When Dalychia Saah and Rafaella Fiallo were in graduate school in 2014 at the predominantly white Washington University, they were keenly aware of how few spaces there were for black people to meet and share their experiences and ideas with each other.
So, as so many others who have found themselves in similar situations have been forced to do, they took advantage of whatever opportunities they encountered to encourage conversation and camaraderie ― often via turns-ups and twerk sessions with friends that, with a little liquid courage, frequently turned into late-night, remarkably honest and vulnerable talks about love, sex and other intimate topics.
Noting that these discussions were happening much too rarely among black people, Saah and Fiallo created Afrosexology, a now prolific traveling seminar that, in its third year, aims to advance dialogue about black pleasure, desire and sexual liberation.
Saah and Fiallo recently talked to HuffPost about Afrosexology, sex positivity and redefining what it means for black people to be kinky.
How did Afrosexology come together?
Dalychia Saah: We first met in our graduate program. We didn’t have any courses together, but because we were at a predominantly white institution, we few black folks got together at gatherings and kickbacks to hang out. And at those, you know, chicken and Hennessy parties [laughs], we learned that we were both really into talking about sex. We’re both interested in sexuality. There was a lot of critique we had about the conversation about sex in the black community.
What kind of critique?
Saah: A lot of it is just centered around preventing HIV, preventing unplanned pregnancy, preventing STIs and sexual assault, which is all so important and so valuable. But we weren’t getting the conversations about what we were working toward. We were just getting the conversation about what we should be avoiding. And so we really wanted to get into the conversation about what is beyond what we should be avoiding and how can we get these conversations, given the silence in a lot of our communities around sex? How can we create a space where we can talk about masturbation, oral sex, communication skills, radical twerking — all of these things. So when we got together and started envisioning, it was from that day to, like, three weeks later that we birthed Afrosexology and just really committed to trial and error. I think our first concern was, “Are black people even going to come talk to us? Are people going to think we’re crazy? Are people going to think we’re too young? Are people going to think we’re inexperienced?” And we have gotten nothing but so much affirmation.
How you go about teaching people what sex positivity is? I think a lot of people often confuse sex positivity with polyamory, and they’re not necessarily the same thing.
Rafaella Fiallo: I think that the first step, to go along with what Dalychia is saying, is that we’re not just talking about how we want to engage other people on a sexual level. We’re really taking a step back and having a deeper, more meaningful understanding with who we are as people, as sexual beings, as people operating in a system of oppression and how we want to interact with the community as a whole. So I think taking a step back and understanding that we all have these individual experiences that, on the other side, are linked to really harmful, unhelpful and negative experiences when it comes to lack of education and negative sexual experiences, we want to make sure all of that is recognized, as opposed to just saying sex positivity is being able to sleep with whoever you want or however many people you want. It’s also affirming the experiences people may have if they want to identify as asexual.
To your point about coming into a better understanding of what sexuality is, you’ve both spoken ― almost poetically ― in previous interviews about the importance of masturbation. Tell me why you’ve stressed that and how you believe it factors into self-care.
Saah: For me, the way I was socialized as a woman — as a black woman — as the first generation in my family to even have agency, I was just conditioned to think that sex was for my partner, that sex was something I did for someone else, that the pleasure I received from sex was from someone else. So even when I was in college and in conversations with my peers, I was like, “Oh, they couldn’t make me orgasm” or “They weren’t putting it down. They didn’t lay down the pipe.” There was always this idea of giving your power, your pleasure, your agency to someone else, which I think aligns with society and how capitalism, white supremacy and patriarchy train us to give our power and agency to the system.
“Masturbation has been a way to reclaim my power — to get to know my power — and really understand that the pleasure I’m experiencing in my life is in my control.”
Saah: We’re looking to them for answers. We’re looking to them to affirm us. We’re looking to them to make us free or make us feel good by following their direction. And for me, masturbation was a thing that taught me that I — literally, at my fingertips — am able to bring myself that pleasure. That power comes from me. It doesn’t come from someone else. So that has taught me that even in a society that’s oppressive, I am able to do the work I need to do to liberate myself. I’m not waiting for white supremacy to wake up and say, “We’re going to start affirming blackness.” So for me, masturbation has been a way to reclaim my power — to get to know my power — and really understand that the pleasure I’m experiencing in my life is in my control.
