Nyssa: The Unmentionables. Restoring Sexual Liberty to the Black Community with Penda N'Diaye

We had the great opportunity to speak to Penda N'Diaye on Season 2 of our podcast, The Unmentionables. Pushing against the long-held narrative that women should not lean into their sexuality, Brooklyn-based, Senegalese dancer and writer Penda has created an  blog and podcast to dismantle that patriarchal belief. With PRO HOE, Penda is creating a sexual liberation movement for young communities of color.

You can listen to that episode here or have a read of the transcript below. 

Penda N’Diaye: I consider myself a storyteller, I’ve always been a storyteller, I was formerly a professional dancer for many years, so connecting with people through art and through other mediums of expression, whether that’s my body or through my words has always been a big part of my everyday human connection, and what gives me energy and how I connect with people. So I started Pro Hoe once my mom gave me my first vibrator for christmas (this was a few years ago)

Mia: (Laughs) Amazing.

Penda: Yes, it was the perfect christmas gift. I think she was actually doing it to kind of stun me me, because I was single, so I think she was just kind of like: Well, if you’re single, you’re not having sex. At least, you know, take care of yourself with a vibrator! (Laughs)

Mia: That’s amazing. 

Penda: Yes. But when she gave me that gift she said she wished she would have spoken to her kids about sex at a much younger age, and it really just started that dialogue about the lack of sexual dialogue in black communities. And so I wanted to kind of shake that up and I think about how I heard about sex, which was primarily through the media and through television and through my friends, through porn, trial and error of a lot of mediocre sex, and I just kind of wanted to change that and lessen the stigma around black communities. So I started writing and blogging, podcasting, and then it really moved into live events, which I felt like was really the catalyst and brought me back to that storytelling element, and realising how important community is, and just creating safe spaces in conjunction with Planned Parenthood and other incredible black sex therapists and black educators and social workers in order to just create this space where people could come and talk about sex openly and freely, without shame, and just know that there are other people out there that are having similar desires and sexual experiences and that it’s all normative and valid.

Mia: Yeah. I Love that. I’m curious what brought your mom around from not teaching her kids about sex, to actually giving you a vibrator for christmas. What happened there?

Penda: Yeah, I don’t really know. I think just as we were getting older and having more conversations and I think our lives honestly just started to parallel each other because my father passed away five years ago, so here I have my mom who’s a widow and newly getting into dating and re-exploring her own sexual identity, and then me kind of talking about “Oh I’m single, I want to be in a relationship, I want to have more intimacy in my partnerships”. So I think we were kind of going through this interesting, two very unique life experiences, but at the same time we were both going through this exploration of trying to think about what we really wanted out of our sexual lives, out of intimacy from vulnerability, from pleasure, desire. We were on the same journey. 

Mia: Yeah. I love that. And let’s talk more about Pro Hoe. So you’ve described your mission as pleasure as a means of social equity and you’ve said before that it’s really our responsibility to evolve the pleasure narrative and address the politics of sex, so I’m wondering if you could just unpack what you mean by that and tell us what you’re building towards?

