The Pleasure Principle

Erotica Is for Black Women, Too

Authors like Zane helped Black women realize that they come first (wink wink)

This article is part of The Pleasure Principle, ZORA’s ultimate guide to solo sex, self-pleasure, and self-love.

Like many Black women, it took a long time for me to accept the idea of being a sexual being. I’m 46 years old and about to get married (again!), and I still struggle with the idea that I can (and deserve!) the sex life I want.

There are two reasons for this. First, historically, Black girls have not been encouraged or even allowed to have sexual feelings. It’s understood that boys will eventually learn how to masturbate. It’s something we joke about. It’s a popular television trope. A teenage boy with a bottle of lotion plays for laughs.

But a teenage girl who wants to have sex? We can be punished, scorned, and — in some religious communities — literally killed.

I can remember very distinctly starting to identify sexual feelings. I was barely a teen, and I had no idea what to do. I was literally afraid to even touch myself in any way.

One day, I found a box of old books in my parents’ den. One of them was A Stranger in the Mirror by Sidney Sheldon. There was eye-popping erotica and in-depth sex scenes in every chapter that I can still recall to this very day. I dog-eared that book and hid it between my mattress and box spring for years.

It was my first experience with erotica, though I didn’t yet know it had a name. I would come across other examples over the years — all White authors and White characters. I’m not sure why I didn’t come across Black writers in erotica. But the one and only Zane was my introduction. And admittedly, it wasn’t very long ago.

Black women can be unapologetically sexual in fiction and in real life.

In 2010, my first novel, Platinum, was published by Simon and Schuster. I was a very nervous first-time novelist. I’d already been a writer for a decade. But a book was something else entirely.

Also? My book had sex scenes in it. A lot of them. It wasn’t quite erotica, but it definitely had its moments.

When I had one of my first signings in my hometown, someone raised their hand and asked, “Where did those sex scenes come from? Is it based on your real life?”

I choked on my water. For God’s sake, my mother was in the audience. Hell, my kid was in the audience. I tried to answer, and the crowd laughed as I sweated, thinking of what to say. I decided to be honest. I had no idea where those sex scenes came from. Most were absolutely not from my real life. (At least, not at that point in my life. Ahem.)

Right after that event, I flew down to New Orleans for Essence Fest to continue promoting my book. After a few events in the Superdome, my publicist from Simon and Schuster told me they were sending a car to pick me up and take me to a Black-owned bookstore on the outskirts of New Orleans.

Zane herself was having a signing. And as my book-label mate, she’d agreed to allow me to join.

And thus, I discovered that Black writers in erotica exist. While in a car service speeding through New Orleans, I downloaded Zane’s second book, Addicted, and had my hands over my mouth pretty much the entire time. It was two-fold freedom I experienced. First, Black women can be unapologetically sexual in fiction and in real life.

And second, Black women could write about it all.

Zane let the world see a Black woman owning her sexuality.

I’d reread Song of Solomon and Their Eyes Were Watching God every year along with several of my favorite Black lit classics. You’re not going to find much of an overlap with the way those writers tackle sex. And they don’t have to. Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston didn’t write erotica. It’s a separate category, as it should be, and it doesn’t need to be compared.

As a developing writer (and a developing sexually healthy woman), I struggled with how to compartmentalize erotica. When I was well into my thirties, I still didn’t own any sex toys or spend intentional time exploring my own body. So of course I’m not writing or reading erotica — I was barely getting through steamy sex scenes with my imagination.

Before Zane, I felt like the raunchiest sex scenes were often paired up with fiction that didn’t appeal to me. But opening Zane’s sophomore novel opened my eyes to an entirely new side of the erotica world where women who looked like me and spoke like me were the stars of the whole naughty show. Well, maybe I didn’t get down quite like the main characters in Addicted, but here was a writer who put no pretense on pleasure when it came to Black women. It wasn’t this forbidden idea; sex (good sex!) was a part of life.

And beyond that, Zane herself was open about wanting sex to be a part of life. She didn’t mind letting people see the person behind the pen name; she wanted to interact with her fans; she let the world see a Black woman owning her sexuality.

Back in 2010, when I got to the bookstore in New Orleans, the line to get inside was out the door and snaking out to the parking lot.

I knew very well those folks weren’t there to see me.

Someone from the store found me and led me to the table. There was a folding table with stacks of Zane’s latest book. And a single stack of my first book. Every few minutes, employees would rip open a new box of books and stack up another dozen or so of Zane’s book. People would line up and get their book signed, and they’d start opening another box.

I took my seat next to Zane and looked over at my stack of books that had not been touched. I spent the rest of the time watching Zane sign book after book for her adoring fans.

In a time when we understand the importance of self-care, we are beginning to understand how we can be whole.

For the rest of my life, I will never, ever forget the women who were waiting in line to see Zane that day. The women were so varied. There were sorority sisters who clearly had flown in for Essence Fest. There were locals, of every age and background, who found themselves (or who they wanted to be) in Zane’s books. So many women of all ages from different parts of the country and likely very different walks of life but all of them connected over being turned on by her work.

Maybe they hid her novels in their bedsprings like a fun yet frightening secret. Maybe they saw their own escapades in the pages of her books. Or maybe they just appreciated a well-written sex scene featuring chocolate-colored body parts.

There’s no accounting for what specifically drew each of these women to Zane’s words, but looking at them standing in line, it was clear they were women who’d given themselves permission and freedom to feel pleasure simply for pleasure’s sake. Many of them looked at me sitting there, picked up my book, read a bit, asked me a few questions, and then bought my book and had me sign it. I sold more books that evening than I did at any other event that weekend. None of the women knew anything about me, but I sold out my book at that signing simply because I was sitting next to Zane.

That was clearly a sign of the loyalty of her audience. Not only are we going to stand in line for hours for a signed book from Zane, we’ll support the writer next to her just because.

In 2020, intentionality surrounding sex and self-love is a given. In a time when we understand the importance of self-care, we are beginning to understand how we can be whole, how we can matter, how we can care for our families and our work.

And still enjoy a well-written smutty sex scene! Or, in my case, maybe write one!

Today, you can dive into writers like R. Erica Doyle, who knows how to combine a classic twist of phrase with omg moments of sexual pleasure. Or Brenda Thomas, who marries romance with erotica — for those who need a story between their sweaty sex scenes.

As for me? I still pick up a Zane book now and again in between my Maya Angelou and James Baldwin.

Also, when people ask me what I write, my answer is always the same. I literally write everything except children’s books and erotica.

I sold my first children’s book this year. So there’s only one category left. You never know…

We want to hear from you! Take the ZORA Solo Sex Survey to share your experiences with self-pleasure.

Aliya S. King is an author, freelance writer and editor.

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