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Black Hole

Kara Walker's sculpture of a mammy figure made from sugar, shown from behind

Kara Walker/Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York/Photo by Jason Wyche

Kara Walker: A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant, Domino Sugar Refinery, Brooklyn, A project of Creative Time, 2014

Genital flap. I’m lying on a sofa, reading a book about racism when I stumble upon it, this odd phrase, which has appeared on the page without warning or definition. The author is quoting Carl Linnaeus. His Systema Naturae (1735) sketched out for the first time a “scientific” hierarchy of races, which is still recognizable to us two centuries later. At the top, Homo sapiens europaeus, then Homo sapiens asiaticus, then Homo sapiens americanus. Then, last and least, me and my people: “Homo sapiens afer: Sluggish, lazy. Black kinky hair. Silky skin. Flat nose. Thick lips. Females with genital flap and elongated breasts. Crafty, slow, careless. Covered by grease. Ruled by caprice.” Crafty but careless but capricious, of course. The grease part makes me chuckle, though. We do love our lotion.

I reach over and pick up my phone and search: genital flap. The Google results reach in several medical and pornographic directions. I put quotation marks around the phrase and add Linnaeus. The third link is a Google Books preview of the paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould’s The Flamingo’s Smile (1985). Great title. I click it and perform the various contortions required to read a Google Books preview on my phone. Gould is telling a story I’ve heard before, about Saartjie Baartman, also known as the Hottentot Venus, a Khoikhoi woman who was exhibited at “freak shows” across nineteenth-century Europe because of her buttocks and breasts.

Baartman’s genitals were also the subject of great controversy for scientists at the time. While she wore a tight-fitting garment during exhibitions, she refused to appear completely nude or submit to examination of her genitals. But Baartman was known to have a sinus pudoris, which the French called a tablier, or genital “apron.” Linneaus thought this was a physical feature common to all African women, when it was in fact a unique feature of specific groups of people in southern Africa, including the Khoikhoi. Gould says that Linneaus was wrong. When Baartman died, Georges Cuvier dissected her corpse and concluded that there was no extra apron there. Rather, her labia minora—the inner lips of her vulva—were distended, hanging three or four inches below the vagina when she stood, giving the impression of a curtain of skin. “I have the honor to present to the Academy the genital organs of this woman prepared in a manner that leaves no doubt about the nature of her tablier,” Cuvier said.

But Cuvier was wrong, too. He thought the sinus pudoris of African women would grow smaller as you climbed the continent and the ladder of human progress, from the bestial Hottentots to the light-skinned Egyptians—that evolutionary march toward Homo europaeus. (Imagine: an alien civilization comes across the corpse of a twenty-first century woman who’s had saline breasts implanted and a vaginal rejuvenation (!) surgery. The aliens dissect her. Are the salt sacks in her chest an evolutionary feature, they wonder. Is her thin-lipped vagina, striated with scars, adaptive?) Cuvier, thousands of miles from Baartman’s ancestral lands, decided that African women’s inner labia were naturally elongated and that this explained a cultural practice: “The negresses of Abyssinia are inconvenienced to the point of being obliged to destroy these parts”—their tabliers—“by circumcision and cauterization,” or par le fer et le feu, Cuvier wrote.

Around here, I pause, I frown. In several southern African countries, including my own, Zambia, there is a practice known as “pulling,” manually stretching your own inner labia to a length of three or four inches. (The ideal, a hairdresser in Lusaka once told me, is the length of your thumb.) It’s an open secret that certain tribes still do it. You learn about it from aunties and cousins; you start doing it around ten to twelve years old; you use a split twig to keep things open; you use sap or fruit juice to keep things slippery; you can pull alone or with other girls. It’s not painful. It takes time. It’s like stretching your earlobes with gauges. It’s somewhat contentious. People of both sexes claim to find it desirable. (A friend once told me that in Kenya, men jokingly refer to it as “tap-tap-tap,” to mimic the act of stimulating the lips on either side, gently knocking on those intimate doors.)

But like everything, pulling is primarily oriented toward male pleasure—the lips, swollen during arousal, are meant to “grip” the man’s penis—and can stymy female pleasure: any part of the body exposed to the elements becomes less sensitive over time. I’ve learned all this from Internet forums and comments sections and friends and relatives. My name, which I got from my grandmother, roughly translates to “girl about to become a woman.” During the mwali maturation ceremony—which I often liken to a quinceañera or a bat mitzvah to ease the discomfort of non-Zambians—a namwali is checked to make sure she has been pulling. I never went through this ceremony. I never learned to pull. My mother said that by the time I came of age, it had gone out of fashion.

