How European colonialism hyper-sexualised the Black female body
Illustration: Pavethra Jegatheesan

Misogynoir, a term coined by feminist scholar Moya Bailey, is a specific form of misogyny that is simultaneously anti-Black. It is formed of detrimental stereotypes formulated by western media which have manifested themselves into our political landscape and distorted the way Black women have been perceived and treated for hundreds of years. 

One of the most prevalent, and dangerous, of these stereotypes has been named the Jezebel: assuming that Black women more-so than white women are excessively sexual, shameless, or morally unrestrained. This archetype represents the myth of the wildly sexual Black woman, which has historically lead to the oppression of Black women and girls based on their assumed promiscuity. Not only does this stereotype reduce Black women to a single-dimensional character, it also has harmful implications for their personal safety. It is therefore of high importance that we understand how the Jezebel archetype of Misogynoir came to be, why so many white people chose to believe it, and how it still exists today. 

A history of distorted storytelling

The origins of this stereotype can be traced to the earlier years of European exploration, which lay the foundations for the colonial mindset of western countries. European hegemonic discourse has distorted the idea of the East, Africa and the Americas for centuries, historically eroticising their culture since the discovery of a sea route around South Africa in the late 1400s. Men would return from voyages with travellers’ tales describing natives of these countries with monstrous sexuality. I myself have read examples of European lore in which “[native] men sported giant penises and women consorted with apes.”

With the general population of Europe never having actually left their home countries themselves, the exaggerated and distorted storytelling which passed through generations of Europeans was their only perception of natives outside of Europe. Such stories perpetuated the vicious, hyper-sexual imagery of colonised peoples, turning countries outside of Europe into “porno-tropics”, onto which European men would project erotic fantasies which included strong images of violence and domination over women. 

The image which western men now had of Black women was that because of this supposed violent sexuality, they were incapable of saying “no” to sex. This presumption of excessive sexuality which white Europeans tied to the women of colonised countries has had catastrophic effects, historically left them without legal resources in claims against abuse, and ultimately lay the foundations for the fetishisation and gaslighting of Black females in the 21st century.

When white Europeans then migrated to America, so too did the racist mindset, violence and sexual abuse toward women of colour. The presumed sexual excess of Black women was used by slave owners to justify dehumanisation and abuse of Black bodies. Women endured forced reproduction at the hands of slave owners, the result of which enraged their wives and could mean them being separated from their children forever. With no legal rights, enslaved women were forced to endure the abuse.

The 18th and 19th centuries brought the Industrial Revolution to Europe, and with it increasing demand for raw materials. The imperatives of capital industrialisation spurred the European scramble for and colonisation of Africa. By February 1885, the Berlin West African Conference (met without any African participation) had resulted in the partition of Africa by the European powers of Britain, France, Germany, Portugal, Italy, Belgium and Spain.

Increasing embourgeoisement in 19th century Europe brought with it the institutionalisation of sex within European society. Colonised lands became a place for Europeans to look for sexual experience which was free from the social ties of sexual relationships which came with complex political and economic obligations. Sex in colonial fantasy was, in comparison to sex within Western society, free from responsibility in the European imagination, which resulted in the further fetishisation of women of colour by white European men. 

The violent legacy of the Jezebel image

The dangers of the Jezebel presumption are not a thing of the past. It is evident when we look at the treatment of Black women, girls and non-binary people within the law that the stereotype persists. Black women and girls are left hyper-vulnerable to abuse: approximately 22% of Black women in the US will have experienced rape, and 40% will have experienced intimate partner violence. The numbers are considerably higher for Black trans and non-binary individuals, 53% of whom have experienced sexual violence in the US. Media coverage in the UK of deaths of Black people is consistently less likely to be included in mainstream titles. Why? 

When abuse occurs, Black females are less likely to be believed and supported by the law. This comes down to the harmful legacy of the hyper-sexualisation of Black women, which suggests that Black women are less vulnerable to sexual abuse than their white counterparts: there is evidence of sociological data showing that adults view Black girls as less innocent and more adult-like than their white peers.

When Black women do report abuse they are routinely not believed. This structural bias has led to the incarceration of victims of abuse themselves. Take the example of Cyntoia Brown, a sex-trafficking victim who was imprisoned for 15 years for the murder of the man who bought her for sex, or Chrystul Kizer, 19 years old and currently facing charges of life in prison for the murder of a man who sex-trafficked and abused herself and several other Black girls when she was just 16. 

On a social level also, white women are able to explore and redefine their sexuality (such as the activist “Slutwalk” movement) with considerable freedom whereas Black women are defined distinctly by their sexuality and as their sexuality. Styles of clothes that would be deemed unacceptable when worn by Black women are encouraged to be worn by white women, though many fashion brands creating these clothes are doing so with profits generated from the oppression of Black bodies. The social dichotomy between white and Black women which was introduced by the mindset of colonial Europe persists.

Where do we go from here?

Understanding the history of this archetype is only the beginning. The first step to reformation is recognition of the existence of misogynoir; rooting activism in intersectionality can open our eyes to unique struggles. Many Black women have written books about the experiences of women fighting the stereotypes and presumptions which colonial legacy has left behind: The Colour Purple, by Alice Walker, Coal, by Audre Lorde, This Will Be My Undoing, by Morgan Jenkins, to name just a select few. 

Understanding the origins of such oppression by reading books written by these women themselves, listening to their voices and unlearning the whitewashing of Europe’s colonial past is fundamental in dismantling the system of misogynoir.