Penda: Yeah definitely. When I say that I mean that pleasure and desire and sexual expression and the validity of our desires for black people specifically, specifically black women, hasn’t been something that’s been afforded to us, or a luxury, I think we’ve had to repress our sexuality, and dating back to historical times during slavery, all of that has really affected the narrative of black sexual politics. Our bodies have been commodified and hypersexualised, over-fetishised for a long time, and even now when we’re not typically in this era of slavery, we are living in kind of this new racism where those tropes and stereotypes do still follow us along in modern day. The way that our bodies are represented in the media still currently, the sexual narrative around black sexuality specifically tends to lean towards it being wild or deviant or aggressive, these stereotypes that are still in play. Stereotypes such as the jezebel, who’s sexually promiscuous, or the mami who is deviant and angry and sexually undesirable. Those are still tropes that I find myself having to work against. I mean I’m a six foot tall, very dark skinned black woman and I know that even for some people seeing me, and whatever visual impression maybe has them place different stereotypes onto me, or what they’ll assume I’ll be like sexually or what my desires will be like sexually. So for me I feel like tapping into pleasure is a form of resistance because it has been suppressed for so many years, for the past four hundred plus years, it has been something that we haven’t been able to have just complete access and control over, even when it comes down to our reproductive rights. If it comes down to how we’re treated in healthcare, black women mortality rates during pregnancy is the highest… So all of these little systems that you see fundamentally in our infrastructure today are all a result of not having complete control over our bodies. So I feel like when you take back control, when you’re making a statement of “I’m Going To be Joyous”, “I’m Going To Be Happy”, “I’m Going To Express Myself in this way sexually”, I think is a huge statement. And I think even within our communities gender roles are something, as well as homosexuality and queer sexualities, those are still something that in black communities are still very stigmatised, and so I think for a lot of us we don’t even understand how heterosexism and racism mutually construct each other. So within our communities if we’re still not embracing alternative sexualities, we are essentially still upholding gender norms and racism. So I think we have to do a lot of work in our communities and within ourselves to work against those structures of constructs and that means by truly validating our sexual experiences and knowing that they are normal and that there’s no shame around them. 

Mia: And would you say that a really powerful vehicle for doing that right now is talking, is having these conversations?

Penda: Yes, definitely. I think it’s all about seeing yourself in someone else and seeing your experiences being personified by someone else. I think that’s so powerful. I mean if that wasn’t true we wouldn’t have social media, right? I think we’re looking to find visual representations and stories that we can relate to, I think there’s something really powerful in that. So the community aspect of it grew from... I remember just even being in college and talking to my two best friends about sex, and there was just something even powerful about having sexual experiences and the next day your friends being like “So how was it? Was it good?” Just having those conversations, like there’s something that really connects you…

Mia: There’s something amazing about… Obviously it’s different for different people but when you’re a teenager how much you talk about sex, it’s really wonderful.

Penda: It is, and I don’t know that we talk about it as much as adults, I mean we do, but…

Mia: In a different way, right?

Penda: In a different way but I also feel like as adults it becomes something a little bit more private? It feels like it’s more personal which I think it is, because you begin to understand more about how you want to step into these experiences and it becomes more personalised because I think your desires become more unique to who you are and who you’re evolving into, as opposed to when you’re a teenager everyone just kind of like… “Ok second base, third base…” You know it seems like a more prescribed method when you’re younger, and then when you get older it becomes more nuanced and you start to kind of understand more intricacies about sex and that’s maybe where you feel a little bit hesitant expressing what you need, because your desires become more specific. And maybe you realise that some of those desires happen to be shame - shameful desires - in the grasp of what society deems as appropriate.

Mia: We were talking about racist tropes and stereotypes… And something that I personally haven’t seen much of, and I’m curious if you have, I might not be looking in the right space but… I haven’t seen much discussion about how white people play the role in perpetuating these stereotypes and what we can do to dismantle that thinking and be better advocates for the type of free, black, sexual wellness that you are celebrating with Pro Hoe.

Penda: Yeah. I think the biggest thing that I see is cultural appropriation in the ways that a lot of qualities and features that are natural to black women specifically and black women’s bodies, have been deemed as undesirable or, if you think of Sarah Baartman like how her body was a spectacle of having a large butt, and very curved and large breasts… She was literally put on display as like a circus animal, but then now in current day you see celebrities or you see often white people using our culture, using body modification to acquire these features that belong to us truthfully, and now mimicking those features that once we were told were ugly and disgusting and vile. So I think in that capacity it’s like: Oh wow, so if it’s something that is innate to my existence and my body and my culture and my history, as a black person it’s something that’s not desirable, but now in white spaces it’s being mimicked and somehow now it’s seen as beautiful. I think that’s a way that it feels that we’re not being accepted for just who we are, naturally. And I think also, going back to slavery, those gender roles that were created have created a narrative that white women are the most beautiful, the most desirable women, and so I think those stereotypes still do exist and we still see it in current day in the media and in magazines… Commercials you don’t really see black women used as the love interest, or the main character. That affects us, when you don’t see yourself in those spaces but you’re constantly expected to consume that media. But yeah, I don’t see it very much in… To answer your question of white women, white people, white spaces doing the work to amplify black sexuality? I think it really belongs to us. I think the way that I see it, the place that I think needs the most work I think is in our actual sex education spaces, starting from middle school, starting really young on… I think there’s a lot of eurocentric teaching in sex education. It doesn’t focus on pleasure, it focuses on… A lot of times it’s uprooted by christianity, which is not inherently as is something that belongs to black tradition. I think the way that we’re taught about virginity or saving yourself until marriage, about heterosexuality, I think a lot of those teachings work against black sexuality and black sexual expression. 