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I fall deeper into the search hole when I look up another term: sinus pudoris. Wikipedia appears to confirm that this alleged flap, apron, curtain is just longer inner labia:

Labia may also be shaped by intentional labia stretching, usually done by an older aunt on girls beginning at the age of five, a practice that formerly fell into the category of Type IV female genital mutilation. In 2008, The World Health Organization reclassified the practice as a body modification due to a perceived lack of harm and a reported much more positive perception of women’s sexuality by those who practice it.

I find vindication in a PDF of an art history essay uploaded to a course website: “Eighteenth-century travelers to southern Africa…had described the so-called Hottentot apron, a hypertrophy of the labia and nymphae caused by the manipulation of the genitalia and serving as a sign of beauty.” In other words, we can’t know whether Baartman’s “genital flap” was biological or, as is more likely, cultural.

Yet her imagined anatomical difference bolstered many quasi-scientific and erroneous theories: polygenesis, the idea that humans descended from different racial groups, and therefore the idea of the non-unity of races; the idea that “the hypertrophied nymphae,” or large labia, of black women signify greater “voluptuousness” and “lasciviousness” and “lust.” An entire medical field—one that is essentially comprised of wave after wave of distortions and corrections—is founded on the black vagina. In the 1840s, in Montgomery, Alabama, J. Marion Sims, often called the “father of modern gynecology,” conducted experimental surgery on twelve enslaved black women, without anesthesia. He left a urine-soaked sponge inside one woman, Lucy; she almost died of sepsis. Wikipedia tells me his autobiography includes this sentence: “If there was anything I hated, it was investigating the organs of the female pelvis.” The first photograph of a vagina ever published in a gynecology textbook was of a black woman’s vagina, in 1896; white women were protected from such exposure.

Later, in the same book about racism that I’m reading, I find a series of quotations from a physician about the “free clitoris” in “negresses.” The endnotes send me to a citation, “Is Evolution Trying to Do Away with the Clitoris?,” available as a scan of archaic pages on Archive.org. I read it, laughing, stunned by the blithe inaccuracies, the blatant inconsistencies, of this paper, which was presented to the American Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists in 1892. Some choice quotes:

About eighty percent of all Aryan American women have adhesions which bind together the glans of the clitoris and its prepuce, in part or wholly, and which cause little or much disturbance. This condition very evidently represents a degenerative process that goes with higher civilization….

In negresses the glans clitoridis is free and the prepuce not adherent, excepting in a few individuals who probably possess a large admixture of white blood.

In highly domesticated animals the glans clitoridis is free and the prepuce not adherent, with a few exceptions which are of such character as to have no bearing upon my subject.

I presume that the glans clitoridis is free in wild tribes generally, but my attempts at getting data from the Indians are yet a failure, because agency physicians to whom I referred state that Indian women would not allow them to collect statistics such as we wanted.

The horror grows steadily as I read. The supposed adhesion of the hood to the clitoris (think uncircumcised penis) in white women allegedly causes irritation, which leads to masturbation, which leads to hysteria. The writer suggests separating the hood from the clitoris through chemical means, rather than through the previous solution to this problem: clitoridectomies, a form of female genital mutilation (FGM). But isn’t it odd that the writer recommends “freeing” the white clitoris? Aren’t the adhesions an evolutionary adaptation toward “higher civilization,” a sign that the whiter you are, the tighter you are? Why would you want to drag Aryan pussy down to the bestial level of the negress’s free clitoris?

This is the paradox of black pussy: it is bared, gazed at, dissected, used as a model—the literal textbook example, the “free, nonadherent” norm—yet so elided that it’s almost unGoogleable, so underthought and disavowed that I’ve heard tell of more than one man who has asked permission to stare: “I’ve never seen a black one.” Black pussy is our absent center. It is everywhere and nowhere.

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I double click the Home button on my phone to send my tabs floating into a black abyss, then close Wikipedia. Gould’s book page still hovers. I tap it and read on as he undoes the libelous claims of the men who founded the very sciences he practiced and wrote about. As some point, frustrated with the fixed font size of the scanned page, I pull out my laptop. It’s that familiar intermittent reading of the Internet, which skitters along interrupted by the distractions and gaps—the theft or the tax—imposed upon me by certain platforms. Google Books tells me that “Pages 300 to 301 are not shown in this preview” and sends me to Amazon’s “Look Inside the Book,” but it’s a different edition, missing different pages, so I scroll and hop between sites, trying to patch together the whole.

