Over 65% of African American high school students report having had sexual intercourse, 15% had sexual intercourse before the age of 13, 29% had sexual intercourse with more than 4 persons, and 38% did not use a condom at their last reported intercourse (CDC, 2010). Risky sexual behaviors, such as these, increase the risk for HIV infection and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) (Weinstock, 2004; CDC, 2009; Martin et al, 2009). Currently, African American girls are one of the fastest growing groups to contract HIV, with rates even exceeding those of African American boys (Aronowitz, Rennells, & Todd, 2006). Some scholars have suggested that the negative sexual health statistics among African American girls are strongly influenced by sexualized images of African American women. For instance, Stephens and Phillips (2003) contend that the historic over-sexualized stereotypes of African American women publicized in the media and in broader society have helped to shape the perception of African American women's and girls' sexuality. These images, with their highly sexual undertones, may influence the way in which African American females view themselves (Sinclair, Hardin, & Lowery, 2006) as well as influence the way in which others value and interact with them (Stephens & Phillips, 2003). The goal of this study is to explore how sexual stereotypes influence the sexual decision-making of young African American women.
History of the Black Female Sexual Stereotype
Hammonds (1995) argues that the world's preoccupation with African American women's sexuality began when Europeans' made initial contact with the African continent. Hammonds posits that the nineteenth-century image of the African woman was linked to that of a prostitute through the capture and public display of the Hottentot Venus'. The Hottentot female was Sarah Bartmann, an enslaved African. Bartmann was objectified and placed on public display for exhibition to the masses because scientific experts considered her genitalia and buttocks sensational and extraordinary. Commentators considered the genitalia of Bartmann and other African women as 'primitive' and a sign of their sexual appetites. These beliefs became the foundation of Western thinking and treatment of the Black female body.
According to Hammonds' scholarship, at the end of the nineteenth century European experts in fields ranging from anthropology to psychology 'scientifically' concluded that black female body embodied the notion of uncontrolled sexuality. Enslaved Africans were labeled 'savage' and 'primitive', which justified the idea that they could not control their own bodies, and therefore validated the need for white ownership and domination. Over the years, several stereotypes about the primitive nature of women of African descent have emerged. For the purpose of this discussion, we will only focus on the sexual stereotype--Jezebel.
The Black Female Sexual Stereotype
Jezebel is a biblical figure in the Book of Kings. By manipulation or seduction, Jezebel was accused of misleading the saints of God into sins of idolatry and sexual immorality. In Christian lore, a comparison to Jezebel suggests that a person is a pagan or an apostate masquerading as a servant of God (Windsor, 2011). As a cultural symbol, Jezebel is associated with false prophets and fallen women. The Jezebel stereotype is the most overtly sexual image associated with African American women. She is depicted as a loose woman who is unable to control her sexual drives (Mitchell & Herring, 1998). When associated with enslaved African women, this image promoted the notion that these women had insatiable sexual desires.
The Jezebel image perpetuates misguided messages about the sexuality of African American women that persists today. Stephens and Phillips (2003) highlight the contemporary Jezebel mutations seen in popular culture, including freaks, gold diggers, divas, and baby mamas. …