We’re all probably familiar with the stereotype trope of the hypersexual (and if male, predatory) African. Most of us have heard about—and many struggle to disavow—that racist image of African people that seems to figure most prominently in the ways they see us.
Even on many porn sites (yes, I check[ed]), although masculinist, often misogynist fantasies about women are expressed across the board, there is a fair amount of space for sensual, even romantico-erotic themes. But these revolve much more around the notion of white, pure womanhood. Predominantly Black themes overwhelmingly evoke notions of the “ghetto,” “whore” and “buck.”
There is no questioning—except by those who still see no connections between racism and colonialism—that the West that colonised the Americas and Africa have a fetish with Black sexuality and what they perceive to be our sexual availability. Since the 16th Century, Africa and the Americas became “porno tropics for the European imagination,” as Anne McClintock put it in her book “Imperial Leather.” But that racist conception points to a deeper issue: a schizophrenic obsession with sex.
For us to fully understand the deep revulsion towards gay/lesbian sexuality in patriarchal cultures generally and Western society in particular, we must examine how human sexuality was considered by the patriarchal West. Otherwise, we will never fully understand this obsession over the LGBTQI community.
We must analyse “morality” codes regarding gay/lesbian, pre-, extra- and intra-marital sex in the context of total masculine control, fears of losing that control and how that loss supposedly means societal destruction. My opinion is that the state of most men after an orgasm—like the sight of a blood-smeared penis when withdrawn from a menstruating woman—caused much anxiety among the militaristic, patriarchal cultures that birthed Ancient Greece. It’s informative that a French expression for an orgasm is “la petite mort” (“little death”).
These deep patriarchal insecurities from ancient Eurasia continue to inform ideas about sex (i.e. something dangerous, contaminating and destructive because it can be powerfully distracting). Women embodied dangerous, polluting sexuality. Their supposed powers—through sex and seduction—to distract the military class from the “higher” pursuits of raiding and warfare threatened the social order.
The fact that the Euro developed terms like “vagina dentata” to describe that a woman’s vulva had teeth that “ate” a man’s life-force is very informative. As such, women and “feminine behaviour” had to be robustly controlled at all times. Sexual relations with women, therefore, were exercises in power relations.
Greek thought inherited that and posited ideas about the human self possessing a “superior” rational, noble and aggressively virile side—which was masculine and an “inferior” irrational, emotional, impulsive, “animalistic” (sexual) side—which was female. Only a “true” man— free-born citizens of Athens, Sparta, etc—who proved that he had total control over relations with women, his body, emotions and his own self (subduing the “feminine” aspects of himself) was honourable and thus fit to direct political, economic and social affairs.
Emotional ties and public displays of love and affection by husbands were viewed with disdain and meant a loss of “manliness.” Further, women were compelled to persistently prove their honour by hiding the marks of their shame: their bodies, their hair (long before Islam, “good” Athenian women wore veils), their voices—a loud, vocal or quarrelsome woman in public was considered aggressive, thus masculine, thus promiscuous.
Their very presence in public was curtailed; wives of free-born citizens were sequestered at home and only entered public spaces at prescribed hours under escort. The marketplace, a centre for Greek public debate and discourse, was off-limits to women, except slaves.
Christian homosexual prejudices are rooted in, ironically, Ancient Greece where homosexual relations of many kinds abounded. Free-born males routinely had sexual relations with lesser boys in the city-state of Athens.
The issue, however, was not the sex act, but whether or not the person was penetrator or the penetrated in said act. This is what formed the basis of Leviticus 18:22; the word “toevah/tobeah,” supposedly meaning “abomination,” actually refers to strictures against being penetrated (like a woman), not the act itself.
The aversion to sexual pleasure (heterosexual and homosexual) deepened with the rise of Christianity. Early Christians absorbed from Rome and Greece sexist neo-platonic ideas about women, femininity and notions that sexual union reduced men to the level of animals. References to “animalistic” sexuality were derived from old Greek myths about a “Wild man in the woods” with whom women copulated. The descriptions of him being hairy and having a huge penis were eventually applied to African men and figured in the “Curse of Ham” myth that would subsequently be used to justify African enslavement.
