The world of sex research is sooooooooo white. It’s not just that researchers are overwhelmingly white; it’s not even just that research participants are overwhelmingly white. It’s that sex research, for a long time, has not… bothered? dared?... it has not addressed the different cultural experience of Black women around sexual health and pleasure. (I am putting it mildly.) This, despite the long-standing awareness that Black women experience health disparities across a wide range of sexual health outcomes.
Sex research as a field has made real progress in terms of including women and LGBTQIA2+ people—there is still work to do, but the conferences I attend are not just an endless sea of straight white men. Yet we have not made anything like those advances when it comes to including people of color, particularly Black people, particularly Black women. If I even include a “Black Lives Matter” slide in my PowerPoint presentations, it results in a buncha white people squirming.
But I can use my little platform here to shine a giant, glittering bright spotlight on research that centers the experience of Black women.
And that’s why I was so excited to talk to Dr. Shemeka Thorpe, who introduced herself on Instagram this way:
✨ My name is Dr. Shemeka Thorpe.
✨ I am a North Carolina native.
✨ I live in Kentucky and conduct research on Black women’s sexual well-being at the University of Kentucky #GoWildcats
✨ Everything I do is for Black women and centers Black women so if you have a problem with that now is the perfect time to unfollow me 😊
✨ My ultimate goals are 1) to make sure Black women’s voices are present in academic literature, 2) to change the narrative of Black women’s sexology to one that is sex positive and pleasure focused, 3) to ensure that Black sex researchers and graduate students do not have to struggle like I did to find literature on Black women’s pleasure and sexual functioning, and 4) to create spaces for Black women to talk about sex openly and freely
Research on Black women’s sexuality!!!
Shemeka's been involved with sex research since about 2014, beginning with adolescent sexuality and gradually transitioning into sexual functioning and how Black women experience sexual pleasure. And she is a powerhouse, with 12 peer-reviewed publications in 2021 alone.
We talked about her research on sexual pain first. To say that Black women’s sexual pain is not taken seriously is…. I mean, it’s beyond an understatement. Henrietta Lacks, now famed as the unconsenting donor of cells that scientists call HeLa, experienced painful sex before she had any other symptoms of the cancer that eventually took her life. If the world would take Black women’s sexual pain seriously in its own right, we could literally be savings people’s lives.
In Dr. Thorpe’s research, 61.5% of participants reported experiencing sexual pain in their lifetime. Those who talked to providers felt dismissed and worried about being judged as promiscuous just for talking about sex. And if their provider didn’t take it seriously—which was not uncommon—the women ended up minimizing it themselves. The good news is that some doctors were thorough and attentive, but when Black women are reluctant to discuss these issues, it’s based on generations of real experience. One research participant said she couldn’t talk to her doctor about her sexual pain until she did more research about what she was feeling. Participants often felt that they had to come into doctor’s appointments armed with knowledge about sexual pain and a few even mentioned feeling pressure to look a certain way to be taken seriously.
(To all the white women who have gone to the doctor in their sweats or pajamas and not had their symptoms ignored or diminished because of their experience, welcome to white privilege!)
How about their partners’ responses to their pain? Dr. Thorpe told me, “Women felt like, ‘there’s nothing their [male] partner can do about it so I’m not going to tell them.’” Often citing that it was their burden to carry and had nothing to do with their partner. And so they stay silent. And some of the lack of communication is grounded in shame, like, “I shouldn’t be having sexual pain issues in my 20s and 30s that’s something that happens later in life.”
How bad did pain have to get before some women would tell a provider or a partner?
“It had to be extreme pain, to the point that they couldn’t tolerate penetration.”
But Dr. Thorpe also studies pleasure. In fact, she calls it “Pleasure Mountain”! In a survey of hundreds of Southern Black women, asking women to describe what sexual pleasure means to them, she discovered three foundational dimensions of sexual pleasure: Emotional, Mental, and Physical.
The emotional foundation was about feeling emotionally connected, being received with tenderness and care, and experience love and euphoria, most often in the context of a partnered experience. The mental foundation had to do with letting go in a context of safety, without worry or inhibition. And the physical dimension was about embodiment during the erotic experience, including during orgasm, but also, and, I think, crucially, during the post-orgasm or post-sex phase. The ease and reduced tension in their body was reported right along with tingling rushes and genital response.
And crucially, it was very common for women to report more than one of these dimensions being present in their experiences of pleasure.
And Dr. Thorpe’s participants revealed a number of facilitators of peak pleasure, that helped them climb from the foundation of emotional, mental, and physical dimension, up Mount Pleasure to the peak. Feeling liberating and free, more with partner connection, mind-body-soul awareness between them and their partner, and orgasm.
Erotic pleasure isn’t just one thing, and there are multiple paths to climb Mount Pleasure.
In her study of “pleasure mapping,” she found that Black women reported a wide variety of experiences as highly pleasurable, including using toys, some kink and bdsm, kissing, foreplay, different sex positions. But there was a stand-out: oral sex. Receiving, that is.
And this reflects a change, from a generation or two ago, when oral sex was shamed. Older Black women grew up with messages like, “If you like it, you’re a whore,” but they’re learning from younger women to normalize the importance of clitoral stimulation and their right to receive pleasure.
In my opinion, we should be shoveling money into this kind of research that supports the rest, joy, and erotic ecstasy of Black women. Everyone with pelvic and genital pain should know about pelvic floor physical therapy—yet only 47% of Dr. Thorpe’s participants did, because their providers weren’t talking about it. If we make the changes necessary for Black women to have access to unlimited sexual well-being, we will have made the changes necessary for a bunch of other people to have that access as well. But most importantly, we will have made sure Black women have access to unlimited sexual well-being.
I closed my conversation with Dr. Thorpe by asking her what felt like a silly and obvious question: “What makes your work important?”
The importance of her work is self-evident, right?
Yet her answer cracked open my heart:
Want more resources? Here is a Google Doc of a Black Sexuality, Feminism, and Pleasure Reading List, which includes 34 titles. And here is a Google Doc of BIPOC Pelvic Floor Therapists in the US and Canada, which includes the Instagram accounts of 23 providers. OH MY GOSH YAY!
Some other papers authored by Dr. Thorpe and her colleagues:
The Peak of Pleasure: Black Women's Definitions of and Feelings Toward Sexual Pleasure, co-authored with Natalie Malone, Candice N. Hargons, and Jardin N. Dogan.
Black Women’s Pleasure Mapping, co-authored with Jardin N. Dogan, Ashley Townes, and Natalie Malone.
Stay safe and see you next time.