I really appreciate the way you put that. I imagine when you realize that sort of power is in your own hands, you think of romance differently. You don’t think of a partner as someone you’re relying on solely to bring you to orgasm.
Can you two touch on how you instill sex positivity in children? Do you think it’s important to teach people early on how to comfortably come into their sexual selves?
Fiallo: Yes, I think taking a step back to recognize sex positivity as simply promoting and embracing our sexual identities and expressions is really easy. But it’s so interesting because when you start talking about children, people are like, “Are you talking about explaining doggy style to kids and showing them dildos?” We’re like, “No.” We’re talking about boundaries and understanding what that means. We’re talking about them having the right to explore their bodies, knowing they’re able to give themselves pleasure but also knowing how to regulate themselves.
Can you give me an example?
Fiallo: There are so many kids who, at a very young age, believe that exploring their body is bad because if a parent sees a child with their hand in their pants, what do they typically do? They slap their child’s hand away and say, “Don’t do that,” instead of saying, “There’s a place and a time to do that, and the living room is not the most appropriate place, but if you want private time to explore your body, you can go to your bedroom.” Children are already learning that certain behaviors and interactions with their own body — things they do to themselves — are shameful. So that’s why we try to really promote the understanding that these things are OK.
So when it comes to children, in your opinion, it’s more about giving them allowance to explore themselves.
Saah: I think a really important distinction when we’re talking to parents about the work we do with children is separating sex from sexuality, you know? So sex is this act — this thing we do with our body that brings us pleasure. And sexuality is something that we all have. Sexuality is the way we express our gender. It’s the way we feel about our body image or self-esteem, the things that bring us pleasure, the way we interact with the world and our desires. It’s going through puberty. It’s having crushes. It’s intimacy. It’s a relationship. It’s all of these things. So to not give people sexuality education when they’re younger because we feel like we’re talking about sex or to limit sexuality education to just talking about sex is doing people a disservice. When I was a 13-year-old black girl growing up in the South with an ass, I needed someone to talk to me about body image, because I was navigating stuff the people around me — growing up in a predominantly white school — weren’t having to navigate. And nobody was talking to me about it.
I feel that. A lot of people carry that baggage for years without really addressing it or finding ways to express it.
Saah: I will say that in so many of our workshops, we end up unpacking so much shame from childhood that we’re like, “Damn, if we could just get this at childhood, we wouldn’t have to spend these next 20 years unpacking the shame.” You know? So it’s about how can we start having these healthy foundations with our little people, with their relationships with their bodies, to other people, to love, to intimacy, to desire, so there’s a good foundation for them as they grow into their fuller sexual selves.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, what has your experience been like taking the message of sex positivity to older black people, who tend to be more conservative? How do you convey to them that sexual liberation is a part of the social justice they may have advocated for years ago?
Fiallo: Generally, I would say that our people who follow us and check our work out, we’ve had a diverse age range. It’s kind of what Dalychia alluded to in the beginning — there’s always the question, “Oh, do we have enough experience to talk about this?” We may be talking to a grown person who has grandchildren — what can we tell them about surviving in this type of America? What can we tell them about sexuality? But the response has not been that at all. People have been very, very open. We’re coming from a perspective where our body liberation and our sexual liberation is directly tied to all the other forms of liberation, and I think that’s something people can relate to on all types of levels.
Have you noticed any particular roadblocks that black couples face in being sexually open with each other?
Saah: The thing I’m thinking about is the willingness to explore and to play. I don’t know if it’s necessarily a black thing, but we work with black people, so this is what we see. I think there’s a lot of fear around trying different things or communicating that you want to try different things. There’s this belief that kink is a white thing. The orgies, the play parties, even a nudist beach or sexual fantasies — people believe these are just white things. Like, nonnormative family structures have been very common in the black community, whether we called it polyamory or not. A lot of us know a person who has a person on the side.
Right. We may not refer to these things by their proper names. We just call it “trifling.”
Saah: [Laughs.] Yes! So talking about that is important. Same with kink. Kink is very common. A lot of us like to have rough sex or engage in slight choking, so expanding the idea so kink doesn’t have to be this thing we think of as very extreme and inaccessible to us is also important. Yes, you can be black and do these things, and that isn’t contradictory.
For more information about Afrosexology, head here.
Main illustration courtesy of Sophie Brampton.
This interview was lightly edited for clarity.