And somewhere along this skipping path, maybe when I read Gould’s phrase “this sociopolitical doctrine masquerading as science”; or learn about his theory of “punctuated equilibrium,” the hypothesis that evolution is marked by bursts of rapid speciation between long periods of stasis; or read his essay, “Human Equality Is a Contingent Fact of History,” which explains something I already know—that race has no genetic basis—I find that I’m unaccountably moved to tears. Why? I have read fictional and historical accounts of Baartman—such as Suzan-Lori Parks’s incredible play Venus—that are equally scathing about the Enlightenment atrocities visited upon her. And often, when I have brushed up against the sciences in the context of women’s bodies, they were being used to convey to me, in so many sophisticated, rational words, what a man I dated once confessed just after we’d had sex: “Until you, I always thought black vaginas were kind of disgusting.”

This is not an uncommon view, according to the Internet surveys of 134 men sociologist Brittany C. Slatton conducted for her 2015 book Mythologizing Black Women. Zack is not attracted to a “pink vagina but dark skin around.” Walter thinks black vaginas don’t look right: “The black lips and the pink inside is just a total turn off.” Bob says the “black vagina area looks disgusting.” This isn’t confined to the Zacks, Walters, and Bobs of the world. There are threads online of women mocking other women for having dark labia. The pussy hats at the 2017 Women’s March were the color pink, not the color purple. When I explained what “pulling” was to a group of black British women in a book club, they erupted in responses—shocked, disgusted, agog—not so different from those of the white European men who once pruriently peered at Baartman’s anatomy.

Reading Gould feels different. Because here is science, but breathtakingly clear-eyed and even righteous. Not completely. His language can feel coolly ethnographic. But he doesn’t flinch or sneer or balk. He looks and he sees. I open his Wikipedia page to get a sense of how much controversy he was mired in, given his evidently progressive politics. He was Jewish, which might explain why he’d be keen to reject scientific racism, and a feminist. I’m diverted by a mention of his apparently well-known essay, “Male Nipples and Clitoral Ripples,” first published in a 1993 issue of a journal called Columbia. Using my library access, I click through four web pages to download it from JSTOR.

It’s a simple argument, all the more delightful for the breezy, avuncular style I’m getting used to in Gould’s prose. From Erasmus to Darwin, the question has plagued evolutionary biology: “Why do men have nipples?” Gould offers a persuasive answer: human males and females both emerge from an embryo with no morphological sex differences. Because female mammals eventually need breasts, that embryo begins with nipples. Male nipples are essentially what we call vestigial, or what Gould calls nonadaptive. He then turns to a far more vexing question, historically speaking: “Why do women have clitorises?” The same reason, Gould argues. Because male mammals eventually need penises, the embryo begins with a proto-penis. And the clitoris, like the penis, is the seat of the human orgasm.

Gould presents his evidence and then explains why the second half of his title is so much more contentious than the first. For centuries, scientists have wondered about the function of the clitoral orgasm. Maybe it aids reproduction. Maybe it promotes pair bonding. Maybe the clitoral orgasm is just the first stage until you mature into a woman and have vaginal orgasms. That last explanation comes from Freud, of course, who theorized that “erotogenic susceptibility” must be “successfully transferred by a woman from the clitoris to the vaginal orifice.” This was stupendously wrong and immensely harmful, as the sexologist Alfred Kinsey succinctly noted in 1953:

Clinicians, including psychoanalysts and some of the clinical psychologists and marriage counselors, have expended considerable effort trying to teach their patients to transfer “clitoral responses” into “vaginal responses.” Some hundreds of women in our own study and many thousands of the patients of certain clinicians have consequently been much disturbed by their failure to accomplish this biological impossibility.

The utility bias, the idea that every part of the human body must serve a purpose or be adaptive, has led to a mangling of facts, yielding a “biological impossibility” that is still a popular misconception. Gould concludes: “Yet the obvious, nonadaptive structural alternative stares us in the face as the most elementary fact of sexual anatomy—the homology of penis and clitoris.” If we’re okay with pleasurable, useless “male nipples,” why aren’t we okay with pleasurable, useless “female penises”?

