More than ten different sex toys were laid out on the raspberry-colored cloth—a couple vibrators, a Yoni Egg, anal beads, dildos, and other objects most of the women in the masturbation workshop were less familiar with. Rafaella Fiallo and Dalychia Saah, St. Louis-based sex educators who collaborate under the moniker Afrosexology and were leading the women-only event, had originally planned to spend the majority of the time exploring sex toys and sharing masturbation tips. But after reading comments on the event page and receiving multiple texts and private messages from women worried their friends would find out they were attending, they refocused the workshop to address something more pressing: Shame around self-pleasure felt by Black women.
Fiallo and Saah spent that Saturday afternoon carefully walking the roomful of Black women through conversations about shame and masturbation, recognizing an intense need for a space to talk openly about their sexual experiences in relationship to Blackness. Eventually, they moved on to masturbation basics like pleasure points and common myths. Then, the attendees completed worksheets that asked them to think through challenges and set goals for their solo sex lives. By the time the workshop was winding down, the mood had shifted; Fiallo and Saah brought the sex toys out and shared fun masturbation techniques to close out the event.
The vast majority of mainstream sex-ed messaging still defaults to sexual experiences and understandings of pleasure that avoid race entirely, ignoring the fact that for people of color, sexual experiences are often racialized. Afrosexology aims to correct that by sharing sex positive education and messaging that centers the lives of Black people. And for them, that’s political work: Undoing centuries of Black people in the US not being allowed the space to experience pleasure and defying the prescribed, traumatic script of being Black in America.
That Saturday masturbation workshop was one of the duo's first, in the summer of 2015, and since then they've only increased and refined their focus on the intersection of Blackness and sexuality. In the past three years, they have also conducted workshops at organizations and universities around the country, and presented at major conferences like the Association of Black Sexologists and Clinicians. The duo has nearly 14,000 followers on Instagram, where they share sex-positive art and messages. And they also offer in-person and virtual workshops, design worksheets and workbooks, facilitate live chats, and create short, educational videos.
Broadly spoke to Afrosexology about the philosophy behind their business, the intimate goals of their work, and their belief that Black people’s sexual pleasure is a powerful pathway to political liberation.
BROADLY: Let’s just jump right into some of these workshops. Can you tell me about a few of them?
SAAH: Sure, we have a workshop called “Oppression and Orgasms” where we talk about what it means to be a Black person in America and all the sexual and racial scripts we get about our bodies and how we can counter that. We talk about how to center pleasure in our lives as a way to resist the things Black people have been told about themselves. We have another workshop called “Decolonizing Your Body Through Twerking” which is so much fun—but we also talk through the history of how our bodies and our dance have been co-opted by white supremacy throughout the diaspora, and how people think of us as less than because of how we choose to live within our bodies. And then we have workshops that purely center joy and fun like our “What That Mouth Do” workshop that focuses on oral sex—that one is really fun, too.
Afrosexology’s sexual education openly focuses on Black people and Black communities. Why?
FIALLO: It really started with our own recognition of what conversations weren’t happening in the Black community. When conversations around sex and sexuality are happening, it’s primarily about all these fear-based tactics. One of the first things Dalychia and I talked about was that those kinds of tactics don’t work and aren’t helpful.
But more broadly, a lot of our motivation was sparked by being Black in the United States and seeing how many things are taken away from us. For the first several hundreds of years enslaved in this country, our ancestors couldn’t focus on living a pleasurable life. There was just no end to the humiliation and destruction our bodies endured. Understanding that history is part of why we wanted to focus on pleasure, demanding our pleasure, owning our pleasure, and being in tune with our bodies.
SAAH: Black people’s pleasure is in direct opposition of the shit they want us to accept as a condition of being Black in this country. I tell people I’m taking down white supremacy one orgasm at a time, because every time I enjoy an orgasm, I’m countering the narratives that this country forced our ancestors to experience.
Generational trauma is a huge part of that. But even just generally speaking, how does Afrosexology approach sexual pleasure given the realities of sexual violence and trauma both past and present?
