A Convo with Dalychia & Rafaella of Afrosexology
When Dalychia Saah and Rafaella Fiallo first met one another at grad school in St. Louis, their similar interest in Black empowerment and sex positivity spurred an instant connection. Both were enrolled in the Masters of Social Work program, sharing a desire to help people in their own communities. Three weeks after their first encounter they birthed Afrosexology, a company dedicated to providing a "comprehensive, pleasure-based education centered around the narratives and liberation of Black people." The duo curates online content and educational materials on their social media platforms, while also hosting a wide array of community discussions and sex-positive events and workshops that delve into a range of topics including masturbation, effective communication in relationships, and the practice of "radical twerking." The underlying theme of Dalychia's and Rafaella's work is ownership: of one's own body, pleasure, and desire. The duo firmly believes that sexual liberation is key to Black freedom and empowerment.
What is the mission of Afrosexology? Describe the importance of each aspect of your movement—your services, sex shops, and the constant, continual research that goes into community-building of this type.
Dalychia: We intentionally create spaces for Black people to learn, explore and reclaim their sexuality in various ways. Through our sexshops, we gather people together—usually strangers—to cultivate an honest, supportive, healing and pleasurable space for us to facilitate educational and explorative conversations that we normally don’t have about our bodies, desires and sexuality. Through our online platforms —Facebook, Instagram and Twitter—we provide information to incite sexual reflection and exploration as well as to generate conversation about our sexual experiences. We also showcase a lot of Black art. Often times, images of Black sexuality are controlled by a white narrative that views us as hyper-sexual deviants. To counter that, we believe it is important for Black people to see ourselves as sexual, body positive, romantic, loving and kinky beings. On our website we have a number of different resources including worksheets we’ve created and books to deepen your knowledge on these topics. While we want to confront the notion that Black people don’t talk about sex, it’s not just about conversation, it’s also about empowerment, agency and action. We hope the workshops and online conversations spark a desire to learn more, and the resources we provide are a great next step.
Which professional/educational/general life experiences led you up to this point? Is this subject matter something you've always been interested in, in one way or another?
Dalychia: While I think we both recognized our roles as sexuality educators at a young age, we came to that realization via different paths. For me, I was raised in Texas in a Liberian community where stigma, shame and silence around sex and sexuality was very present. From a young age, my parents had stressed the importance of education and research. If I had a question they would encourage me to look into it myself and then come talk to them about what I’d found. That rule applied to everything except for anything concerning my body. When I experienced puberty—my period, my hips and ass developing—no one talked to me about anything or answered my questions in a way that encouraged conversation. Conversations about dating, relationships and sex were also dismissed because I was too young and unmarried. This silence and lack of information just increased my interest in learning about it. Being the nerd that I am, I researched everything: puberty, how to kiss someone, how to flirt, how to breakup, how to minimize the pain during sex, how to give a blow job, how to make sure my pussy smells like peaches (pussy smells like pussy, by the way). Soon I found myself being an advocate in my high school for comprehensive sex education and access to condoms. So I would say that providing accurate information about sexuality has been an interest of mine, but it wasn’t until recently that I connected it to my work about Black liberation, but we’ll get to that in another question.
Rafaella: Growing up, I was always interested in sex—it’s no secret, a lot of kids are. We always had encyclopedias in the house and I would look through them for information until AOL was a thing. Once we had internet, and before everyone got hip with the parental controls, I was looking any and everything up. Just like that, I thought I was somewhat of an expert. I spoke a lot to my older cousins and friends and quickly learned that there was a huge gap in between silence around sex and their experiences. With my newfound and growing knowledge, I found myself being a source of information for my friends. A teen teaching teens about sex and pleasure. When I was in college, I held a lot of peer leadership roles. From working with freshman to being a resident assistant, I created opportunities to discuss sexual health and sexual assault violence prevention as often as possible. I always knew that I wanted to work towards decreasing the rates of sexual violence through opening conversations around sexuality and providing education. I thought that if I worked with children, talked about their bodies, normalized their feelings and experiences while teaching consent and appropriate behaviors, then we could end childhood sexual abuse. I thought that if we explored the things that made us feel good, then we would make sure that we had more of that in our sexual experiences and cut out all the things that did not feel good. Agency, identity and the power to push both to the front of our intentions and actions is what originally motivated this work.
I can imagine that this type of hands-on work that you do—working directly with community members, changing their perceptions about themselves—can potentially uncover generations of repressed pain or trauma. How do y'all ensure that you are taking care of yourselves while taking care of others?
Dalychia: This is such a beautiful question. Thank you. Yes, uncovering sexual shame and trauma is a part of a sexual liberation journey. As much as we talk about the traumatic things that have/are happening to our bodies, we also talk a lot about what we want for our bodies, what our bodies enjoy and desire. Conversations and spaces that center Black joy and Black pleasure are acts of self-care for us. The community we’ve built in person and online provides a lot of beautiful moments where a Black person gets to share something sexual, pleasurable and loving about themselves and that affirms us and our Black, sexy, loving selves.
