Adventures from the Bedrooms of African Women: in search of sexual freedom
What does it take for a woman to be sexually free? What does sexual freedom look and feel like; what does it mean, and most importantly, how does one experience it?
In my opinion, the Ghanaian context sets the stage for women’s sexual repression, a phenomenon which often leads to the sexual abuse of children. Based on conversations with a variety of women, I will argue that the recent case of ‘Jesus One Touch’ (an evangelical preacher recently convicted in Ghana for incest) is not as rare as one may think. Young girls the breadth of this country are sexually abused by the very people into whose care they are entrusted: uncles, grandfathers, fathers, cousins, domestic helps, etc.
Most of these cases go unreported because families like to hush up such issues. You might hear a warning to the child, “Herh, I have told you not to go into uncle’s room when he calls you”. How can children deal with this abuse with no counseling, and often with very little or no recognition of the fact such exploitation has taken place? How does a young girl deal with the guilt she may feel for having participated in a sexual act, the unwarranted feelings of pleasure she may have had, and the sense that she has been a “bad girl”? How does this affect her as an adult?
Some Ghanaian women also experience acts of violence designed to control their sexuality. Female genital mutilation (FGM), a practice in which the clitoris and/or labia are incised, excised or cut off, is a prime example of this. Inherent in this act is the explicit message that a woman’s sexual organs are dispensable, and that her sexuality needs to be controlled until a suitable patriarch can take possession of it. A woman does not, even cannot, own her own body. The fact that these acts of genital mutilation are carried out by women demonstrates how our socially constructed culture (also known in feminist ideology as ‘patriarchy’) sustains itself by using selected women as custodians of its norms.
A lack of progressive sexual education also adds to the state of sexual ennui many Ghanaian girls and women find themselves in. Sex education, much less the progressive kind, is completely lacking in Ghana. The HIV & AIDS pandemic has spawned an onslaught of sexual health campaigns on safe sex. Unfortunately, this effort is often unimaginative and limited by its emphasis on ABC (Abstinence, Be Faithful, Use a Condom). To paraphrase one of my older sisters in the women’s movement, ABC leads to D, which is death. Where is the acknowledgement that the vast majority of women cannot negotiate condom use with their partners? How do we reconcile ‘Be Faithful’ with the fact that the highest risk factor for HIV in West Africa is marriage? And where oh where does sexual pleasure fall in the ABC formula?
I propose that we take a different approach towards the goal of women’s sexual freedom. We need to protect our children from sexual abuse and the continuation of that abuse which adult women experience as sexual harassment. We need to have open and frank conversations with children about sex and diverse sexualities; tell your daughter it’s called her ‘vagina’ and not her ‘down there’, for example. As adult women, we need to take responsibility for our sexual health, learning, exploration and pleasure.
It’s time to redefine ourselves as subjects, not objects, in our own sex lives.
Read more at Adventures from the Bedrooms of African Women