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‘As a black woman I’m always fetishised’: racism in the bedroom

At a Bedfordshire nightclub, white couples queue to have sex with black men. Meanwhile, black women are regularly snubbed on dating sites. Why is it that racial stereotypes persist in regards to sex?

That It’s beyond midnight, November 2016, at Dunstable, a little town in Bedfordshire. My friend Miranda has followed me for moral support. We scale a no-frills metal staircase at the end of an alleyway behind the high street, where a tired blond woman is ruling a domain of coatings, cash and lists. She has a defeated fashion, like the only sober person at a party when everyone is drunk. I am wearing a too-big red dress stitched together by a very mediocre tailor in Senegal more than a decade ago. I have no idea why I chose to make myself seem so dowdy. Miranda is doing better; she has obediently put on a basque, along with a skirt much shorter than mine, and boots which elongate long legs. She’s calmer than me, also. I’ve given the organisers imitation Jewish-sounding names. It was the simplest way of manipulating our real names without showing the fact that we’re equally black. Had we seemed black, I am not sure we would have been let in.

As it is our first time, Eddie — a solid black guy, dressed in the standard-issue suit along with a bouncer’s armband — was requested to show us around. His presence is reassuring; he appears like an island of sanity in a sea of gruesome chaos. The first thing I see, after Eddie has led us beyond the dancefloor and the pub, is a shaven-headed black guy on his knees onto a large mattress, with a white woman on all fours, doggy-style. He’s wearing an unbuttoned shirt, and nothing else; she is at a basque, suspenders and boots. Another guy is kneeling next to him waiting his turn. On the left, on precisely the exact same sateen mattress, a woman is kneeling with her back to us, nude from the waist down. A guy has his hands on her ample buttocks cheeks. Other men hover round the mattress, beers in hand, observing. “This is one of our playrooms,” Eddie says helpfully. “It is not too bad today, but it gets very busy later on.”

Arousals is like no place I’ve ever been ; component nightclub, part seedy brothel and component all-out orgy. Since Eddie continues his tour, we pass endless private rooms — locked, for couples that aren’t in the mood for a viewer — and toilets, a shower, a theater where five white men are half watching porn.

Soon we’re in “the dungeon”. There is a gold throne and a succession of skulls that belong to a child’s Halloween party. In pride of place is a swing. “The sexual swing is quite popular,” says Eddie.

Welcome to the Dark Man’s Fan Club — a monthly swingers’ night for white women who wish to have sex with black men, and their wives or partners who wish to watch. From the ethnically undiverse world of swingers, the BMFC is marketed as a community of individuals that “appreciate the extras black men bring”. Tonight’s flyer features a profoundly fake-tanned white girl wearing briefs which read, in large letters across her crotch, “I heart black”. Members of the area — both white women and black men — are active on Twitter, in which they share pictures of exceptionally large black penises and rough sex where a black guy certainly dominates.

BMFC, the punters tell me, is one of a kind, but the sentiment does not finish in Dunstable. In an era of mass porn consumption, black male porn celebrities having sex with white women is a popular subgenre, also BMWW (black guy white woman) erotic novels specifically cater to the fantasy of crudely stereotyped black man aggression and sexual domination. It is as if the internet commercialisation of sexual fantasy has globalised racial stereotypes and sent them freewheeling backward; it does not take any imagination to mention exactly what swingers mean when they say they appreciate that the “extras” black men bring.

“There are three reasons why the women come here,” explains Wayne, one of those black men who are here to be “appreciated”. Wayne has just come out of a playroom, also has barely bothered to put his clothes back on — his cries low, top open, and tie wrapped nonchalantly around his neck. He’s a good-looking guy, with a toned body and twisted locks. “One [reason is] black men have larger penises.” That is a stereotype, I argue. “It is not a stereotype!” He answers. “Black men are built differently. You have to admit character. Number two,” Wayne continues, “black men have greater rhythm in bed. That is also a fact. And thirdly, they’re only more dominant. You know, a lot of these women are not satisfied by their husbands, who want them to do all the work. They want to feel a powerful man inside them, dominating them. They want to have an alpha male. That is exactly what they get here,” he cried at me, knowingly.