The myth of the “Wild man’s” slavish ties to his “animal” (feminine) passions influenced Christian rejection of sex as something dirty. Christian theologians had an almost universal hatred of sex. One of the principal framers of Christian thought as we know it, Augustine, after his own sexual adventures, spurned it as evil. The passionate and irrational aspect of sex is what made it evil for him. He barely tolerated sex within marriage but only for procreation—which he evidently didn’t think too highly of either because, as he informed us, “Inter faeces et urinam nascimur. (We are born between faeces and urine.)”
Today, we are still being told that premarital sex is fornication and thus sinful. But through Augustine’s writings, we glean that sexual intercourse, in or out of marriage, was unholy. In Book I of On Sexual Desire, he asserts that marriage:
“…even when it has its bed undefiled (not only by fornication and adultery, which are damnable disgraces, but also by any of those excesses of cohabitation such as do not arise from any prevailing desire of children, but from an overbearing sexual passion of pleasure, which are venial sins in man and wife), yet, whenever it comes to the actual process of generation, the very embrace which is lawful and honourable cannot be effected without the ardour of sexual passion….”
And in On the Grace of Christ:
“The evil, however, at which even marriage blushes for shame is not the fault of marriage, but of the sexual passion of the flesh. Yet because without this evil it is impossible to effect the good purpose of marriage, even the procreation of children, whenever this process is approached, secrecy is sought, witnesses removed, and even the presence of the very children which happen to be born of the process is avoided as soon as they reach the age of observation. Thus it comes to pass that marriage is permitted to effect all that is lawful in its state, only it must not forget to conceal all that is improper. Hence it follows that infants, although incapable of sinning, are yet not born without the contagion of sin,—not, indeed, because of what is lawful, but on account of that which is unseemly: for from what is lawful nature is born; from what is unseemly, sin.”
He informs us in The City of God:
“In Paradise, it would have been possible to beget offspring without foul sexual passion. The sexual organs would have been stimulated into necessary activity by will-power alone, just as the will controls other organs. Then, without being goaded on by the allurement of passion, the husband could have relaxed upon his wife’s breasts with complete peace of mind and bodily tranquillity, that part of his body not activated by tumultuous passion, but brought into service by the deliberate use of power when the need arose, the seed dispatched into the womb with no loss of his wife’s virginity. So, the two sexes could have come together for impregnation and conception by an act of will, rather than by sexual passionful craving.”
Augustine was by no means singular in this thinking. Saint Cyril tells us:
“[L]et those also be of good cheer, who being married use marriage lawfully; who make a marriage according to God’s ordinance, and not of wantonness for the sake of unbounded license; who recognise seasons of abstinence, that they may give themselves unto prayer […] who have entered upon matrimony for the procreation of children, but not for indulgence.
Let those also who marry but once not reprobate those who have consented to a second marriage: for though continence is a noble and admirable thing, yet it is also permissible to enter upon a second marriage, that the weak may not fall into fornication.”
St Jerome, meanwhile, solemnly informed us:
“[W]e who ought to present our bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is our reasonable service, should consider, not what God permits, but what He wishes. […] If corruption attaches to all intercourse, and incorruption is characteristic of chastity, the rewards of chastity cannot belong to marriage.”
Fourteenth Century Franciscan St Bernadine had this to say
“Out of a thousand marriages I believe 999 belong to the devil”
(Not quite sure I disagree with him on that one)
Clearly, any pleasure deriving from the sex act even within marriage was condemned as lustful. Chastity was the ideal. And chastity, as a virtue, was considered masculine. St John Chrysostom suggested as much when, in his praise of the ascetic Olympia, he said, “Don’t say ‘woman’ but ‘what a man!’ Because this is a man, despite her physical appearance.”
Throughout the medieval period, Christian Europe retained and deepened these anti-sex attitudes (what was ideal, however, wasn’t necessarily reality), hip-swaying dances by rural peasants (and dance of any kind in Calvinist Geneva) were condemned as lascivious and pathways to decadence. The most hostile scrutiny, of course, was reserved for women. The witch trials in Europe and North America—they targeted mostly elderly, opinionated and independent women—in which place there seemed to be an obsession with sexual relationships between women and the devil, speak volumes about the thinking of the theologians of the time.