*

The clitoris, we now know—as Medium posts and ghostly 3D Google Images tell me—is much bigger than we’d thought. It’s a sort of wishbone shape, only the tip of which is external, while the rest runs along the inner wall of the vagina (possibly the mythical G-spot) and encircles the vulva. Apart from having far more nerve endings, it is indeed similar to the penis.

This homology makes me think about when Cardi B released her video for “Money,” which, like the promotional photo for Nicki Minaj’s 2008 mixtape “Sucka Free,” recreated the image on Lil’ Kim’s debut platinum album Hard Core (1996). Folks online were posting the images side by side, the three women in a spread-eagle squat, wearing bikinis and chains and heels. The comments were filled with remarks about their crotches, which bulge slightly between their thighs. Were they “packing” penises? Did they have unusually big pussies? The diametric skew of the comments suggests a cultural cleft, let’s call it The Great Pussy Divide, that falls along the lines of race, class, and the modality of class that we call race. The Great Pussy Divide is that some people find big black pussies delicious and desirable; other people find them daunting.

I search: black vagina. The first result that comes up is a question on a forum for Kotex products: “I am a light-skinned female. Why is my vagina dark?” When I click on a porn site, a handful of videos appear, most of them about big clits (“like a penis”) and squirters. Black pussy is dramatic, larger than life. I back up and search just: vagina. I get news hits about Goop. Gwyneth Paltrow has made an episode of a Netflix show about the female orgasm. Gwyneth Paltrow has made a candle that smells of pussy. Gwyneth Paltrow is selling a new, “more intellectual” vibrator, pink and white and gold. The New York Times asks: “Have you tested the vibrator yourself?” She replies: “I think you’ve made me blush.”

Google Books tells me that all the recent books about vaginas—The Vagina Bible (2019), The Wonder Down Under (2017), The Vagina: A Literary and Cultural History (2013), Vagina: A Re-education (2019), Vagina: A New Biography (2012)—are written by white women. They say that when it comes to vaginas, all women worry about: hair (waxed, shaved), size (internal, external), microbiome (health, taste), orgasms (clitoral, vaginal), discharge (normal, symptomatic), wetness (arousal, squirting). Each of these has to be—as with all forms of beauty—a Goldilocks balance of “just right.” When I search within these books for the word black, I get references like: black clothes, black lace thong, black yoga pants, not black and white, black box, black statue, Black Forest gateau. When I search Africa, I get references to proposed differences between the bacterial flora in black and white vaginas, and to that old horror story, FGM.

If you surge along the Internet’s stream, urge its algorithms in the right direction, you find pieces of truth, poetry, hilarity, art—black pussy’s oeuvre. I see a tweet: “some girls be cute until you look at their pussies…& its dark as hell.” The replies read her to filth—“alright calm down coochie patrol”—then escalate into an epithetic reply chain: “pussy police,” “punani patrol,” “vagina vigilante.” I watch a video of Lizzo explaining the lyrics of her song “Juice” to a scrubby white reporter: “I think juice is kind of freaky,” she riffs. “I think juice is…um kind of uh spiritual and special. I think um. I think it’s black pussy.” She breaks into raucous laughter. “All right,” the reporter’s eyebrows rise as he nods and chuckles. Even #pop is fueled on juice. I watch another video of the same genre, Megan Thee Stallion chatting with a slight, white, jittery, bespectacled classical music scholar. The gag is that she has to explain her lyrics. She defines big ole treat, skeet, bae, brazy. He is shaking with embarrassment. She is gently amused. His final exhortation: “Don’t forget to listen to Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony!” Hers: “Don’t forget to listen to ‘Back That Azz Up’!”

Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B dressed in metallic costumes performing on stage

Kevin Winter/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B performing at the Grammy Awards, Los Angeles, March 14, 2021

When “WAP,” the collaboration between Megan and Cardi, drops in the summer of 2020, the Great Pussy Divide reappears on my timeline, where my mutuals (the people I follow who follow me back) are split. My black and/or queer mutuals are celebratory, commiserative—if only we could be in the club right now!—and run riot with their versions of the TikTok dance. My white mutuals are bemused or silent.

