Sexuality in Conversation

Is Your Dildo Racist? America's Fear and Fascination Around Black Virility

Recently after a night of barhopping in West Hollywood, some friends and I wandered into a popular sex shop on Santa Monica Boulevard. As I browsed aisles of "kink kits," edible lubes and "octo-pleasers," I eventually came across the store’s expansive dildo collection—and, as to be expected, saw the black dildos, macrophallic and practically the size of artillery shells.

Good ol' BBC. Big black cocks. An inevitable find in any mainstream adult store and one of the most searched terms on Pornhub, returning more than 20,000 results. The stereotype about black male body parts is such an immutable part of America's sexual imagination that I never questioned it until I reached adulthood and witnessed how it skewed black men's perception of their own masculinity.

"I have always found this to be an odd experience, looking at these dislocated pieces of myself, presented as pathways to the erotic. It's something else, to see a cheap reincarnation of your dick characterized as a toy," says Tabias Olajuawon-Wilson, a non-binary scholar-activist and founder of the blog BlaQueerFlow. "[It shows in how] black men are treated in gay and straight dating apps, where the first question is 'BBC?' or 'dick pic?'"

The expectation can also foster insecurity if a black man feels his penis doesn't exactly measure up to the outsized depictions one is used to seeing represented in pornography and sex toys. I remember an ex-partner's hesitancy in initiating intimacy due to feeling inadequate about his size. And when dating non-black men, the question of how they compared was always an eye roll-worthy subject bound to come up sooner or later.

"You take the notion that black men's penises are larger than that of any other male species on earth and then you tie that into sex work and pornography, which is a very self-selected group—men with large penises are going to gravitate to that and men with average sizes will not—you get a very distorted image of what the range of black male genitalia is," says Dr. Herbert Samuels, a professor of human sexuality at LaGuardia Community College in New York.
When I see these pieces of us, I find myself reminded of the few things America values about black men: our dicks, our style and our music.
"These myths not only affect what whites or others think about black men and women, but what they tend to think about themselves. If you're a black man with an average penis who doesn't have sex with 10 women 15 times a day, you start to think 'what's wrong with me?' You try to live up to a stereotype of virility that doesn't really exist in the first place."

Olajuawon-Wilson agrees that the sexual racism found in sex shops and frequently depicted in porn can create an identity crisis for black people. "Many of us internalize what we are told it means to be a sexual black being, and this has myriad effects on our sexual anxieties and proclivities. [We can be] anxiety-ridden with the performance or feel the need to overcompensate, to show how 'authentically' black we are. It erases the imaginative possibility of black love and black intimacy."

The sight of bodiless black penises on display in sex shops also has a grisly historical resonance. The dismemberment of black men through penectomies (cutting off the penis) was a mode of torture during slavery and Jim Crow. In the specific 1934 case of Claude Neal, a Florida farmhand accused of killing a white woman, a lynch mob abducted him from a jailhouse he was being held in and castrated him before stabbing him, shooting him and then hanging him. Sam Hose of Georgia had his genitalia removed as a souvenir before he was burned alive in 1899.

"To disconnect, consistently, the black dick from the black body is a particular type of violence first seen during slavery. Reaching back, photographs of the black penis after a lynching or penectomy were disseminated through the mail as postcards and highly sought after gifts," says Olajuawon-Wilson. "To focus the whole of black sexuality on the dick further continues the ruse that black people are not people but objects."

The mythicized virility of black men made them a perceived threat to white manhood. Lynchings and beatings were frequently motivated by accusations of sexually preying on, or in Emmett Till's case, whistling at, white women.

“From D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation to now, it's 'oh, you gotta be careful, that's a sexual predator, they rape white women.' That has been used historically to keep black men down and in their place," says Dr. Samuels.

The idea of black men as somehow more hypermasculine than other men still gets them killed today. The “black buck,” a racial slur that emerged in the United States post-Reconstruction, was used to describe African-American men who were irredeemably savage and brutish. If you will, see it as the precursor to today’s most popular dog whistle, “thug.” Once a group is seen as animalistic and unbridled, it becomes that much easier to commit acts of violence against them. In the countless instances of police brutality against black men, there will always come the never-ending chorus of how the officer felt “their life was in danger.” The justification, unlike unarmed black males, seems to be bulletproof. The fear and obsession mainstream sexuality has toward the black penis is part and parcel of the dehumanization of black men in general.
If you're a black man with an average penis who doesn't have sex with 10 women 15 times a day, you start to think 'what's wrong with me?' You try to live up to a stereotype of virility that doesn't really exist in the first place.
“When I see these pieces of us, I find myself reminded of the few things America values about black men: our dicks, our style and our music,” says Olajuawon-Wilson. Not to mention, the fascination with black male body parts crowds out more meaningful conversations that could be happening around black sexuality and sexual health. It makes black intimacy highly heteronormative and dick-centric, oftentimes marginalizing the sexual experiences of queer and gender-nonconforming black people.

Feelmore, a black-owned queer sex shop in Oakland, California, is a rare example of what thoughtful representation of black sexuality could look like. Nenna Joiner, the owner, says that since “stereotypes in the sex industry are par for the course,” they fight for inclusion each day, hoping to bring more racial and sexual diversity to the adult industry. One can wander in and find everything from quartz massage wands to NSFW coloring books to penis hydropumps to vintage issues of Playboy.

“We search far and wide for things that are interesting, from different countries, so that our products aren’t homogenous, and our boutique doesn’t just look like everyone else’s. A lot of people don’t want to do that work.”

Joiner also strives to make Feelmore more than just a retail space, but a space of belonging, a community resource and an activist hub. With a slogan of “we really do give a fuck,” the shop hosts neighborhood events that run the gamut from lubrication workshops to talks on local politics.

“We have so much going on in here that’s reflective of our community. We want to create things that aren’t just about the sex industry, but are about people feeling whole and completed and happy,” Joiner tells Playboy. “I think of this space as a collision space. You might meet a politician in here, you might meet a Black Lives Matter person in here, you might see a priest in here.”

The shop’s work hasn’t gone unrecognized. Last month, it was named the “coolest sex shop in America” by The Advocate. And earlier this year, it beat out larger retailers like Chi Chi LaRue and Babeland to win Retailer of the Year from Xbiz, which recognizes individuals and companies that push the adult entertainment world forward.

Citing Hugh Hefner and his Civil Rights-era inclusion of black leaders and black bunnies as an influence, Joiner says she’s “very much about creating something different around culture.” In its mission to be a place that contextualizes race and gender in all its complexities, Joiner’s Feelmore may very well be the future of sex shops.

“You have to go out there and create what you want to see.”

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