by Melony Akpoghene (she/her) | Edited by Janine Samuels (she/her)
Image via Kevin Turcios
Content warning: discussion of discrimination, abuse and violence against women and queer people.
Sex is a purely natural object. It has existed since the beginning of time. According to Geoffery Rush’s Marquis de Sade in the movie, Quills, “The whole world over, we eat, we sleep, we shit, we fuck…and we die.” However, due to the construction of various socio-cultural structures and hegemonies, the discourse surrounding sex has seemingly been treated with aggravating severity on which the heated brunt is mounted heavily on, specifically, women and queer people. In Kate Lister’s A Curious History of Sex, she explains that humans are the only creatures that stigmatise, punish and create shame around their sexual desires. As a result of different forms of historical, religious, and social conditioning, women and queer people have been drilled to uphold and conform to harmful ideologies regarding sex and the ways through which their sexuality can be explored. Strict rules have been made by the patriarchal, religious society and harsh punishments are doled out to those who exhibit even the slightest aberrations. The sexual needs and concerns of cis, straight men are prioritized over those of women and queer people. In Nana Darkoa’s The Sex Lives of African Women, she affirms that:
“African women grapple with the trauma of sexual abuse and resist religious and patriarchal edicts in order to assert their sexual power and agency. They do this by questioning and resisting societal norms whilst creating new norms and narratives that allow them to be who they truly are. The journey towards sexual freedom is not a linear one, or one that is fixed and static. Freedom is a state that we are constantly seeking to reach.”
The persistent state of sexual denial and negation found in many women and queer people are reproductions of repressive norms created by systems and ideologies in attempts to water down the otherwise defiant sexualities of people who do not identify as heterosexual cis males. The Christian creation story has served as a long-standing symbol, deeply entrenched in the seams of society, designed to buttress the portrayal of women as evil seductresses using the desires of men against them. Further, the Biblical event detailing the furious destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah perseveres, for the homophobic faction of society, as a credible delineation of the supposed moral stance regarding queerness. In a BBC article, reports show that people who are "believed to have engaged in behaviours contradicting social, religious or cultural expectations of sexual repression, such as same-sex sexual activity, may be punished through honor killings, persecution or the death penalty." In states where there is no outright physical violence against queer people, the presence of mental torture is manifested in cases of stigmatisation, discrimination and disparaging fetishism.
In a candid interview with a few people who have been enormously affected by the regressive dictates of society pertaining to sex, the broad picture of the extent of sexual repression is jarringly depicted. A "pastor's daughter" from Nigeria explains how years of religious conditioning affected her perception of sex. In her words: "I felt very bad and guilty because my mother always mentioned how she wanted me to get married as a virgin in a white dress. I couldn’t fully enjoy the experience when I finally had sex and I struggled to understand why because I’ve been an apatheist for many years and I’ve been sexually open so I always thought I’d never feel like sex was bad or something when I eventually had sex. I had to unlearn by reading stuff and hearing women talk about sex. I’ve always thought I had to make my parents proud by being a good virgin and that was why I never lost my virginity until I was 25 years old." This experience is similar to those of many women. Religion has been a vice that strangles the natural sexual desires of many Black women. Flora Seawood, in her paper — Sexual Repression and Black Women's Sexuality, asserts that,
"the ultimate fear for Black women is losing connectedness with their community and church, because this was and still is their support. The church was their only hope for acceptance and presence in Black communities, though, the church did not embrace Black women’s sexuality or related sex issues concerning their health."
Black women have been suppressing their sexual desires and confining themselves to flawed conceptions of virginity politics because the church’s ideology made it a taboo for Black women to educate themselves on sexual issues.
Amanda Tayte-Tait is a Zimbabwean non-binary, pansexual person who describes the dynamics of being stuck in an abusive relationship with their abuser. "We were taught as young kids that sex was something we gave to someone and we weren't participants. Men love sex and if they don't get it, they'll cheat. If you're not 'pure,' he'll cheat on you or break up with you and marry the virgin. Coming from having a history of abuse, I thought that sex was sort of part of my identity and that that was the only thing I had to give in exchange for love. I was always hurt when I still got slut-shamed, made fun of, etc. People reacted to my abuse, not in ways that sympathised with my being violated, but by regarding me as tainted or ruined and it created so much shame in me and made me believe that something was wrong with me. I couldn't express myself, talk about orgasms or even think about getting them. When a man is done, you're done. I remember one of my abusers telling me that because I was abused as a kid and no longer a virgin, no one would ever love me, that he was the only one who would ever love me. He used that to keep me in an abusive relationship because I believed him." Regardless, they explain that they were able to start healing and becoming sexually expressive by gaining the ability to say "NO" and learning that "my body was my own and I was more than the act of sex. I was worth love just by existing."
