OK, so maybe it's been a little more than a decade since I first started having sex. I lost my virginity sometime around my sophomore year in high school and I'm currently in my early 30's. In the time between that fateful summer night when I gave it up to my high school sweetheart (with the tune of 112 playing in the background) to now, I've learned my fair share of lessons about owning your sexuality, getting the best out of your body, and understanding how to deal with the ups and downs that come with carnal pleasure.
1.Body Positivity Leads To Great Sex
When I was younger, I can remember being in sexy situations that sometimes didn't feel so sexy. Insisting on wearing a t-shirt during sex to cover up my soft mid-section, turning off the lights to avoid too much up-close eye contact. Ultimately, this had more to do with my own confidence than a man's opinion of me.
The bottom line? Once you take a long hard look in the mirror and fall in love with what you see, you'll find better orgasms will ultimately follow.
2.It's OK To Explore Your Comfort Zone
When I was 19, I had what I fondly refer to as my "summer of love." Translation: I decided to sleep with a girl.
It was an important part of my sexual development that defined my preference and identity as a woman who considers herself to be pansexual. But gender preference isn't the only thing that's important to explore. Safely and responsibly trying out different elements of the sexual spectrum will lend itself to the most beautiful and awakening self-education.
3.Unapologetically Ask Potential Partners For What You Want
There was a time when I felt like telling a man what I wanted him to do to me in bed was too dominating, too upfront and possibly mood-ruining. But, the truth is – depending on how you say it – telling a partner how you like to be pleased serves two very important purposes. Not only is it great foreplay, but it kind of cuts right to the chase and eliminates guessing games.
No one wants to play a game that doesn't come with instructions.
4.School Yourself In Some You
In order to tell a partner what you want – you kind of have to know what you want. The best way to get to know your sexual self? Self-satisfaction. Invest a little time and a little money in the pleasure of your own company. Discover what makes you come alive (wink) so that when it's time to teach your partner what you like – you'll know exactly what to say. Not only is it the perfect way to fill those chill Sunday mornings, scientists have also discovered that it has a laundry list of health benefits.
5.Family Planning Doesn't Have To Be Painful
We can't talk about sex without talking about birth control. If you're like me, you've literally tried everything under the sun to prevent unwanted pregnancy. For me, one of my priorities was finding a way to do this without harming my body – or my chances of getting pregnant when I was ready. In my early twenties, I started tracking my periods and cycles, writing down details about everything from discharge to what my body felt like each day. After about a year of learning the signs of ovulation, I dropped my prescription birth control and went all-natural.
For those too scared to try the rhythm method, there are devices like Natural Cycles that read your basil temperature and tell you each morning if you're ovulating. This very accurate form of birth control is 100% accurate and imposes zero threat to your reproductive health.
6.Don't Have Sex With Partners You Don't Trust
I can remember the last time I was with a man who cheated on me. I had been suspicious for months and when his side chick called my phone, it was the confirming moment that I needed to move on. Of course, it also lead to a very scary trip to the clinic when I went to make sure everything below was nice and healthy. The lesson I took from that experience? Don't entertain partners who you even think could be cheating. If you're not quite ready to leave (we all have our reasons), at least abstain from unprotected sex in the meantime.
You're just as likely from catching an STD from a cheating partner as you are from a stranger on the street.
7.Never Apologize For Being Polyamorous
Between committed relationships, my dating status is always 'open'. As in, I will sleep with whomever I want, whenever I want. Being single is about being free and learning all about who I am and what I want and I am staunchly against strings during those periods. Plenty of men have taken this philosophy into question through the years and I make it a point not to entertain the naysayers. Monogamy is something I enter into with partners I think deserve that level of commitment from me and it sets the tone for a relationship that I want to last a long time. I'm okay with being selective about that and about exploring my options between boyfriends.
Don't like it? Bye.
