The Strong, Silent (Gender) Type: The Strong Black Woman Ideal, Self-Silencing, and Sexual Assertiveness in Black College Women

February 3, 2022

by Lanice R. Avery

Archives of Sexual Behavior (2022)Cite this article


Women are socialized to endorse femininity scripts mandating that they prioritize others’ needs and engage in self-silencing behaviors. Further, Black women may also endorse the strong Black woman (SBW) ideal, by which they are expected to selflessly meet the needs of their family and community and, as such, may embrace self-silencing in their interpersonal relationships. In a sample of 597 Black undergraduate and graduate college women, we tested whether: (1) self-silencing and SBW ideal endorsement would be independently, inversely associated with three dimensions of sexual assertiveness–communication assertiveness, refusal assertiveness, and pleasure-focused assertiveness; and (2) the association between self-silencing and sexual assertiveness would be stronger among Black women who endorse the SBW ideal. Correlational and regression analyses revealed that self-silencing was negatively linked to all dimensions of sexual assertiveness; SBW ideal endorsement was associated with lower levels of communication and pleasure-focused assertiveness. As expected, SBW ideal endorsement moderated the association between Black women’s engagement in self-silencing and two dimensions of sexual assertiveness. Self-silencing was associated with less communication and pleasure-focused assertiveness regardless of their level of SBW endorsement. Findings highlight the complexities of Black women’s desire to fulfill expectations to be strong, assertive, and/or compliant and silent. Interventions to promote Black women’s sexual health should address sexual assertiveness and feminine silencing norms.

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The social construction of hegemonic femininity includes beliefs and cultural scripts that provide and prescribe norms regarding the appropriateness of social behavior. These restrictive norms emphasize for women the importance of nurturance, emotionality, communality, and modesty (Mahalik et al., 2005). Dominant gender prescriptions for women’s behavior also extend into the domain of sexuality and link femininity with self-silencing, sexual passivity, submission, and naivety (Eaton & Matamala, 2014; Sanchez et al., 2012). Endorsing these feminine norms may jeopardize women’s ability to express sexual agency, emphasize sexual self-expression, prioritize their own sexual pleasure, avoid harm and displeasure, and connect with their sense of sexual self (Curtin et al., 2011; Eaton & Matamala, 2014; Lentz & Zaikman, 2021). However, the connections between Black women’s unique experiences of self-silencing and their sexual assertiveness have been understudied. In particular, Black women are socialized to endorse the strong Black woman (SBW) ideal, by which they are expected to be selfless caretakers who prioritize the needs of their family and community above their own (Woods-Giscombé, 2010). These two ideals are similar in some respects but differ in others. How does Black women’s efforts to conform to both hegemonic femininity norms of self-silencing and SBW ideals contribute to their sexual assertiveness? We seek to address that question in the current study.

Self-Silencing as a Liability to Sexuality

Within heterosexual relationships, one means by which women enact hegemonic gender expectations is self-silencing—or suppressing one’s personal voice and opinions (Abrams et al., 2019; Harper et al., 2006; Jack, 1991; Jack & Dill, 1992). Instead of expressing their own needs, women who self-silence may prioritize the emotional and sexual desires of their partners. Recent studies have shown that self-silencing can undermine women’s ability to act with agency in their sexual experiences (Eaton & Matamala, 2014; Kiefer & Sanchez, 2007; Sanchez et al., 2012). For example, using in a predominantly White and Latina sample of 12th grade girls, Impett et al. (2006) demonstrated that more frequent practices of self-silencing were associated with reduced sexual self-efficacy, which, in turn, predicted less sexual experience and contraceptive use. Similarly, testing a sample of predominantly White and Asian undergraduate women, Curtin et al. (2011) found that self-silencing was related to decreased body esteem during sex, lowered sexual assertiveness, and reduced condom use self-efficacy. Thus, it appears that self-silencing poses challenges to women’s sexual authenticity and autonomy.

Notably, much of the aforementioned research investigating the consequences of self-silencing behaviors on sexual well-being has relied on predominantly young, White female samples. Little is known about how these associations hold for Black women in college, and previous analyses of self-silencing for Black women (e.g., Abrams et al., 2019) have not tested whether it is related to sexual agency or well-being.

The Strong Black Woman Ideal

In addition to negotiating the larger culture’s femininity norms for self-silencing, Black women are socialized to endorse the Strong Black Woman (SBW) ideal, a complex set of cultural expectations prescribing that Black women exhibit resilience, independence, emotional strength, and stoicism, particularly in service to their family and community (Abrams et al., 20142019; Jones et al., 2021; Watson & Hunter, 2016). The SBW ideal developed in Black communities to counteract the pervasive negative stereotypes of Black women and to recognize the real attributes that are necessary to ensure the survival of the Black community in the context of race- and gender-based oppression, disenfranchisement, and systemic violence (Watson & Hunter, 2016; Woods-Giscombé, 2010). Black women may endorse the SBW ideal as a survival tool and a coping strategy. For Black women, exuding strength while concealing pain is a behavioral mandate that is often lauded and rewarded both within Black communities and the larger society (Abrams et al., 2019; Woods-Giscombé, 2010).

