The Politics of Sexual Pleasure

My friends over at Accra[dot]Alt held one of their regular Talk Parties last week and invited Crystal Svaniker, Kobby Graham, Elvina Quaison and I to share insights from the Open Forum which we attended in May. My brief was to speak on the politics of sexual pleasure. I’m sharing below the blog post I wrote and delivered for the occasion.

Sex is a deeply political act, yet it’s one of those acts that conservatives like to frame as private, and not a conversation suitable for polite company. I’m sure you have heard someone say that you should never talk about ‘Money, Sex or Religion’. Why not? When we don’t talk about a subject we leave it shrouded in mystery and secrecy. We remain ignorant about that subject and we do not deconstruct those power dynamics that are embedded within the subject.

I choose to talk openly about sex because it’s a deeply political act. I choose to talk about sex because Governments want to determine when, where and with whom I can have sex. I choose to talk about sex because I had to teach myself virtually everything I know about sex.

I don’t know what kind of knowledge you had about sex growing up, but all I knew about sex as a pre teen was that ‘sex is bad, and if I had sex I would fall pregnant and be unable to continue school.’ My period started when I was 11 years old and a few months after that I missed a period, and then another one. I prayed in my school’s chapel until my period resumed. I had no idea at that stage that as a young girl who had just started menstruating it was perfectly normal for me to miss a period or two. All I knew is that once you missed your period you were pregnant. I didn’t even recognise that sperm was an integral part of that process. But I was a student in a school still heavily led and influenced by nuns, a Father and the Catholic faith so maybe I felt I was the 20th century virgin Mary. I learnt about sex primarily from Mills & Boon, Harlequin Romance and good old Cosmo. Didn’t everybody else?

So when your sex life as a teenager has consisted of romance novels, fumbling with other girls after lights out, and sloppy kisses with boys, how do you get to a stage where you become sexually confident, and pro active about seeking your own sexual pleasure. When the magazines you read only told you about ‘101 ways to please your man’, and not ‘101 ways to please your self’. When girls who had sex with boys were given names like ‘Kaneshie mattress. When your boyfriend broke up with you because a guy who fancied you had told him that he had fucked you doggy style in the gutter by your house.

I only realised how deeply political sex is when I started having sex as an adult. When I realised that those knee trembling feelings eloquently described by the authors of romance novels did not readily happen in real life. I only realised how deeply political sex is when my boyfriend would ask me to go down on him, and hold my head in place at the height of his pleasure but was aghast when I asked him to go down on me. I realised how deeply political sex is when I thought about how conventional heterosexual sex is really just a deeper more intense form of male masturbation.

Is it any wonder that the ‘approved’ ways of having sex – missionary, for procreation, within marriage – reinforces power structures in our society? Man on top, woman trapped beneath the man, and man’s orgasm signifying the end of sexual activity.

Your thoughts?

21 comments On The Politics of Sexual Pleasure

  • wow, great post Nana 🙂 i’ve not really thought about sex as political but you’re right it is. for us women, i think that we often don’t think abt all these power issues involved in sex, relationships, marriage, family life etc. we just go along with whatever we get. i think the root of our problem is that as soon as a girl is born, everyone (mothers, teachers, nurses, priests) teaches her that her primary role in this world is to become a wife and mother in future. think about it: all the subtle comments from aunties abt ‘eii, soon you’ll be meet a man, settle down and become a BIG/ REAL woman; the teachings from the church, all the romance novels we consume as young girls where a woman’s life becomes best cos she meets a man and marries. so we grow up as women and believe that no matter what we achieve in work, and what we give to society, no matter if we nurture good relationships with friends, we are failures if we never marry (or divorce) and if we never have have children of our own. i’m trying to move away from that mindset but it’s really hard when you’ve bn raised up on it and you get the message from society all the time! i

  • I am very fascinated by the tone of this post. First, I think sex is deeply political, however, the power structure is pretty favorable to women. Rule #1 of the Natural law of economic, she who controls supply in the face of fervent demand calls the shots! In the case of sex, especially in countries like Ghana, whether u get laid or not is largely a woman’s perogative. Unless of course, the man goes apes and tries to get it by force which you can expect a prison term for that.
    Second, I tend to think that nurture plays less of a role than nature. I am afraid 2 billion years of evolution may be the culprit for the lopsided power dynamics that exist in sexual politics than some social construct created to support men.

