Written by Nereya Otieno.
Art by Bronson Farr.
This essay is NSFW. But most everyone is furloughed, unemployed or suddenly/accidentally freelance. Or you’re reading this from your new couch office with no bra. So, somehow, this NSFW essay is safe for anytime.
I haven’t masturbated in over a month.
For some people, this may seem normal. For those who don’t engage in such solitary activity, the statement itself may be seen as egregious. The fact of the matter is, for me, this is highly unusual. I’m a daily kind of lady.
I know exactly why this is. Try as I might to change it and let my cooped-up, living-alone-in-the-time-of-corona body receive a much needed release — I can’t. I have decided to try to explain why and shed some light on one of the many ways in which racism claws into and plagues the minds of those it was created to terrorize.
My body, like all bodies, is beautiful. In sexual situations (even with myself), I find myself to be a gift waiting to be unwrapped. I know he was a gay man, but when George Michael sings I know not everybody has got a body like you, I take it to be a personal message just for me.
My skin has red undertones that look good in any light and against any color. I am incredibly soft. I have beauty marks in adorable places and a spattering of freckly pigmentation encircling my nipples that one partner once said was “the most arrestingly beautiful pattern” he’d ever seen. I was born with a uterus, which means my body is a miracle that houses, grows and nurtures life. I feel privileged and lucky to find it a delight to live my life in the body I was given. Usually.
Some years ago, I decided to watch 12 Years a Slave. I cannot for the life of me remember why I decided to do this. I made an unofficial rule when I was 17 to shy from slave-era media. But I watched it. I’m guessing because it was Steve McQueen. It was the first slavery-centered media I had watched since the Roots episodes in high school US History.
There’s a scene in the film — as there has to be in every retelling of slavery — in which there is a line of black people standing naked before a white man/audience and being judged for physical prowess, sexual promise or simply for an afternoon exercise in ridicule and power. I watched this scene. I pressed ‘pause’ on my computer. I stripped completely naked. I turned on all the lights. I stood in front of my mirror. I stared at myself.
And then I cried.
I hadn’t seen any slavery representations as an adult with a womanly body. Suddenly, I saw my body reflected in these scenes. I saw evidence of myself in these women entombed by an unfathomable practice who were seen as animals and used for nothing more than physical labor and vessels for rage manifested in rape. I scanned my body and I saw theirs. Never mind the fact that there is no US slavery in my bloodline. My family’s presence in this country started in the 20th century. But those are details and my body is flesh. Flesh that is identical to the ones I’d just seen lined up, paraded around and mocked for the simple pleasure of another body that did not resemble it at all.
After watching the film, I couldn’t masturbate. Not at all. Not even the tiniest bit. For a month.
I was younger then, 24 or 25, and my libido was evidently hell-bent on procreation. I was young, horny and felt invincible. Yet, when I watched this film, the concept of my body became dirty, barbaric and unreal in its mortality. I could only see what they could see. A shameful body. A peculiar, exotic, mammalian body. One that was to be used and not touched. Beaten and worked and impregnated but not celebrated or stimulated or given pleasure.
This is the trick of racism: it dominates in ways it does not even know it is winning. It’s in the perpetual knowledge of and the necessary realization of its presence. Many revered writers and thinkers have worked to explain the immense weight black folx bear knowing that they are destined to be hated and that their mere presence is believed to threaten the sanctity of the places that make America what she is.
But there is something I find implicit in their writing that I have come to discover is not clear for those without darker skin. I will try to make it plain: it is not only to know that your body threatens the sanctity of America, it is to hate your body for transgressing against your home. Discrimination thrives, at its core, as one of the purest and most painful forms of unrequited love. The majority not loving you and, in turn, the difficulties in loving yourself.
I am a peaceful person. I do not like things that breed contempt. So, I find myself at an impasse. How can I not despise my own body, my own skin? How could I not feel betrayed somehow by the way my body makes a world full of people feel so incredibly threatened? How could I not feel it was actually me, I, this vessel through which I live my life, that was to blame? And, in turn, how could I not come to the conclusion that it is meant to be beaten and worked and shamed for the transgressions and fear it has incited?
On Sunday, May 31, I tried to start my Sunday off as I usually do: a little morning masturbation with intermittent, very casual yoga poses. But I couldn’t. For the fifth day in a row, I couldn’t. I’d seen other bodies repeatedly cast aside, run over, screamed at, tear gassed, charged at, shot at, beat up, crying, sobbing and bleeding…all because of the existence of my black body. The disgust crept over me as I lay there, warm in the rays of an ignored mid-morning, perfect-for-self-satisfaction sun. Well, actually, the disgust didn’t really creep. It panged deep in my belly and splintered through me to the edge of my limbs. The way safety glass breaks in the center of a room and shatters immediately to every nook and cranny it can find. Nuzzling shards deep in corners even the kitchen itself had forgotten existed. This past Sunday it was the same.
I don’t know how long this will last. Each time I wonder if it will be permanent. I wonder how long I will even go without looking at my body in the mirror — “denying myself the pleasure of my own company” in exactly the pathetic, cowardly way Zora Neale Hurston intended it.
But this is what racism does. This is how it lives. This is how the teeth sink in. It’s not that I cannot masturbate out of sadness or exhaustion at the state of the world. It’s that I know that my body is the cause for that exhaustion, and that cause should not be rewarded — no matter how innocent, how incredibly deserving it is of joy and crying out to be loved in a way that only I can love my body.
So, I’ll wait. Until another problem comes along to distract and I can heal enough to unwrap the gift of my body and find solace in myself. Loving of myself. When the world is not yelling and crying and frustrated — debating the humanity of my mere presence.
About the Author
Nereya Otieno is a writer, thinker and ramen-eater based in Los Angeles. Her work focuses on intercultural spaces and the ways in which music, food and the arts are forms of storytelling. She’s curious about the human condition and all the adjectives it demands.