Although there may be some protective factors associated with Black women’s endorsement of the SBW ideal, it is another mechanism by which Black women are socialized to normalize and embrace practices of self-silencing in interpersonal relationships. To embody the SBW ideal, Black women must mask their true emotions, needs, pain, and discomfort (Abrams et al., 2019; Beauboeuf-Lafontant, 2007; Watson & Hunter, 2016; Woods-Giscombé, 2010). Moreover, the principal characteristics of the SBW are the perceived obligation to suppress fear and weakness, and a selfless willingness to meet the needs of family members and intimate partners, despite any obstacles or personal costs (Abrams et al., 2014; Beauboeuf-Lafontant, 2007; Woods-Giscombé, 2010). As such, endorsement of the SBW ideal may be adversely related to Black women’s sexual well-being. If Black women endorse the aspects of SBW that emphasize self-sacrifice and refraining from expressing ones needs, desires, and pain, then this cultural ideology may present a critical obstacle to Black women’s ability to assert and advocate for themselves in sexual situations.

Exploring Contributions to Sexual Assertiveness

Given past research painting self-silencing as a detriment to women’s mental and sexual well-being (Abrams et al., 2019; Impett et al., 2006), it is possible that endorsing the SBW ideal, which also calls for self-silencing and self-sacrifice, may also limit Black women’s ability to demonstrate sexual assertiveness. Sexual assertiveness includes: (a) the ability to communicate sexual likes and dislikes to intimate partners, (b) concentration on one’s own pleasure during intimacy, and (c) direct sexual activity in a manner that ensures one’s desires and/or needs are met, including active initiation and/or refusal of sexual activity (Hurlbert, 1991; Loshek & Terrell, 2015; Morokoff et al., 1997). Women demonstrate sexual assertiveness when they take responsibility for and control over their sexual experience (e.g., pleasure and physical and/or reproductive safety) and moves away from the idea that sex is centered around the male orgasm by asserting their own sexual needs during sexual encounters (Lentz & Zaikman, 2021; Livingston et al., 2007; Morokoff et al., 1997). Sexual assertiveness is a multidimensional construct (e.g., Morokoff et al., 1997; Quina et al., 2000; Santos-Iglesias et al., 2013). As such, we speculate that examining sexual assertiveness in a nuanced way may help us to better understand the emotional, cognitive, and behavioral factors that influence an individual’s ability to effectively communicate her sexual needs to an intimate partner.

A woman’s ability to effectively communicate her sexual beliefs and desires is a necessary step toward the development and achievement of healthy sexual intimacy and may serve as a protective factor against sexual victimization and coerced sexual contact (Darden et al., 2019; Kelley et al., 2016; Loshek & Terrell, 2015). Taking an assertive stance during sexual intimacy is not a skill regularly taught to women, and it requires that women eschew their reliance on dominant sexual scripts that suggest it is solely a man’s prerogative to direct sexual activity (Eaton & Matamala, 2014; Morokoff et al., 1997; Sanchez et al., 2012). As such, sexual assertiveness may make safety and sexual pleasure possible for women (Darden et al., 2019; Lentz & Zaikman, 2021; Livingston et al., 2007), and it is directly related to relationship satisfaction, power, duration, and sexual satisfaction (Hurlbert, 1991; Morokoff et al., 1997). Highly sexually assertive women have reported greater subjective desire, have higher frequencies of sexual activity and orgasm, and have experienced greater relationship and sexual satisfaction (Brassard et al., 2015; Hurlbert, 1991). Furthermore, women who perceive themselves to be highly sexually assertive have also reported better sexual communication, fewer risky sexual behaviors, and improved sexual functioning (Greene & Faulkner, 2005; Quina et al., 2000; Santos-Iglesias et al., 2013).

Despite the identification of sexual assertiveness as a critical dimension of women’s sexual well-being, less is known about the contexts surrounding its construction and the conditions of its expression. Instead, much of the literature has focused exclusively on its relationship to sexual risk taking, such as engaging in unsafe or unwanted sexual activity and inconsistent contraceptive use (for example, see Darden et al., 2019; Stokes & Brody, 2019). Previous research often creates and reinforces idealized representations of sexual “agents” as “young, White, affluent, attractive, and able-bodied women” who are viewed, exclusively, as having the capacity to engage in sexually assertive behaviors (Bay-Cheng, 2019, p. 466). However, there is a growing body of literature that has centered Black women’s experiences of sexual assertiveness and has emphasized the importance of racialized gender role expectations for Black women’s sexual agency. Black women with more positive gendered racial identity beliefs have reported greater levels of sexual assertiveness (Leath et al., 2021). In contrast, Black women’s endorsement of traditional gender and sexual roles and hegemonic feminine appearance standards has been associated with lower levels of sexual assertiveness (Avery et al., 2021; Brown et al., 2018; Ward et al., 2019). Considering these associations, how might other aspects of Black women’s gendered racial feminine behavioral expectations contribute to their levels of sexual assertiveness?