  • Babyjet, i disagree! the fact that a person ‘controls supply’ doesnt necessarily mean she calls the shots. for example,african countries supply most western countries with natural resources. but when it comes to deciding on the selling prices of these natural resources, who calls the shots? the western countries. so it is with men and women. sure, women own their bodies. but when it comes to deciding when to have sex and with whom, they don’t wield the power cos there’s already a power imbalance btwn men and women in all societies and it affects everything (surely, you know this!).

    and i also dont think the lopsided power dynamics in sex is due to nature. i think it’s due to nurture! cos studies show that just as a man’s orgasm is essential to conception, a woman’s orgasm also helps with conceptions cos her womb contracts thus suctioning in the sperm. However, for yrs, lots of societies in the world believed that it was wrong for a woman to orgasm. that’s why some cultures cut off women’s clits. you see, sexual politics at play again!

  • ..hmmm Nana u’ve got me thinking plenty..

  • @Ekuba, I am really diggin our nerdy conversations. Undoubtedly, women experience sexual violence because they are women, they get raped, FGM-ed etc this speaks to an inequality in power between the victim and the aggressor. While the victims are mainly woman that is not exclusively the case – re: male rape in places of detention and in armed conflict, etc.

    Speaking as an African, your initial point about Africa’s resources is the source of great anguish. I have come to conclusion that we are sssssoooooooooooo stupid that we have allowed this to happen to us. This notwithstanding, your point does not change the fact that when it comes to getting laid, at least, access to p**sy, it is mainly a woman’s market and decision. The idea that a woman can’t say no, or withhold sex, or decide who to engage in intimate relations with, is not supported by fact. Where there is an imbalance, it comes into play where there is forced coercion. I would say that the forced coercion, which is FGM, rape, assaults, force marriage etc are more the exception rather than the rule.

    I think that when it comes to the big O, men just jeez quickly cos all we are more visual. A couple of bouncy jugs and some feminine soundtrack in the form of moans, next thing you know we are well on our way to explode. To be honest, it takes a lot of self-disciple and concentration to consistently give a girl the Os. I do think though that overwhelmingly more men feel quite chuff when they make a woman’s roll to the back of her head…, it’s just that it is men just cum without even trying, Women on the other hand are much more complex.

  • @ Babyjet, as for us ‘nerds’ even when the discussion is about sex, we’ll wind up talking abt africa’s resources, right? lol 🙂

    that being said, i think we have to agree to disagree! you see i’m not saying that women’s legs have bn splayed open so they can’t say no to sex. i’m sayin that it saddens me that in the 21st century, still tooo many women are havin sex not because they want to but bcos they feel they hv 2 and r pressurized in2 it. ther r 2 many relationshps where men r in positns of power & r the main decision makers & this affects how & when sex shd b had. as women, we’ve bn raised to defer to our male partners & so we’re less likely 2 speak up in our relationships abt what we need and really want. & when we do speak up, our guys r more likely 2 pay attentn 2 it than we pay 2 their desires cos they’v society tells em that women’s views dont reeaaally matter. how many women in ghana can tell their hubbies to go 4 a vasectomy cos they don’t want 2 get pregs? there’r several ghanaian women who cant even tell their hubbies 2 do fertility tests when those women cant give birth! yet every day, men instruct (yes instruct) their girlfriends & wives 2 go get on the pill, get iuds, tie their tubes, hv an abortn etc. how many women in ghana and africa can comfortably & authoritatively tell their men in the bedroom ‘eat my pussy’ but we all know that during sex, most men feel very comfortable tellin women 2 do all kinds of stuff. u know why? power imbalance! o and to end my argument on this point, why do u think abt 90% (hahaha i exaggerate) of ghanaian men kicked against the marital rape bill when it was sent to parliament? if genuinely, these men hv bn havin sex with their wives as & when those women want 2 or r comfortable with it, why would these men hv bn sooo afraid of the bill? i rest my case. except to say in conclusion that it’s not cos women r 2 complex that they don’t often cum, it’s cos most men never take time to please their women during sex and find out what gets them off and partly bcos women have bn made 2 feel so uncomfortable abt their sexuality that some of them hv never had an orgasm or known how 2 get 1!