Something we also try to convey through our work is that pleasure doesn’t just have to be sexual, we advocate for people to surround themselves with things, actions, and people that bring them pleasure. So the way I care for myself is doing pleasure-affirming things all throughout my day—I spend time naked, masturbate, light candles, smell my sandalwood oil, play music, meditate, dance, soak in sunlight, lovingly lotion my body, give & receive long hugs, read—lots of reading from Black authors, go for walks, hot showers, massages, reiki, I do things that affirm that my life is more than just a cycle of survival, resistance and healing—there is also pleasure, love and joy.
Rafaella: I definitely cosign everything Dalychia said, minus the sandalwood. I practice loving on myself by demanding that pleasure comes from what I do for myself, first. I used to put my emotions into painting, writing and music and plan to get back to it. I’m a huge fan of venting and joking! From complaining about crazy drivers to sharing what I may be worried about, I just can't keep it all bottled inside. Having people I can talk to during any of those times by joking and lightening the mood has been relieving.
What is it about Black female sexuality that is so hard for people to confront/discuss, both within and beyond the Black community?
Rafaella: People are intimidated by Blackness, womanhood and sexuality. When all three are combined, you find responses that mirror silence, intolerance, ignorance, fear and exclusion. We know that having and performing sexuality has always been discouraged.
Do you see sex positivity as a tool for Black radicalism or activism?
Dalychia: With America’s racialized history, Black bodies have been sexually oppressed and repressed from slavery to current media depictions. We’ve been told that we’re asexual mammies, hypersexual jezebels and mandingos, sexual deviants, a sexual fantasy, and "unrapeable." These messages, though enforced externally are often internalized and leave us feeling as though we are unlovable, unworthy and devalued. These, along with many other oppressive beliefs and systems, are in place to minimize our agency. We often ask Black folks, “If you don’t have agency over your own body, how do you plan to have political, social and economic agency?”
Rafaella: That’s why we believe that reclaiming your body is an act of resistance, reclaiming your body and living a life that shows, “Yes, my body is beautiful, yes I love myself and am loved by others, yes my sexuality deserves to be affirmed, and yes I am worthy of living my most pleasurable life possible.” Loving ourselves, rebellion and liberation are states of being that, when seen, learned, and understood, allow us to face and dismiss our shame, guilt, fear, and trauma. We hope that moving away from a fear and shamed-based relationship with our sexuality and toward a healthy, loving, and sex-positive relationship informs other aspects of our lives, including liberation. We aspire to be part of a Black radical movement towards freedom that is not rooted in fear and survival, but that is rooted in pleasure and thriving.
I think that an interesting way to look at reclaiming sexual agency is to center the idea of pleasure. Mainstream understandings of sex (in media, to How-To guides, etc.) are mostly heteronormative, almost completely focused on male pleasure and how women can service that. What are ways to help Black women begin to prioritize their own pleasure as valid or necessary?
Rafaella: It can be very intimidating to begin learning our bodies, starting a sexual journey and demanding sexual pleasure. We encourage everyone to take a step back and think about pleasure in a more holistic way. Take away the pressure of having it all figured out by tuning into your senses and most basic needs and desires. We're asking people to think about their favorite aromas and which materials feel good on their skin. Think about the food you eat and how you react when you spent $15 on a meal and it doesn't taste good. Do you eat it anyway or get rid of it?
Dalychia: What is the first thing you want to see or hear when you wake up? What thoughts do you have about yourself when you’re looking in the mirror brushing your teeth? Do you advocate for things, experiences, actions, and thoughts that bring you pleasure throughout the day or do you allow yourself to continue doing things that don’t bring you pleasure? As you build pleasure all throughout your life, it becomes easier to insert pleasure in your sex life. Spend time with your body and finding your erotic voice. Explore the things that brings your body pleasure and the things that turn you on. Be aware of the things that don’t bring you pleasure or that turn you off—it gives you even more power in owning your pleasure! Check out the resources on our website as we have some worksheets to help you explore your erotic self.
What or who have been your biggest influences throughout this process?
Dalychia: Audre Lorde, Maya Angelou, Eartha Kitt, bell hooks, Alice Walker, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Nina Simone, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith...All the ancestors and those who are still with us who have represented a Black, sexually explorative and liberated existence.
Rafaella: Our work is constantly rooted in what we wish we had to help our younger selves live pleasurable lives. Despite not having the tools, resources and information needed, we are inspired by our younger selves, who found their ways to this sexual liberation journey to be at the place where we are now putting this work out into the world.
Dalychia: We also are influenced by people who have successfully created spaces, products, platforms specifically for Black people—Blavity, Black Girl in Om, you all. Seeing these brands grow is affirmation that we don’t have to water down our message for it to be palatable to whiteness, that we can create something for us by us and it be impactful.
Are there any additional resources (books, activists, artists) you would suggest to someone beginning this journey of self-discovery?
We have a bunch of books, worksheets and other organizations that provide great information on our website’s resource page. Some people we’re currently crushing on are Ev'Yan and her Sex, Love, and Liberation podcast, Shannon Boodram's YouTube videos on sexuality, and O.School’s sex education platform.