The divide is evident in our ersatz cultural wars, too. The conservative Ben Shapiro pedantically whines his way through the lyrics on a podcast, muffling the muff to “p-word”: “My first concern…is that these women are describing a serious gynecological condition. I’m serious. I mean, a bucket and a mop? There’s something going on here that is not biologically normal.” His doctor wife diagnoses it as “bacterial vaginosis, a yeast infection, or…trichomoniasis.” The idea that pussy this wet must be diseased echoes the nineteenth-century logic that pathologized black pussy to concoct a putative “proper pussy.” The Internet responds by diagnosing Shapiro’s manifold illiteracy: he can’t read his wife’s ego-coddling lie; he can’t read pussy; he can’t read hyperbole; he can’t even read history.

A sampler platter of “WAP” precedents among the blues, hip-hop, R&B, and what’s called “dirty rap”: Clara Smith’s “It’s Tight Like That” (1929); Lucille Bogan’s “Shave Em Dry” (1935); Nina Simone’s version of “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl” (1967); Oaktown’s 357’s “Juicy Gotcha Krazy” (1989); Lil’ Kim’s “How Many Licks” (2000); Khia’s “My Neck, My Back (Lick It)” (2001); Foxy Brown’s “Superfreak” (2003); Kelly Rowland’s “Kisses Down Low” (2013); Rico Nasty’s “Ice Cream” (2018). Only recently has anyone thought to transcribe this tradition, much less dedicate space to it in books or essays. But we know it’s a tradition because it’s always pulsing there: in allusive samples and riffs, late-night DJ sets, and the debates that still erupt on daytime radio.

Adina Howard’s 1995 “Freak Like Me” seems mild now, but lines like “I got you shook up on your knees/’Cause it’s all about the dog in me” had black conservatives and feminists so apoplectic that they tried to ruin her career. This time, too, it’s not just white pundits who’ve lost their hypocritical minds over “WAP.” Candace Owens has followed Shapiro’s suit, calling Cardi and Megan’s performance at the Grammys “grotesque” and “degenerate,” while hip-hop old heads like Snoop Dogg and Jermaine Dupri have been clutching their pearls. The controversy is never about sex or vulgarity, which can numb as much as it titillates. It is always about the force and agency of women’s desire, which is at its most dangerous when it can’t be used, co-opted, or placated. How dare the pussy want?

The whore—or colloquially, hoe—does want. Yes, a whore exchanges sex for money or fine luxury items. But what makes the whore a hoe, what makes them distinct from a prostitute, is that they want sex for its own sake, too, being not just ready and willing but actively ravenous for it—the word whore likely comes from an etymological root meaning “one who desires.” “WAP” samples Frank Ski’s “Whores in This House,” a popular Baltimore house song from the Nineties. It has one lyric—“There’s some whores in this house”—which is chanted over and over like a barker’s call, but at the club, or rather the brothel, which is the setting for the “WAP” music video.  

Cardi and Megan wander the halls of a pleasure palace, candy-colored and warped like a fun house, giggling and goggling as they come across room after room of women—all women, each alone—luxuriating in their own sexuality. The architecture echoes the red-light storefronts of Amsterdam, but given the snakes, tigers, and leopards slinking around, it also asks to be read as a surreal reversal of Baartman’s exhibitions, the Freak Show 2.0. (Cardi: “Certified freak, seven days a week”; Megan: “Your honor, I’m a freak bitch.”) No gawking men here, though, no scientists or voyeurs. Just Cardi and Megan, who are potential customers, but also—as they move into their rap solos, in exotic arenas, surrounded by dancers—potential whores in this house.

Same-sex desire vibrates in the song—both rappers have spoken freely about having sex with women—but it’s queer rather than porny. “WAP” doesn’t cater to the straight man’s presumptive hankering for “girl-on-girl.” It doesn’t cater to men at all. It’s not that the song tries to raze or soften the power dynamics of hoeing. It flips them over, like changing positions. While dick and ass are present, the pussy reigns.

Cardi puts it “right in your face” to “swipe your nose like a credit card”; she hops on top because she wants to ride, then “do a kegel while it’s inside.” The puns render hoeing more valuable—swiping a credit card is getting head; the self-improvement exercise meant to strengthen the vaginal walls becomes a trick during sex. Cardi mocks and trumps the wife’s ancient hustle—housework in exchange for security—as she boasts of her oral skills in the bedroom and in the studio: “I don’t cook, I don’t clean/But let me tell you how I got this ring”; “I spit on his mic and now he tryna sign me.” This is hoeing in the era of neoliberal capitalism, where the boundless ramification of choices—consumerist, artistic, sexual—forms a thin veil over the material fact: we’re all hustling, we’re all selling ourselves.

