As a Black woman, the very act of existing is stressful. We’re only a few weeks into 2019, and the headlines are already reminding me why marginalized folks are exhausted—the news leaves my stomach in knots, social media stresses me the hell out, and I’m constantly feeling gaslit by commentators on TV. I feel the stress of being a Black woman in my bones.
I’ve been looking for an effective coping strategy for years, but the anxiety of being a Black woman is relentless. My brain buzzes on alert with everyday frustrations and painful past memories even when I sleep. “Living in a country that is so heavily steeped in systemic racism impacts our mental health in a number of ways,” says Joy Harden Bradford, Ph.D., founder of Therapy for Black Girls. “The stress that we experience as a result of the often daily micro- and macro-aggressions can lead to increased anxiety, depression, anger, difficulty sleeping, and isolation.”
Exhausted, angry, and frustrated, I recently realized there’s only one situation where I feel totally free of these feelings: after orgasm.
The sweet mental and emotional release of an orgasm is the only thing that seems to help on days where the state of the world leaves me feeling tangled up in knots of anxiety. Seriously—orgasms, whether solo or coupled, have often saved me.
The idea that sex could help provide a salve against the news cycle isn’t totally crazy—we’ve all heard the long list of stress-reducing benefits of orgasm. Resolving to have better sex as a form of self-care, however, felt a little bit like a joke at first. But the more I’ve tried to prioritize good sex, the more I understand just how important it is—especially for marginalized women.
Like many Black women, my relationship with sex is complicated. Catcalls, sexual harassment, objectification, and unwanted sexual attention have all eaten away at my connection to healthy sex as an adult—a familiar reality for many women (no matter the color of their skin) but especially for marginalized women. With few social barriers to protect us, Black women’s trauma is everywhere: A 2018 study conducted by the National Women’s Law Center found Black women file sexual harassment charges at three times the rate of white women.
Growing up, I internalized all of this. Sexuality was something that put you in danger and should be suppressed at all costs. So, I made a sacrifice: fear sex to maintain my (relative) safety.
But I’m learning there is power in prioritizing good sex. “We often ask Black folks, ‘If you don’t have agency over your own body, how do you plan to have political, social, and economic agency?’” say Rafaella Fiallo and Dalychia Saah, founders of Afrosexology. “Reclaiming your body is an act of resistance.” Slowly, I’m learning to let go of the shame hangover I’ve grown to expect after a night of dirty talk or showing off my cleavage. I’m reclaiming my body one orgasm at a time.
I’m not kidding myself—we can’t wash away these systemic issues in a great wave of Black women’s pleasure. But it is a start. “Sex encourages self-love and patience when dealing with oppression by teaching us that we don’t have to put our pleasure—of any kind—in the hands of others,” says Tiffani Lashai Curtis, a sex writer in Philadelphia. We deserve to feel joy, excitement and—you guessed it—pleasure.
The more time I spend working towards good sex, the more I’m feeling the power in other areas of my life. Learning to say no to something I’m not into in bed helps me say no to situations and conversations where I feel unsafe. Learning to ask my partner for exactly what I want is helping me learn to call out relationships where I’m getting less than I deserve. Learning to speak up during sex is teaching me to speak up in life.