Birthday Sex

1 Mar

Today is our second blogiversary! The journey of these last two years in community with each other and all of you, our beloved readers, has been exhilarating, soul-affirming, life-sustaining, sometimes challenging and frustrating, but totally completely worth it. Thank you for joining us on the journey!

So on this day when we are celebrating our collective effort to bring into life this space of creative praxis, healing, celebration, and the very hard work of imagining and creating a better world, I find myself thinking about what practices and relationships in our lives facilitate healing, celebration, and creativity.


Yes, sex is not the only thing that can help us to heal, to celebrate, and to create; Our work can do it; our friendships can do it; our art can do it; our families can do it; but nothing does it quite like good sex.

And frankly, in my world, a world filled (though not solely or exclusively) with highly-educated single Black women, sex perennially gets the short end of the stick. Most often because of circumstance, not choice.

One of my close sista prof friends frequently jokes that the last time she had sex, Bush was president.  I wish I could say that that she was the exception, but all too frequently among the Blackademic set, she is the rule.

At the same time, quantity is no indicator of quality. All sex is not good sex.

So where in fact, can a sista find good, consistent, sex? 

Contrary to pop culture advice in recent days, I can beginning by telling you what and where good sex isn’t.

Good sex doesn’t begin by instructing young boys to take it to the hole, as Too Short recently did. As I said last month, little boys who take that advice become grown men with little knowledge about how women’s bodies actually work. That is, if they don’t become rapists first.

Notwithstanding the title of this post, Good sex is not about letting someone taste your birthday cake, particularly if that person is responsible for nearly shortening the length of the birthdays you might have had.

And good sex certainly won’t come from the Black church’s failure to engage with the ramifications of sexual violence, a continued practice which is reflective of a larger silencing of healthy sexual ethics in the church in general.


During a recent conversation, one of my homegirls and I were chatting about a major career accomplishment. When I asked what she was going to do to celebrate, she said simply I’m “getting some.” Initially, I didn’t know what she meant, not because I’m obtuse, but because I knew how long her most recent drought had been. I also knew she had actively been trying to remedy that problem through online dating. No stranger to prolonged droughts or complicated dating strategies myself (Operation: Get It In 2010 comes to mind), I told her what any good friend would: “Girl, make it rain.”

And she did.

A couple of days later, she called for our standard debrief of the encounter. (I told y’all these are military-style operations.) We chatted about what worked and didn’t, and whether she’d go back for more. And then she said the word that we are taught as good pro-sex feminists should never apply to casual encounters. She felt empty. And I understood. I have felt that way.

But, wait. Emptiness?  Didn’t we (monolithic, sex-positive, feminists) already decide that it was retrograde to think that women need emo sex?

Yes. Yes we did. And rightfully so, I think.

But let me go out on a radical feminist limb here and suggest that straight-up fucking in which folks use each other’s bodies for the sexual labor they provide is not necessarily what me and my homegirls are seeking. For so many of us who followed the good girl script that education should always come before sex and boys, we are confronting a reality in which we achieved our dreams in the most extreme sense. We have more education than we can stand, but the partners that we thought would come from ordering our lives the right way are not forthcoming.Our lives may not depend on good sex , but our livelihoods and our feelings of aliveness certainly do. We are looking for connection, not just physicality.

But can connection and the intimacy it implies be a casual thing?

I don’t know the answer to that. But I do know that’s it’s a dangerous proposition, when one considers capitalist histories of bodily exploitation, particularly as it relates to Black bodies, to ask Black women to engage our bodies in ways that make us feel like someone’s blow up doll. That tell-tale feeling of emptiness is a direct byproduct of feeling like your body is being exploited for its sexual labor, with no concern for your value as a person.

And therein lies my own ambivalence about casual sex.

On the one hand, in my own process of getting to grown, and acknowledging my needs as a grown woman, feminism gave me the language to both identify and advocate for my sexual needs, especially as a person who has been officially single for nearly my entire adulthood. Still, I find that sexual assertiveness is often met with suspicion. In the case of hetero interactions, many brothers see care as something that they only give to women they want long-term relationships with. Not fuck-buddies. Not jump offs. Not friends with bennies. Couple that with the fact that many dudes seem to have a terribly unsophisticated understanding of women’s bodies, I suspect because they gleaned many of their ideas from the 2-dimensional portrayals in porn, and you have an equation for terribly unfulfilling sex.