Current Study

Our research examined how practices of self-silencing and endorsement of the SBW ideal are related to Black women’s ability to exhibit sexually assertive behavior. To better understand the dimensions of sexual assertiveness (Morokoff et al., 1997; Quina et al., 2000; Santos-Iglesias et al., 2013), we conducted an exploratory factor analysis of a common scale for this construct and then tested for contributions of feminine self-silencing norms and SBW endorsement to the individual factors emerging. We tested the following hypotheses:

Hypothesis 1

Higher endorsement of self-silencing would be associated with lower levels of the sexual assertiveness dimensions.

Hypothesis 2

Higher endorsement of the SBW ideal would be associated with lower levels of the sexual assertiveness dimensions.

Hypothesis 3

SBW ideal endorsement would moderate the associations between self-silencing and the sexual assertiveness dimensions, such that the negative association of self-silencing on assertiveness would be exacerbated for Black women who had higher endorsement of the SBW ideal.

We expected that Black women’s sexual assertiveness would be associated with sociodemographic factors, such as age, sexual experience, religiosity, socioeconomic status (SES), and racial identity, and so we controlled for these variables in the analyses. Age is associated with sexual satisfaction and well-being, which are important elements of sexuality that may be particularly salient among women in adolescence or emerging adulthood (Carcedo et al., 2020; Impett et al., 2006; Smith et al., 2019). Sexual experience is associated with greater sexual assertiveness and better sexual self-concept (Morokoff, 1997; Zimmer-Gembeck & French, 2016). Organized religious involvement may influence women’s sexual assertiveness (Curtin et al., 2011; Daniluk, 1993). For Black women in particular, religiosity may hinder their sexual agency by fostering increased feelings of shame and guilt and decreasing their ability to communicate about their sexuality (Rouse-Arnett et al., 2006). Furthermore, lower SES among Black women is associated with increased sexual violence and victimization (Benson et al., 2003; Russo et al., 1997). Finally, Black women’s positive connection to their gendered racial identity is associated with greater sexual assertiveness and satisfaction (Leath et al., 2021).


Participants and Procedure

Participants (N = 597) were recruited from two college campuses in the USA. University 1 (n = 374) is a large, predominately White, Midwestern public university (i.e., predominantly White institution; PWI). University 2 (n = 235) is a small, historically Black, Southeastern, public university (i.e., historically Black college or university; HBCU). Women in this study were self-identified Black/African-American undergraduate and graduate students with a mean age of 21.59 (SD = 3.80). Data from this study are part of a larger survey and have been used in analyses of different constructs (Jerald et al., 2017; Ward et al., 2019).

Students at both sites were selected to participate in the study using demographic information provided by each university’s Office of the Registrar. At University 1, the Office of the Registrar sent recruitment invitations directly to a random sample of currently enrolled students that self-identified as a Black/African-American woman via email. At University 2, researchers sent recruitment emails to a random sample of students matching the inclusion criteria based on Registrar’s data. The recruitment email invited students to participate in a study that examined the health and well-being of Black women by taking an hour-long, anonymous, online survey. All participants were compensated with a $25 VISA gift card.

Although most of the sample identified as Black/African-American (81.3%), another 10.7% identified as Bi-/Multiracial, 2.7% as African, 1.9% as West Indian/Caribbean, 1.4% as Afro-Latina (e.g., South or Central American, Dominican, Puerto Rican), and 1.9% as Other. The young women sampled came from relatively well-educated backgrounds. Nearly a quarter (23.2%) of their mothers had completed Bachelor’s degrees, and another 18.5% earned a graduate or professional degree; 16.5% of their fathers earned a Bachelor’s degree, and another 14.7% of their fathers earned graduate or professional degrees. In response to an item about sexual experiences, sexual orientation, and sexual attraction that included six response options, 93.1% of participants described their sexual experiences as exclusively or predominantly heterosexual. In a separate item, participants represented a range of sexual experience levels, with 72.7% of the sample indicating that they had engaged in vaginal intercourse. Of those with coital experience, 33.6% reported having more than five lifetime sexual partners.