SAAH: We work hard to be intentional about how we balance the reality of that trauma with our workshops. Like Rafaella was saying, the history and the current experience of being Black in America is extremely oppressive, traumatic, full of pain, fear, and constant forms of active aggression coming at us.
We really believe that even though we live in a white supremacist system that continues to operate off the exploitation of Black and brown bodies, we can counter and resist all of that by centering Black people’s pleasure. When we talk about masturbation with Black people, not only are we doing something that feels great to our bodies, and not only are we able to decrease stress by releasing endorphins, but we’re also countering this narrative that Black people are only here to feel pain and go through trauma.
How does Afrosexology address shame and stigma alongside sexuality?
FIALLO: I mean, that was one of the things we noticed when we first started. When we shared our first workshop on masturbation, we had people on our Facebook group commenting that they didn’t want to indicate that they were going or that they were interested because it would show up on their friends’ timelines. So we had to do a lot of unpacking about shame and offered ways to acknowledge it, reject it, or reframe what those messages mean.
SAAH: We also work really hard in our workshops to make sex an equalizer to remove some of that shame. When we work with people to unpack their shame around sexuality, their experiences, and their desires, they’re way less likely to shame other people for their shit. I’ve talked and worked with cis heterosexual Black men who’ve said that once they got over the shit they were carrying around, they didn’t feel the need to be homophobic or transphobic or whatever. There’s something really beautiful about creating a loving space that doesn’t shame people as they’re working through our own shit, and instead recognizes that it’s internalized. And then, in turn, we see them facilitate space for other people to also feel that same feeling of freedom.
Afrosexology also encourages sexual exploration as a means of empowerment—which I love. I feel like exploration is rarely emphasized when we talk about sexuality and Black communities.
FIALLO: Well it’s interesting because some very specific types of exploration are only deemed to be appropriate for certain people. Because of respectability politics, a lot of Black people don’t feel like they have the space or the opportunity to explore their bodies in certain ways.
"Even though we live in a white supremacist system that continues to operate off the exploitation of Black and brown bodies, we can counter and resist all of that by centering Black people’s pleasure."
SAAH: Right, and the exploration aspect of Afrosexology is actually some of my favorite work that we do. We believe that we all have something to learn from one another and we all have something we can teach one another. What works for someone else might not work for you. You know how people say, “don’t yuck someone’s yum?” Well we say, “don’t ew someone’s ahh.”
Rafaella and I aren’t giving anyone answers; all we’re doing is sparking a fire and letting it run wild. There’s no one way to be sexually liberated. You can be sexually liberated and be asexual or you can be celibate or you can be a sex worker. You can be sexually liberated and have orgies all the time or be in a monogamous, heterosexual, long-term relationship. We have to create space for different experiences. And focusing on exploration has been the best way for us to facilitate that.
From Afrosexology’s perspective, sexual pleasure isn’t frivolous; it’s part of how Black people can move towards political liberation. Why is pleasure so important in political spaces?
SAAH: Well our short-term answer would be that we’re doing fucking hard work that puts our bodies under stress. We’re angry and we’re constantly shouting and protesting on the frontlines—rightfully so, of course. But our bodies hold all of that tension and trauma. Especially in political spaces, it’s important to ask how we’re taking care of ourselves, and affirming that our bodies can and deserve to experience more than the pain and the trauma that we’re reacting to.
On a long-term level, when we ask people what they want in their sex lives, in their partner relationships or in their relationships to themselves, most people focus on what they don’t want to happen. And similarly, when we’re in Black political spaces, if we ask people what they’re fighting for, the responses are always what we don’t want to happen—which are all valid things. But right now, our visions of freedom are centered in fear and reacting to trauma. We know what we’re actively fighting against and what we don’t want, but we don’t know what we do want.
When we’re in political spaces and we’re imagining the liberated world that we’re trying to build, it’s really important to center that world on what we actually want, instead of just what we’re trying to avoid. The absence of pain does not equal the presence of pleasure. And we want to develop a concept of liberation that’s rooted in pleasure instead of simply escaping trauma.