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.


Ebony A. Utley, Ph.D. is an expert in popular culture, race, and love relationships. Dr. Utley’s research explores the tension between power and pleasure in popular culture, examines how Americans talk about race and racism, asks probing questions about marriage and infidelity, and explores hip hop’s relationship to love and religion. She is the author of Rap and Religion: Understanding the Gangsta’s God. In addition to national radio, print, and online appearances, Dr. Utley lectures at universities across the country and is an assistant professor of communication studies at California State University Long Beach. She resides on the web at theutleyexperience.com.