Empowered and Sexy

Erotic Revolutionaries: Black Women, Sexuality and Popular Culture by Tulane University professor Shayne Lee (Hamilton  Books, 2010) revolutionizes the politics of black female respectability. Instead of writing about how hypersexualized representations hurt black women, Lee celebrates black female pop culture icons who purposefully hype uninhibited sexual agency. He defends Karinne Steffans, Tyra Banks, Alexyss Tylor and other women who have been publicly accused of promiscuity. He argues that their attention to masturbation, vagina power, multiple sex partners and reverse objectification will help black women reclaim their sexuality. In a candid conversation with the Ms. Blog, Lee asserts that pro-sex black women are the new sexy.

How did you became interested in erotic revolutionaries?

Shayne Lee: I became intrigued by the ways in which third-wave feminists fought for their right to be both empowered and sexy. I thought that message was missing within black academic feminist thought. Then I realized that pop culture was full of these individuals who weren’t really career feminists but who embodied the kind energy that I thought was powerful from third wave feminism. So that’s when I came up with the idea for Erotic Revolutionaries.

How does your male privilege help or hinder your erotic revolutionary endeavors?

I’ve been told by people that I shouldn’t have written Erotic Revolutionaries because I’m a man. But I don’t think any one [person] can represent the female voice. Gender is fractured by class, by beauty standards, by social positioning in ways that I don’t think one voice can represent other women. So in that way, I feel safe as a man to objectively, or at least the best I can, look at black women in pop culture for the ways in which these women transcend the politics of respectability.

In your Tyra Banks chapter, you argue that she flips the gaze and is able to objectify men. How would you characterize that gaze reversal?

You have these binaries: male/female; male on top/female on bottom; male has agency, power; female is passive and victim. As long as these binaries exist in society, to make them even you have to reverse them for a while. Since men have enjoyed so much agency in objectifying women, there’s gotta be some point where women really go overboard and enjoy those spaces, first of all to show men how it feels to be constantly objectified and second of all to feel the power of subjecting men to the female gaze. Once that’s done enough, maybe we could get to a more equitable form of society where men and women are objectifying each other equally.

Because of these erotic revolutionaries, we have all this pro-sex talk that we’ve never really had before in these public spaces and yet no talks about safe sex and STI prevention. What’s up with that?

The people in pop culture that I’m focusing on, their job is not to be sexual teachers. Their job is to express themselves and how they feel at particular moments. I do think there’s a place in the feminist movement, and I do think there’s a strategic way that you can inform the public in ways that protect from sexually transmitted diseases … but I’m very nervous about requiring or holding artists to the fire for not doing that because that’s what activists and advocates are supposed to do.

What is it like talking about black erotic revolutionaries with college-age white women?

The really hard theoretical conversations and the comments that blew my mind were generally made by the white gender studies students who had already been exposed to a broader range of feminist ideas, whereas many of the black students just kind of [generally] rejected it by saying these erotic revolutionaries are just trying to be hos. That kind of disappointed me, but at the same time that’s one of the themes of my introduction–the ways in which there is more pressure on black women because of the hypersexualization of black female bodies,  the legacy of slavery and segregation, and television having this horrible record with black female bodies. I do think there is more pressure on black women to maintain a certain kind of dignity.

What writings inspired Erotic Revolutionaries?

Read Rebecca Walker’s To Be Real. Read Joan Morgan’s When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost. Really catch the energy and spirit of what they’re saying. Read Mark Anthony Neal, all of his books. Angela Davis and Hazel Carby’s work on blues women. I think this is a great time to be a black academic.

In ten years, where will black sexual politics be and what role will your work have played?

I think it will be in a completely different state. Lisa Thompson’s Beyond the Black Lady and Erotic Revolutionaries will force the academy to grapple with a radically pro-sex, radically sexually empowering message for women within black sexual politics. Our books represent a turning of the page. I’m very excited to see the next ten years make that turn full.