Wayne is leery, drunk, also has a tendency to lean precariously towards me. I can view Miranda looking similarly unnerved.

She’s speaking to Wayne’s friend Darren, who — she afterwards relays — works as a carer for elderly and disabled folks in a nursing home. He describes himself as “a freak” and states BMFC is where he comes to indulge his sexual fantasies. Both men are surprisingly happy to answer my increasingly probing questions. I knew there could be elderly, suburban white couples. However, I presumed the men could be sex workers, strippers, or otherwise incentivised guests, whose function was to carry out the required services. However, these are unremarkable, middle-class black men.

When I ask if they feel fetishised because of their race, then they vigorously deny it. “I come for the sex,” Wayne says. “Where else can you go and have sex as many times as you like? Additionally, there are no pretences. Everybody is here to get laid, have a great time, it is really friendly. It is not like a normal club where everyone has a poker face on. No one’s judging.”

Swinging is not my thing, but that I could not care less what consenting adults get up to behind closed doors. It is not the gender at the Dark Man’s Fan Club that disturbs me, it is the racial stereotyping. It seems as if it’s only the most recent chapter in a history of sexual stereotyping towards Africans — a history so long and loaded it stands apart from other modern fetishes, such as blondes or particular body types.

Why are black men willing to embrace the truths of hypersexuality and abnormally large endowment? “The number of items which were said about black men in this nation for the most part have been about as negative as you can possibly get,” says professor Herbert Samuels, an American specialist on sexual desire. “If someone claims that you’re good at sex, or that your penis is larger than anyone else’s, that is about the only positive you can get out of all these drawbacks. And I feel some black men have bought into the fantasy that they’re hypersexual, that their sexual prowess as well as the size, the physicality, is greater.”

That is what really unsettles me concerning the Black Man’s Fan Club. Not just the fact that black men’s self-esteem might be so low that this could be a welcome boost, but the fact that everyone in Arousals is, one way or another, unquestioningly complicit at a set of beliefs which have ancient and horrible roots.

When Europeans first came into contact with the African continent, they indulged in an ingenious riot of fantasy. Elizabethan travel publications comprised a heady mixture of truth and pure invention, which perplexed English readers and popularised wildly fictional versions of the place and its people. “Like animals,” one account reported, Africans could “encounter their women, as they come to hand, without any choice”. African men had tremendous penises, these reports indicated. One writer went so far as to assert that African men were “furnisht with such members as’re after a sort burthensome unto them”.

Stereotypes regarding the sexual prowess of black individuals possess an equally illustrious presence in literature, art and journalism. Even a left-leaning British book like the Daily Herald ran front-page stories with headlines such as “Black scourge from Europe: sensual horror let loose by France on the Rhine”. The writer of the 1920 splash complained that the “barely restrainable bestiality” of black soldiers stationed in Europe after the end of the first world war had contributed to many rapes, which was especially serious because Africans were “the most developed sexually” of any race — a “terror along with a terror unthinkable”.

Black men continue to be unfairly depicted as rapists — not least by US president Donald Trump, who in 1989 called for the death penalty for five black teenagers, the so-called Central Park Five convicted of raping a female jogger in New York. Their convictions were later overturned and the miscarriage of justice these young men had endured exposed. However, in 2014, Trump still refused to accept their innocence. He told a journalist this stance would help in his campaign for the presidency, and he found lots of receptive audiences for his eponymous loaded claim that Mexico was sending its own “rapists” to America.

Stereotypes of black and other ethnic minority men as sexually threatening on the one hand, and sexually desirable on the flip side, are just two sides of the identical hypersexuality myth. The former continue in inaccurate data propagate virally on social media, pointing to false statistics regarding the incidence of sexual assaults by black men. The latter have filtered into popular culture, such as the sayings, widespread when I was at college and university, that white women who have sex with black men possess “jungle fever”, which “once you go black, you never go back”. They are implicit in the belief, internalised by Wayne at the BMFC, that black men have “extras” in bed.