So how do we deal?

Well, I think that good feminist sex comes down to one basic element. No, not love. Care.

Patricia Hill Collins told us a long time ago that an ethic of care is an integral component of a Black feminist epistemology. She suggests that an ethic of care prioritizes individual expressiveness, together with a respect for emotions, and a capacity and commitment to empathy.

Good soulful, healing sex is certainly a reflection of this ethic; for it invites us to be ourselves (individual expressiveness), recognizes that our feelings matter (emotional justice), and demands that we prioritize our relationship to our partner(s) needs (radical empathy).

But in recognizing how integral an ethic of care is to our epistemological orientation (and by this I simply mean, how we know the world), we might have to acknowledge that sex without care can be and frequently is a form of epistemic violence, especially towards Black women.

How did I get there? Well, let me back up. I’m driving at something fundamentally basic.

Sex is a way of knowing the world. It is an epistemological act. There are things that we can only know about the world through sexual engagement. Great sex makes me feel fully alive, allows me to tap in to my joys, my pleasures, my desires, in a deeply embodied way.  Asexual people know the world in a different way, and I want to acknowledge that.

But what I find troubling is a situation in which Black women, both those who are highly educated, and those who are deeply ensconsed in the Church, are often forced by virtue of limited choices or limiting dogma to live asexual lives in bodies that are screaming for sexual engagement. My father, who is a pastor, once told me that a lot of shouting that goes on in churches on Sunday morning is repressed sexual energy. Since sexuality and spirituality are deeply intertwined, I don’t see shouting or its connection to sexuality as inherently a problem. But if this act of sexual-spiritual expression is happening in a context that demonizes all non-marital expressions of sexuality, then the church is creating an unhealthy mind-body split for Black women. (And there literally seems to be no fucking way out.)

Free sexual expression allows us to feel fully human. And anything that helps us colonized peoples—Black, Brown, Indigenous—to know how fully human we are is dangerous. That is why we live in a world hell-bent on regulating our expressions of sexuality.

But it is also precisely the reason why we owe it to ourselves to foreground an ethic of care in our sexual interactions. And to know that it is a feminist act to do so. 

If no strings attached is your thing, more power. I think we would do well to acknowledge, though, that sex is very much about empathetic, emotional connectivity with another person. When did it become un-feminist to desire that connectivity in a casual situation? I say the desire for care is quintessentially feminist.

 Care means that you recognize and respect another person’s humanity. You are attuned to their needs, and to the extent that you can meet their needs, you are committed for the length of the interaction to doing so. Care is not love. We do caring things every day for people we don’t even know: we hold doors open for strangers, let folks cut in front of us in traffic, pick up an item that a person has unknowingly left behind and return it to them. These are acts of care. And yet, sex-positive feminism seems to suggest that the only care required in sex is a willingness to use a condom, honesty about STD status, and a commitment to gaining consent before proceeding. If sex is purely transactional, these ethical practices are enough.

But if we want something more, then respect is just a minimum. As I said in a post last year, sex is a form of creative power. And that power should be exercised with all diligent care.

29 Responses to “Birthday Sex”

  1. Natassja Gunasena March 1, 2012 at 12:09 PM #

    “Free sexual expression allows us to feel fully human. And anything that helps us colonized peoples—Black, Brown, Indigenous—to know how fully human we are is dangerous. That is why we live in a world hell-bent on regulating our expressions of sexuality.”

    Ahhh thank you so much for this! This is going to be my anthem for a while…Happy Birthday CFC!

  2. IDC March 1, 2012 at 12:56 PM #

    Whoa. This is just what I needed. I haven’t had sex since George Bush was in office and I am considering casual sex. I was/am worried about that feeling of emptiness or that it might not be fulfilling. Thanks for giving me the words to describe what was missing the last time and what I love about good sex – the feeling that the other person genuinely gives a damn about me and my experience in the encounter.