  • lol, typo galore (i’m sleeping in the office) LINE 7-8 should read “our guys are LESS likely 2 pay attentn 2 it than we pay to their desires cos soceity tells em…

  • @Ekuba you paint a gloomy picture of how women in Ghana feel powerless over their bodies and that it is their men who control when they have sex even if they don’t want to. Is this the general experience of people you know or its the result of a scientific research in this area?. If women in Ghana generally don’t feel like having sex it may be because they have been socialised to think that only bad girls should want or enjoy sex and they see sex as something they do only to please their man and not for their own enjoyment. This does not mean they are being forced. I don’t think women who do chores in the house are being forced to do son. The decision to have sex still rests with the women and so I don;t think they are not being coerced to have one.

    However I must concede that in any relationship particularly marriage, sex is seen as part of the agreement. Any a woman who opts out of sex in a marriage may be viewed as a sign that she is no longer interested in the relationship unless there is a mutual agreement to do so. This is universal and not related to Ghana or Africa alone.

    With regards to some men’s objection to marital rape legislation this stems from the fear that some women could use it as a revenge if the relatiionship turns sour particularly if the wife is very spiteful. it is easy withn a marriage to accuse your husband of rape and get him locked up. Due to this legislation I have become very weary of white ladies in the west because the courts tend to believe it if a white lady accuses a blackman of rape even if it didn’t happen. Once you’ve had sex with a lady if she turn round to say she did not consent to it then its hard to prove that she consented unless you filmed the whole process and show it in court.

    I am still not convinced that most women in Ghana cannot refuse to have sex with their partners if they don’t want to do so. May be there is something I am missing.

  • @ Kweku: ah, another person to disagree with lol :)! here goes my long rant: yes, i paint a gloomy picture cos that’s how it is regardless of the fact that more and more women r gettin empowered. i haven’t conducted a research into this. but i am speaking from my personal experience as a woman and from my interactions with other african women. i’m saying that there is a huge power imbalance btwn men & women all over the world especially africa & it affects relationshps btwn men & women. you see, Kweku, as a man, you’re in a position of privilege so unfortunately, i cannot go by your perception of the situation. i’m waitin for other women on this blog 2 speak up and tel me whether they believe that majority of women in ghana r havin sex when they want 2, enjoyin it, freely havin access to contraceptives without any hurdle, freely havin access to abortns when they want ’em. when my other women speak up on these issues, i’ll b more bound 2 lean towards their cos they r livin it day in day out! from my personal experience as a woman, tho, i aint convinced that most ghanaian women r holding the power in relationships & in decision- makin relatin 2 sex. i’m the woman who went to a maternity class (with my sis) @ nyaho where a nurse taught the class how they could ‘plead’ (yes she said that) with their husbands & partners to use condoms with them in their last months of pregnancy. she didnt say they should demand or request she said plead and ask them to ‘have mercy on you’ and she wasnt jokin. no one batted an eyelid cos it’s totally acceptable. of cos a woman must convince and even plead with her longterm partner b4 he wd use protectn. it aint her right. i’m the woman who turns on her tv every nite and sees nigerian/ ghanaian movies where men r so disrespectful to their partners, hit them and cheat on them but they wind up together in the end and all’s well. & no 1 sees anythin wrong with this else it wouldnt b on tv. i’m the woman who works in a law enforcement agency and have heard lots of policemen say that they dont believ a grown woman can b raped cos how wd she get 2 the man’s room anyway if she didnt agree 2 sex? so you see, till my other sisters come out to say that’s not bn their experience at all i refuse to be convinced!

  • @Ekuba thank you for further clarification. What I take from your clarification is that there is imbalance of power between men and women in relationships in Ghana especially in marriages. This, from my experience, I will not disagree with. However, when it comes to sex I still think women have a degree of control over their bodies. I agree its odd to insist on the use of a condom in a marriage unless the woman approached the subject in such a way that the husband sees the rationale for it eg during late term pregnancy etc.
    I agree with some of your obeservations like the kind of Nigerian/Ghanaian movies being shown on TV in Ghana these days. I feel disgusted and switch off whenever I see it. Sadly its soo frequent these days that you can see all the TV stations showing Ghana/Nigeria movies all at the same time and several times in a day. Sadly I haven’t complained about it but that does not mean I see nothing wrong with it. Perhaps if more people complained about it the script writers will do somenting about it or the Advertising Standards Authority (if we have one) will censore them to ensure such thrash is not shown on TV to pollute the minds of young people who will think it is okay to hit a woman.