Mia: I think it would be incredible if that became part of the discourse when you’re in school - the pleasure side of things. 

Penda: Exactly, and that’s the part that I was saying… It’s like wow, even in sex education you’re taught about like “Don’t get pregnant, don’t get STD’s or STI’s”, but you’re never taught about the euphoric joy that sex can bring and that like with the right person the intimacy and the  vulnerability and the trust can also be things… Like I didn’t understand any of that until way later.

Mia: Yeah, it’s kind of framed through a negative lens isn’t it rather than…

Penda: Yeah, and I think even there you start to see like double standards of how men and women are treated differently in sex work. You know right away men are just allowed - or male identifying people - are allowed to be more promiscuous, and it’s like ok. Whereas women it’s like: no, protect, keep an aspirin between your legs (laughs) why buy the cow when they can get the milk for free, you know these stupid sayings that are used as ways to maintain control and power over bodies, over women’s bodies. 

Mia: Yeah. Well kind of tied to what you were talking about before that, I read that when you first started dating your mum would ‘Advise you’ to think like a white girl. What did she mean by that and how did it impact your approach to your own sexuality?

Penda: Yeah, so when she said that she was saying that I should be vulnerable and energetic and go forward with dating with enthusiasm and fervour, without fear of rejection, because I think it just hasn’t been a luxury that black women have had to just be whimsical about sex, and to date and be free about it. I think it’s always something that’s been something that I’ve been hesitant to step into. I think a lot of it is about fear of rejection and I think that’s something that I’ve internalised just because I haven’t always felt like I was seen as beautiful, the social eyes of what we’ve been told, what I’ve internalised as beautiful, or worthy of being loved or dating. And so I think what she meant was that she was saying that white women have been afforded this luxury to date around and to not be labelled as a promiscuous or “Hoes” which is, you know, in my title, but that there’s been this luxury that you can date around and you can have fun and you can be free and you can make mistakes with sex, which I feel with black women we haven’t really had that experience of dating multiple people without having stereotypes of like “Oh, she’s easy” or “All she does is have sex”. Those are kind of the narratives that we have when we’re more sexually experimental, or I know white women that I grew up with who always were dating, always had a boyfriend, and I really never had that experience, I didn’t have a lot of boyfriends growing up. So I think my mom was just saying, you know, go out there, try it, experiment, if you fail that’s fine, but have the confidence as if you were a white girl. And knowing that it’s ok if you make mistakes with dating, it’s ok if the relationship doesn’t work out, but I think for myself and for other black women I’ve spoken about, there’s this idea of scarcity, that there’s not enough to go around. And I mean this can go back to… If you’re thinking of dating black men specifically like if you think about how poverty affects our male communities, if you think about the over-incarceration of black men in prison systems in the United States, it does feel like: Oh wow… if I do find someone I like, I probably should hold onto this person because I don’t know that I have many other options, and I think that’s what she was kind of speaking about there too… was like broaden your horizon with dating, and who you date, and how you date, and I think she was just saying approach it as if there are no limitations.

Mia: And were you able to do that at the time, or did that take a long time to…

Penda: Oh it’s definitely taken some… It’s still something that I’m working on… I think I’m much more confident than I was you know three years ago when she gave me that vibrator. I think those conversations have really given me immense power… If she wouldn’t have given me that vibrator, truthfully I would not be here.

Mia: Oh wow

Penda: Yeah, doing this platform, that really was the catalyst for an entire movement. 

Mia: Yeah, what an amazing gift!

