So, I’m caught off-guard when this young woman tells me, as those big eyes begin to water, that she spent years hating her body, a hate stemming from all the pressure she felt to keep that body hidden away.
“I grew up in a Muslim home,” she begins. “The typical conservative Muslim [home] in Ghana [where] you couldn’t wear trousers, couldn’t wear short skirts, couldn’t wear tight clothes because your body is sacred and likened to toffee,” she said.
“Your husband has to unwrap the toffee to enjoy it, but if you’ve already showcased everything — the sides of your boobs, your hips, your butt –what’s there for him to enjoy?”
Adam, who is in her mid-twenties, recounts how she began dating only after leaving home for university. After two years together, she and her boyfriend had sex.
“That’s when everything came running back to me,” she says. “How much I hated my body. How much I couldn’t feel good about what I was doing. The guilt of enjoying sex.”
I was in Accra in the summer of 2018, looking for other women who, like me, had grown up feeling as though their bodies didn’t quite belong to them. First, because we were meant to focus on school and — as in my case — church, and then, once qualified, employed and a “woman of God,” we were to dedicate ourselves to our husbands, our children and our community.
There has unquestionably been much joy and satisfaction derived by many who live life this way, and a personal faith is by no means irreconcilable with the fight for equality among the genders. But my hunch was that besides me, there were many others deeply dissatisfied; who felt — whether as a fully formed thought or just a gnawing sensation in their gut — that their lives, and particularly their sex lives, were not fully their own.
What’s more, I’d noticed from years of covering international development and gender issues as a writer and editor, that Black, brown and poor women — mostly the subjects of reporting and not often enough the storytellers — had to content themselves with their bodies being described as contested geographical spaces might be.
There are people, organisations and even governments fighting over whether you should access contraception or not; how many children you should have; whether you should be veiled or not; what your gender or sexual identity can be; how you should be treated if you earn your income from sex work; whether your attire or attitude makes you complicit in your sexual attack; or at what age you can be married off and at what price — the latter, often in part, determined by whether or not you are still a virgin. Like inhabitants of a besieged territory, women — and gender non-conforming people — are often caught in the middle, ignored as their very bodies are being debated.
It’s easy to assume in a world where gender inequality is “endemic” — as UN head Antonio Guterres said in March — that talking about sex is at best irrelevant, and at worst irresponsible. But, as I would learn over the course of reporting the story and making the “Not Yet Satisfied” film, talking about sex and sexuality is in fact a key component to achieving gender equality. That in many parts of the world this topic is hard to talk about freely — and even harder to live freely — points to a far bigger problem than prudishness.
“We have a long history of sexual pleasure being denied to women,” says Eli Coleman, director of the Institute for Sexual and Gender Health at the University of Minnesota Medical School.
“Pleasure is threatening,” he says. “It challenges those who are in power. As long as the society keeps women as second-class citizens, then men are in control. So denying [women] reproductive health, contraception, safe abortions, and certainly altering their body — taking away the sexual pleasure aspects of one’s anatomy — keeps them suppressed and patriarchy in power.”
Coleman was President of World Association for Sexual Health (WASH) from 1997 to 2001 and was actively involved in drafting WASH’s first ever Declaration on Sexual Pleasure, published in 2019.
We speak as I try to understand what, if anything, has changed in the world since Adam and other members of Accra’s Young Feminist Collective spoke with me about learning to reclaim their bodies and, with it, pleasure.
For the veteran sexologist, the past few years have been marked by “serious backtracking.”
“Sexual and reproductive health all of a sudden seemed to be a dirty word,” Coleman explains. “President Trump, when he was in power, Pompeo, our Secretary of State, was [saying] that we wouldn’t sign on to anything in the UN that mentioned the word ‘sexual health’. In April 2019, CNN reported that the pressure from the US on the UN Security Council did result in “significant changes to a resolution on sexual violence.”
“And, of course, you are aware of the prohibitions of anything that had to do with safe abortions or even contraceptive services,” he adds, referring to the reinstatement of the so-called Mexico City Policy in 2017.
Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah whose blog, Adventures from the Bedrooms of African Women, was the focus of my reporting in 2019, today also talks about Ghana “going backwards in terms of human rights”.
“We are actually in a really dangerous place,” she says, speaking to me from Accra where she is currently promoting her new book, The Sex Lives of African Women.
“A few months ago, 21 activists were arrested for taking part in human rights training on LGBTQ rights. At the moment, we have eight members of parliament pushing forward a bill that will make it illegal to say you are an ally, let alone be a queer person. It’s [also] trying to enforce conversion therapy, which has been debunked all around the world.”
Sekyiamah talks about “far-right American evangelicals partnering with far-right civil society leaders in Ghana and the political elites”. An investigation by openDemocracy’s 50:50 project details these links. A main target of their ire? Comprehensive sex education (CSE).
Sekyiamah’s influence with Adventures over the past decade has spread beyond Ghana, inspiring others to create content about sex and sexuality for audiences they recognised were completely underserved.
South Africa’s HOLAAfrica! is one such platform, and its founder, Tiffany Mugo, describes how the space for “sex positive” conversations has grown — and along with it, the coordinated attempts to close it down.
“We’re now in a world where comprehensive sex education is a multilateral, multinational-level conversation. But with the work that we do, we sometimes live in a bubble. On the other end of the scale, there are people who are ready to shut all of this down,” she says.
By way of example, Mugo adds: “There’s essentially a neighbourhood Facebook group for the wider Joburg area, that’s against CSE and it’s got 100,000 people following it. Conservative groups have not come to play. They are funded and they’re organized. One of the scariest things is how organized they are.”
When we met in Johannesburg, Mugo was producing The Wildness, which she describes as “an unedited podcast all about sex and sexuality by two queer women of color on the [African] continent. She has since written a sex guide and compiled Touch, “a collection of essays about sex, sexuality and sensuality, written by queer people.”
Everyone I spoke to saw their work as opening up necessary conversations about this one part of all our lives that is so important to our health and wellbeing and yet remains taboo and actively contested.
Far from frivolous and salacious, talking about sexual pleasure — even if the choice is to not be sexually active — is part and parcel of reclaiming ownership of your body, and receiving tools through education so that you can make the best choices for you — yes, in the bedroom but everywhere else too.
“Even as I write about having great sex, I need to know about rape culture. I need to know about abortion rights and economic rights as well, because I can’t say “buy lube” without thinking about who can afford it — and who can afford to negotiate safe sex,” says Mugo.
“If you can’t negotiate contraception in your marriage, do you really think you’re going to [negotiate] that high-powered job?” she asks rhetorically.
“There is this great fear that if we talk about sexual pleasure, people will become more irresponsible and society will have more problems,” Coleman acknowledges. “But the evidence is completely to the contrary. This is fundamental to what we know about developing societies: if you educate your citizenry, you have a greater society. But somehow when it comes to sex, we want to deny people that fundamental education.”
“Even the World Health Organization is moving to recognize that if they don’t focus on the promotion of health in a positive way — and including pleasure — people are not going to listen,” he says.
“You’ve got to put pleasure in!”
CNN’s Eliza Anyangwe reported from Ghana and South Africa during 2018 and 2019 before the global Coronavirus pandemic. This essay and the film “Not Yet Satisfied” were supported by the European Journalism Centre.
*Header image by Yagazie Emezi for CNN.