***

My friend Sarah doesn’t have time for anything like BMFC. She understands a whole lot about the flying scene because, with her husband, she has been a keen swinger for a decade. When there’s a stereotype of your average British swinger, Sarah is not it. She is black, as is her husband, in a spectacle that’s known to be mainly white. During their years of marriage, they’ve frequented swinging parties, and as their age and earning ability have increased, they’ve developed a taste for high-end events that require expensive yearly memberships and rigorous vetting of one’s look, income and background.

Sarah enjoys these parties. She describes the pleasure of slipping on expensive underwear and a cocktail dress, smelling and looking beautiful, understanding that each and every ounce of effort will be explored and valued by many partners of both genders. She talks about coming, along with the stunning feeling of these venues — imposing stately houses in landscaped gardens, her husband from black tie by her side, being served champagne and oysters, and fulfilling other like-minded and often impressive couples. Afterward, she explains the lights are dimmed, and individuals begin retreating to a run of decadent playrooms.

Sometimes Sarah and her husband detect, when they arrive, a sharp intake of breath. “We do not tend to suffer from people of our creation — the individuals who went to the very same colleges as people, and likely had girlfriends that were black or white,” she clarifies. “But in regards to the old generation that are probably racist by afternoon — the CEOs, the managing directors — we have walked and literally felt them looking at us and thinking, ‘Will I get an opportunity together’ It is gross.” Sarah shakes her head. “We are not here to be fetishised.”

However, a risk of being fetishised is a hazard of the pastime. “We have had weird experiences,” Sarah admits. “I remember there was this only French couple; the woman was writhing against the wall in her Agent Provocateur panties. And her husband was the person who found people because of her. He came up to me and was like, ‘Your husband… can we? My wife loves black men.’ And I was like, ‘No, he is not available.’ If folks say to me, ‘I love black men’, rather than stating that they just love men, which tells me it is a fetish.”

Compared to the Dark Man’s Fan Club, at Sarah’s high-end flying parties, black women have only as much exotic charm. “They look at me as if they’re thinking, ‘Oh my God, what is she gont perform, backflips?’ I keep telling folks, most of us have the exact same anatomy. I have a vagina, you still have a vagina. What, do you think it’s got a flipping motor in it?

“These individuals are so repressed,” Sarah laughs. “You just have to speak to them occasionally, and they are shaking. I know just as a black woman I am always going to be more fetishised to an extent — and the darker you’re, the more you’re. “They think we’re naturally quite sensual, all people are Rihanna.” She yells at the absurdity. “They’re very threatened but secretly they want to be with us they want to be like us, they want to taste us and touch us. If they could, they’d have one of us in their homes in a space, just kept there, for if required. That is exactly what they did not that long ago! And they would love it again.”

It is strange to hear an educated British man speaking in these primitive racial stereotypes, “us” as such banned black fruits which “they” are salivating over. But relationships and sex are one of those last remaining bastions of unreconstructed racial prejudice.

But it is not only about sex. Gender isalso, in certain ways, a very tangible expression of the deeper currents of prejudice in this country. As a brutally self-conscious mixed-race teenaged girl in suburban London, one of my earliest experiences of having a black individuality was the way boys listened to me. Teens in the boys’ college — one of the most elite private colleges in the nation — were among the most merciless. They made jokes about rumours they’d heard, that black women “give good head”, and have “more pussy”. It was a great deal for a 14-year-old girl, only waking up for her sexuality, as well as her increasingly perplexing racial individuality, to endure.

These boys and that I had more in common than some of us likely realised. We were all residing out — albeit in quite different ways — the complicated and painful heritage of slavery-era sexual ideologies. They manifest in several of unexpected ways.

Take dating, for instance. The vast majority of individuals, in all states and from all cultural backgrounds, enter into relationships with individuals from the identical racial, ethnic or cultural-linguistic group. But in Britain, black men and women are far more inclined to enter interracial relationships than other people of colour. But it is not true of black peopleentering into a rainbow of interracial relationships; the statistics show it is black men entering into relationships with white women.