8.Healthier Body = Better Sex
Believe it or not, we are what we eat. What we eat also has a huge impact on how we sex. Drinking plenty of water, getting plenty of sleep, and staying away from unhealthy eating habits doesn't just ensure a longer life – it ensures a better sex life. When I wasn't taking care of myself, my desire decreased and I even had a hard time having orgasms.
Our bodies function better when they are being taken care of and that includes how we perform in bed. Kind of adds a little extra motivation for working it at the gym.
9.Foreplay Can Be Incredible When It's Edible
I'll admit it – I like blowjobs a lot more now than I did back in the day. There's something to be said for what happens when your sexual palate matures. Part of it was growing up, but the other part of it was all about learning different techniques. Everyone approaches oral sex with a different comfort level but what I learned is that for mind-truly-blowing sex, it's a must-have every time.
For me, oral sex is something I'm more comfortable with in a committed relationship, which is why I tend to believe committed, safe sex is the best sex in the world.
Featured image by Shutterstock
Ashley Simpo is a writer, mother and advocate for self-care and healthy relationships. She lives in Brooklyn, NY. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @ashleysimpo. Check out her work and her musings on ashleysimpocreative.com.
Amber Riley Is In Her Element
Amber Riley has the type of laugh that sticks with you long after the raspy, rhythmic sounds have ceased. It punctuates her sentences sometimes, whether she’s giving a chuckle to denote the serious nature of something she just said or throwing her head back in rip-roarious laughter after a joke. She laughs as if she understands the fragility of each minute. She chooses laughter often with the understanding that future joy is not guaranteed.
Credit: Ally Green
The sound of her laughter is rivaled only by her singing voice, an emblem of the past and the future resilience of Black women stretched over a few octaves. On Fox’s Glee, her character Mercedes Jones was portrayed, perhaps unfairly, as the vocal duel to Rachel Berry (Lea Michele), offering rough, full-throated belts behind her co-star’s smooth, pristine vocals. Riley’s always been more than the singer who could deliver a finishing note, though.
Portraying Effie White, she displayed the dynamic emotions of a song such as “And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going” in Dreamgirls on London’s West End without buckling under the historic weight of her predecessors. With her instrument, John Mayer’s “Gravity” became a religious experience, a belted hymnal full of growls and churchy riffs. In her voice, Nicole Scherzinger once said she heard “the power of God.”
Credit: Ally Green
Riley’s voice has been a staple throughout pop culture for nearly 15 years now. Her tone has become so distinguishable that most viewers of Fox’s The Masked Singer recognized the multihyphenate even before it was revealed that she was Harp, the competition-winning, gold-masked figure with an actual harp strapped to her back.
Still, it wasn’t until recently that Riley began to feel like she’d found her voice. This sounds unbelievable. But she’s not referring to the one she uses on stage. She’s referencing the voice that speaks to who she is at her core. “Therapy kind of gave me the training to speak my mind,” the 37-year-old says. “It’s not something we’re taught, especially as Black women. I got so comfortable in [doing so], and I really want other people, especially Black women, to get more comfortable in that space.”
“Therapy kind of gave me the training to speak my mind. It’s not something we’re taught, especially as Black women."
If you ask Riley’s manager, Myisha Brooks, she’ll tell you the foundation of who the multihyphenate is hasn’t changed much since she was a kid growing up in Compton. “She is who she is from when I met her back when she was singing in the front of the church to back when she landed major roles in film and TV,” Brooks says. Time has allowed Riley to grow more comfortable, giving fans a more intimate glimpse into her life, including her mental health journey and the ins and outs of show business.
The actress/singer has been in therapy since 2019, although she suffered from depression and anxiety way before that. In a recent interview with Jason Lee, she recalls having suicidal ideation as a kid. By the time she started seeing a psychologist and taking antidepressants in her thirties, her body had become jittery, a physical reminder of the trauma stacked high inside her. “I was shaking in [my therapist’s] office,” she tells xoNecole. “My fight or flight was on such a high level. I was constantly in survival mode. My heart was beating fast all the time. All I did was sweat.”
There wasn’t just childhood trauma to account for. After auditioning for American Idol and being turned away by producers, Riley began working for Ikea and nearly missed her Glee audition because her car broke down on the highway while en route. Thankfully, Riley had been cast to play Mercedes Jones. American Idol had temporarily convinced her she wasn’t cut out for the entertainment industry, but this was validation that she was right where she belonged. Glee launched in 2009 with the promise of becoming Riley’s big break.
In some ways, it was. The show introduced Riley to millions of fans and catapulted her into major Hollywood circles. But in other ways, it became a reminder of the types of roles Black women, especially those who are plus-sized, are relegated to. Behind the scenes, Riley says she fought for her character "to have a voice" but eventually realized her efforts were useless. "It finally got to a point where I was like, this is not my moment. I'm not who they're choosing, and this is just going to have to be a job for me for now," she says. "And, that's okay because it pays my bills, I still get to be on television, I'm doing more than any other Black plus-sized women that I'm seeing right now on screen."
The actress can recognize now that she was navigating issues associated with trauma and low self-esteem at the time. She now knows that she's long had anxiety and depression and can recognize the ways in which she was triggered by how the cult-like following of the show conflicted with her individual, isolated experiences behind the scenes. But she was in her early '20s back then. She didn't yet have the language or the tools to process how she was feeling.
Riley says she eventually sought out medical intervention. "When you're in Hollywood, and you go to a doctor, they give you pills," she says, sharing a part of her story that she'd never revealed publicly before now. "[I was] on medication and developing a habit of medicating to numb, not understanding I was developing an addiction to something that's not fixing my problem. If anything, it's making it worse."
“[I was] on medication and developing a habit of medicating to numb, not understanding I was developing an addiction to something that’s not fixing my problem. If anything it’s making it worse.”
Credit: Ally Green
At one point, while in her dressing room on set, she rested her arm on a curling iron without realizing it. It wasn't until her makeup artist alerted her that she even realized her skin was burning. Once she noticed, she says she was "so zonked out on pills" that she barely reacted. Speaking today, she holds up her arm and motions towards a scar that remains from the incident. She sought help for her reliance on the pills, but it would still be years before she finally attended therapy.
This stress was only compounded by the trauma of growing up in poverty and the realities of being a "contract worker." "Imagine going from literally one week having to borrow a car to get to set to the next week being on a private jet to New York City," she says. After Glee ended, so did the rides on private planes. The fury of opportunities she expected to follow her appearance on the show failed to materialize. She wasn't even 30 yet, and she was already forced to consider if she'd hit her career peak.
. . .
We’re only four minutes into our Zoom call before Riley delivers her new adage to me. “My new mantra is ‘humility does not serve me.’ Humility does not serve Black women. The world works so hard to humble us anyway,” she says.
On this Thursday afternoon in April, the LA-based entertainer is seated inside her closet/dressing room wearing a cerulean blue tank top with matching shorts and eating hot wings. This current phase of healing hinges on balance. It’s about having discipline and consistency, but not at the risk of inflexibility. She was planning to head to the gym, for instance, but she’s still tired from the “exhausting” day before. Instead, she’s spent her day receiving a massage, eating some chicken wings, and planning to spend quality time with friends. “I’m not going to beat myself up for it. I’m not going to talk down to myself. I’m going to eat my chicken wings, and then tomorrow I’m [back] in the gym,” she says.
“My new mantra is ‘humility does not serve me.’ Humility does not serve Black women. The world works so hard to humble us anyway."
This is the balance with which she's been approaching much of her life these days. It's why she's worried less about whether or not people see her as someone who is humble. She'd rather be respected. "I think you should be a person that's easy to work with, but in the moments where I have to ruffle feathers and make waves, I'm not shying away from that anymore. You can do it in love, you don't have to be nasty about it, but I had to finally be comfortable with the fact that setting boundaries around my life – in whatever aspect, whether that's personal or business – people are not going to like it. Some people are not going to have nice things to say about you, and you gotta be okay with it," she says.
When Amber talks about the constant humbling of Black women in Hollywood, I think of the entertainers before her who have suffered from this. The brilliant, consistent, overqualified Black women who have spoken of having to fight for opportunities and fair pay. Aretha Franklin. Viola Davis. Tracee Ellis Ross. There's a long list of stars whose success hasn't mirrored their experiences behind the scenes.
Credit: Ally Green
If Black women outside of Hollywood are struggling to decrease the pay gap, so, too, are their wealthier, more famous peers.
Riley says there’s been progress in recent years, but only in small ways and for a limited group of people. “This business is exhausting. The goalpost is constantly moving, and sometimes it’s unfair,” she says. But, I have to say it’s the love that keeps you going.”
“There’s no way you can continue to be in this business and not love it, especially being a plus-sized Black woman,” she continues. “We’re still niche. We’re still not main characters.”
"There’s no way you can continue to be in this business and not love it, especially being a plus-sized Black woman. We’re still niche. We’re still not main characters.”
Last year, Riley starred alongside Raven Goodwin in the Lifetime thriller Single Black Female (a modern, diversified take on 1992’s Single White Female). It was more than a leading role for the actress, it also served as proof that someone who looks like her can front a successful project without it hinging on her identity. It showcased that the characters she portrays don’t “have to be about being a big girl. It can just be a regular story.”
Riley sees her work in music as an extension of her efforts to push past the rigid stereotypes in entertainment. Take her appearance on The Masked Singer, for instance. Riley said she decided to perform Mayer’s “Gravity” after being told she couldn’t sing it years earlier. “I wanted to do ‘Gravity’ on Glee. [I] was told no, because that’s not a song that Mercedes would do,” she says. “That was a full circle moment for me, doing that on that show and to hear what it is they had to say.”
As Scherzinger praised the “anointed” performance, a masked Riley began to cry, her chest heaving as she stood on stage, her eyes shielded from view. “You have to understand, I have really big names – casting directors, producers, show creators – that constantly tell me ‘I’m such a big fan. Your talent is unmatched.’ Hire me, then,” she says, reflecting on the moment.
Recently, she’s been in the studio working on original music, the follow-up to her independently-released debut EP, 2020’s Riley. The sequel to songs such as the anthemic “Big Girl Energy” and the reflective ballad “A Moment” on Riley, this new project hones in on the singer’s R&B roots with sensual grooves such as the tentatively titled “All Night.” “You said I wasn’t shit, turns out that I’m the shit. Then you called me a bitch, turns out that I’m that bitch. You said no one would want me, well you should call your homies,” she sings on the tentatively titled “Lately,” a cut about reflecting on a past relationship. From the forthcoming project, xoNecole received five potential tracks. Fans likely already know the strengths and contours of Riley’s vocals, but these new songs are her strongest, most confident offerings as an artist.
“I am so much more comfortable as a writer, and I know who I am as an artist now. I’m evolving as a human being, in general, so I’m way more vulnerable in my music. I’m way more willing to talk about whatever is on my mind. I don’t stop myself from saying what it is I want to say,” she says.
Credit: Ally Green
“Every era and alliteration of Amber, the baseline is ‘Big Girl Energy.’ That’s the name of her company,” her manager Brooks says, referencing the imprint through which Riley releases her music after getting out of a label deal several years ago. “It’s just what she stands for. She’s not just talking about size, it’s in all things. Whether it’s putting your big girl pants on and having to face a boardroom full of executives or sell yourself in front of a casting agent. It’s her trying to achieve the things she wants to do in life.”
Riley says she has big dreams beyond releasing this new music, too. She’d love to star in a rom-com with Winston Duke. She hasn't starred in a biopic yet, but she’d revel in the opportunity to portray Rosetta Tharpe on screen. She’s determined that her previous setbacks won’t stop her from dreaming big.
“I think one of my superpowers is resilience because, at the end of the day, I’m going to kick, scream, cry, cuss, be mad and disappointed, but I’m going to get up and risk having to deal with it all again. It’s worth it for the happy moments,” she says.
If Riley seems more comfortable and confident professionally, it’s because of the work she’s been doing in her personal life.
She’d previously spoken to xoNecole about becoming engaged to a man she discovered in a post on the site, but she called things off last year. For Valentine’s Day, she revealed her new boyfriend publicly. “I decided to post him on Valentine’s Day, partially because I was in the dog house. I got in trouble with him,” she says, half-joking before turning serious. “The breakup was never going to stop me from finding love. Or at least trying. I don’t owe anybody a happily ever after. People break up. It happens. When it was good, it was good. When it was bad, it was terrible, hunny. I had to get the fuck up out of there. You find happiness, and you enjoy it and work through it.”
Credit: Ally Green
"I don’t owe anybody a happily ever after. People break up. It happens. When it was good, it was good. When it was bad, it was terrible, hunny. I had to get the fuck up out of there. You find happiness and you enjoy it and work through it.”
With her ex, Riley was pretty outspoken about her relationship, even appearing in content for Netflix with him. This time around is different. She’s not hiding her boyfriend of eight months, but she’s more protective of him, especially because he’s a father and isn’t interested in becoming a public figure.
She’s traveling more, too. It’s a deliberate effort on her part to enjoy her money and reject the trauma she’s developed after experiencing poverty in her childhood. “I live in constant fear of being broke. I don’t think you ever don’t remember that trauma or move past that. Now I travel and I’m like, listen, if it goes, it goes. I’m not saying [to] be reckless, but I deserve to enjoy my hard work.”
After everything she’s been through, she certainly deserves to finally let loose a bit. “I have to have a life to live,” she says. “I’ve got to have a life worth fighting for.”
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Exclusive: Amber Riley Talks Finding Love After Ending Her Engagement
Singer/actress Amber Riley brings the same emotional vulnerability to her art as she does her life—and we are all better for it. The former Glee star and Masked Singer winner opened up about her love life in her recent xoNecole digital cover story, revealing what it took to find the strength to end her engagement and, eventually, find love again.
Credit: Ally Green
Riley first met her ex-fiancé Desean Black, through an xoNecole #MCM post, which prompted her to slide into his DMs and make the first move. After going public as a couple and even appearing together on Netflix's Love That For Us series, Riley and Black decided to call off their engagement. Riley, for the most part, had been mum on the reason behind the split but shared exclusively with xoNecole what led to them ultimately parting ways.
"When it was good, it was good," she explains. "When it was bad, it was terrible, hunny. I had to get the fuck up out of there." Riley ultimately decided that she would do what was best for her, regardless of how invested folks might have been in the relationship. "I don't owe anybody a happily ever after," she continued. "You find happiness and enjoy it and work through it."
Fast forward to the present day, Riley is in a happy and seemingly thriving relationship with her new man. Riley revealed her new relationship on Valentine's Day 2023, saying, "I decided to post him on Valentine’s Day, partially because I was in the dog house. I got in trouble with him,” she says, half-joking before turning serious. “The breakup was never going to stop me from finding love. Or at least trying.
This time around is different. Riley seems intentional about keeping this relationship a tad more private. She says she is not hiding her boyfriend of eight months but rather being protective of him because he’s a father and isn’t interested in becoming a public figure.
Riley also shared about her healing journey and the fight that it's been to reach this level of happiness. “I think one of my superpowers is resilience because, at the end of the day, I’m going to kick, scream, cry, cuss, be mad and disappointed, but I’m going to get up and risk having to deal with it all again. It’s worth it for the happy moments."
Read the rest of Amber Riley's Spring/Summer 2023 Digital Cover here.
Featured image by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images