Conservative attitudes regarding sex and sexuality in the Black community are common, characterized by a lack of discourse. This qualitative research study investigated this lack of language and its impact on past experiences of older Black women. Fourteen women recalled conversations about sex with parents and other caregivers and their impact on sexual experiences. Five themes emerged: 1. Mother’s silence; 2. early sexual experiences as “the unknown”; 3. no language for discussing sex; 4. the impact of having no discussion about sex on past sexual experiences; and 5. a circle of silence. The lack of a language to discuss sexuality in this community means a scarcity of writing on their experiences in the literature.
sexuality, older Black women, Black community, lack of language, past experiences
Sexual expression and pleasure among older Black women have for generations have been uncomfortable topics of discussion. Gabbidon and Shaw-Ridley (2018) illustrated that within the Afro-Caribbean constructions of sexuality, there are limited discussions of sex among families. Some Black scholars have explained the obscuration of Black women’s sexuality in the literature (Dickerson & Rousseau, 2009). First, the separation of Black women’s issues from Civil Rights struggles means that Black women’s issues should be resolved within Black communities (Rose, 2004). Second, Black women accord more importance to race than to gender or sexual issues (Collins, 2002). Based upon my conversations with older Black women, in 2021 I reasoned that sexuality, which is a sensitive and personal topic, is an area that is not naturally appealing to older Black people, and they are therefore not drawn to participate in such research (Salisu & Darcus, 2021).
Another plausible explanation offered by Black scholars (Atallah, 2016; Dickerson & Rousseau, 2009; Rosenthal & Lobel, 2016) is that these women recognize that they often must confront the reality that they are aging, female, and non-White in a society defined by youthfulness, the patriarchy, and White dominance (Barnes, Battle & Battle, 2006). Also, Clark (2006) reasoned that past trauma and ageism against older Black women about their sexuality have discouraged them from talking about sexual experiences.
To further illustrate the negative impact of silence on sexuality in the Black community, I reference Hines’ (1995) findings, which demonstrated that African American women have responded to the pressure associated with their sexuality by engaging in dynamic dissemblance, which refers to the act of appearing open to disclosing intimate issues and feelings people are facing, but remaining enigmatic.
While these are valid reasons for the dearth of information about older Black women and sexuality, the present study focuses on the role of communication about sex and sexuality and how it shapes older Black women’s sexual experiences. To the author’s knowledge, very little research has looked at how the necessity for language specifically related to the construction of sexuality, embracing it, and understanding it in conversation has influenced the present-day experiences that older Black women have had with their sexuality.
This demonstrates the need for researchers to go back to the field and engage in interactive discourse with older Black women concerning their recollections of past experiences and how these experiences have impacted their present-day experiences of sexuality. To acquire better insight, explorations into the experiences of older Black women are necessary, as it is important to determine how they recall the attitudes of their parents and other figures of authority when discussing sex and the impact that these conversations had on their experiences.
Fourteen women participated in this study, for which the primary objective was to find out how Black women understand and interpret sexuality (details of the study’s methodology have been described elsewhere) (Salisu & Darcus, 2021). I recruited women by distributing flyers in senior centers, community health centers, message boards, and churches and via word of mouth. I also attended a women’s event in New York City, where I recruited two women for the study. For inclusion in the study, the women had to be ages 60–75, self-identify as Black, and have been assigned female at birth. The CUNY Institutional Review Board (CUNY IRB 2017–1074) approved all study procedures. Based on the flexibility of the semi-structured interviews, I asked open-ended questions, which encouraged further responses. Each interview ranged from 45 to 90 minutes and was audio-recorded. The women voluntarily participated in the study and were encouraged to use pseudonyms and fictitious names to protect their privacy and confidentiality.
Below, I share the women’s recollections of their prior experiences with sexuality.
Theme 1: Mothers’ Silence
The women discussed the silence surrounding sexuality. It was a topic not spoken about publicly nor within the family. The women in this study expected their mothers to inform them about sex. However, they were disappointed when their mothers failed in that regard. As one woman said, “Parents have a responsibility to educate children, and I think that is not happening, and it is sad.”
