By Andrea Contreras
In the otherwise quiet Milstein Library, Nyra Wise, BC ’24, and Tandile Jackson-Vinson, BC ’24, found themselves bent over cackling into two microphones.
“I can smell Summer’s Eve from a mile away. If I smell it, it’s on sight for anybody,” Nyra promised. Nyra’s six-minute tirade on vaginal wash, punctuated with laughter and concessions from Tandile, served as a bracing introduction for the third episode of their podcast, Take Back Pleasure. As I listened to their banter on Spotify months after the episode was recorded and released, two thoughts looped in my brain.
I need to reach this level of hilarity when speaking about my anatomy.
It’s true—Nothing is worse than the unmistakable floral stench of Summer’s Eve.
Take Back Pleasure began releasing episodes sporadically in the Summer of 2022 as a series of phone calls between friends in which they would casually theorize endlessly about sex and sexuality. It became clear early on that their conversations were too stimulating to remain private. And so came the canonical idea between close friends in their early twenties: We should start a podcast.
Nyra and Tandile were adamant that their podcast not be a reiteration of the heteronormative, gender-normative, boy-crazy sex talk that oversaturates the internet. Rather, they intend for Take Back Pleasure to be a community space centered around sexual themes of importance for Black women, femmes, and non-binary people. The podcast’s ethos is rooted in its title—the reclamation of pleasure and the redemption of a full range of erotic expression and imagination. “Joy and pleasure and gratification is something white people get. The history of this country, the sexual assault against Black women and reproductive exploitation, all of that tells us that our bodies aren’t ours, that we don’t have the capacity for joy or pleasure,” Tandile elaborated. “So yeah, we’re talking about sex. But we’re also reclaiming the right to feel good in our sexual lives.”
Arriving at a women’s college like Barnard in New York City marked an exciting shift in the exploration of their sexualities. No longer battling the repression and respectability politics of their hometowns, Nyra and Tandile found a new world of erotic aspiration in college and a new community of friends with whom they could share their experiences. But it also quickly became clear to them that campus conversations about sex lacked the liberatory imagination that they shared, not to mention that casual encounters were not nearly as pleasurable as they had expected. “I feel like people definitely conflate caring about whether someone has a good time with deeply caring about another person,” Nyra explained; It all seemed cyclical, lacking a more critical perspective. In order to feel pleasure, or even to feel “like a human being,” she felt like she had to redefine the casual encounter completely, as well as the way we discuss it.
Tandile expressed similar frustrations, adding that most people with vaginas, especially Black women, have been socialized to believe pleasure is a scarcity. She noticed that “In our age group, the way that we talk about sex, it’s like there’s a script. We talk about sex in very transactional terms, very heteronormative terms. It’s very normalized for pleasure not to be centered.” For them both, reclamation needed to involve analysis and diversified expressions of desire.
Nyra is a Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies major, and Tandile is an Africana Studies major, therefore the dimensions of racial and gender justice were already inherent to their conversations. Since Nyra first encountered the work of Judith Butler when she was 17 years old, she’s had performativity theory and Audre Lorde’s quotes on the power of the erotic blaring in her head. As a self-identified “Reproductive Justice Girlie,” Tandile’s work upholds several pillars of sexual and reproductive autonomy for women of color. For one, Tandile works in sexual assault prevention with the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault. She is also a doula and birth worker trained with Ancient Song Doula Services, which primarily serves Black and Latine communities in Brooklyn. “It’s hard because you’re working against an entire system,” Tandile confided about reproductive health work.
Both Tandile and Nyra see their podcast as a radical and welcome disruption to the education they received growing up. Nyra is from Coral Springs, where her teachers skirted around any topic deemed “sensitive” by Florida’s standards. Tandile grew up in Williamsburg, right next to the English settlement of Jamestown in Virginia. Surrounded by whiteness, her Black Indigenous family always taught her about her roots to her ancestral homeland, to her history. It meant that every time her teachers would try to spew some false colonial history, Tandile was quick to raise her hand with an, “I know that’s bullshit.” She prides herself on having annoyed her teachers to no end.
Nyra and Tandile are quick to disclaim that they are far from experts or sex therapists. Rather, the podcast is a pedagogical tool with which they learn about their bodies, their desire, how they fit into a sexual landscape, how they fit into the politics of desirability, and about role-playing in sex. The process of figuring it out, and learning as they share, is definitely part of the appeal. They want to build a sexual community that lets people know that they have choices, and that they can enjoy their bodies however they like with consent.
And so, the podcast is filled with thoughtful, radical conversations about pleasure, agency, and the racialized sexual body. Take Back Pleasure’s breadth of conversations covers the post-colonial projections of shame to the good/bad binary representations of kink, racialized understanding of desirability, queer awakenings, and intersectionality in queer spaces, porn, domination, submission, and power.
Nyra and Tandile are adding to the expanding conversation on pleasure activism, or pleasure justice, a term created by Black writer and social justice facilitator adrienne maree brown. Pleasure activism asks: “How can we tap into our emotional and erotic desires to organize against oppression?” By tying racial justice to the right to joy and pleasure, finding collective liberation within personal liberation, questioning the politics behind fantasies, and being in conversation with the self, pleasure activism seeks to find an answer.
Beyond the intellectualizing, philosophizing, and theorizing about their bodies, Nyra and Tandile are making space to laugh with each other about the absurdities of sexual life. Hence, the vaginal wash rant, the flavored condoms taste test (banana split was the surprising favorite), kinky “Would You Rather?”, recalling the days of under-the-covers Twilight fanfiction, the trials and tribulations of Hinge, and answering the proverbial Short King Question (How short is too short? Conversely: How tall is too tall?).
It helps, of course, that Nyra and Tandile do not only imagine sex differently, they also imagine community and friendship differently. Throughout our conversation, they reiterated that while their sexual relationships were fascinating to them, friendship is the primary relationship in their lives. At the end of the day, Nyra and Tandile hope to find love within their found families outside of the heterosexual models of partnership: the kind of love they practice with each other as they share literally every thought that goes through their brain and become each other's “emotional safe haven.” In a society that is increasingly nonchalant, numb, and emotionally distant, it becomes difficult to connect with people in ways that don’t feel self-effacing. When sex becomes a transactional language that governs our interactions with others, friendship, love, and community becomes the language of resistance.
Nyra envisions her future home to be somewhere in Brooklyn, maybe Bed-Stuy. She writes; she’s a storyteller. There's a 3-D scan of her vaginal canal that she hung up and her wall as art (because it is!), and 90s rap, her favorite genre, blasts from a speaker system. Not a drop of Summer’s Eve is to be seen. She lives with her friends and has deep relationships with all of them, approaches her relationships with intentionality, and laughs all the time. “It takes work for Black women because we don’t have that outside of our community,” Tandile asserted. “We are all we’ve got.”