  3. bruja March 1, 2012 at 2:19 PM #

    This column is resonating with me. This is THE BEST column I’ve read on this site to date. Happy Birthday, and thank you *so much* for this, you have no idea…

  4. filmfemme March 1, 2012 at 2:40 PM #

    A profound post. It articulates much of how I feel about casual sex, and why there was usually “something missing,” even when it was physically pleasurable.I think most men don’t have the curiosity about women’s bodies in a truly ethereal sense. Nor the patience to be truly caring (unless it’s with a girlfriend or a wife, but sometimes not even then). I’ve had men depart after sex without as much as a goodbye. That’s not caring, that’s common courtesy! Even prostitutes get a goodbye, don’t they? The flip to that is that the men I LIKE, who I think would be caring sexually, I’m not ATTRACTED TO sexually. Sigh

  5. @aliciafiasco March 1, 2012 at 3:01 PM #

    Happy Blogiversary!!! This post was spot-on! As a girl who grew up learning the teaching of Christianity and the Bahai Faith, I was always awestruck by how sex was shunned even though we were made in the image of our Maker. I never understood why God would give me sex organs which were the epicenter of so much pleasure and then banish me from using them until I got a husband. It just didn’t make sense. Anyway, I really appreciate this post because the more I grow, the more I realize how much life is lost when we treat sex as just a means to an end, rather than a gift of aliveness. I too, have never felt more alive, than when I engaged in sex with someone I cared about and who cared about me. It’s amazing the power sex has over us and how much it is used for ill rather than healing. Marvin Gaye knew what he sang of, it’s just that the masses misunderstood the message in the context of what we’re taught in church. My favorite quote:

    “Free sexual expression allows us to feel fully human. And anything that helps us colonized peoples—Black, Brown, Indigenous—to know how fully human we are is dangerous. That is why we live in a world hell-bent on regulating our expressions of sexuality.”

    And it’s that power we have to allow ourselves to tap into. We deprive ourselves spiritually when we are deprived sexually. We just have to know that our partners will respect this too. Again, dope post.

  6. sheridf March 1, 2012 at 4:28 PM #

    I’m loving this post and I hope that feminist brothas, male allies, and others will repost, share, discuss this amongst themselves. Sometimes I think the distance or lack of care might be about fear that sexual partners/participants may realize they don’t know very much about women’s bodies. That the performance of distance is about protecting themselves and their feelings rather than lack of care. I have to believe that men want connection and care too, but fear what connection and intimacy may spark in them. I think they fear loss of control and presence of emotions in casual relationships, but here is the kicker, I have friends who complain that care in sexual encounters is also lacking for women in long-term relationships. The dynamics, I recognize, are significantly different because women in long-term relationships may feel as sense of security to assert their desire for more intimacy and the ability to cultivate it over time.
    I have long lamented the fact that touch, particularly intimate touching, has been wrapped up in relationships because we all need to experience it with some regularity in all it’s variety–especially the good kind you have in your birthday suit.

  7. Danni March 1, 2012 at 4:30 PM #

    Quite the interesting article in that for once someone identified that sex can span beyond physicality. Too often in feminism (As I am a feminist I will state this, though not as a completely generalized statement) the prerequisites for sex seem to lack human emotion all together. If one looks at sex as merely the fulfillment of physical need, then one should not be disappointed in the emptiness that is sure to follow. (Having sex, making love, and fucking being quite separate forms of fulfilling physical need)

    Just had a discussion pertaining to this very subject at work and comparing and contrasting the sex lives of educated Black women and educated Native American women (As I work for a Native American organization particularly dealing with issues pertaining to every aspect of womanhood) and the struggles that we all face as women of color and/or women of indigenous cultures.

  8. filmfemme March 1, 2012 at 4:55 PM #

    Oh. I forgot to write it in my last post… Happy Blogiversary!!

  9. zazas11 March 1, 2012 at 6:45 PM #

    Yes. As long as you’re there, be kind, be humorous… care.