Sometimes, the women asked questions because they wanted to know more about sex and their sexuality but were rebuked. In describing her experience, Abigail, age 70 and a widow, said that if girls “attempted to talk or ask about it, they risked being stigmatized or getting labeled as a ‘dirty girl.’ ”
Lumba, who grew up in an educated family and who was very curious about her body and its sexual development, made several failed attempts to acquire information about sex from her mother. Finally, she resorted to learning on her own. She said, “My mom did not talk much about a lot of things. A couple of times, I asked her questions, and her answer was like, ‘You will find out sometime or you’ll find out when you’re older.’ Then it got to a point when I said I would find out on my own.”
‘African American women have responded to the pressure associated with their sexuality by engaging in dynamic dissemblance.’
Some women received misleading information about sex from their mothers. Emmanuela recalled her experience of confronting her mother for giving her false and misleading information about sex. She later learned about sex and reproductive health through books, which led her to discard her mother’s advice about sex and relationships. “And so, I knew, but my mother used to tell me, ‘If you let a man touch you, you will have a baby,’ not ‘if you have sex.’ ”
Although the women engaged in some conversations about sex with their mothers, they described them as not being appropriately informative. Sharon, who considered herself her mother’s favorite, did not recall having any deep conversations about sex with her mother. She said, “We had a very good relationship. … For Mom and daughter, yeah. I never had a deep sexual conversation with my mom.”
The lack of sex education was a consistent theme throughout the interviews. The women explained that this was the norm in their time. Having witnessed the changes between the time they grew up and now, the women indicated that they understood that their non-expressiveness about sexuality was rooted in the culture of the time. As Sharon said, “I don’t think that communication happens in the Black family or community where the father and mother talk to their sons and daughters about sex. I know back in the old days in my family that it did not happen. I don’t know why; it just didn’t happen.”
While they explained the lack of discourse about sex growing up, some provided reasons for the silence. Lumba interpreted silence as a protective strategy. According to Lumba, “But you have to remember the age in which I grew up, very restrictive, very, I guess in a way, trying to protect you, and in a lot of instances, information was withheld not only about sexuality but about family history, you know, like they kept secrets (laugh), and I found the same things about my grandmother. They kept a lot of secrets that they wouldn’t tell you.”
Others explained that the reason for the silence might have been because the mothers did not know how to communicate this information. Lumba offered her experience with menstruation and how she had no prior knowledge about it before it occurred. Lumba explained, “I was not told before, and I probably was 11, and I was early. And so, it was like, ‘This is going to happen every month, and this is what you do.’ And you know, I thought about it over the years, and one day … the reason why my mom did not communicate is because she herself probably did not know. She herself probably went through the same thing.”
Theme 2: Early Sexual Experiences as “The Unknown”
Many of the women felt neither properly taught nor prepared for what they were to encounter as they entered puberty, as well as being ignorant about their sexual needs. Sharon, age 64, described her early sexual experiences this way: “Like an adventure, going into the jungle, and you don’t know where to find the next tree because the forest is so thick. And we went into sexuality kind of blindly and feeling our way and learning as we went.”
Similarly, Mary, a 74-year-old who grew up in the South, described her early experiences as a “cloud.” She said that because not much was explained to her about the changes occurring in her body, especially regarding her monthly cycle, she had no idea what it symbolized: “Well, you know, it was like a cloud; it becomes a cloud over you. You don’t have a sense of ... that it is something you are meant to have, that it is a part of who you are, and it is ok—that it can be something good and holy. It can be something you don’t shy away from.”
Many of the other women had similar experiences of “adventures,” which were not good teachers for many of the women, as many had negative experiences. Sharon described her first sexual encounter as troubling and painful. For her, ignorance about her sexual needs and her general lack of sexual information caused her first sexual experience to be “gross,” devoid of any sexual pleasure, and disappointing. She also described it as “painful and hurting.” Sharon said her views on sex would have been different had she received sound instruction and guidance, particularly from her parents.
Theme 3: No Language for Discussing Sex
Virtually all the women felt that there was no concrete language for discussing sex when they were growing up. They recalled common phrases, such as “hush hush,” “under the table,” “keep your pants up,” “cross your legs,” “don’t let boys touch you,” and “keep your dress down,” which their parents and other adults used when talking to them about sex. Regarding sex education when growing up, Paula said: “I think that when I was coming up, the communication about it was more hush hush, it was more under the table, you learned from your girlfriend, and your girlfriend did not know any more than you did. You’re lucky if you have friends or older siblings to tell you—nobody said anything about sex.”
