Pleasure is having a moment.
Largely due to the “free-a**-motherf—ker” themselves, Janelle Monáe, and their latest album, “The Age of Pleasure.” However, Monáe isn’t the only one leading by example. Researcher, mental health professional, and sex educator, Chanel Jaali, is also doing the work of walking Black women through what it means to pursue pleasure, sex, and freedom from judgement.
The Atlanta-native and PhD student, started down the path of sex education and research back in college. “I was studying psychology and sociology, and it was time to think about next steps,” Jaali says. “I wasn't exactly sure, but I knew I didn't want to do clinical psychology. Then one day, I was having a conversation with some homegirls, and we started talking about sex and sexuality. There was this moment where I thought, ‘I wonder if there's some kind of sex psychology’ […] and that was almost 20 years ago.”
I met Jaali during Sister Song’s Let’s Talk About Sex Conference—before COVID—during a breakout session that was so good I was left thinking about the experience weeks later. There was something to Jaali’s ability to make an entire room of Black women—with various comfort-levels around talking about sex— feel safe enough to ask questions they might have been hesitant to ask, think about how religion might have impacted our beliefs around sex, and talk about pleasure openly and honestly.
A few years later I followed a sex educator on TikTok who looked familiar, and after a few months of seeing them pop up in my feed, I realized where I knew her from! It wasn’t long before I asked her for an interview for Black Girl Times (BGX).
We caught up with each other and I got to ask her about what she’s learned over the years about the most common sexual challenges facing Black women, sexual hygiene practices we should all keep in mind, how a lack of comprehensive sexual health education can impact relationships, and more.
You’ve worked with a lot of women as a researcher and sex educator. What are the most common challenges Black women face when it comes to sex and pursuing pleasure?
I spend a lot of time with people in general, especially Black women, helping them to unlearn and reframe a lot of things. A lot of Black women don't think they deserve pleasure—they may not say it outright, but in conversations that’s absolutely what I hear. They feel like it has to look a certain way, that they have to be a certain way, in order to earn it. Just like with rest, we don't earn it. It’s a right. We have a right to indulge in the small and big things, it doesn't have to look the same for everybody.
[As a society] we don't define pleasure in a way that everything—our whole life—can be pleasurable. People are [talking about their] soft girl era and romanticizing [their] life, you can do that with pleasure.
Sex education is so important to me because having a correct foundation will make the rest of the journey a lot easier—think about all the misinformation and half information, the stuff we had to kind of piece together. It's important [we] have language to put around the things that [we’re] thinking, feeling, and doing. That's a lot of what I do.
What are some good sexual hygiene practices women should consider adding to their sexual routine?
Getting tested regularly is a big deal. If you're sexually active, just go ahead and lump it in every three months, whether you're out here just a little bit or a lot. Keep it as a part of your health routine. That way it's normalized. I posted a TikTok video today about how to get HIV tests sent to your home. So even if it's a barrier, or it's costly to go somewhere, there’s a free resource. Thankfully, we have a lot more options as far as free and low-cost testing.
Drink a lot of water, you want to make sure that blood is flowing and if you're dehydrated, your body can tell. A lot of us live off coffee and vibes and that's cool—I'm a student, I get it. But drinking a lot of water ensures you're flushing out your system. So just like we're supposed to pee after sex, that helps everything altogether.
Make sure you have your safety precautions in order. Whether it’s external or internal condoms, dental dams, whatever makes you comfortable. Are there certain condom brands that you don't like? If you’re having partnered sex, be aware of your allergies or aversions. Being aware and being able to avoid those kinds of things make your space and your body feel more pleasurable.
We're responsible for our own orgasm. People don't like to hear that, but you are.
And finally, learning to have open and honest communication is going to save you a whole lot of drama. We have to practice speaking up for ourselves because we're the only ones who really know what we want. Let them people be mad if you're not feeling it or if it's not giving.
What impact does a lack of comprehensive sex education play in adult sexual relationships and sexual beliefs?
In a lot of ways, people don't know how to address their own bodies—that means noticing your body and desire level. These things can change over the years. I'm going to be 40 in a couple of months and me at 40 [is different from] me at 22. That's two different bodies.
All genders, all people, the way we're socialized, and the way we approach sex ed for kids is very binary. It's very basic. It doesn't talk about how to relate to one another. You might talk about biology and periods and things like that, and that's great, but also, what am I doing with these feelings that I'm having? How is this relating to my mood and overall health?
We've disconnected sexual health from the rest of our health and made it some other thing over there when it's all interconnected. That [connection is] super important.
When we get to be grown up, you feel like, “Oh, I'm grown now. I know everything.” I'm telling you right now you don't, and that's OK. Those moves you use for that person, that's great, but the next boo might be like, “What is this? Can I go home?” Each person is different. You change, different things cause our bodies to change.