  10. woodenbones March 1, 2012 at 8:07 PM #

    You have hit so spot on what has been rattling around in my brain for awhile. I have been thinking about my involuntary celibacy and have been both critiquing and criticizing my thoughts about it and approaches to “solving the problem.” It all results in a lot of second-guessing of myself and arguments (my sexuality and expression vs. representation and stereotypes [and inadvertently feeding them]).

    You’ve presented this in a way that makes me feel less like I have a “problem” and more like I’m dealing with an actual state of affairs. A state that can be dealt with (I still don’t know quite how and frankly I’m out of solutions… at the moment) and discussed.

    And while I don’t come away from this article with any “answers,” I do come away with a feeling that this is the continuation of a very long conversation between my body, myself, and the world.

    Happy blogoversary! And thanks so much for this article!

  11. Alisha M.Gray (@ZenMamaPolitic) March 1, 2012 at 10:58 PM #

    @ZenMamaPolitic I think that your post was quite interesting, but found fault with the understanding of ‘sexual freedom’. The ascertainment of sexual freedom means that there is a certain amount of attachment (if not towards love); than towards intimacy. I noticed your choice in using the word ‘care’, and that is quite true. But, looking at the meaning of the literal word, is it enough to simply require that there is a minimum amount of required ‘caring’. For instance; even after a casual sex encounter, it would be the least that I would expect. And perhaps, this is the problem. I don’t wish to be crude, but often it seems that male partners in particular are not able to let go of their masculine identities, and egos long enough to indulge in even the simplest forms of ‘intimacy’. This has become even more problematic as Black women esp. are in larger numbers, and the detachment towards mature ‘male’ obligation becomes even less obvious. In other words, it is difficult to say that we would like sexual freedom, if we indeed understand that most partners, have not been adequately equipped psychologically to prepare them for ‘neither’ quick detachments; nor prolonged attachments. Honestly, this is much like the discussion for why we need Black Hist. Mo. (it’s simple..because African Americans have been exploited and do not receive adequate representation w/in mainstream forms of education. Thus; why do we need to even ‘request’, rather than ‘require’ that a partner show ‘care’~It should be automatic. I am most concerned about a forced repression of women’s sexuality; that may lead to an increase in predatory culture, because of this lack of requirement. I mean..I loved ‘She’s Gotta Have It’, but what did Lola crave the most? She knew they would show care..but she also knew that something else was missing. F’ckng meant nothing w/out Intimacy and Honesty. Again..intimacy-even with a stranger enables an outlet for that ’emptiness’, that comes along w/casual sex. It is what is missing-especially if done, by two consenting adults; w/out strings.

    • filmfemme March 2, 2012 at 3:31 PM #

      I’m not sure I get the main point of your comment. Are you saying that care should be a given,,/b> as opposed to asked for by the female partner? To which I reply: Of COURSE! That’s the core of a true loving relationship (or even a considerate jump-off). But the reality is that a lot of men (and I’m sure some women) are simply not THERE yet. Men are socialized to separate sex from intimacy, to even ignore intimacy altogether. If they’re not ready, they we HAVE to be confident enough to ask for what we need. But even with that, it doesn’t mean we’re always going to get it, unfortunately.

      • filmfemme March 2, 2012 at 3:31 PM #

        Sorry. I screwed up the bold tags. Only “given” was supposed to be in bold.

  12. AH March 2, 2012 at 10:42 AM #

    why is it so difficult for academics especially female academics to find fulfilling partnerships?

    • damidwif March 2, 2012 at 4:18 PM #

      you know, AH, i would wonder the same thing, had i not forced myself to read this entire post. you see, i feel like female academics, even minus the academics part, overanalyze stuff…much to their own detriment. i mean, seriously, if you are looking for a man to “care” in a sexual relationship, keep on looking til you find one…..they ARE out there. but they damn sure aren’t falling off trees. you actually have to keep on fuckin till you get to one. talking him into existence prolly ain’t gonna work.

