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Jungle fever and the objectification of the black male body

White gay men throwing remarks towards black men about “BBC” are unknowingly taking on the role of a white slave master.

Jay Austin

I love your skin. I want to wear it. Black guys have huge cocks.

These are the things people write to me on dating apps.

It has gotten to the point that whenever I log on check my possibilities, I brace myself for the usual dross. I mean I get it, dating apps can be the place for the ignorant and the creepy. With online dating there is more autonomy to roam, ask questions, and make statements that many wouldn’t dare asking in real life.

But first, let me get into the term Jungle Fever, seeing as there might be some who are like ‘what the hell is that’? Well for starters, it’s an archaic slang term that’s lost much of its purpose since interracial dating has become more societally accepting (in the west anyway) but the term still rears its ugly head without many people even acknowledging it.

‘Jungle Fever’ is the ‘attraction of a person of non-African descent towards people of African descent’ (Some scholars believe “Jungle Fever” originally meant malaria; the term peaked between i the mid 1800s when stories and novels regarding missionary travails in foreign lands were popular. Some were erotic or about “forbidden love.” )

The 1991 Spike Lee movie created a modern iteration on this concept exploring a married black man begins a much-maligned relationship with a white woman.

My friends and I have used the term when someone of the opposite race behaves quite overzealous towards you as if you are a unique object they need to possess or explore. I’ve had conversations with numerous guys of all different races on dating apps and I have come across situations where I have felt fetishised and only desired for my skin tone or stereotypical physical attributes I am supposed to be equipped with.

There are definitely other black men I have spoken to — both gay and straight — that do not have any ill feelings towards being desired for these reasons. When asked why, they claim they see it as a bonus — they are known as a ‘package’ and they have something to bring to the table.

But that notion really annoys me. I mean, being desired is one thing but reducing yourself to an aesthetic to satiate a stranger — someone solely focused on what you can give them sexually and nothing else — seems demeaning. And coupled with a total lack of societal context. It provides a total disregard for your own heritage and identity, factors which make you unique.

Frantz Fanon describes the sexual objectification of the black male body perfectly in his 1952 book Black Skin, White Masks, which explores how blackness is constructed, produced, and perceived. “One is no longer aware of the negro but only of a penis. He is turned into a penis. He is a penis.”

This is the kind of constant dehumanisation I’ve witnessed relating to black men. Specifically, from my experiences in the past and friends of mine who have been viewed as sex objects rather than a general human being who has intellect, feelings, and emotions.

And these comments that I’ve been privy to, haven’t just come from the typical trolling you might get on dating apps; these hailed from actual conversations I’ve had with men, when we’d actually gotten far along enough in our exchange to discuss sexual likes and dislikes. And yes, it was always from white men, their inevitable ignorance shining through.

I’ve — of course — had a guy ask me, ‘so how big is it? And when I’ve queried why he needed to know, as we’re not even close to that stage yet, he said, Well black guys are normally huge and I’m looking for that.

This obsession with ‘BBC’ is harmful and views me as some kind of hyper-sexualized “quick fix” when I was never looking for that. I realize some of you reading this are thinking, “well that’s to be expected from men on dating apps.” I’m here to tell you it shouldn’t be, especially when I’ve set boundaries early on that I am not looking for a quick hook-up.

I’m sure there are also some folks reading this thinking that being viewed as “endowed” isn’t the worst thing in the world either. But like any “positive stereotypes,” being viewed as a ‘BBC’ comes with a damaging cycle of emotions for black men who feel a whiplash between dehumanization and a pressure to embody this ideal physical manifestation of what a black man’s body should not only look like, but perform.

Consider the black body and its use as a commodity during the slave trade; it sharply highlights how damaging, pervasive, and truly fallacious ‘positive stereotypes’ can be.

The Antebellum South was a period in the southern region of America hailing from the late 18th century until the start of the American Civil War — the economic growth in that era was heavily predicated on slavery, on the strength and virility of black bodies, which introduced the buying and selling of slaves for best value.

Kyle Onstott’s celebrated 1957 novel ‘Mandingo’ is set in this period, revealing the dangerous nature of black fetishisation, and the forced breeding of black male slaves to foster economic gain on the slaves’ naturally athletic prowess.

Richard Fleischer’s 1975 film adaptation stressed this narrative further; he describes Ganymede a slave working in one of the plantations as ‘playful as a kitten” but “strong as a bull elephant,” reducing him to a chimera of animals.

The slave owner even says to Ganymede, ‘ain’t you glad what a fine sucker you gave Big Pearl?’

The need to breed a lineage of black boys who would transform into ‘hung’ black men was a turn-on — psychologically and fiscally — for white male plantation owners.

Black bodies serving as vehicles for entertainment and money is carried on in professional sports every day; the NBA and NFL trade and sign off on humans like products. They’re well-compensated for their bodies, but boast little agency beyond that.

And of course this sense of commodity and market value directly dovetails into black gay men’s desirability from their gay white counterparts. We somehow owe our bodies to them as a vehicle for their fantasy and satisfaction.

Delving further into the study of the black male body and the history behind the objectification, I came across Robert Mapplethorpe’s work, most notably The Black Book, which was published in 1986. I was astonished. His depictions of black men were highly sexualised, his imagery was depicted largely around the penis and that was a key part in his portrayal. Looking into criticisms of the images I saw, I found Kobena Mercer, the art Historian and writer who shared similar sentiments to what I picked up from Mapplethorpe’s art.

“Disturbed by the racial dimension of the imagery and, above all, angered by aesthetic objectification that reduced these black male bodies to abstract visual things, silenced in their own right as subjects and serving only to the white gay male artist in the privileged world of art photography.”
— Kobena Mercer ,
“Looking for Trouble”

Mapplethorpe being a white gay artist used the privilege he had to sexualise and present the black male body for pleasure. I say ‘privilege’ as although he was gay, he was a white man who had access to art photography, an elitist realm reserved for those who meet a certain socio-cultural criteria — white.

These images gave me a better understanding of my experiences dating within the gay community. Ideologies of black men being seen as a quick opportunity for sexual gratification has passed onto the society we live in today and my experiences have reflected that.

My past situations and conversations with gay white men have left me hyper vigilant on the dating scene, constantly questioning why they wanted to spark conversation with me.

Having these doubts is harmful and I would rather not be consumed by them, but when you have had such horrible experiences where you have felt reduced to nothing but a piece of meat (literally) it can be exhausting, so having a guard up is to be expected.

While race still dominates a huge factor in society, I was surprised to see how ubiquitous this kind of casual racism remains among an already marginalized group of people.

It seems some feel the need to inflict the authority that they do not have in heteronormative circles; some white gay men feel they can use and dump black men when they so choose as they are the ‘superior’ beings.

The white gay men throwing ignorant remarks towards black men about the size of their penises are unknowingly taking on the role of a white slave master who’s enamored by his black slave that’s well-endowed and ready for breeding. That is how I see it.

And to the black men that use their penis as their sole offering on the dating scene, shame on you for making light of a stereotype that is riddled with disturbing and brutal treatment of your ancestral history.

It isn’t sexy. It’s shameful.

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