Megan describes this as a barter economy. WAP can earn you a car, boots, coat, even a college education: “Paid my tuition just to kiss me on this wet-ass pussy.” But the price isn’t fixed. Value gets slippery. WAP goes beyond productive exchange: “You really ain’t never gotta fuck him for a thang/He already made his mind up ’fore he came.” Both women refer to pulling out like it’s standard, suggesting that this isn’t a reproductive exchange, either: WAP makes “that pullout game weak”; “drip down the side of me/Quick, jump out ’fore you let it get inside of me.” Megan’s pun on “drip” here—slang for flashy jewelry and clothing—tells us that wetness is lavish, luxuriant, extravagant. Later she puns again: “Now make it rain if you wanna see some wet-ass pussy.” The radio edit—“wet and gushy”—somehow makes the sense of overflow more explicit.

By the end of the song, we need a bucket and a mop, we make the sound of “macaroni in a pot” (a Vine reference), and the titular acronym has revealed its onomatopoeia: “wap, wap, wap.” The song doesn’t care if this pussy is customized; it cares if it’s wet. It relishes this uncontrollable sign of pleasure, one that tends to stir more pleasure. To be clear, wetness is neither consent, nor proof of arousal, nor more vital than a woman’s feelings and words. But “WAP” revels in wetness as a kind of bodily knowledge, a free knowledge insofar as it’s not subject to intention: you can’t will wetness.

This substrate of desire isn’t plainly symbolic like the phallus. It isn’t binary like the logic of consent (yes/no) or penetration (in/out). It doesn’t even have a common name, like cum or spit. As in Gould’s theory of female orgasm, it is supplemental, gratuitous. It is wayward excess; transient, translucent, it spreads, slides, eases. It exceeds the interlock of exchange, the seesaw of power, the mechanics of reproduction—in “WAP,” it emphatically doesn’t lubricate a path for single-minded sperm. Neither necessary nor assimilable, wetness is the slick residue of want.

Cardi issues her wants as demands, the directness of which bestows agency to her even when she’s on her knees: “I wanna gag, I wanna choke/I want you to touch that little dangly thing that swing in the back of my throat.” Giving head feels good and that’s why she wants to do it; the uvula becomes clitoral, Debbie Does Dallas–style, the throat and mouth deliriously metonymic. Megan, equally in command, will “tell him where to put it” and “put him on his knees, give him somethin’ to believe in.” She reverses the valence of both the familiar directive “say my name” and a more recent one telling women to “spell coconut with your waist” as they ride their lovers: “If he fuck me and ask ‘Whose is it?’/When I ride the dick, I’ma spell my name.” Men and women battle for dominance in bed—“beat it up, nigga, catch a charge”—but the women have already won.

A range of lovers is invoked, pronouns flicker and leap, the women and wetness proliferate. The duet feels collective, less like an orgy than a party. The bars are pithy and punny, the flow as smooth as honey. The song is rhythmic but there is no climax. Nothing is belabored. The work of artistic creation doesn’t extract or cost or culminate in pleasure; it pluralizes it. As the literary critic Susan Winnett notes, if we start with “the proposition that female orgasm is unnecessary,” then we realize that “female pleasure might have a different plot.” Dirty rap by women is as multilingual as it is cunnilingual. The meanings and shoutouts branch and tingle like nerve endings, or like the Internet, which is also where you find the masters of the form.

Four black women rendered in rainbow colors sitting together

Caitlin Cherry/Luce Gallery, Turin

Caitlin Cherry: Friends, 2019. Cherry’s work is on view in the exhibition “Black Femme: Sovereign of WAP and the Virtual Realm,” at the Canada Gallery, New York City, through April 10, 2021.

While Cardi’s and Megan’s songs have hit the mainstream like a shot of aphrodisiacal adrenaline, the rapper CupcakKe is still mostly YouTube- and Twitter-popular. She subsists for now in the vast realm of the searchable. Her rhymes are on Genius, the crowd-annotated song lyric website:

I think we should fuck up in every zip code
It would make my pussy wetter than a fishbowl
Pussy a kitty cat, I pet it like a pet
I fuck doggy style so much I need to go to the vet
Hotbox? More like a scorching pussy
Open this coochie up like a fortune cookie
….

