The 14th Street Mall in Old North St. Louis is dark and quiet around 6 p.m, the Sunday before Thanksgiving. The only light that’s on is at the gallery and performance space, Urb Arts. The proprietor, spoken word artist MK Stallings, is getting the room set up. The only other people inside are Rafaella Fiallo and Dalychia Saah, the co-founders of Afrosexology and organizers of tonight’s discussion: “Black Men & Sex.”
Fiallo is from New York and Saah is from Texas, they met as students at the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University. As a teen, Saah took a poll of her high-school classmates and discovered the consensus was that “pulling out” was the most effective method of contraception. “My school had a really high rate of pregnant girls. We had a daycare in our school for students who had kids.” she says, “So I’m like: This is ridiculous! You’re not teaching sex ed and you have a high rate of kids getting pregnant!” The two women bonded over a shared desire to right the wrongs in how we are socialized and educated around sex.
Most Americans, regardless of ethnicity, get lackluster sex education. Compound this with racism, sexism and the cultural barriers to discussing sex within the black family and the black church, and African Americans, especially African American women, get a particularly raw deal.
But as the circle of chairs in the middle of Urb Arts has to be constantly expanded to accommodate more and more black men eager to talk about sex, it becomes obvious that there is a void that St. Louisans are more than happy to let Afrosexology, with their “sexshops” ranging from the history of twerking to sex toys and masturbation for women, to help fill.
I sat down with the co-founders of Afrosexology over coffee at Shameless Grounds, to talk about their organization and their goals.
SEX+STL: What is the mission of Afrosexology?
Rafaella Fiallo: Our mission is to educate, explore and reclaim black sexuality. When we got together we talked about the lack of positivity in the black community around sex, the lack of communication, exploration and the demonizing of sex in general. We wanted to not just experience it ourselves, but to create something other people can have and hold and identify with. In all, our vision is to promote self-empowerment through black sexual liberation.
Dalychia Saah: We really do believe that this is more than just fucking well, that owning and having agency in your sex life transfers to other aspects of your life. We hope that this incites people to want to have political self-agency as black people, and to have economic self-agency as black people, but that begins with having agency over your own body and in your personal life first. We see our work as our contribution to black liberation.
SEX+STL: What’s been the response to your workshops?
Rafaella: There’s a need and there’s a want. One thing I’ve liked so far is that a lot of the women who have been coming have really wanted to involve their kids in some way. To me, that was really surprising. One [sexshop] that we had a couple weeks ago, The Erotic Black Woman, it was basically women, from nineteen to mid-forties exploring their sexuality; what they like, what they don’t like… fantasies. I was so amazed that there were women with children there who said, “You know what? I see value in this. Maybe not this specific conversation, per se, but I would love for my children to be involved in this so that I can garner some kind of conversation with them.”
Dalychia: I’ve been really moved. I remember the first workshop we did, I cried afterward, because people were responding so well to this. They want this. There’s just so much that comes up because sexuality is connected to so much of our lives. To see people who just never had the space or the support to talk about something that’s really important to our human existence, as much as eating, and sleeping, and shitting.
People kept saying, “St. Louis isn’t the place. You need to be in New York or L.A., somewhere that’s more liberal, more open-minded.” But, I think there’s a need here and people are open to giving us a chance. I’ve been really honored by that. I’ve been overwhelmed by the response.
SEX+STL: A lot of the hyper-masculinity that I see coming from, for example, the hip-hop community seems to be a reaction to the way white supremacy seeks to emasculate us. But then, that doesn’t leave space for queer black people.
Rafaella: It doesn’t leave space for anything outside of a heterosexual, monogamous vision or expectation. You can’t explore anything. You try to educate people and say, “Maybe sexuality is fluid”, or “it’s a spectrum,” And they’re like, “No. That’s a sin. You’re going to hell. Don’t even think like that. Don’t even mention it.” So you have people who have a desire to express their sexuality, and they can’t because of their family, their friends, whatever community they’re in, and it’s hurtful. It’s damaging.
Dalychia: The black church is a barrier that comes up a lot of times [in our sexshops] as something else that is policing our sexuality. We’re hoping to get into some really interesting conversations where we can confront what role the church has in this, and how we can come to our own terms about how we define, and express, and explore our sexuality. All of our work is not just “slavery this” and “slavery that,” but how today we have the media and the church, and we police ourselves on a lot of things we say we can and cannot do to our bodies. We just need spaces to talk about it.
SEX+STL: It seems like there’s a long list of things black people “can’t” do.
Rafaella: And it gets longer every day. [Laughs]
SEX+STL: If you could snap your fingers and change one thing about sex for black people, what would it be?
Rafaella: If I could change one thing that occurs around sexuality and sex, it would be sexual violence.
Dalychia: I truly want black people to not just fuck, but to really love their body, love the bodies of other black people and to experience a really intimate place of pleasure as an extension of that self-love. Not just to go through the motions, but to really feel like this is something that you’re doing of your choice, of your own free will, that you feel fulfilled, that you feel pleasure about it, that you feel that this is a loving relationship – this is not one thing, this is a lot! [Laughs.]
I don’t know if the word I’m looking for is “self-agency” or “pleasure,” but, it hurts me to think of black women never masturbating or never giving head and enjoying it. Or to think of black men not feeling that they have the right to say “no” if they don’t want to have sex.
This is a hard question, so I’m just going to say “agency.”
Rafaella: I have a lot of emotions around this. There are so many people, and I won’t restrict this to just the black community, who experience sex in a way that it’s given to them. They don’t have much say-so around it. And it’s just like, “He gave me an orgasm” versus, “I masturbated today because I wanted to, and then I had sex because I wanted to.”
It happens so much. Women think, “I’m a wife,” or “I’m a girlfriend,” or “I need to do this for him. It’s not about me at all.” There’s so many people who live their lives that way around sex and it’s really sad and unfortunate.
We want people to be happy in all aspects. Having agency over your body and over your sex transfers in so many different ways. You see men and women who are assertive in the bedroom be assertive in their work, be assertive in all their decisions. If people can get that education, and explore their bodies, and have absolute agency over their bodies, there’s so much power in that! We would have absolute control over our community, and that’s why they took it from us.