Research

Sex and Race: The Color of Sex in America

Pornotropics refer to the sexual imagination onto which Europe projected its forbidden sexual desires and fears. This includes the mostly male Europe Christian travelers fixation on African male genitalia and rendering of African women as hypersexual. This characterization helped justify the sexual violations that linked colonialism to the slave trade and thus “lurid images of African sexuality served well the interests of those selling Black women to White men.”⁠1Writers portrayed them as desiring White men and thus “assertions of African sexual excesses became a foundational component of black-white racial boundary.”2

The Black sexual stereotypes helped justify slavery the same way indigenous stereotypes helped justify the land grab. These stereotypes were the cover for castration, breeding programs, rape, and sexual servitude. As a result of the relationship between sex and slavery, abolitionists documented the connection by not only highlighting the abuses but also corrupting the DNA of Whites.

Black women ultimately lacked legal and social support against white men who raped them. For example, in the case of State of Missouri v. Celia. Celia was convicted for killing her owner Robert Nelson for whom she had birthed two children and was pregnant with a third. Celia, however, was not protected by the law as it considered her property and not a citizen. As a result, she was hanged because another slave George implicated her for the crime before himself fleeing the plantation. Ultimately, the false belief in Black women’s sexual power ensnared their lives.

Sex and Nationalism: Sexually Imagined Communities

National sexual boundaries emerge from a moral economy of nationalism wherein mutually reinforcing of the notion that good citizens have appropriate sexual habits and relies on double standards. This includes discrediting a marginalized groups sexuality. For example, during the Holocaust, those identified as queer had to wear a pink triangle akin to the Star of David. Further, Jewish people were stereotyped as possessing feminine qualities and hypersexual.

Black women suffer through the use of rape as a form of sexual control while women in the dominant group get punished for crossing the sexual color line: “Racist and sexualized depictions of others is a common strategy by all governments, not just extreme nationalists particularly during times of War⁠”3

Rape and the image of violence is thus a powerful strategy of sexualized racism. Joanne Nagel cites two ways this continued in Nazi Germany:

The Nazis used sexualized racism, homophobia, and misogyny as foils against which to contrast their claims to superior morality and irile, but proper sexuality…Fascist ideology was imbued with an erotic hypersexuality dedicated to reproducig the Aryana race.⁠4

As Jesse Daniels notes in White Lies, this is paired with a self-denying ascetism toward sex. Therefore, “the moral economy of nationalism is gendered, sexualized, and racialized⁠.”5

The Moral Economy of Nationalism

Nationalism refers to “the system of values and a code of honor that defines who is and is not a real American…”6

Nagel outlines four social functions of the moral economy of nationalism

  1. Provides specific places for women and men in the nations
  2. Creates a desirability scale of members of the nation based on sexual, gender, and ethnic hierarchies and boundaries
  3. Establishes criteria for good/bad nationalist masculinity and femininity
  4. Defines threats to national moral/sexual integrity

Purpose of Deviance

Emilie Durkheim argued a society’s moral boundaries and core values helped 1) create solidarity 2) serve a common purpose 3) renew community. Society’s accomplished this by punishing deviants who broke rules as a means to keep people in line during a time when social change was widespared. Thus, as Nagel notes, nationalism as “an ideology that professes a common history, shared culture, and right homeland and often is marked by ethnocentrism.”⁠7


  1. Nagel 2003: 96 
  2. Nagel 2003: 97 
  3. Nagel 2003: 142 
  4. Nagel 2003: 143 
  5. Nagel 2003: 146 
  6. Nagel 2003: 146 
  7. Nagel 2003: 148 

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