Penda: Yeah exactly in multiple ways! But yes, still something that I’m growing with. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with Brené Brown, but she talks a lot about vulnerability and when I listen to her speaking about that I’m like, wow I think for a long time I used sex as some sort of power tool, thinking that if I had sex with someone then they would like me, they would immediately like me, or that I would secure some kind of emotional connection, and that’s so backwards… And really thinking of like how it starts with trust, and trusting yourself, and knowing that you deserve love, and you deserve intimacy and amazing sex and pleasure. And then you can work towards being vulnerable with people, and then leading into intimacy. So it’s been a journey, it’s something that I’m still very much working through. 

Mia:. Yeah. Well, kind of tied to this you’ve described before self-pleasure as really being a refuge during stressful times, obviously there’s a lot of stress in the world right now. Can you just talk a bit more about that, and what you would recommend for somebody who maybe feels shame around masturbation to start overcoming their reservations? 

Penda: Yeah definitely. You know self pleasure has definitely been a refuge during this time, especially as I am single, so the quarantine act forced me into celibacy, like I really got accidentally forced into celibacy. And so masturbation was definitely… I mean I’m a firm believer in masturbation as a tool to learn what you love, what you like, in order to communicate those desires to people that you engage with sexually, but also it’s an amazing tool to… It’s the most safe and consensual sex that you can ever have is with yourself. And it’s a great way to, I think, find the power of your body, and the capacity of your joy. You know Audre Lorde she says that, like loosely transcribed, that once you understand the capacity for your joy, it really dictates the rest of your life and what you allow to come into your life. And so I think that masturbation for me… I have so much control over… I can make myself feel so incredibly good, like I think that’s so powerful to know that I have the power and control over my own body to make myself feel, to make myself orgasm, to make myself come to this heightened level of euphoric joy, that anything else around me that happens, whether that’s in my friendships, in my work, in business, I feel like I know the power of that joy so much and the depths of like the capacity of that pleasure - why would I accept anything less than that. And I think that that’s how I’ve chosen to go forward in my life. And Adrienne Maree Brown - she’s an incredible author, she wrote Pleasure Activism: The politics of Feeling Good - but she speaks about living life from a place of orgasmic yes, and those are some of the most powerful words that I’ve read, in thinking like she says “What would life look like if you only made decisions from a place of orgasmic yes”, and so I’m like, you know, I don’t want to take job opportunities or date people where I’m just kind of like “Ahh, you know, it’s ok”, I want to go forward in my life with orgasmic yes, with the feelings of just excitement and feeling great. So masturbation to me is something that really sets up the premise of: What does your organsmic yes look like, what are you capable - how good are you capable - of feeling. And so for overcoming that shame the more work that I do, especially in black communities, I feel a lot of shame is rooted in religion. My father was muslim, so I grew up in this kind of ?strict household with a muslim father, christian at the time mother (now she’s buddist, I’m buddist) so very spiritual household. When I think about my father and just how conservative growing up with a muslim father was and other people who had all these christian values, and how masturbation is something to be ashamed of. You know I remember when I was first exploring masturbation I would watch porn on our huge family computer - we only had the one computer - and just praying that I erased all the history...

Mia: (laughs)

Penda: And like a virus wasn’t going to pop up or… I understand how porn also has a lot of shame attached to it, and it can be detrimental to sexual learnings, but it can also be a great educational tool. I do believe in finding your kink, I like to say, or like, your tribe… I think porn can be great for that. But I think a lot of it is about eradicating religious shame and understanding, even if it’s just little by little moments where you have to teach yourself even if it’s a mantra of like I deserve or I deserve to feel this great. You know I saw a meme the other day that was like “If God didn’t want us to have sex, he wouldn’t have invented the clitoris” because it’s solely for feeling good...