      as we should know, men are vulnerable in sexual relationships, too. we assume that they are indeed in the position of power. if we come into the sexual relationship taking the reigns and negotiating the boundaries, we, at least temporarily, hold the power and are in the position to model “care” in sex. also, if our sexual partners know upfront that it is just sex and that we ain’t tryna get married and hold a brotha back/down make him put a ring on it, then he may be more inclined to give you his all in each and every moment.

      for the most part, i fuck like i’m yours for that experience. i give that and sometimes, you know, i don’t get that back. yes, it can be draining. but for the most part, most men are more than willing to step to the plate. and then i decide if there will be a next time.

      i’m sorry if this sounded condescending. i was kinda put off when i read this post several days ago. it has always been my hope that every woman can have the sex that she so desires. go get it.

  13. aisha25 March 2, 2012 at 4:13 PM #

    Thank you sister. Your words and insight were much needed. Bless.

  14. Trendsettah March 2, 2012 at 4:14 PM #

    This was an awesome piece. Resonates on so many levels, I often think there are many times I am not able to love but care/respect should be a minimum. Happy Blog-Birthday

  15. Ms World March 2, 2012 at 4:15 PM #

    Happy Birthday! Love the post! I’m so glad you all created a great space for thought-provoking discussion!

  16. airial March 3, 2012 at 11:19 AM #

    Reblogged this on Shiny sparkly reality and commented:
    The Collective once again goes in on sex, sexuality and Black women’s experiences. Fucking awesome.

  17. Dana Bisignani March 3, 2012 at 5:33 PM #

    I’ve been having an ongoing conversation with several friends (and my Jungian analyst) about the term “casual sex” and how problematic and inadequate I feel it is to describe a lot of sexual encounters that take place outside of long-term committed relationships. This is a fantastic article, and thank you for taking the time to address sex and care as an integral part of our human, feminist lives! I’m passing this on to everyone I know.

  18. Solidarity March 4, 2012 at 10:46 AM #

    Thank you for articulating this – it is exactly how I feel! Care is what my most positive casual sexual interactions have involved. I am a highly educated Indigenous woman, and I find that many of my friends only seem to understand sex as within deeply committed relationships or as completely no-string attached – I’ve had difficulty fully articulating what I mean when I say that even my short term sexual relationships involved connection. Similarly, talking with prospective partners has often involved me short forming it to say that I want to be friends, when actually what I want is an ethic of care within the dynamic. What you have written resonates so much and has provided an incredibly helpful way for me to frame the conversation with people in my life. Thank you!

  19. Interesting Thoughts March 6, 2012 at 7:01 AM #

    I’ve read some interesting thoughts on sex… Thought to share a different perspective I came across…

  20. Not You (@HeadyHeathen) March 10, 2012 at 2:21 PM #

    I think it’s totally possible to have casual sex and have the other person care about your pleasure. I had a little fling with a woman and she was 100% focused on what felt great to me, if I was comfortable, whether or not I came, etc.
    I had no desire to be in a relationship with her and I don’t have a desire to be in a relationship with anyone. I’m interested in casual sex and I guess I’m a rarity in that I would care about the pleasure of the person (in my case, a woman) I’m with.
    I’m not an emotional person and I’m hoping to find someone who can sex me well and not have this emotional response afterwards.

    • filmfemme March 12, 2012 at 11:06 AM #

      I appreciate your comments Not You, but it’s not really surprising that your female lover was sensitive to and proactive in your needs and desires. Most women by nature, whether straight or queer, tend to be giving to their partner sexually–extending their “nurturing” mode engrained in us by society, church, family, etc. At the risk of sounding heterosexist (which is NOT my intent–but I’m just being honest) the “caring” meme I think almost exclusively speaks to men.

      • noir180 March 12, 2012 at 2:12 PM #

        While I see where you are going with this, filmfemme, I want to respectfully disagree. I think it is dangerous to make an argument about women being more nurturing in sexual situations, even with the explanatory caveat regarding socialization. Men do not have patriarchy/kyriarchy on lock in the bedroom! In addition to my own experience, I know of many women in queer relationships that could easily give the side eye to your pronouncement. I just think we need to think about care in more nuanced ways and without binaries, as Crunktastic has invited us to consider.


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