Inside The Sex Lives Of African Women

Posted by Zainab Pervez in Relationships On 27th July 2021
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Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah’s new book The Sex Lives of African Women examines self-discovery, freedom, and healing. She talks about everything she has learned.

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Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah has a face that smiles at rest. When she is speaking, it is with a constant grin, one that only falters when she talks about some of the difficult circumstances she and other African women have gone through in their quest for sexual liberation. She speaks to me from her home city of Accra, Ghana, where she says “no one is surprised” that she has written a book about sex. As a blogger, author and self-described “positive sex evangelist”, she has been collecting and recording the sexual experiences of African women for more than a decade.

Her new book, The Sex Lives of African Women, is an anthology of confessional accounts from across the African continent and the diaspora. The stories are sorted into three sections: self-discovery, freedom and healing. Each “sex life” is told in the subject’s own words. The result is a book that takes the reader into the beds of polygamous marriages in Senegal, to furtive lesbian hookups in toilets in Cairo and polyamorous clubs in the United States, but without any sensationalism or essentialism. Her ambition, in the book as in life, is “to create more space” for African women “to have open and honest conversations about sex and sexuality”.

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Sekyiamah was born in London to Ghanaian parents in a polygamous relationship, but grew up in Ghana. Her formative years in Accra were under a patriarchal, conservative, Catholic regime that instilled in her a fear of sex and all its potential dangers – pregnancy, shame, becoming a “fallen” woman. 

“I remember once my period didn’t come,” she recalls.

“I was in Catholic school at the time, and I would go to the convent every day and pray, because I thought that meant I was pregnant.”

From the moment she reached puberty she was told: “Now you have your period, you’re a woman, you can’t let guys touch you. That was always in my head.”

Later, she was told: “If you leave your marriage no one else is going to want you. If you have a child as a single woman men are going to think of you just as a sexual object and not a potential partner.”

Her mother would only speak to her about sex in cautionary ways. “The idea of messing with boys was so scary to me. It kept me a virgin for years and years.”

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In her late teens, Sekyiamah moved to the UK to study and began reading feminist literature. She realised how much all that terror stopped her, and other women, from owning their bodies, their pleasure and, by extension, from “taking up their place in the world”.

She moved back to Ghana and, in 2009, co-founded a blog, Adventures from the Bedrooms of African Women.

“I started sharing my own personal stories, my own experiences and encouraging other women to share their own stories. So the blog became a collective space for African women, whether they were in the continent or in the diaspora, to just think aloud, share experiences, to learn from one another.”

The blog was a hit, and was deluged with submissions from African woman sharing their stories of love and erotica. It won prestigious awards in Ghana and earned Sekyiamah and her co-founder, Malaka Grant, international recognition.

But after a while, she began to want to read, and write, something longer. She realised that “people have no idea about the reality of African women’s experiences when it comes to sex and sexuality. I feel like people always think of African women as repressed or constantly pregnant or they don’t have sanitary towels or they’ve been cut [genitally mutilated]. I was learning about the breadth of our experiences through the blog, and so I thought: ‘I want to write a book about the experiences of African women.’”

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She had to scale back her ambitions, which were Africa-wide. “When I started, I wanted to interview African women from every country on the continent, and I gradually realised that wasn’t realistic.”

She doubted the stories would ever see the light, anyway. “Honestly, as somebody living in Ghana where we don’t have a publishing industry, I thought: ‘Will this book ever get published?’ I used to live with that fear.”

She submitted two interviews to an anthology in the hope that they would spark interest in the book. She needn’t have worried. “Even before the anthology came out, I got my book deal.”

The interviews came about in a variety of ways. Sometimes she would find subjects through her travels, but she also issued a callout on social media for people “living their best sex lives”.

The stories came from across sub-Saharan Africa and the African diaspora in the west, instalments of sexual awakening, frustration, and ultimately, a sort of freedom.

What they share is an ease, uninhibitedness, sexual fluency and familiarity with the narrators’ bodies and sexual and romantic needs, often in situations that seem incongruent with sexual agency.

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What emerges is a sort of intimate community of voices across more than 30 countries. “The process of interviewing these women made me closer to them. The vast majority of them I’m still connected with.” It helped that Sekyiamah had written about her own experiences so honestly and frankly, as a “Ghanaian bisexual woman” whose own explorations included physical intimacy with other girls at school and polyamory, before marrying and then finding the strength to leave her husband.

Now, she describes herself as a “solo polyamorist”, meaning someone who has multiple relationships but maintains an independent or single lifestyle. “Some of the women were familiar with the stories I had been writing. They knew I was a feminist. They know I’m not coming from a position where I’m going to judge them and their choices.”