I am considered a sex expert, and I don't know everything because we're humans. There's still room to evolve and grow. It's important to have that flexibility and openness. Accept the fact that you may not have had the sex education you needed for yourself and then be willing to fill in those gaps and really learn what you need and want for yourself.
What would you tell your 20-something self about aging and transitioning into different stages physically, sexually, medically?
I would tell my 22-year-old self, “Girl, it gets so much better. It's lit over here. That boy don't know what he's doing. That man don't really know what he's doing. Speak up.” We're having lackluster experiences, and we don't need to be.
It’s OK to be your own partner. We feel like we have to be partnered in order to have pleasurable sexual experiences and that’s not true. There’s a toy you like out there. [The] kind of vibe you want is out there. [Pleasure] is out there for us. Explore your body and really figure out what you like. [Because] before you can even tell somebody else [what you like] you need to know yourself. There's this concept called body mapping. Start with your head. Do you like your hair played with? Do you like scalp massage? That's pleasure. You can do that with all parts of your body. That's something all of us have access to.
Make sure you advocate for yourself. I worked with the American Medical Student Association for a brief time, [and I know] they're not engaging a comprehensive sex ed when you're going to them, they're literally looking at your parts. They're not talking about your sexual history in a thorough way to get a full picture of who you are. [Sexual health education] is not in these [medical school] curriculums, so you're going to have to bring your questions to them.
Younger, newer doctors, and those who are a little more plugged in, are having these conversations, but there's just so many systems in place. They only get 15 minutes [with you], so they're trying to cram in a lot. I give grace for that, but if you're going in with an issue, and it's connected to your sex life and your sexuality, it’s absolutely valid to bring it up.
How can a person who has experienced sexual assault begin to try to find joy and pleasure again?
Please be gentle with yourself.
You may have a different relationship to sex after an assault or abuse. Be gentle with yourself as you find ways to reclaim what sex is to you. And I think it's OK, that is different from what it was before. I challenge people to reframe it in your mind as a new way of being. Finding a new way to connect to your body in a sexual way.
Go back to things like body mapping and being mindful of how things feel in your body. Breathing while you’re body mapping can [help you] see what comes up. It's a process that you have to take slowly and gently for yourself. You need to process what's going on and what happened. Working through that slowly and gently, whether you’re partnered or not, is fine.
So much of Black sexuality is wrapped up in shame due to stereotypes. Where do you suggest people begin their search to embrace pleasure guilt free?
Books like “Pleasure Activism” and “What Your Mother Never Told You About Sex”—it's a good primer book for anatomy, physiology, and things like that—are super important. Because sometimes we're not even taught how to clean ourselves.
Primer books are good [for that], but we have to lean more into pleasure, while recognizing that we have collective and personal trauma as well. There's a way to move toward pleasure while working through trauma.
However, not everybody's a book reader or maybe that’s not accessible to you. Finding creators on social media is something we can all access all day, every day. Find reputable sources of information that are also pleasure based. Centering pleasure and joy in the Black experience is so vital, because so much of what we talk about and deal with are traps. The country is a dumpster fire right now, so being in spaces of joy and pleasure is revolutionary. We have all these stereotypes attached to us and our sexuality, you can be any kind of way and it's still perfect.
We also have to make sure there’s space for gender expansive people, because that's the only way we have true Black liberation. Everybody can come along.
You talk about various kink topics on your TikTok page. How should a person interested in kink start their journey?
I wouldn't be me If I didn't say please get educated about what kink is and learn the difference between it and BDSM.
We automatically equate BDSM with leather, whips, chains, and people swinging from the chandelier, but it can be exactly what you want it to be. I identify as a sensualist. So I'm never going to go to the more extreme stuff first. There are different ways to explore your body through kink activities.
Finding the community is super important and it's not always easy, depending on where you live. I'm in the DMV area, so it’s very present. I don't know what it's like in Mississippi, but somebody's doing kink there. There’s a whole community meeting up and learning from each other. But the good thing is we have internet, and you can find community and other spaces and other places as well. Anybody who's interested in kink, there is something for you, I promise. You just have to find it and figure it out. It's fun to figure it out, too, but please, research and watch things. Don't automatically jump in and do things without understanding what exactly is going on. There are safety things that you need to be mindful of like etiquette and how to navigate those spaces.
What are your go-to sex toy suggestions for beginners?
Our skin is our biggest sex organ. Find something around your house to use, like feathers or a silk scarf. It’s a nice way to be in touch with different parts of your body.
If you want something that buzzes, you don't have to get a $400 toy, you can get a bullet, a small tongue-like toy, or a vibrator. You want to get used to your body and figuring out what you like.
I know a lot of people like The Rose, but it can be quite strong. That's why I don't suggest it first, but beware.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
Perdita Patrice is a Texas-based writer and documentary filmmaker. She enjoys live music, reading, and watching TV. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @perditapatrice