Essay: A Historical Introduction to Female Sexuality: Saartje Baartmen

There is a lot going on in popular culture today: Beyoncé is calling herself a feminist; Nicki Minaj released the infamous “Anaconda” while insisting that she is still an empowered and self-aware female. In a post-feminist world where it seems like anything goes (because of her risqué looks I have a pretty good idea of what Rihanna looks like naked), pinpointing why we are so squeamish about black women performing their sexuality for an audience becomes increasingly difficult.
This entry is meant to offer some historical insight for those who find themselves on the losing end of the battle, trying to defend now out-dated and unpopular sensibilities such as: “Cover that ass up! Ain’t nobody tryna see that sh-t!”

Anne Fausto-Sterling (2002) examines the significance of Saartjie Baartman, the infamous South African woman part of a circus act during the early 1800s, in relation to the developing field of European biology and zoology at the time. Georges Cuvier and Henri de Blainville, whose contributions to these fields are significant, wrote papers about Baartman’s body as part of their research in anatomy. De Blainville’s paper – written after she posed nude for him and Cuvier – included a detailed analysis of her physical features and compared them to those of European women. He concluded that although she menstruated like “regular” European women, her physical features placed her in closer relation to the orangutan than that of the European race. Cuvier’s observations also brought him to a similar conclusion. Her race, on his account, was the closest of human kind to the animal kingdom, and she, as a Bushwoman, was but one step above monkeys. While de Blainville was only able to make observations about her physical anatomy, Cuvier dissected her cadaver after death and examined her skeletal structure as well. What he found was that there was no difference between either the skull or the skeleton of Baartman and the native Caucasian skeleton that he had in his collection. This “anomalie”, however, was explained away and accepted as such by the scientific community of the time.

Beverly Guy-Sheftall (2002) also discusses black women’s sexuality in the 19th century, but in relation to Euro-American conceptions of this sexuality. As with Fausto-Sterling (2002), she mentions the contributions that Cuvier made to shaping European conceptions about African women’s bodies through his examination of Saartije Baartman. Discussing the extreme racism of the 16th to 19th century that relegated African men and women to animal “nature”, she argues that two general conceptions about black female sexuality resulted. These conceptions perceived black women as inherently lustful and sexual by nature (therefore sexually irresistible), yet at the same time physically unattractive and even grotesque in comparison to white women. Guy-Sheftall pays close attention to how these perceptions of black women’s bodies were used to justify the labour forced upon them both in the fields and in child bearing, in addition to the sexual abuse they endured at the hand of slave masters and white men. It was their supposed inherent “lack of” chastity, purity, and beauty – characteristics that only white women presumably possessed – that justified the abuse of black women during that time and are the root of prevailing notions about their sexuality common in contemporary society.

I wrote this piece as part of research done on black female sexual objectification. It was in conjunction with a thesis meant to defend the sexualized presentation of “empowered womanhood” that is common in today’s popular culture. I wanted to say that it was okay – to a certain extent – to play into the dominant imaginary’s perception of black women’s bodies as a playground for lust. We see this in music videos, in the “Vixens” of magazines such as King and even World Star, and rappers obsession with BBW. But we must always preface statements like these with some kind of history, some kind of understanding of who we are as a PEOPLE and where we come from. It is so easy, so easy to defend something without really knowing it. Having no idea what you are saying when you say that it is okay to sexually objectify yourself or participate in the sexual objectification of others.

I reached a conclusion on this matter, keeping in mind the research done about black women during slavery and the ideologies surrounding their bodies and their worth that grew out of that time period, ideologies to which many of us may (unknowingIy) ascribe to. The conclusion was that while on an individual level pop artists and rappers, and even those “vixens” who live on Instagram, Facebook, and appear in So-and-So Magazine, women may be liberated by their sexual presentation this does not aid in collective liberation. Why? It’s complicated. But for anyone who is interested, reading Luce Irigaray’s The Sex Which is Not One might shed some light on its complexity. She basically problematizes women’s role in patriarchal society, complicating the issue and questioning the very possibility of liberation on the terms that men have set for us. We cannot use their tools to free ourselves, we must develop our own.

T. M. G.

Works Cited

Fausto-Stirling, A. (2002). “Gender, race and nation: The comparative anatomy of “Hottentot” women in Europe, 1815 – 17.” In Kimberly Wallace-Sanders (Ed.), Skin deep, spirit strong: The black female body in American culture (pp. 66 – 95). United States: University of Michigan Press.

Guy-Sheftall, B. (2002). “The body politic: Black female sexuality and the nineteenth-century Euro-American imagination.” In Kimberly Wallace-Sanders (Ed.), Skin deep, spirit strong: The black female body in American culture (pp. 13 – 35). United States: University of Michigan Press.

Image Credit: