Africa: Peeling Back the Layers of African Women’s Sex Lives!

Cape Town — Sex.

Fooling around, hanky-panky, making love, knocking boots, doing it – are some of the euphemisms used to avoid saying "sex." But why do we feel the need to soften the word?

It still feels hard and awkward to say SEX out loud, and few people do. It's one of those things that most humans do but never speak about, yet it is heavily stigmatised.

In many African cultures and communities, the image of sex has traditionally been connected with unpleasantness, inappropriateness, and immorality. This is mainly shaped by the moral values and beliefs we hold as a result of our upbringing, interwoven with religion, and societal expectations. Even just watching a sex scene on television or seeing people kissing in public is considered taboo as it is regarded as a very "private" act.

In addition, the discussion of intimate issues such as fantasies, or sexuality is also often kept under wraps. Many cultures do not allow open discussions or depiction of such instances as it translated to what they say "culture of shame". Rafiki, a Kenyan same-sex love movie sparked conversations about freedom of expression. The film received a wide range of reactions. From from enthusiastic audiences and international accolades, to a cultural backlash and the Kenya government slapping a ban on the film.

But, in order to encourage sex positivity and educate ourselves and future generations, and avoid awkwardness or embarrassment around such topics we need to start an open and honest discussion about sex. We need to break barriers – and that means tearing down society's preconceived notions about sex that continue to be ingrained in us.

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So, Let's Talk About Sex Baby!

In a typical African society women are expected to be well behaved, be good wives, and give pleasure to their husbands. Society often portrays women to be sexually passive as there is a belief that men experience more sexual pleasure than women. How insane is that? We still live in a patriarchal society that expects women and girls to stretch their labia – also called labia minora elongation. Labia stretching is a pre-marriage practice in some parts of Africa, where people believe it provides both men and women more sexual pleasure. What benefit could this have for women or girls?

Doctors have claimed that labia stretching or female genital mutilation (FGM) is more about pleasing men than women. FGM includes procedures and practices meant to intentionally injure or alter the female genital organs for non-medical reasons, according to the World Health Organization. These acts are illegal and internationally recognised as a violation of the human rights of girls and women.

And what about the women's needs?

Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah, a Ghanaian feminist activist, writer, and blogger had the courage to talk about intimate issues without filters. In 2009, she co-founded Adventures from the Bedrooms of African Women – an award-winning blog that focuses on African women, sex, and sexualities. The blog is a safe space for women to talk about all things sex – and it does not hold back. The blog earned Sekyiamah and her co-founder, Malaka Grant, international recognition as well as winning prestigious awards in Ghana.

After reading and going through women's experiences when it comes to sex and sexuality in her blog, she thought to write a book about the experiences of African women. Her goal was to create more space for African women to have honest and open conversations about sex and sexuality.

As a result, no subject is off-limits in her book The Sex Lives of African Women. The book is described as an "anthology of confessional accounts from women (most of whom use pseudonyms) from across Africa and the diaspora, in which they reveal rare insights into how they navigate, negotiate, and enjoy sex, sexuality, and relationships across generations and borders," according to The Guardian. Stories are divided into three sections – self-discovery, freedom, and healing – and each one is told in the subject's own words. The ground breaking interviews reveal and explore similarities and differences, including questions about societal norms, religious edicts, dealing with the trauma of sexual abuse, and searching for new narratives and identities on the path towards wholeness.

Note – If you enjoyed her book, then you're in for a treat with a virtual book tour coming to a screen near you – a celebration of the liberation, individuality, and joy of African women's multifaceted sexuality.⁠ Check out Astra House for a full list of dates and registration links for each of the upcoming events. ⁠

allAfrica's Melody Chironda spoke with Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah to clear up some myths about African women's sex lives. Sekyiamah discusses how she started her blog as a safe space for women to explore a range of topics connected to sex, pleasure, and sexuality without the scrutiny of society. She also discusses the stereotype that older African women aren't interested in sex, as well as women recovering their sexual agency.

In what ways was your blog, Adventures from the Bedrooms of African Women, instrumental to the creation of this book?

So, on one hand, it's a separate project. On the other hand, it's connected, right? So I started the blog with my friend Malaka in 2009. And, you know, part of what I recognised from having done the blog for so long, is that there was so much variety and sexual experiences of African women. And it was really striking to me that, then I always saw that variety and diversity reflected on my blog, you know, and maybe a few other places. But then, particularly in mainstream media, you know, especially Western mainstream media, whenever Africa, the subject of African woman, sexuality came up, it came up in very, very limited ways. So for example, women would be mainly spoken about as vectors of disease, like HIV and Aids, or had no access to sanitary free towels, it was very limited. And it was, I felt like, I felt like there was so much more. I felt like I knew for my blog that there was so much more, you know, that one could say about African women's sexuality, and many more interesting stories, many more relevant stories out there. And so I thought, yeah, I'm going to, interview women from across the continent and diaspora, and write about my experiences of sex and sexuality.