    In the UK for example the opposite is true. The power imbalance is in favour of women so much so that men get terrorised by their women. A spouse in the UK could decide to have an affair and throw the man out of the house even if the man bought the house before getting married to her and the man is powerless to do anything about it. So Ghanaian women in the UK do not put up with half of what women in Ghana put up with.

    So u see I agree with you about the power imbalance in relationships in Ghana but when it comes to the politics of sex I still feel women hold the balance of power. Women in Ghana always use it as a bargaining chip to get what they want.

  • oh, ok, i get you Kweku. i see what you’re saying abt the UK. i have not gone to the UK b4 (only lived in US and France really briefly) so i hv no idea. i would hv asked my boyfriend cos he’s ghanaian-british but he broke up with me over the weekend (boo-hoo, i’m still mourning my relationship 🙁 anyways, i see what you’re saying. maybe it’s me or maybe it’s the girls i deal with but i don’t see loads of women in ghana using sex as a bargaining chip. explain more to me ok? like give me more examples. maybe i’m the daft one. but i know i dated some married guys for eg and i could not really get thaaat much of money from them using sex (cos they cd get it elsewhere anyway). and with my boyfriend, i couldnt really tell him do x, y, z or no sex cos i guess i felt if i did he’d just break up with me and go for some girl who’d give it to him well. so i need more explanatn so i’ll understand what other girls hv bn doin (and mayb learn from it lol 🙂 Hugs

  • Lol @ Ekuba and Kweku. Sorry I haven’t weighed in earlier. Can’t chat much now but wanted to weigh in quickly just to say in my opinion the power balance in regards to sex still lies with men. I think men sometimes falsely assume it lies with women because they tend to be the one ‘pursuing’ women so in that context it seems like the woman wields all of the power but is that really the case. What happens when the man has ‘conquered’ the woman? And the sex act is often seen in these very ‘war like’ terms. When the woman has been conquered then she had ‘lost’ the very little ‘pussy power’ she was wielding before. I think Ekuba’s point about men’s fear of marital rape was spot on.

    Kweku, black men’s fear of being accused of rape by white women has historical antecedents which I suspect you are fully aware of but the general fear that men have of being accused of rape is false. I remember in one of my lessons (Gender Studies) we looked at some studies around this which showed that only 2% of rape accusations are false and that 2% were by women with psychological problems. On the other hand let’s look at stats of how under reported rape is. Oh and I lived in the UK for 12 years and worked for the police for half that time so I don’t think the UK scenario is very different.

    You both raised many salient points that I would love to comment on but commenting via my phone is too painful so I’m bouncing for now 🙂

  • I am at work so I need to sneak around and be very brief. Will send something a bit more extensive to Kweku and Ekuba’s post. When I read Nana’s post though, I couldn’t help but recall 2 quotes from Mark Twain and Jean Baudrillard “Facts are stubborn, but statistics are more pliable.” and “Like dreams, statistics are a form of wish fulfillment.” How did they, and who came up with the rape statistics?

    the resident Smart alec has disappeared so I am taking over as a smart Alec until he shows up.

  • @ND I note your point that women can feel powerless once they have finally given in (conquered?) after a long chase. But sex in a relationship is an ongoing affair and the women can withhold it if they choose to do so. That does not mean the man will take it lightly and in our traditional setting may complain to someone the women respects just to get her to change her mind. So you see women do not loose all the power after saying yes to a relationship.
    @Ekuba sorry to hear that your boyfriend just broke up with you. I hope it wasn’t bcos you were refusing him sex lol. You come across as someone who is level headed and can easily get along with people so I m sure you will land a super gorgeous eligible guy soon; that is if thats your wish.