The women described these phrases as unclear, coded, and restrictive. Tamika recalled discussion about sexuality growing up, as “I don’t know … I just was … at those times, there was no talking about sexuality. It was like nobody really spoke about it. We grew up with no language to talk about sex.”
When the women were asked how they talked about sex with their children, many struggled to adopt a different approach and repeated what their parents did.
Agnes, an educator who lost her spouse 14 years ago, clearly described the women’s initial misconceptions and misinterpretations about their sexuality. In recounting her early sexual experiences, Agnes felt that the language used to describe sex was unclear. She took what she was told literally, “They said, ‘Don’t let anyone touch you.’ So, touching you, you will be thinking touching you is like this (slap hands). You don’t know that touching you means men penetrating or having sex with you. That’s one thing that the parents, my mother, did not tell me.”
In describing her own experience, Rose said she felt extremely scared when she accidentally came into physical contact with a boy. She described this experience as frightening because she thought she could get pregnant by touching. Rose explained, “I was dancing one time and we were dancing really close, and I missed my period, and I thought I might be pregnant, and we hadn’t even had any … you know … had a sexual encounter.”
The lack of adequate communication limited women’s knowledge of sex, biology, and reproduction, and the culture of not speaking about sexuality did not allow these women the opportunity to express their imagination.
Theme 4: Recalling the Impact of Having No Discussion About Sex on Sexual Experiences
The absence of language to talk about sex affected the women’s initial sexual encounters, which most described as negative. Sharon shared that she was unprepared at age 16 to be in a committed relationship, but out of curiosity, she went ahead with one. However, she found her first experience very troubling. Additionally, the fear about and “hush hush” attitude toward sex took away any pleasure. Agnes explained it this way, “It was constrained only because I didn’t know what a healthy sex life was. So, whenever you have sex, you feel guilty about it the next morning; it takes away a lot of the pleasure. Even when I started having sex, I really did not enjoy sex per se. I did not enjoy it because it was something like a quick thing that you had to do with your boyfriend, and you quickly dressed up and go.”
The question about sex education and its impact on women provoked intense responses from the women. This was especially the case regarding their motivations to marry and how the degree of sexuality was restricted. The women felt that due to the lack of sex education, they were ill-prepared for marriage. Many of them entered marriage just to have sex, as premarital sex was so strongly condemned.
Marie ascribed the failure of her marriage to not knowing much about sex prior to her marriage. She said, “so my pictures of what marriage should look like came from … television or watching my parents, who used to fuss a lot. I didn’t realize what ... you know what marriage was about. So, that is why I broke up. It was basically my fault.”
By reflecting on their past, the women were able to explain that because of how they were introduced to sex, having sex not pleasurable.
Theme 5: A Circle of Silence?
In contrast to their parents’ lack of communication, the women who were interviewed reported that they were more open to discussing sex with their children. It appeared that they broke through the cycle of silence because of the abundance of home-based information available through the internet. Rose discussed the implications of explicit communication about sex and the impact it could have on curious teenagers who are always wanting to know more. She explained, “Well, when they are telling you to keep your dress down, you could end up getting pregnant and having a baby; you don’t need no illegitimate children and all this stuff (laughter). You didn’t really talk about sex that much, and I think that is a mistake on our part because, like I said, sex is a natural thing …. Even as a Christian, and I think as a Christian person, I think we should talk to our children about sex … Not that we should encourage them to go out and have sex; it is not in our belief to have sex before marriage, or whatever, but I think we should be teaching our kids about sex.”
Interestingly, when the women were asked how they talked about sex with their children, particularly their daughters, 12 of the 14 described their struggle to adopt a different approach and found themselves repeating what their parents did. The women said they did not educate their children about sex or how to deal with sexual desires. Although she abhorred the silence, Agnes was surprised that she, albeit unknowingly, was uncommunicative with her children about sex, thereby perpetuating a cycle of silence.
A twist to that conversation came up repeatedly, in which many women mentioned that the younger generations seem to be breaking the cycle of silence. One woman said that sex education today, unlike in their time, is not “hush, hush … they don’t have a problem with it. It is expected for them to be open about it.”
The women see young people today as having a voice and open access to sex education. Abigail said, “So far, then, we would tread more in the dark than the people today are. It’s very open and free. You can Google it. You know, it’s very open now. Discussion for them is nothing; it is like having a normal conversation. For us, it was not; we had to meet up and talk about it in secret and stuff like that.”
