Book Review: “The Sex Lives of African Women”
About halfway through Jenelle Monae’s song “Screwed,” she begins to chant, “See, if everything is sex, except sex, which is power, you know power is just sex, you screw me and I'll screw you too.” I thought about this song a lot while I read, “The Sex Lives of African Women” by Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah.
It makes sense. Sex is everywhere because sex is power. It’s one of the reasons that we see so many fights over women having sexual autonomy. Get out of our way, encourage us to pursue pleasure, demand respect, and surrender the patriarchal-approved lives we’re encouraged and manipulated to create; and all hell breaks loose.
Sekyiamah, a Ghanaian feminist author, started asking African women questions about their sex lives in January 2009, when she and fellow writer, Malaka Grant, cofounded the award-winning blog, “Adventures from the Bedrooms of African Women.” From there, she expanded her work to the book, “The Sex Lives of African Women.”
In it, we get glimpses, both good and bad, into the lives, challenges, heartbreaks, frustrations, joy, peace and so much more, from African women all over the world.
The first thing I noticed and appreciated about this book of essays was the variety of women and femmes that Sekyiamah spoke with. Trans, straight, gay, bisexual, older, disabled, HIV positive, middle class, and more. It allows us to get to know people with very different lived experiences and listen to their honest views on sex in a way we are not usually able to. The book is made richer for it.
In the past, explorations on sex and sex lives have focused primarily on white, cisgendered, heterosexual, able-bodied people. “The Sex Lives of African Women,” is made more relevant because it refuses to center white people and explores the many intersections of the women and femmes included within its pages. It also makes the point that for all our diasporic cultural differences, we still have a lot in common and we’re fighting similar battles no matter where we reside in the world or how our intersections might vary.
An early pattern established in the book is how prevalent sexual abuse, assault, and rape are to women’s histories. I’ve always said that you could throw a pebble in a room full of women and be hard pressed not to hit one that hadn’t experienced some form of sexual trauma. This book certainly reminds us of that horrible fact, but it also makes room for each woman to share how she’s come to terms—or hasn’t—with what’s happened to her and how the truth of her experience impacts her.
Faith is another recurring theme. Many of the women featured were raised in conservative Christian communities and dealt with unhealthy ideas surrounding sexuality. While the author does not try to make any points by these recurrences, you’d be hard pressed not to notice how detrimental the narrow confines of white evangelical Christianity have been on women indoctrinated into that community. Home and church are two of the first places we learn and internalize beliefs about sex, ourselves, and people different from us.
In one interview, Estelle’s shares, “I grew up in a deeply Christian household and I internalized homophobia. It was only in 2019 that I finally allowed myself to acknowledge that my desires, fantasies, and attractions were legitimate.” In another, a woman named Mariam Gebre shares, “In my orthodox Christian household we never spoke about sex. The word never came up. If anybody tried to bring up anything related to sex they were told to hush.”
I’ve spent most of my professional and academic life in the state of Texas, a place where women’s rights and autonomy are discussed and thought of as optional. Conservatives and evangelicals claim to love God and think that sex is only legitimate when it’s had within the confines of marriage and between a man and a woman. It’s heady to learn how the spread white supremacy, imperialism, and colonialism continue to impact our sexual freedom and our lives no matter what side of the Atlantic we are on.
While conservative Christianity comes up often within the pages of “Sex Lives” Muslim women also face hurdles. Nura shares the challenges of finding a proper husband and adjusting to life as a third wife.
“In January 2020 I moved to my new home. The first floor flat belonged to the first wife and her children, the second floor to the second wife and her children, and the third floor, the latest addition to the building, was mine. […] My intention had been to cultivate a respectful, sisterly interaction, but instead I am met with a lot of passive aggressiveness. I am a stranger here.”
“The Sex Lives of African Women” features an abundance of experiences. It’s written with care and respect for the stories and women who were so brave to share their lives and experiences. This book is worth your time and money.
You’re sure to walk away thinking deeply about sex, sexuality, and what freedom means to you.