  1. Wow. A very interesting treatment of the subject of Black sexuality. I applaud Shayne Lee's efforts to engage the conversation in various areas where Black women have not done, especially as a husband, father, son, and brother in this life with Black women. That said, as a psychologist I am intrigued by Mr. Lee's answer to Dr. Utley's question about how white woman have responded. Mr. Lee indicated that Black women in his audiences, " just kind of [generally] rejected it by saying these erotic revolutionaries are just trying to be hos." I would say that it is more complex than that analysis but that analysis is from the Black women students is not new. History shows us that the women who are the focus of Lee's book are reenacting roles already developed by Josephine Baker, Zora Neal Hurston, and Sugg in the Color Purple many other Black women who are strong in expressing their sexuality in order to occupy political and psychological spaces to change oppressive situations. However, we are human and sex is most often about pleasure between two people–a man and a woman or woman to woman. I hope this book helps to bring folk together, especially black folk because there is a lot of pain out there that is not fully expressed by Beyonce's Lil Kim's, Nikki's etc sexuality. "It is a great time a be a black academic" as the author said, however I am worried about this statement because it is easy to sell out but not easy to empower the people for a better life. Just my 2 cents.

  2. I have to read this book to learn what a man has to say about pro-sex women. What he said about the Tyra Banks chapter — I totally agree. There's nothing stopping women from objectifying men. Very glad the conversation is being had.

  3. Dr. G wrote, "I applaud Shayne Lee's efforts to engage the conversation in various areas where Black women have not."
    I respectfully disagree with you. Go to my website CocoaFly dot com, you can read my series of articles on black erotic literature "Under the Covers" where I interview Zane and a host of other writers, scholars and sex experts. http://www.cocoafly.com/2010/02/under-covers-popu
    Angela Davis book on blues women , Audre Lorde's writing on the erotic as power, are examples of texts that look at empowered and sexual black woman. However I agree with your view that the black women in Prof. Lee's class who dismissed some of the women listed as trying to be ho's, calls for more analysis and their opinion is far more complex.

  4. Thanks for the interview about Shayne Lee’s book. I loved reading it. Check out my interview with Shayne about his new book ob BlogTalkRadio in August 2010: http://www.blogtalkradio.com/anandaleeke/2010/09/…. We had a great time exploring erotic revolutionaries and what it means to be a power chick and feminist chic.

  5. Evangelina says:

    I am thoroughly enjoying Erotic Revolutionaries. To me it reads as a genuine, long longed for ode to female power. And hearing it voiced so enthusiastically and eagerly by a man, to me, is just sweet.

    In contemporary society we hear many such odes, but mostly they are brought from women to women. “The Sisterhood” has always survived what I call “the Patriarchy,” the male dominated realm derived from the religions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. But what about our brothers? Men acknowledge this female power, but to what extent do they truly appreciate it? As psychologist Sidra Stone shows in her impactful book "The Shadow King: The Invisible Force That Holds Women Back", which addresses what she refers to as the archetype ‘the Inner Patriarch,’ the oppressive discourse of "the Patriarchy" is deeply lodged within our cultures and thus our psyches. As women we are constantly at war with this internalized voice, whether we realize this or not. And men tend to reproduce it, intentionally or unintentionally, rather than thwart it. For in our psyche culture manifests through such internalized discourses, which operate unseen.

    Therefore, to counter the aging male hegemony, and to hear these odes that stem from the ancient discourse of “the Matriarchy,” that archetypical realm comprised of the countless worldviews in which women and female power are appreciated, revered, exalted, and central to the organization and understanding of life, is always a blessing, a reminder of what we as women are, even when we forget.

    But in our contemporary Global North, the ‘Inner Matriarch’ is an archetype/discourse that women tap into, but men not so much. Therefore to hear it voiced through a man, that to me has unfortunately been rare, it is unexpected, and it is thrilling. Because when our brothers join our fight, and help us reconnect to things that weforget, it adds a certain balance to this discourse of female empowerment that I feel has been lost for quite some time. It shows that we do not fight men, but an internalized discourse, and therefore this battle needs to be fought in us all, men and women alike.

    So, praise to you Shayne. Your book excites me, and I hope that you will continue your exploration of (the realm of) powerful, pro-sex women, for the accompanying discourse is important and delightful, and it speaks to women, to men, to those in between, to us all.

  6. Eh, he seems to only scratch the surface, and I get the impression that he has several blinders on, namely his own internalized paternalism, and lookism. What about the sexual agency of black women who don't look as conventionally modelesque as Tyra, Tylor and Steffans? I'm much more interested in reading the perspective of a black woman academic, and I'm more interested in reading about the sexual agency of a 300 pound coal-black skinned dominatrix, or Whoopi Goldberg or Grace Jones or Meshell "don't nobody eat my p***y better than you do" Ndegeocello. Now THAT would be the kind of erotic revolutionary book I'd love to read.

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