And any time my pussy wanna be hairy like Harry Potter
Becky with the good hair is what you could call her


I change the thongs two times a day
It’s Niagara Falls in this pussy all day

The entendres double, triple buoyantly. She’s the sharpest of the new crop of dirty rappers. Her tone isn’t so far from that of Shakespeare’s questions to his Dark Lady: “Wilt thou, whose will is large and spacious,/Not once vouchsafe to hide my will in thine?” A Google Books search reminds me of some of the other words he used for her presumably black pussy: eye, heart, wound, treasure, hell, a bay where all men ride, all, nothing, the wide world’s common place. The bards of black pussy are pure wit—not dry wit, which is barren and unadorned, but juicy wit: hilarity, exuberance, a thick raunchiness that bounces, light as a twerk. These lyrics are a joy, or rather, they are continually joyful—not just one explosion of orgasmic triumph but a series of electric surges, one after the other, in every direction.

*

Y’all love to hate on the Internet. Everybody knows it leads us astray, makes us less productive, less efficient, drone-like addicts who doomscroll through our days. It is the techno-sublime, techno-utopic, tentacular techno-octopus that threatens to devour us. But you know what? I love it. The other day on the subway, I glanced down and saw a woman on her phone search: slug crystal. How did she get there? How delightful! Eavesdropping on public transportation is perhaps the closest analogue to the aleatory wonder of the Internet. Bubbles be damned, you never know what or who you’ll come across, slide across, cross-reference-wise. To me, this feels like a version of art, or of its nascent hubbub in the mind. Maybe that’s because when I first heard about Twitter back in 2007, the fellow graduate student I was talking to said: “It’s like the world is writing a giant poem to itself.”

Millennial art that tries to lasso this proliferative energy into narrative form often casts the Internet’s pleasures as hypersublime, overwhelming to the point of obliteration. In Spike Jonze’s 2013 film Her, the OS Samantha speaks over a black screen, likening her infinite knowledge to an orgasm—“I am. All of you, all of you inside of me. Everywhere.”—and eventually to a dissolution in which she finds herself in “this endless space between the words…a place that’s not of the physical world.” In the 2019 dystopian TV series Years and Years, the mixed-race Bethany identifies as transhuman and wants to become one with all data: “If I put all of that together, I’m there, I’m inside it, the tide, the depth of the sea, and the curl of the waves within me…when I combine all of that, it’s joy, in my head. It is absolute joy.” For the protagonist of Patricia Lockwood’s novel No One is Talking About This (2021), online addiction brims with a quasi-religious flavor—the wonder and shame of being on your knees:

The way, when she was gone from it, she thought so longingly of My information. Oh my answers. Oh, my everything I never knew I needed to know. At least that was how she saw it in elevated moods. In baser ones, she saw herself bent over, on her knees, spread-eagled and begging for reality’s cum.

In other recent Internet-age novels that dwell in the digital world of text, email, and social media, sex too is a humiliation best borne by absorbing humiliation itself as a mandate.

The millennial seems stuck in a whirlpool of want, circling a vortex of desires. Sexual desire is almost preordained to be “problematic,” arising out of unfaithful or open marriages, intrafamilial abuse, and masochism—specifically, a yearning to be struck. “I want you to hit me,” one of Sally Rooney’s protagonists says; “Will you hit me?” asks another. The narrator of Raven Leilani’s Luster confesses of her lover: “I want us to fight in public. And when we fight in private, I want him to maybe accidentally punch me.” Ostensibly, this kind of female desire is edgy because it embraces shocking, scandalous desires—but they dovetail with the stereotypical desires of powerful, straight men. These erotic trends symptomize and fetishize the millennial’s economic precarity under “Daddy.” Far from BDSM, with its aristocratic origins and contractual/consensual logics, this is a suburban, shame-ridden paradigm, in which the choices are choke me or coddle me, but notably never compensate me.

Here, sex is an occasion not for pleasure or art or fun, but for an analysis of power. The millennial wants to be wanted or to be abjected. Either way, the focus is on someone else’s desires and actions, and the appeal seems to lie in inciting a feeling in them: you make them want to fuck you or hurt you, while you escape the vulnerability of wanting, which, after all, puts you in the position of potentially being rejected, disappointed, judged, or taken advantage of. In a review in these pages, Anne Enright summarizes the dilemma of a character in Miranda Popkey’s Topics of Conversation: “She wants to be used by men as a means to their ends and not for her own ends.”