To assess the extent to which adult women inhibit their self-expression and actions in the service of avoiding conflict and the possible loss of their romantic relationships, we used the 9-item Silencing the Self subscale of the Silencing the Self Scale (STSS; Jack, 1991; Jack & Dill, 1992). Participants rated their agreement with items using a 5-point scale ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree). Sample items included, “I don’t speak my feelings in an intimate relationship when I know they will cause disagreement” and “I try to bury my feelings when they will cause trouble in close relationships.” The STSS has demonstrated good internal consistency in samples of undergraduate women, broadly (Watson & Grotewiel, 2016), and Black college-aged women, specifically (Stokes & Brody, 2019). In this study, the scale had high reliability (α = 0.86). Mean scores were computed such that higher scores indicated more frequent engagement in self-silencing behavior.

Strong Black Woman Ideal Endorsement

SBW ideal endorsement was measured using the 9-item embodiment subscale of Thomas’ (2006) Strong Black Woman Scale. Participants were asked to indicate the extent to which they endorse SBW principles, such as appearing independent, refusing to show vulnerability, and prioritizing others’ needs over their own. Sample items include “It is difficult for me to ask for help, even when I need it” and “As a Black woman, it is important that I never show vulnerability or cry when I feel hurt.” Responses were made on a 5-point scale (1 = strongly disagree to 5 = strongly agree). A mean score was computed across the items, such that higher scores indicate greater endorsement of the SBW ideal. The scale demonstrated good internal consistency in this study (α = 0.77) and in a prior study among a sample of 412 young Black women (Stanton et al., 2017).

Because the Strong Black Woman Scale (Thomas, 2006) is an unpublished measure, we conducted an exploratory factor analysis using a principal axis factor extraction to examine the structure of the 9-item embodiment subscale. Bartlett’s test of sphericity was significant (χ2χ2(36) = 1445.94, p < .001) and the Kaiser–Meyer–Olkin measure of sampling adequacy was high (KMO = 0.88), which indicated that it was appropriate to proceed with the factor analysis on this set of data. To decide how many factors to extract, we reviewed the eigenvalues of the correlation matrix and plotted the eigenvalues as a scree plot. The scree plot and the rule of Kaiser (1960) (eigenvalues > 1) revealed one factor. Therefore, we extracted one factor, and for interpretation of the factor (eigenvalue = 3.77), a Promax oblique rotation was used (Watkins, 2018). The factor explained 35.06% of the variance, and all items except for one loaded relatively highly (i.e., > 0.40) on the factor. Overall, loadings ranged from 0.38 to 0.66, and we retained all 9 items when we computed the scale score. Descriptive statistics, communalities, and individual item loadings are available upon request from the corresponding author.

Sexual Assertiveness

Two measures were used to assess the three dimensions of sexual assertiveness. One measure, a modified version of the 25-item Hurlbert Index of Sexual Assertiveness (HISA; Hurlbert, 1991), assessed participants’ levels of communication and sexual refusal assertiveness experienced in a sexual context with a typical partner on a 5-point scale anchored by 1 (never) and 5 (all of the time). Initial reliability reported by Hurlbert (1991) was comparable to the reliability of the HISA in a sample of 631 Black undergraduate students (Fletcher et al., 2015). Sexual assertiveness is theorized to be multidimensional (see Morokoff et al., 1997; Quina et al., 2000; Santos-Iglesias et al., 2013), and as such, the current study aimed to empirically test this assumption among Black women. However, to our knowledge, the commonly used HISA (Hurlbert, 1991) has only been used previously to provide a one-dimensional measure of sexual assertiveness.

To assess dimensionality and to investigate the number of constructs and structure of the 25-item HISA, we conducted an exploratory factor analysis using a principal axis factor extraction. First, negatively worded items were reverse-scored. Bartlett’s test of sphericity was significant (χ2χ2(300) = 5393.09, p < .001), indicating that it was appropriate to use the factor analytic model on this set of data. The Kaiser–Meyer–Olkin measure of sampling adequacy indicated that the strength of the relationships among variables was high (KMO = 0.92) and thus acceptable to proceed with the analysis.

The exploratory factor analysis yielded a two-factor solution in which the first factor explained 31.49% of the variance and the second factor explained 13.33% of the variance. The location of the elbow in the scree plot and the rule of Kaiser (1960) (eigenvalues > 1) revealed two components. To optimize psychometric properties, items were retained only if they had high loadings (i.e., > 0.40) on one factor and low cross-loadings; there were 21 items loading 0.40 or higher on one factor and four items were eliminated. (A table illustrating the two-factor model, with associated items, loadings, descriptive statistics, and communalities is available upon request from the corresponding author.)

