How Racial Inequity Hurts the Sex Lives of People of Color

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If you’re having challenges with sex, there are lots of resources that may help: Magazines and books highlight how to enhance your sexual skills. Sex therapists help people overcome sexual pain and dysfunction. Sex educators provide history, information, and advice related to sex. From all of these sources, you’ll usually get some rendition of this message: To have better sex, prioritize your sex life. This is sage advice, but it simply isn’t enough, especially if you have multiple marginalized identities.

Racial inequity insidiously constricts the sex lives of People of the Global Majority (PGM)—that is, people of color who make up around 80 percent of the world’s population, but often remain marginalized in the U.S. and other colonized places. That isn’t to say that PGM are having bad sex, and that everyone else is having good sex, but racism adds seen and unseen barriers to realizing the full potential of our sexual selves. As a psychologist, sexologist, and professor who studies sexual wellness and liberation, I've found in research that I've conducted that so much is true—and needs attention in order to change.

The impact of racism on sex and sexuality

For many Asian, Black, Indigenous, and Latinx people, sexual stereotypes have often been central to their marginalization. From fetishizing stereotypes of Asian women as sexually subservient and emasculating Asian men based on stereotypes about their genitalia, to the sexual violence enacted upon Indigenous people at the founding of the United States and beyond, the legacy of racism scripts our sex lives.

Many PGM cultures exert a lot of energy engaging in sexual reputation management out of fears that they’ll confirm sexual stereotypes that exist about their racial group. This often looks like adopting sexual attitudes and behaviors in order to fit in with white-dominated societal expectations, rather than honoring one’s personal desires or beliefs. Some of these sexual reputation management strategies can become shaming and harmful, such as calling Black girls “fast” essentially for entering puberty earlier than girls of other racial groups.

The impact of racism on sex and sexuality goes far beyond stereotypes and is in fact baked into how our society is structured.

But the impact of racism on PGM sex and sexuality goes far beyond stereotypes and is in fact baked into how our society is structured. One study suggests that chronic burden from social determinants of health—meaning the environmental conditions that affect health, like having safe housing—based on racist policies negatively impact sexual desire. We have yet to discover more concretely how these racial inequities relate to or cause other sexual problems.

But as a sex-positive scientist who studies these issues, I do have some theories. For example, the ability for Black women like me to prioritize sex may be impacted by how much time they spend commuting to and from work. Research suggests Black women have the longest commutes of everyone, averaging eight minutes more per trip than their white counterparts. This is partially due to racialized neighborhood segregation that persists, despite changing laws, which keeps people of color living far away from where they work.

As a highly educated professor, I am not exempt. My commute is 75 minutes each way, because I want to live in an area that is more racially diverse than the university town where I work. Although I don’t mind the drive, during which I listen to audiobooks and music to decompress, these two-and-a-half hours could also be time for sexual intimacy, and it isn’t a matter of priority.

Since the average length of a sexual encounter is around 24 minutes, the 16-minute commute time difference that Black women typically face could be the difference between sex and no sex that day.

Even worse, due to racial biases, Black and Latinx women are often relegated to lower-wage, higher-stress roles at work, especially those in health care where over one in five Black women work. Stress at work contributes to lower sexual desire, and may make it even harder for some women to want to prioritize their sex lives.

For Black and Latinx men, who are disproportionately excluded from employment, particularly high-wage jobs, the hip-hop expression “Broke boys don’t deserve no kitty” echoes intersecting gendered, racist, and classist sentiments. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Black ($1,270/week) and Latino ($1,353/week) men in management and professional jobs (the highest job class) still earned considerably less than white ($1,622/week) and Asian ($1,904/week) and men in the same occupational groups—making it clearly unfair to assign sexual worthiness based on income. Men who internalize that perspective may have lower sexual self-esteem, or come to believe that they have to “prove themselves” sexually just to matter.

This can create performance anxieties tied to what I call “pornographic perfectionism”—the idea that people with marginalized identities (race, class, gender, sexual ID, etc.) have to be a perfect sex partner, defined by unrealistic porn standards—especially if that partner holds more privilege. For sexual partners of men of the global majority, it can also constrict their ability to enthusiastically consent, as they may buy into the idea that men of color already have to deal with so much in the world, so they don’t need added rejection at home. Obligatory sex is rarely good sex.

How to flip the (racist) script defining our sex lives

Despite these standing racial injustices, in a survey of nearly 500 Black people, my colleagues and I found that they reported high sexual pleasure at the last sexual encounter. Our findings point to the resilience of PGM, but we should not have to over-rely on Black resilience when we could address the actual problem: all levels of racism and other forms of oppression.

How we gauge good sex matters in this discussion. Some people conflate good sex with having an orgasm and pleasure. These are definitely components, but they’re not the full story. Other people consider how often you have sex the ultimate criteria. Again, it can be one of them, but not the totality, because different people prefer more or less sex. Good sex is multifaceted, and each person should have agency to define it for themselves, as long as it's consensual.

Eradicating racial inequity is as much a policy thing—changing the guidelines, laws, and hidden practices that govern our behaviors—as it is a human relations thing.

At the core, racial inequity (and sexism, classism, heterosexism, all the isms, really) complicates that agency of sexual self-definition. When the media, education systems, and political figures are working overtime to sexually define you, it can be hard to tune out the noise and define yourself. It also exacerbates the consequences of not-so-good sex (painful, unpleasurable, or obligatory sex that often reduces sexual desire). That is, when you can’t define good sex for yourself, then it’s hard to communicate what it is to your partners.

Eradicating racial inequity is as much a policy thing—changing the guidelines, laws, and hidden practices that govern our behaviors—as it is a human-relations thing. As an advocate of sexual liberation and income equality, you can ask about how pay increase decisions are made at your work. You can attend city-council meetings or read minutes to understand how neighborhoods in your city may be racially organized. But, you can also begin with examining the stereotypes you hold about PGM, even if you are one. Do you buy into myths about penis size or sexual prowess? Were you raised with the idea that people who rely on the state or government for their housing or food should not be allowed to enjoy sex or pleasure?

Our answers to these questions influence the judgments we make about ourselves and others, and all of us suffer sexually—albeit in different ways—under the racist scripts we were socialized in. PGM, like all humans, are worthy of good sex. So much of our work in modern liberation movements have addressed these structures I’ve named, and seeing how they impact our sex lives is another avenue of intervention. My work is to ensure my research considers the full picture, so that when PGM seek support to enrich their sex lives, practitioners really understand what they’re up against. Prioritizing sex is important, and advocating for racial equity is just as sex positive as celebrating body acceptance and kinkiness.

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