That produces, in simple terms, a shortage. For black women, doing what most individuals do and looking for a spouse of the exact same ethnic background as these, the odds are not in their favor. One consequence is that there are lots of black women in Britain with no prior experience of interracial relationships, today seeking them only to find their newfound open-mindedness is not reciprocated.

One anecdotal example of this is my friend Yvonne. Frustrated at being unmarried in her late 30s, Yvonne invested several thousand pounds at an expensive matchmaking support. She’s a strikingly attractive black woman, impeccably groomed — hair and nails always freshly done — using a well-paid job in banking. She determined it was an investment worth making to locate a spouse that, like her, works in the City and could share her dream. With two black parents, along with a mainly black social circle, she’d always imagined herself with a black spouse. However, the paucity of only black men with similar lifestyles led her to think about dating someone of a different race. The difficulty was, she never got any expressions of interest from the only white men she knew. Perhaps she was not giving off the ideal vibes, she told herself.

At the hands of a bespoke matchmaking service, that spent hours eliciting intimate details of her character, interests and perspectives on relationships, a great deal of time-wasting would be stripped away. At least, she thought that is what could happen. In the long run, the service ended up devoting her money because they informed her apologetically, they couldn’t find her a date not one single match. None of the men in their database was ready to seriously date a black woman. Some were open to casual love, but had said that they wouldn’t think about a black woman as a long-term spouse. “Most of these men have houses in the nation and do rural activities at the weekend,” that the matchmaking firm had informed her. They were matter-of-fact, as though it was somehow obvious that a black lady could dissolve when subjected to some non-urban surroundings, like Dracula in sunlight.

Studies suggest that this is happening on a broader scale. Data drawn from 25 million user accounts on the dating website OkCupid in 2014 found that black men and women face a exceptional penalty in internet dating — together with men of other races score black women as around 20% less appealing than average. “[It is] no denying,” states OkCupid founder Christian Rudder. “Beauty is a cultural thought as far as a physical one, and the standard is obviously determined by the dominant culture.” The content of those ideas is familiar — a previous study found, for instance, that single men regard black women as “too bossy”.

The problem with these kinds of stereotypes — other than that they arise in racist ideology — is that they both repel and attract people for the wrong motives. Yvonne did not want a boyfriend who’d feel hostile to a fictional, perceived “bossiness”, based on her race, any more than she wanted a boyfriend deliberately seeking it. Many black women are conscious of being seen through this stereotype-laden lens, consequently making them feel suspicious of those men who do them.

I remember this suspicion as a teenager, feeling that white boys and men, for whom I was often the first black woman they had ever met, did not find me, but whatever it was that they were projecting on for my blackness: ” I was exotic, freaky, powerful, supernatural.

It is an experience which has transcended generations. Women who arrived in Britain as part of the Windrush creation of Caribbean migrant employees, recruited by the authorities to operate from the public sector after the war, were met with hurtful sexual expectations. “The white men in Cambridge did not want us as girlfriends, they only wanted to sleep with us,” Barbara McLeod, who arrived in Cambridge from Jamaica in the 1950s as a 17-year-old nurse, told the Guardian in 1999. “[They] would say: ‘I am sure you are great in bed’, because there was this untrue premise that black women were sexually voracious.”

Those remarks seem almost innocent today, in our era of race-based porn for mass consumption, and “race play” — humiliation-themed, racially established sexual fantasies, which some argue is the fastest-growing trend in the American swingers’ scene. In the event the Black Man’s Fan Club is anything to go by, they’re gaining ground in the UK, also. Fifty years ago, the sinister beliefs which underpin these fantasies would have shocked that the men and women who’d suffered from them most; today, they’ve been normalised.

In the Dark Man’s Fan Club, I continue asking Wayne exactly the exact same question, looking for a response which makes sense. “Why would you come here?” I repeat.

“Black men do have extras,” he laughs.

Brit(ish): On Race, Identity And Belonging, by Afua Hirsch, is printed on 1 February by Jonathan Cape, priced #16.99. To pre-order a copy for #13.99, go to guardianbookshop.com or telephone 03303336846.

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