For interpretation of the two factors, a Promax oblique rotation was used (Watkins, 2018). Each dimension in the two-factor solution was theoretically consistent with the sexual assertiveness literature. Factor 1, Sexual Communication Assertiveness (eigenvalue = 8.28), included 16 items with loadings ranging from 0.46 to 0.79; a sample item is “I communicate my sexual desires to my partner.” Factor 2, Sexual Refusal Assertiveness (eigenvalue = 3.83), included 5 items with loadings ranging from 0.49 to 0.57 and included items such as “I find myself doing sexual things I do not like” (reverse coded). Participants were asked to indicate their level of agreement with each of the statements using a 5-point scale anchored by 1 (never) and 5 (all of the time). Participants were also given the option to respond N/A if they felt that an item or experience was not applicable. N/A was recoded as missing and excluded from mean score calculations. Mean scores were calculated for each participant such that higher scores indicated greater levels of communication and sexual refusal assertiveness with a typical partner. The subscales of the HISA demonstrated good internal consistency in this diverse sample of Black college women: sexual communication assertiveness (α = 0.92) and sexual refusal assertiveness (α = 0.78).

Because the HISA subscales do not ask participants about agency associated with pleasure, we supplemented this scale using the 4-item Entitlement to Sexual Pleasure Scale (Day, 2010) to assess participants’ self-reported sexual pleasure-focused assertiveness. Similar to HISA, participants were asked to indicate their level of agreement with each of the four statements using a 5-point scale anchored by 1 (never) and 5 (all of the time). Sample items included, “I attempt to achieve orgasm during my sexual encounters” and “I feel entitled to sexual pleasure.” A mean score was computed across the items, such that higher scores indicated greater levels of pleasure-focused assertiveness with a typical partner. In this sample, the scale demonstrated good internal consistency (α = 0.86).

Control Variables


Participants were asked to indicate their level of religiosity and participation in organized religious involvement via two questions: (1) “How religious are you?”; and (2) “How often do you attend religious services?” Responses were provided on a 5-point scale anchored by 1 (never/not at all) and 5 (very or very regularly). A mean score was computed across the two items to produce a religiosity score for each participant, and the scale demonstrated high internal consistency (α = 0.85).

Sexual Experience

Participants’ sexual experience was assessed by their response to the following open-ended question: “How many total vaginal intercourse partners have you had?” Descriptive statistics are provided in Table 1.

Table 1 Descriptives of femininity silencing norms, sexual assertiveness, and demographic variables

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Socioeconomic Status (SES)

Mother’s level of education was used as a proxy for SES (see Anyiwo et al., 2018) and was assessed via the following item: “What is the highest level of education reached by your mother?” Responses were measured using a scale anchored by 1 (a few years of high school) and 10 (Ph.D.). Higher scores indicated a presumed higher socioeconomic class status (see Table 1).

Racial Identity

We used the Racial Centrality subscale of a shortened version of the Multidimensional Inventory of Black Identity (MIBI-S; Martin et al., 2010) to assess how much participants felt that being Black/African-American was an integral part of their self-image. Participants were asked to rate the extent to which they agreed or disagreed with items such as “I have a strong attachment to other Black people” and “Being Black is an important reflection of who I am” using a 7-point Likert-type scale anchored by 1 (strongly disagree) and 7 (strongly agree). Mean scores across the four items were created such that higher scores indicate higher levels of racial centrality (Table 1). The scale demonstrated good internal consistency (α = 0.86).


Preliminary Analyses

We examined descriptive statistics for the self-silencing, SBW ideal endorsement, sexual assertiveness, and demographic variables (Table 1). Participants reported low levels of self-silencing and moderate endorsement of the SBW ideal. Concerning the sexual assertiveness dimensions, women reported moderately high mean scores on all three dimensions.

We tested whether the two subsamples differed on the self-silencing, SBW ideal endorsement, sexual assertiveness, and demographic variables. We conducted a series of independent samples t tests comparing the scores of the PWI participants to those of the HBCU participants. Subsample means and statistics are provided in Table 1. The HBCU sample reported higher religiosity and stronger racial identity.

To investigate associations between the potential control variables and sexual assertiveness, a series of zero-order correlations were run between the three sexual assertiveness variables and the following set of demographic factors: age, sexual experience, sexual orientation (via a 0/1 dummy code whereby 1 = predominately or exclusively gay; Holland, 2020), SES (i.e., maternal education level), religiosity, racial identity, and school. Results are presented in Table 2. Religiosity was significantly correlated with higher communication assertiveness, higher SES was associated with lower pleasure-focused assertiveness, and stronger racial identity was correlated with stronger pleasure-focused assertiveness. We included age, sexual experience (given its strong theoretical link to sexual assertiveness), religiosity, SES, racial identity, and academic institution as controls in the subsequent analyses.

Table 2 Intercorrelations among demographic covariates, femininity silencing norms, and sexual assertiveness dimensions

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Testing the Main Hypotheses

To examine whether self-silencing and SBW ideal endorsement were associated with sexual assertiveness, we conducted hierarchical multiple regressions for each of our three outcome variables: communication assertiveness, refusal assertiveness, and pleasure-focused assertiveness. The demographic controls were entered on the first step, and self-silencing and SBW ideal endorsement were entered on the second step. To test the final hypothesis, concerning whether SBW ideal endorsement moderated the influence of self-silencing on sexual assertiveness, we used Hayes’s (2012) SPSS PROCESS macro (Model 1) to test for moderation. Predictors were mean-centered (Aiken & West, 1991), and the two-way interaction term for the self-silencing and SBW ideal endorsement variables was entered on the final step of the regression. Results are provided in Table 3.