There are many misconceptions about African women's sex lives. Tell us what the biggest one is?

I mean, this, even for me, there was a misconception that got blown away. And during the interviews, I thought that any woman who had experienced female genital mutilation could never have an orgasm. You know, and apparently, that's not true. And I didn't know that. That's not to say that's not like that's not to say FGM is a good thing I think FGM is, you know, like, the person I interviewed said, who had her experience of sexual abuse in the form of female genital mutilation as a child . And it's terrible. But it's not true that women who have been cut do not experience pleasure. You know, they've been through a traumatic experience and need lots of therapy and need to heal, but they can still access pleasure.

So for me, that's all that like, that's one misconception that was blown away, right. And also just being reminded of sometimes the inherent discrimination that we all carry within us, you know. So I interviewed one woman who's a woman with a disability who was speaking about how, like on dating sites, it takes a while to let people know she uses a wheelchair, you know? And that made me sort of think to myself, Oh, wow, how come I've never dated somebody with an obvious disability. And that's not necessarily a misconception that's been blown. But like, a sort of inherent prejudice that was being pointed out to me, you know, and that's also part of what I hope people take away from the book that they sort of question some of their own biases and prejudices. And, you know, I think maybe once you start to question that, it makes you may be more open to being different or to change.

Talking about sex is regarded as a taboo in most African households. Have you received any backlash?

I mean not really, not the kind of backlash that I would listen to take seriously. Do you know what I mean? I'm very good at ignoring the trolls, I don't believe in feeding the trolls. You know, I surround myself with the feminist community. You know, obviously, when I started blogging about sex, my parents were concerned, but in time, they came to the realisation that you know, I was doing something that people appreciated, especially when I said, I get some recognition for the work.

So my parents, are the only people whose opinions I really cared about, they themselves went on a journey, you know, and came to understand that this was something I felt was important and wanted to do and needed to do. You know, they were more concerned about why I didn't do it anonymously. Yeah, but, you know, I'm an independent adult who makes her own decisions. And I've always, always been like that. Just to add, my parents have always also known that I do my own thing, and so they give me space to be.

How do you get your interviewees to be so open and vulnerable?

I mean, I think that first of all, people had a lot of trust in me, because I'd been blogging about sex and putting my own experiences and my face out there for a long time. And so people already sort of knew that I was open-minded and non-judgmental. And I think that allowed him to open up to me, the very first person I interviewed for the book was somebody who had been in my DMs, chatting to me because they were confused about their sexuality. You know, and so I think I had, I had a track record that people could relate to and that people recognised, you know, was coming from a place where I wasn't seeking to judge people.

And then I also think, because I've been speaking about sex for so long. I know how to chat to people about sex in ways that make them open up. I'm good at interviewing people, you know, about intimate subjects and creating an environment where they feel comfortable to share. And of course, I also give people the option to be anonymous. So, you know, yeah, people knew that I wasn't going to go out there and say, hey, guess what I interviewed Amaya, she told me all these secrets.

Which interview did you like the most?

(Laughs) That's like, asking me which of my children that's my favourite, you know? Exactly. Okay. I mean, I can tell you this. So I can tell you maybe like three or four that have special meaning for me, like the interview with Warris*, you know, that I just mentioned was important to me because I think it shows that even when you've experienced FGM, or something traumatic, you can still access healing, and you can still find pleasure in sex. So for me, that's really important.

I loved all my interviews with the really older woman, the woman in the 70s, and 60s who were having great sex, because I think society, you know, likes to desexualise older women. And for me, as somebody who is now fairly middle-aged, that's like a really inspiring model. So there are women who are 60, who have a great sex life, you know, I also really like Helen Banda's story, because she had been, in a sense, in a conventional monogamous marriage for like, 10 years, I think, and she and her husband decided to open up their marriage, and it was really working out for them.

And so I liked that, you know, I like the idea that could be in one sort of relationship structure, and, you know, negotiate for that relationship structure to change without imploding your current relationship. So I think those stories, in particular, had, and still have special resonance for me.

Lastly, what do you hope people will gain from this book? Do we have a follow-up?

So I hope people will gain a sense of oh okay, I don't need to do things the way I have always been told I needed to do things, you know, I can colour out of the boxes, I can explore. I can go on my own journey of self-discovery. I hope that's what people take from this book. And yes, there's going to be a second book. And hopefully, very shortly, my publisher will make an announcement about that book.

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