However, most of the women thought that even though the younger generations are more informed, they are not using the information correctly. Kate said, “Despite all the information they have, especially in terms of birth control, they don’t use that information. In terms of putting their sexuality on display, they do it more easily and more casually, especially in the way some of them dress.”
Dennis and Wood showed that the discomfort associated with talking about sex in the Black community is a problem passed down from one generation to the next.
The women also pointed out differences in values. They felt that the present generation has it hard because they are saddled with many hard decisions. Marie stated: “I think the present generation has a tough, hard decision to make when it comes to that. Because when I was growing up, the worst we can think about was gonorrhea … now and then we can just take penicillin, and you’re better. But now, sexuality can get you killed. It can be a death sentence if you don’t know what your partner has been up to and what he’s doing. We did not have things like that to worry about.”
Marie explained, “I feel sorry for them. I really do. I think it’s a hard place for young girls today. And the standards that are out there or the lack of standards … They have it more like an open book for the present generation. It’s not kept in the closet; it’s not hush hush. They don’t have a problem with it, and it is expected for them to be open about it.”
The women’s stories demonstrate that there was a lack of language for discussing sex in the Black community. Instead, mothers and other parental figures used indirect terms when discussing sex, such as “hush hush,” “keep your pants up,” “don’t let boys touch you under the table,” and “keep your dress down,” which resulted in many misconceptions and misinterpretations among these older women.
In this study, it became evident that the environment in which the participants were raised affected their understanding of their sexuality. These women’s stories, in their own words, created a pathway to understanding how sexuality and their expression of it were limited by the context of time and space. Upon reflection, the women challenged the way in which they were introduced to sex and how sociohistorical contexts shaped their experiences. They were born between 1945 and 1960—and grew up during the height of the sexual revolution, the legalization of abortion, and the Civil Rights movement. All these historical events shaped the experiences of their youth and their perceptions of sex, which culminated in their struggle to accept the way they were raised in the absence of being able to talk about sex. Presently, they are witnessing the growth and proliferation of communication about sex, which has provided a platform for their intimate stories to be taken out of the private sphere and become part of everyday dialogue.
Blackness matters to these women, as evidenced by the verbalization of their awareness of the silence on sexuality discourse in the Black community; they recalled that they had to resort to finding out about sex on their own. Some women read books, others received their sex education from their friends and older siblings, and still others learned from television.
Blackness also mattered to these women when describing the totality of their early sexual experiences as a “cloud” or an “adventure,” which the women explained as a negative connotation that meant approaching their early sexual experiences with a considerable lack of awareness. Many of these women, unlike the women of today who have experienced sexual liberation, were unprepared before engaging in sexual activity. They were ignorant about their sexual needs. And the lack of sexual talk in the Black community undermined the sexual experiences of older women by making their initial sexual encounters unpleasant.
The sexuality of Black Americans is a topic that has often been fraught with controversy (Malveaux, 1979) because Black women’s sexuality is tied to the sociohistorical experiences of slavery (Collins, 2002). The interviewees grew up at a time when black women were expected to be non-expressive about sex and their sexuality due to the lingering trauma of slavery. Most of the women in this study were part of a generation for whom the discourse on sex had to be conservative. Undoubtably, the lingering effects of trauma from slavery ensured that the lack of language for sex was a result of learned behaviors. Furthermore, this silence has caused them to fail to control the perceptions of their sexuality by talking about it.
The lack of communication regarding sex also led to a lack of marriage preparation. Silence around sex in the Black community was a factor contributing to the poor marriages experienced by many older women. Many of these women entered marriage to have sex because of the constant assertion that sex does not take place outside of marriage. The fact that the women did not know what sex meant caused them to be ill-prepared, leading to the end of their marriages.
This study illustrates the circle of silence among members of the Black community regarding sex. These findings support those of Dennis and Wood (2012), who showed that the discomfort associated with talking about sex in the Black community is a problem passed down from one generation to the next. Gabbidon and Shaw-Ridley (2018) demonstrated that not talking about sex is normalized via the explanation that this is a topic that is simply not touched upon.
Margaret Salisu, PhD, M.Phil, LMSW, is project director for The Central and Northeast Brooklyn Health Equity Index in the Department of Family and Community Medicine in the SUNY Downstate Health Sciences Center; a research instructor in the Department of Medicine at SUNY Downstate Medical Center; and a postdoctoral researcher in Brooklyn, New York.
Photo credit: sirtravelalot/Shutterstock
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