Table 3 Hierarchical multiple regression analyses of sexual assertiveness dimensions on femininity silencing norms

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H1 tested whether higher endorsement of self-silencing would be associated with lower levels of communication assertiveness, refusal assertiveness, and pleasure-focused assertiveness. H1 was supported, as higher endorsement of self-silencing was associated with lower scores on each of the sexual assertiveness dimensions (Table 3).

H2 tested whether higher endorsement of the SBW ideal would be associated with lower levels of communication assertiveness, refusal assertiveness, and pleasure-focused assertiveness. H2 was partially supported, as higher endorsement of the SBW ideal was associated with less communication and refusal assertiveness. However, SBW ideal endorsement was not significantly associated with pleasure-focused assertiveness (Table 3).

H3 tested whether SBW ideal endorsement would moderate the associations between self-silencing and the sexual assertiveness dimensions, such that these associations would be stronger for Black women who had higher endorsement of the SBW ideal. The interactions accounted for 21% of the variance in communication assertiveness F(9, 347) = 10.59, p < .001, R2 = 0.21) and 9% of the variance in pleasure-focused assertiveness, F(9, 347) = 3.69, p < .001, R2 = 0.09). Findings revealed that, although SBW ideal endorsement did not moderate the effects of self-silencing on refusal assertiveness, SBW did moderate the effects of self-silencing on communication assertiveness (β = 0.11, p < .05) and pleasure-focused assertiveness (β = 0.15, p < .05).

The interactions were plotted and probed by testing the conditional effects of self-silencing at two levels for SBW ideal endorsement, one standard deviation above and below the mean (Dawson, 2014; see Figs. 1 and 2). Simple slope tests were conducted to provide further interpretation of the interaction effects (Aiken & West, 1991; Cohen & Cohen, 1983). Results showed that among those who had low SBW ideal endorsement, self-silencing was significantly related to both communication assertiveness, t(347) = − 7.67, ββ = − 0.41, p < .001, and pleasure-focused assertiveness, t(347) = − 4.78, ββ = − 0.32, p < .001. Similarly, among those who had high SBW ideal endorsement, self-silencing was significantly related to both communication assertiveness, t(347) = − 4.62, ββ =  − 0.29, p < .001, and pleasure-focused assertiveness, t(347) = − 2.12, ββ = − 0.17, p < .05. In short, whether women were high or low in SBW endorsement, self-silencing was associated with less communication and pleasure-focused assertiveness. However, this association was stronger for women low in SBW endorsement compared to those who were high in SBW (see Figs. 1 and 2). Therefore, H3 was partially supported.

Fig. 1


figure 1

The interaction between self-silencing and strong Black woman ideal endorsement on sexual communication assertiveness

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Fig. 2


figure 2

The interaction between self-silencing and strong Black woman ideal endorsement on pleasure-focused assertiveness

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Idealized representations of Black women are characterized by strength, independence, and resilience. At the same time, all women in the USA encounter hegemonic feminine prescriptions that emphasize communality, passivity, submission, and emotionality. Adherence to these gendered expectations may undermine sexual autonomy (Bay-Cheng, 2019; Curtin et al., 2011; Stokes & Brody, 2019). To what extent do Black women endorse these femininity scripts, and how might these belief systems inform their experiences of self-advocacy and pleasure during sex? We examined associations between self-silencing and SBW ideal endorsement with three components of sexual assertiveness to answer these questions. We hypothesized that young Black women’s high engagement in self-silencing and endorsement of the SBW ideal would be associated with lower levels of sexual assertiveness. We also expected moderation such that SBW endorsement would exacerbate the negative association of self-silencing and assertiveness. These hypotheses were supported.

Overall, our results indicated that high endorsement of self-silencing was associated with lower levels of communication, refusal, and pleasure-focused assertiveness. Women’s high SBW ideal endorsement was associated with lower levels of communication and refusal assertiveness. Additionally, we found SBW ideal endorsement exacerbated the negative relationship between self-silencing and sexual agency and some dimensions of their sexual assertiveness, specifically communication and pleasure-focused assertiveness.

These findings are somewhat unsurprising given that both self-silencing and the SBW ideal prescribe “lady-like” bedroom behaviors (e.g., prioritization of partner, self-sacrifice, and communality), which have been shown to be associated with women’s decreased sexual agency (Harper et al., 2006; Impett et al., 2006; Jack, 1991). Nevertheless, our empirical evidence demonstrating the associations between sociocultural pressures to perform self-sacrificial displays of stoicism/strength and reduced sexual agency among young Black women is both novel and notable.