A South-African lesbian woman, Crystal, says that she opposed the idea of using sex toys with her partner because she was made to believe that if she craved any sort of penetration, she was not exactly a lesbian. "One time, before I came out, I was having a discussion with some 'friends' who were quite homophobic and they mocked lesbians and questioned their sexuality because they used toys, straps, fingers. They said lesbians run away from dick, only to get penetrated by other plastic stuff. From then, I became doubtful of whether I was actually a lesbian because I loved using toys, butt plugs, etc. However, after a while, I became convinced that I was indeed a lesbian, but I never used toys with my partners because I believed that using them meant I wasn't lesbian enough. I realized later how reductive and increasingly detrimental it was both to my identity as a lesbian and how I interacted with sex and my body. It just kind of struck me that I was allowing ignorant mandates of heteronormativity determine how I practise and enjoy sex. It took a while, but I put a end to that thought pattern and incorporated all the sex toys I could find in my sex life."
Purity culture and the Madonna-whore dichotomy are other concepts held strongly within misogynistic tenets. Summayah is a hijabi from Senegal and she discusses how she has had to reduce herself during sex. "As a good Muslim woman, I shied away from exhibiting emotions or actions that may indicate that I loved sex and wanted pleasure from it. I would never moan, or make sex faces, or touch my husband with passion. One time I squirted during sex and I was submerged in shame. My mother and aunties taught me to never be 'wild' during sex as it would display me as a bad, unholy, hypersexual woman to my husband and he would see me as an improper Muslim woman."
Summayah's experience is similar to that of another Nigerian woman, who responds that she always felt "caged" during sex: "I couldn’t express myself well. That’s why till date some guys think I’m not so good in bed. Some will say otherwise because I’ve adapted to giving back the same energy I get from a guy. Like, when I had to give my first blowjob. It’s not something I like or enjoy, but I still do it because men are like, you’re not good enough or you’re not pleasing them as they want." Collette is also a Nigerian woman who has been shamed a lot for her interactions with boys. Right from the young age of 10, she recalls being slut-shamed and excluded from social activities by girls in her class for playing with boys. Thus, she had to hide her attraction to men and secretly dated. She explains that "women do not know much about their bodies because they've always been conditioned to hide." Nonetheless, these women affirm that they've unpacked such retrograde ideas by disregarding the faulty ideals of an unfair patriarchal society.
Furthermore, body insecurity and White supremacist definitions of beauty are seen to affect a lot of people as regards sex. Jules is a bisexual Ghanaian genderqueer person who discloses how their view of their body influenced their view of sex. "When I see my saggy boobs, my uneven skin tone, my dark inner thighs, dark labia, fat stomach, the stretch marks on my arms, stomach, hip, keloid scars on my legs, back, etc, I think of how disgusting they all look and how no partner should ever be subjected to that. I hated myself for so long for being so fat, so ugly that I decided that I wasn't going to engage in any sort of sexual or romantic relationship. I didn't also masturbate because as a strong Christian who was a virgin, I was taught to "flee" from sexual immorality and that masturbation awakened sexual desires which would then result to sexual immorality. However, I started reading up on a lot of stuff, seeing people like me who dress up how they like and look amazing. I completely rid myself of the idea of virginity, there's nothing like that, and I started seeing my body as a normal body, nothing to be ashamed of. I have sex with people who value my body and feel privileged to even look upon it."
To paraphrase Sigmund Freud, unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways. Learning and understanding the experiences of others inform people who are in different stages of battle with their sexuality and sexual expression that there are others who are struggling, too, and removes the stamp of isolation that may overwhelm them in their own struggles. As earlier quoted, "...healing is not one that is linear, fixed or static. Freedom is a state that we are constantly seeking to reach." Thus, recognizing that the journey to recovery from sexual repression is not always a smooth one allows full patience and easy forgiveness for the times that may appear overbearing.
Melony Akpoghene (she/her) is a writer who believes the world can be saved if everyone eats vanilla cakes and listens to Beyoncé.