Mia: Totally, yeah

Penda: Totally. So I think a lot of the shame overcoming is like… I think therapy’s an incredible tool, I think like we were speaking about communicating with other people who have similar experiences is a wonderful way. And I think a lot of it too is about trusting yourself to experience pleasure. Also, finding the right partners. I think that’s so important and people take that for granted. Not every sexual partner is a great partner make, right? There are some people who are going to understand what your needs are and are going to be open to you expressing and communicating what feels good, and then there are other people who are just not going to be receptive or just aren’t the right match for you. But I think masturbation is an incredible, incredible way to find out what you like. And it really doesn’t have to end in orgasm. I think that for a lot of people they think that sex begins and ends with orgasm, and there’s so much more in between. I think sensuality or touch or eye contact, those things are also really important ways to feel good and to give yourself attention. So even if it's like, there's still, you're working up towards actually pleasuring yourself, it's like reading a book, eating a delicious bowl of fruit, or anything that brings you any kind of sensual pleasure, I think it’s great to start there. 

Mia: Yeah, I love that. Kind of tied to this, I’m curious what you think about the link between pleasure and sexual wellbeing and creativity? So I’ve been with my husband for like 15 years, we of course have dry spells, I think when those happen I feel, as a creative person (I’m a writer and musician), I just sort of feel like often creatively blocked? So I’m curious, as a creative person yourself, what do you think about that kind of relationship between self-pleasure and creativity?

Penda: Yeah, I think the most important thing and connection is curiosity. I think when you’re a creative person you’re always creating, you’re always evolving, your ideas are so malleable and you might have a concept or idea that you want to create but over time of course it shifts and changes, and you’re influenced by outside experiences, by things people say, you’re like “Oh, I have a new idea, it can shift this way”, and I think we often forget with ourselves that we are always evolving, we’re ever evolving, ever changing. So I feel like our desires of course will change as well, and so I think when we think about sexuality we also have to remain so curious and know that our bodies are changing, our minds are changing, our desires are changing, our partners are changing, and as soon as we can understand that, we can’t remain stagnant and nothing is ever stagnant, then I think we can start to get into the creativity, get into the juices of re-discovering what feels good to us. And I think in creating and using that pleasure, using joy, using curiosity to always kind of stretch your limits is something that’s really special and I think the moment that we stop being curious or thinking outside of the box is just when we die, basically! (Laughs) Our ideas start to just… They reach, like, this road block. So I think in terms of… You know… That’s something with me and masturbation, like, I was joking and saying during quarantine I’m just, like, so tired of myself during masturbation… I’m just like gosh it’s you again! So I think even in that way it’s like hey, maybe have a switch up how you romance yourself and you know maybe you owe it to yourself to also continue the exploration within yourself. So I think in terms of creating… And it goes back to even how I was a dancer and being in rehearsal, and then you add in the musicians, and then you add in the visual arts, and then you might add in text or acting. It’s always a process that continues and so I think for me it’s just like understanding that my pleasure and desires are always going to change and I’m not the same person that I was five minutes ago, or yesterday, or five years ago. So that’s important to note that we have to just always continuously test the boundaries. 

Mia: Yeah, and stay curious in all things.

Penda: In all things, yes.

Mia: Yeah. Well this podcast is called The Unmentionables, so obviously you’re working within the space of sexual wellness, you encounter unmentionables and taboos all the time, but what do you think is the biggest taboo within black sexual wellbeing for women specifically that you feel most urgently needs to be overcome?