Associations with Sexual Assertiveness

Our findings supported our predictions that restrictive gendered expectations for women, self-silencing and SBW ideal endorsement, are independently associated with lower levels of communication assertiveness during sex. Additionally, there was a significant two-way interaction between the feminine silencing norms, such that SBW ideal endorsement moderated the relation between self-silencing and communication assertiveness. Thus, among women who had low and high levels of SBW endorsement, those who engaged in high self-silencing reported significantly lower communication assertiveness than those who engaged in low self-silencing, and this association was exacerbated for those low in SBW. Consistent with prior research that links self-silencing with lower reported sexual communication (Widman et al., 2006), women who highly endorse feminine self-silencing norms may be more likely to adhere to hegemonic gender prescriptions that emphasize the importance of women performing communality, passivity, and compliance during sex. In this way, it is not surprising that women who avoid violating femininity expectations through self-silencing may be especially poor at communicating their needs and desires during sex.

Additionally, our results indicated that both self-silencing and SBW ideal endorsement are inversely related to refusal assertiveness such that endorsement of these restrictive prescriptions is negatively associated with Black women’s ability to reject unwanted or unsafe intimate advances during partnered sexual activity. Consistent with prior studies that used predominantly White samples, such as Impett et al. (2006) and Curtin et al. (2011), we found that Black women also engage in silencing practices to avoid conflict and rejection in their relationships and that doing so may undermine their ability to refuse unwanted and/or unsafe sex. Our findings extend this work by spotlighting the ways that Black women’s negotiation of culturally specific femininity prescriptions like the SBW ideal may also negatively influence their capacity to stand up for themselves in the bedroom. This is an influence that should not be understated when discussing the contributing role of gender-typing on Black women’s sexual agency.

Interpersonal concerns like maintaining a relationship and fear of negative partner responses may preclude women’s prioritization of their own sexual needs (Quina et al., 2000). If femininity scripts and hetero-normative gender-based sexual roles prescribe that women should be primarily attuned to the needs of their partners, then these relational expectations may challenge women’s ability to prioritize their own pleasure and well-being during sex. Drawing upon this literature, and similar to our findings concerning sexual communication assertiveness, women’s endorsement of self-silencing was associated with lower levels of pleasure-focused assertiveness. Contrary to our expectations, SBW ideal endorsement was not independently associated with decreased ability to assert one’s desires during sex. However, SBW ideal endorsement moderated the relation between self-silencing and pleasure-focused assertiveness. Thus, among women who had low and high levels of SBW ideal endorsement, those who engaged in high self-silencing reported significantly lower levels of pleasure-focused assertiveness than those who engaged in low self-silencing, and this association was exacerbated for women low in SBW.

Overall, our findings are consistent with prior studies (e.g., Impett et al., 2006) that show frequent engagement in practices of self-silencing in relationships may be associated with women’s decreased ability to express their authentic thoughts and feelings about sexual issues during sex. However, this study provides a notable, empirical contribution by centering Black women, deconstructing sexual assertiveness, and examining the independent and interactive effects of SBW ideal endorsement on their sexual assertiveness. This study suggests that for young Black women, hegemonic and culturally specific femininity prescriptions work together to blunt their ability to advocate for their own sexual well-being and pleasure.

Limitations and Suggestions for Future Directions

This study used a cross-sectional research design, which prohibits our ability to determine a causal direction. Although it is possible that lower levels of self-silencing and SBW ideal endorsement may lead to increased perceived or actual ability to express sexual assertiveness, the inverse relation may also be true. Future research should use a longitudinal design to assess whether relations among self-silencing, the SBW ideal, and sexual assertiveness are stable across age, experience, and partnership contexts (such as casual versus long-term partnerships).

Second, previous literature suggests that Black women’s relationships to their own sociosexual vulnerability may have influenced their participation in our study. Black women in this study may have been more reluctant to report information about their sexual thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in order to avoid contributing to the proliferation of negative stereotypes depicting Black women as hypersexual Jezebels (Leath et al., 2021). Furthermore, studies among Black adolescents have showed that data on sexually assertive behaviors may be particularly sensitive to social desirability bias (Sionéan et al., 2002); future studies should continue to consider participants’ concerns regarding sensitive items inquiring about their sexual desires and practices to improve our capacity to quantitatively examine Black women’s sexual well-being.

A third limitation is our measurement of Black women’s SBW ideal endorsement. Although the Strong Black Woman Scale (Thomas, 2006) demonstrated good reliability and validity in the current study, it has yet to be formally validated. As such, future studies should consider employing model-based measurement techniques drawn from item response theory to further examine the validity of the Strong Black Woman Scale (Embretson & Reise, 2000).

