teens and twenties at the moment of their own personal sexual awakenings, when they are also often the most censored. Young women are asked to make impossible choices: we tell girls that liking things that are “girly” is uncool, and yet they are trying too hard if they like things that are “masculine.” SZA talks about this in the form of the virgin-whore complex on the song “Normal Girl.” SZA explains how her boyfriend wants her to be “aggressive” and sexual in bed, but then doesn’t think that she’s someone he can take home to meet his family. As the title of the song suggests, SZA laments how there is no way to be a “Normal Girl” -- any way in which she tries to be a woman will be wrong.
Further, SZA’s lyrics are explicitly about the young black female experience. On the track “Garden (say it like that),” SZA explains that she’s always insecure about her body because she will never live up to the ideal curvy black female body. Her body isn’t the only thing constrained by society. Emotionally, she reveals how the trope of the “strong black woman” leads her to unhealthy coping mechanisms:
“Promise I won’t cry over spilled milk / Gimme a paper towel / Gimme another Valium / Gimme another hour or two” (“Love Galore”)
The real key to “Ctrl” is its honesty. “Ctrl” reads more like a personal diary than a feminist manifesto. SZA unleashes the erotic because she refuses to continue to censor herself -- she reveals her good, bad, beautiful, and ugly. The opening track, “Supermodel,” is a lesson in emotional openness. It is equal parts biting, ruthless, insecure, and vulnerable. In two phrases SZA goes from spitting in her ex’s face to pleading for validation:
“Let me tell you a secret / I been secretly banging your homeboy / Why you in Vegas / All up on Valentine's Day / Why am I so easy to forget like that? / It can’t be that easy for you to get like that”
SZA does not try to make her lyrics universal: her songs are mainly about her particular experiences as a young black woman in relationships with men. What makes “Ctrl” universally transformative and liberating is because it is the story of SZA’s own liberation — this is her erotic. While each listener may not relate to every lyric, what each listener can relate to is her honesty and vulnerability. This is the interpersonal connection that Lorde puts forth. The liberating power of the erotic is that we do not all have to have the same stories to relate, because when we feel deeply, we all understand each others deep feeling.
The erotic in “Ctrl” is not just about SZA’s emotions -- the album itself is about sharing. The guiding track that sets the theme for the album is a set of conversations between SZA, her mother, and her grandmother on the subject of control. Again, according to Lorde, true, deep, emotional personal connection is the key to unlocking the erotic. By playing this backtrack, SZA is showing her audience that her emotional vulnerability could not be achieved without trusted women in her life to share it with. SZA is living the very journey to the erotic that Lorde calls us to — in all of its messiness, beauty, joy, and pain. But what makes it bearable, what makes it possible, is the sharing.
So what does this have to do with confinement? Well, everything. When SZA speaks her truth across the record, she is releasing herself from the societal binds that tell black women they cannot be vulnerable, they cannot be needy, they cannot be angry, and if they are any of those things, they better hide it. Control is no single concept. SZA acknowledges the inside forces that do control her. Like so many young women, she is ruled by insecurity, anger, connection, self-love, and desire.
This simple acknowledgement is in itself a reclamation of desire and sexuality. SZA is putting her love story in her own terms. She is infusing her sexual identity with her insecurity, vulnerability, love, and joy. Her desires are not free of emotion — they are emotion. And most powerful of all, they inspire other women to dismiss their societal induced fear of emotion in order to connect with the true power within themselves: the erotic.
Portrait of a Lady's Desire
Playlist by Abby Burrows and Elaine Mei
Confinement is more than physical. White male standards of ideal womanhood often dictate the ways in which women express their emotions, love, and desire. Women are taught that feelings have no place outside of intimate relationships. Women are taught to love in the service of men. Women are taught that expressing their desires not only undermines their power, but is dangerous and criminal.
This collection of songs represents a reclamation of women’s desires –– from SZA’s uncensored vulnerability on “Normal Girl” to Arlo Parks’ unrequited love on “Eugene”, from Noname’s politically provocative “Song 33” to Megan Thee Stallion’s unapologetically confident “Best You Ever Had”. Though the artists’ paths to liberation are different, each breaks out of their confinement by insisting that their unique story be heard.
The African American Policy Forum. “Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced, and Underprotected.” 30 December, 2014.
Gathright, Jenny, Sydney Monday, and Brandi Fullwood. “Taking 'Ctrl': Why SZA's New Album Means So Much.” By Kat Chow and Leah Donella, Codeswitch, NPR, 14 June, 2017.
Hooks, Bell. Ain’t I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism. Boston, South End Press, 1981.
Lothian, Alexis. “Lorde Summary- “Uses of the Erotic” (Hummel)”. Sexuality, Race and Space: Queer Literary and Cultural Theory, Summer 2013.
Lorde, Audre. “The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power.” 1978.
Moore, Darnell L. “Using the Erotic to do Our Work.” The Feminist Wire, 25 February, 2014, https://thefeministwire.com/2014/02/using-erotic-work/#comments.
Rhor, Monica. “Black Girls Are Criminalized at Alarming Rates: Here’s How to Fix That.” USA Today, 15 May, 2019.
St. Asaph, Katherine. “SZA: How the Breakout R&B Star Conquered Self-Doubt and Took ‘Ctrl’.” RollingStone, 14 June, 2017. https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-features/sza-how-the-breakout-rb-star-conquered-self-doubt-and-took-ctrl-203294