Their motivations for telling their own intimate stories, albeit mostly anonymously, were often political. “Some were feminists who felt it was important for the story to be out there,” she says. Others just wanted to get negative experiences off their chests. “There was a time when I was feeling a little bit depressed because a lot of people were telling me about child sexual abuse. And that was heavy stuff.” The result is that what started as a celebration ended up being a much more sober affair.

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Sexual assault is almost ubiquitous in the anthology. It is mentioned at times almost in passing, with an alarming casualness that is revealing of how resigned many African women are to its inevitability. But Sekyiamah believes there is a power in sharing these stories. Whatever African women have gone through, she says, “we are definitely not anomalies, and it is terrible that so many women experience child sexual abuse and abuse of all sorts and forms. But also, people survive their abuse. 

And for me, the lesson that I took away was the importance of making space and time for healing, whatever that healing looks like. And it looks different for so many women. For some it was being an activist and speaking up about women’s rights. For some it was: ‘I am going to be celibate for a hundred days’ and then it becomes a thousand. For some it was a spiritual journey. For others it was actually sex itself [that] was healing, losing themselves in their bodies.”

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There were some people she interviewed who made her think: “Oh my God, you’ve cracked the code! You’re living your best sex life.” They had mostly stopped caring about what other people thought. “Those were generally the kind of people that would be seen as living outside societal norms. They tended not to be heterosexual, they tended not to be monogamous, they tended to be queer folk, poly people. And I feel like there’s something about just figuring out who you are and what will work for you, and trying to, in a sense, put all the noise of society out of your head. That was the thing that I took away. And it’s not a linear journey.” There’s no formula to it, she believes. To some, it can be about confronting child sexual abuse, to others, it could be about moving on. “I don’t feel like everyone has to open up trauma and look at it and touch it.”

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Her intention was to “de-cliche” the sex lives of African women, and she feels that “to a large extent I was able to achieve that”. But in the process she also discovered her own stereotypical assumptions. “For example, I used to think all women who had been cut could not have pleasurable sex. And I was interviewing this woman who had been cut who was describing this amazing sexual experience and my mind was blown. In my head, I was like, but you don’t have a clitoris, and I was thinking, how can I ask this question?” The woman reminded her that “the clitoris goes up in your body. And I was embarrassed, because I know this rationally.”

Sekyiamah’s book has been compared to Three Women, Lisa Taddeo’s 2019 word-of-mouth hit following the sex lives of three American women. It is a comparison she is aware of but clearly, in the most good-humoured way possible, rejects. “Look, I loved Three Women,” she says, but insists that her book is “definitely not ‘The African Three Women’. There’s no comparison. [Taddeo] does an in-depth dive with three women and I really wanted a breadth. What is important for us is that we have multiple experiences even in the same lifetime. I wanted to include that type of fluidity and I felt that I could only do that by showing a range.”

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Central to that range is the spectrum of romantic and sexual arrangements African woman have. Because of her upbringing, Sekyiamah feels that she has a perspective that isn’t blinkered by expectations of monogamy. “I wanted to show that there are different forms of relationships. Because even for me, as someone who is an outcome of a polygamous marriage, it was kind of a surprise to speak to a contemporary African woman who had chosen to enter into a polygamous marriage. We need to validate all the different ways in which people create families. I don’t think the children of heterosexual marriages are happier than children of queer or polygamous marriages. I know this from my own life.”

It is of course an impossible task, no matter how large the sample size, to capture the entire range and nuance of African women’s sex lives. Sekyiamah’s intention is less to complete an exhaustive chronicle, than it is to send a very specific message to a specific readership. “I had an audience in mind,” she says, firmly. Particularly, she had “black women and African women in mind. Both on the continent and in the diaspora. I wanted them to know that there are other ways of being, and those ways of being are about what works for you.”

In that sense, the stories have given her renewed hope and resolve in her own life. Despite being taught from a young age to fear her period, to fear pregnancy out of wedlock, divorce, single motherhood, she experienced all of them and is thriving. She lives with her 16-month-old daughter in Accra, surrounded by a strong feminist community, and feels her primary job “as a feminist mum” is to preserve her daughter’s “fearless spirit”. Any doubts or insecurities about the path she has chosen were eliminated in the process of interviewing women for her book. “As a single woman in your 40s you kind of wonder, what is it going to be like for me in 20 or 30 years? So it was nice to meet the woman in her 70s who had fallen in love in her late 60s. It’s possible. There’s time. You don’t need to rush.”

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