Our findings are limited by the relative homogeneity of our sample across age and sexual orientation. Given that a majority of the sample identified as young, Black heterosexual women, we were unable to examine and compare the experiences of sexually minoritized Black women. To better capture Black women’s multidimensional experiences of their sexual well-being, future studies should employ targeted recruitment strategies to obtain a more demographically diverse sample, including lesbian, bisexual, gender non-conforming, and trans* identified women.

Finally, critical sexuality researchers have articulated the need for more robust conceptual analyses of constructs like sexual agency and assertiveness that interrogate its limitations and boundaries in the context of heterosexual interactions (see Bay-Cheng, 2019; Fahs & McClelland, 2016). Specifically, these scholars have critiqued how sexual assertiveness has been conceptualized and measured in ways that conflate high levels of agency with better decision-making and health outcomes. Further, they argue that these limited conceptualizations that treat sexual responsibility, resistance, and control as proxies for empowerment and health fail to intervene upon the restrictive, hegemonic sexual performance expectations that women face (Bay-Cheng, 2019; Fahs & McClelland, 2016). Moreover, current measures do not account for how sexual desire, pleasure, behavior, and consent are multidimensional and context-dependent (Bay-Cheng, 2019). Future research should utilize a more refined set of measures to assess the ways that Black women’s self-silencing behaviors impact their experiences of sexual intent, consent, communication, boundary setting, wantedness, and pleasure-seeking.

Implications for Practice

Young women in general may lose their voices in the face of dominant femininity scripts and may lose track of their authentic emotional responses to sexuality based on external pressures to conform to gendered sexual norms. Many young Black women endorse hegemonic femininity ideologies that encourage self-silencing as an intimate relationship optimization and maintenance strategy. They are also socialized to uphold the SBW ideal, which explicitly emphasizes the importance of self-sacrifice and self-silencing in interpersonal relationships. Our findings highlight the independent and joint influence of self-silencing and SBW ideal endorsement on Black women’s sexual well-being.

Findings from this study have important implications for prevention. Interventions designed to improve Black women’s capacity to assert themselves during sex must also consider how to enhance their ability to resist internalizing restrictive gendered expectations to prioritize the well-being of others by sacrificing and silencing themselves. Black women’s ability to effectively refuse unwanted and/or unsafe sex may help reduce their experiences of sexual coercion, victimization, and infection with sexually transmitted diseases (CDC, 2019; Smith et al., 2018). Such interventions may be particularly beneficial for female college students who may have less experience with sex and who experience high rates of sexual aggression and coercion (Darden et al., 2019). Additional research is needed to examine these possibilities. Much remains to be understood about the mechanisms by which sexual assertiveness is developed and enacted; our findings highlight some overarching liabilities and possibilities that are intimately tied to Black women’s desire to fulfill social expectations to be strong and compliant (or silent).


The current study discussed how Black women are socialized to endorse femininity scripts that prescribe self-silencing behaviors in interpersonal relationships and extends the literature by examining how Black women’s endorsement of these scripts (i.e., self-silencing and SBW ideal) influences three dimensions of their sexual assertiveness—communication assertiveness, refusal assertiveness, and pleasure-focused assertiveness. This study highlights the nuance with which Black women contend with gendered sexual norms. Findings identify Black women’s engagement in self-silencing and endorsement of the SBW ideal are related to their ability to communicate their sexual needs and desires, experience sexual pleasure, and prioritize their safety.


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This study was funded by the University of Michigan Office of Research (UMOR) and PI discretionary funds. This research was also supported by a Ford Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship to Lanice R. Avery.

Author information


  1. Departments of Psychology and Women, Gender, and Sexuality, University of Virginia, PO Box 400400, Charlottesville, VA, 22904-4400, USA

    Lanice R. Avery

  2. Department of Psychology, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA, USA

    Alexis G. Stanton

  3. Department of Psychology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, USA

    L. Monique Ward & Sarah L. Trinh

  4. Departments of Women’s Studies, Psychology, and Afroamerican & African Studies, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, USA

    Elizabeth R. Cole

  5. Department of Psychology, Macalester College, Saint Paul, MN, USA

    Morgan C. Jerald


All authors contributed to the study conception and design. Material preparation, data collection, and analysis were performed by LRA, AGS, LMW, ERC, and MCJ. The first draft of the manuscript was written by LRA, and all authors commented on previous versions of the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Lanice R. Avery.

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Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.

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The questionnaire and methodology for this study was approved by the Health Sciences and Behavioral Sciences Institutional Review Board of the University of Michigan (IRB Study ID: HUM00068279).

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Avery, L.R., Stanton, A.G., Ward, L.M. et al. The Strong, Silent (Gender) Type: The Strong Black Woman Ideal, Self-Silencing, and Sexual Assertiveness in Black College Women. Arch Sex Behav (2022).

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  • Gender roles
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  • Strong Black woman ideal
  • Self-silencing

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