Anti-sex sentiments evolved even after the so-called Enlightenment. Dr William Acton, a US physician, published two manuals for married men and women in 1839. For him, sex with one’s wife was to be no more than once per month. Anything more and, well, as he tells us with authority:
“There is a prostitution of matrimonial life, which, I am compelled to say, often exists, to greater or lesser degree, even in the best states of society. It exists least in this country on the industrious, middling class, and most among the two extremes of luxury and abject poverty.”
“As a general rule, […] a modest woman seldom desires any sexual gratification for herself. She submits to her husband, but only to please him; and, but for the desire of maternity, would far rather be relieved of his attentions.”
“Civilisation” essentially was determined in Eurocentric thought by the extent to which a culture idealised “masculine” values, placed men in positions of prominence and suppressed sexuality. As such, sustained contact with Africans during the enslavement and colonial periods did much to cement Western prejudices. Already with a long history of using real and perceived sexually “loose” behaviour of indigenous people as justifications for their domination and extermination, the Euro now looked at the African with intense hostility. By the late 19th Century, racist/sexist theories of African (and Indian) sexuality were practically canon law.
“The Servant,” an 1890 painting by Franz von Bayros gives a good indication of how African sexuality is seen as opposed to the otherwise demeaned White feminine sexuality. It depicts a central White female figure, barely covered, in a seductive but passive pose. Behind her in a more active—read, more aggressive—pose is a Black childlike figure. Note that by the time this painting was done, psychiatric texts and “scholarly” journals considered all Blacks, male and female, children—particularly children of Nature. As such, they were supposedly impulsive, hysterical and irrationally violent.
All this fed the thinking of the missionaries and members of the charter companies that were the razor’s edge of the colonial blade that sliced into Africa in the unending search for resources. French Nobel Prize winner Charles Richet, in his “La sélection humane, likened Africans physically to apes and intellectually to children and imbeciles.” “Nakedness”— often just the exposure of a shoulder or breasts—was associated with animality and the absence of shame, which, in turn, was connected with wanton promiscuity.
Additionally, the profound presence of matri-axial customs and cultures, the influence and veto power of women even in many patri-axial cultures, the economic weight women had in marketplaces—unlike the Athenian marketplaces —all “proved” to the Euro/Euro-American then and today that African people had no formal political or social structures and were therefore in need of “saving” by white Europeans and their institutions.
The approaches to sex and sensuality in many African societies, although by no means as wantonly promiscuous as they are often made out to be, were far more open and practical than what existed in European societies. Marriages were business and political arrangements but in her book, The Invention of Women, Oyeronke Oyewumi tells us that extra-marital partners, known as ale (ah-lay), often fulfilled emotional needs. However, for the Euro, always ready to project their own insecurities and fetishes onto an “Other,” that and the ritual transvestism among many African priests were sure signs of runaway decadence.
Perhaps Henry Rowley, in his 1876 book Africa Unveiled, sums up the thinking of many Euros then and now:
“Dances, songs, gestures, and ceremonial are alike abominable. Their harvest festivals also are akin in their character to the feasts of Bacchus. It is impossible to witness them without being ashamed. Men and women who in ordinary circumstances are modest in behaviour and speech, then abandon themselves to licentiousness. Yet they are no worse than the Hindoos and other heathen people….”
This is the mindset that formed the bedrock of ideas that shaped colonial societies (including the United States since the Euro remains a settler-colonial), colonial laws, the training of police and law-enforcement agencies in how to deal with peoples of colour, particularly Africans, and how the “natives” were judged to be “responsible” or “fit” for “independence.” In the face of this, many peoples of colour were forced to adopt attitudes
Some formed organisations with names beginning with “Powerful LADIES” who essentially police other women into behaving “properly” so as to be considered respectable in society. It’s ultimately a futile exercise since, as Oyewumi points out, in Western(ised) cultures, priority is placed on the visual, including body-type. So, with a racist ideological foundation, it does not matter how Europeanised the African looks, dresses or behaves, (s)he remains an African, thus sexual, thus violent, thus never completely trustworthy.