Penda: I think it’s that we deserve pleasure. I know that that’s such a broad thing… But I think… In a lot of my conversations with other black women it’s even just kind of debilitating to speak up, and just say "Hey, this feels good", or "I want this sex". I think we walk away a lot of times feeling like we had a mediocre or lacklustre experience, or walking away not feeling like we can bring ourselves fully to the table in a sexual experience. I’ve felt that a lot of times, like I would leave and be like Huh, you know he said that he really enjoyed it, or that it was amazing, and I'm like “Was it?”. So I think it’s just even knowing that we have the ability to craft the narrative of what our sexual experiences look like? And just communicating, and I think also being experimental with queer sexualities, with kink, with BDSM, I think that’s something that I’ve been doing more research on, as like ‘Non-normative sexual experiences’ if that falls into kink, whether that’s BDSM or being gay or polyamory, ethical non-monogamy. Those experiences fight against racism, against classism, against sexism. So I think a lot more black women are stepping into those experiences knowing that that in itself is also a political statement? If you’ve only been taught that heterosexuality is the way to be in life, and that marriage is the pinnacle of a woman’s life, and that equates to success… And now you’re choosing to say “Hey, yeah, I’m going to date three people at the same time, one of them happens to be a woman, two of them are men, I’m in a polyamorous relationship, I enjoy bondage, I enjoy being submissive etc”... That in itself, staying true to your impulses, I think is such a powerful statement. So for once not be affected by any other information that you have absorbed or internalised to be like:  what is the right way to sexually express yourself, I think is something really powerful. I think also eradicating shame comes down to empathy for other people’s sexual desires, so I think it comes down to not being judgemental of other people’s desires when they say “Oh yeah, I’m into this…” If we’re like “Wait, you’re into that, that’s weird”, how is that progressing any type of sexual politics or any type of sexual conversations. And I think sex is such a powerful tool because it’s something that really democratises our society - regardless of your race, or of your class, or even of your political thoughts or stance - when you’re having sex with someone you’re on the same level (laughs). Like you’re basically on the same human level at that moment, regardless of how you show up in society. So I think there’s something really democratising and humanising about that experience which shows that your desires are no more or less shameful than anyone else’s desires. So I think that’s why sex, for me, feels so political and so powerful… Is that it is really a human experience… You think about love, that love brings people together regardless of their class or race, and I think music and art brings people together in those ways, but I think sex is something that really gets down to the primal existence of who people are… It gets rid of any other levels of hierarchy that exist in our society.

Mia: Yeah. I love that. Are there any services or brands that you think are doing a really good job evolving the pleasure narrative, especially for black women?

Penda: Yeah, I think specifically there are a lot of incredible writers and books out there that I think are really progressing the narrative… I think I mentioned before Adrienne Maree Brown is… If she’s listening to this somewhere I’ve been obsessed with her for such a long time and I worked with her on… I just finished writing a book, well I was a ghost writer on a book for Thinx(?) and so Adrienne Maree Brown is one of the essayists who is in the book and so, reading her work, I felt like she’s really tapping into black eroticism, and black futurism, which I think is a really beautiful narrative, and that’s when I was really connecting a lot of Audre Lorde’s work to current day sexuality and what that looks like and how it’s evolved? I also enjoy… On social media there’s (??) Sexology which was created by two black women who are just creating so many amazing resources on a very huge platform. And a lot of my writing has allowed me to work with incredible sex therapists that I think are really pushing the narrative forward of queer and poly affirming sexual practices… ?Gemanicka Eaborn is an amazing sex educator and she also just took on an incredible role as an intimacy coach for Hollywood, TV and movie productions, which I think is incredible - to go on set and inform people about sexuality. That, to me, when she announced that… We don't even think that that's something that should be included, but of course in these hidden spaces you're on set and working with strangers and people that don't know that how intimacy coaching is something that's so important and imperative to making people feel comfortable and creating the best art from giving the most of themselves in any type of creative practice, and I think that goes back to what we were saying about pleasure and creation… You have to feel safe, you have to feel able to be vulnerable in order to be your most creative self. So those are some people… Ericka Hart is another person who has a great podcast and is very vocal about… She is a queer, disabled, fem and she is so vocal and brings herself fully and I know on social media that's sometimes difficult. Every time I post something I'm like, should I post this? (they laugh) You know, it takes courage! It takes courage to really put yourself out there, especially like you said, this is your podcast: 'Unmentionables' - like sex is something that is still unmentionable in a lot of spaces. 

Mia: Definitely!

Penda: So those are some of the people that I see doing the good work.

Mia: Brilliant, brilliant thank you. Well, where can people find more about you? 

Penda: Sure, so you can find more about Pro Hoe - my website is improhoe.com and you can find more about the podcast there etc You can follow me on Instagram @pendajai and of course that will direct you to more information on Pro Hoe and the podcast and for my writing I actually have a new article for Vice coming out today, so you can find my freelance writing there and like I said the Thinx book is coming out in August so you can find more of my writing there… Stay on the lookout for some virtual events that will be coming out as well.

Mia: Brilliant, excellent. Penda thank you so much, really appreciate your time and it was lovely to talk to you.

Penda: Thank you so much Mia.