As in millennial rap—Cardi B is twenty-eight, Megan Thee Stallion is twenty-six—straight sex is a battle, but in Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts (2021), it’s the men who have already won:

Many men like it when the woman gags; in fact, some want her to gag, and is this not humiliating, to be physically below someone sputtering and coughing and eye-watering in service entirely of their sexual pleasure? Women may want to gag as well, but again, there is a whole body of literature debating what this means; for the purposes of this anecdotal argument the gagging signified humiliation, whether desired or not.

Putting aside the diversity of sexual desire—which is ineluctable, if not unelectable—this passage poses a striking contrast to Cardi’s “I wanna gag, I wanna choke.” If, for Oyler’s narrator, a whole body of literature is needed to determine what this wanting means, for Cardi it means it makes her pussy wet. When asked about her music, Cardi says “First of all, I rap about my pussy because she’s my best friend.” Her attitude to the Internet is similarly gregarious: “TikTok goes to show you that the general public actually like your fucking song… that means that people are listening to your shit. That ain’t no bots, that ain’t no label, that ain’t no streams; that’s people.”

The Internet is a woman. We already know the Internet is a woman because Ada Lovelace invented the idea of computer programming in the 1840s and compared it to weaving. We know the Internet is a woman because the first computer programmers were women and the first work of hyperfiction was written by Judith Ann Powers in 1986. We know the Internet is a woman because Jeanette Winterson told us so in her 2000 novel The PowerBook. The Internet is not just some matrixial, mathematical maw, however; it does not only entail being subsumed into a teleological, absolutist, dystopian shattering of the self by the squeeze of reproductive, cultural, and literal capital. No, the Internet is also a sprawling, digressive, nonproductive but wildly generative multiplicity of people.

That’s because the Internet is black. When Lockwood’s narrator tweets “jesus was a thot and a hoe,” it is a joke about redundancy (“thot” stands for “that hoe over there”), but also a nod to the appropriation of black culture that is the teeming currency of the Internet. We know that Black Twitter and Vine and viral TikToks—the “Buss It” challenge, the “Silhouette” challenge, the “WAP” challenge—are the exceptions to all the head- and finger-wagging we do about the lassitude, boredom, and solipsism of social media. We know, because Lauren Michele Jackson has shown us, that the Internet’s visual lexicon—the GIF—is dominated by, suffused with, the expressive faces of black femmes, Oprah in particular, the Web’s fluttering heartbeat an O-face. The Internet is a black woman, and we know this because we say we resent it, but we depend on it.

For me, the Internet is bodily. My net is not a holy hell riddled with emptiness but a felt force. What a tactile way to think and know and talk, how haptic, how proprioceptive! I reach for my phone, which is always within reach. I fondle that slick hot box. My finger strokes the screen, smears it, pulls on it to release that tiny spinning burst—refresh. My finger slips around the touchpad, tap-tap-taps the keys. The webbed wide world at the tip of my finger, others’ fingers rippling back at me. This is the Internet that discloses to me, one pulse of data after the other, the epiphany that my black pussy’s orgasm is a matter of chance, a pleasure of its own, with no bearing on the bearing of children or the burdens of labor. My “free” clit has no utility. It is not instrumental. It is not adaptive. Unlike most of my body, including my brain, it can’t be put to work.

My lazy, stirring, stroking slippage across these surfaces, over image and word, with the occasional plunge into anatomy textbooks and historical archives and college syllabi and Twitter and YouTube, the odd exchange of links and texts and tweets and likes, this sense that I’m building to one idea, then another, not a lonely mountain climb but an unpredictable path of plateaus, a punctuated equilibrium, never knowing exactly how or whether I’ll reach an outcome, and when I do, it’s not a big bang but a reverb of implosions, inward and iterative, cumulative and collective, with all the others apart and together in this whorish house—I sigh, I gasp, I ring with joys, I LOLOLOL—this is how I know my Internet, myself. This is the substrate, the juice. This is the black hole that bends matter into curves and has such gravitational force nothing can escape it and is still an absolute mystery and will outlast us all, and NASA’s picture of it made us all go: galaxy brain.

Black pussy is nowhere and everywhere on the Internet because black pussy is the Internet. Rather than damning or disavowing it, we should be asking: How do we keep it free? How do we keep riding that spasmodic, dripping, unquenchable desire: to want—to feel—to know?

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