    Back to the discussion I don’t know where you work but i guess if you work in a place like DOVSU it is easy to understand how you will feel that women are powerless over their bodies in relationships in Ghana. It may be the case with less educated men who do not have economic independance and therefore may feel trapped in their relationships. However, with the educated ones in Ghana with good jobs who are more empowered they are able to exercise more control and are able to call the shots in their relationships. I know several examples of female friends who were my mates in secondary school and uni in Ghana in such relationships. But I know there are exceptions as well. for eg if a woman is in a relationship with a celebrity or a richer man in Ghana then there is the likelihood that there will be imbalance in favour of the men. This discussion has opened my eyes to the way women feel in relationships in Ghana. May be we men should give up some of our ‘priviledges’ once we convince the women to say yes to a relationship. Please excuse any typos.

  • @ Kweku, hahaha, i know you won’t believe this but i swear it’s the truth! we broke up after we had an argument about me refusing him sex sometimes ( altho i didnt refuse him in order to blackmail him or just be mean. i refused cos i’m still healin from the psychological effects of being raped for like a decade by my uncle and there r days that i just dont want to hear the word sex bt my ex didnt understand/ believe my explanatn) . thx 4 saying i’m level headed etc, you’re really sweet 🙂

    you must be a psychic cos until just recently, i worked at a place just like dovvsu (a human rights clinic) and it brought me into contact with loads of women who were going thru divorces & other issues in their relationships.

    hmmm, i kno that sex is a weapon and a woman may say if you dont do x, y, z no sex. that sort of thing may work best if you’re in a committed relationship with a man who wont ditch you or sleep with anyone no matter what (and lots of such decent men exist). however, sadly, cos of our polygamous culture, women are considered more disposable in a relationships than men. so if you’re dating a man as a woman, you try to do all you can so he wont leave (cos there r so few eligible men in ghana and if you dont get one soon, you’ll b a single woman till u die!). if you’re married, the warning is that if you dont please your man well, he’ll either cheat on you (which is so common in ghana), marry another woman (permissible under our laws) or simply send you back to your mum’s house. tell me Kweku, if you were a ghanaian woman under these circumstances, would you still wield (as nana darkoa calls it) ‘pussy power’?

  • eii, i just ‘gbaad’! i actually said ‘a relationships’! sorry o for all offended ppl i meant ‘relationships’

  • @Ekuba yes I must be a pychic. I can’t believe that your ex boyfriend broke up with you because you refused him sex sometimes. That means either he didn’t understand your reasons for refusing or he didn’t believe that the reasons you gave were true ie your childhood experiences. Rather he might have believed you were lying to him. Otherwise it seems a very flimsy excuse to break up with you based on that reason alone. Anyhow thank you for your openness.

    From your latest explanation I can understand why women in Ghana feel that the balance of power in relationship in Ghana is tipped in favour of men. I can now undestand that women feel easily disposable in a relationship in Ghana due to the many reasons you listed. I guess thats the reason most women in Ghana these days go to church and become christians because they believe they will meet a good christian man in church and the church teaching will ensure that the man will not cheat on them and will not easily divorce them. I have become very weary of women who call themselves christians in Ghana. If I were to get married again I will steer clear from such women. I will rather want to be with a woman who is not a christian and we can study ourselves than hook up with the so-called christian women who are nothing but christians but use the bible to a camouflage.

  • @ozohu – That can only be a good thing I hope 🙂 Do say more. What did I make you think about?

  • Even so some don’t realize and admit it, many women are attracted to relationships where they are not in control; They are attracted to men who are assertive, powerful, venturesome, tough minded, resourceful, and maybe even a little bit rude or ruthless. So if this is your taste in men, don’t complain when he turns out to be controlling. I would be surprised if people would generally exhibit completely different personality traits towards their partner/spouse than towards the rest of the world.

    There are other kinds of men, better suited for a balanced partnership, but less glitzy. You should consciously choose if you want to settle for a less macho man or accept him as he is.

    I guess, most men and their relationships are not that extreme. However, being aware of extremes makes it easier to see tendencies. — … and don’t forget the gossip originating around clashing high profile relationships, it keeps many people entertained 🙂

  • @NVit you’ve hit the nail on the head. It appears women are attracted to men who are rich, powerful or famous with strong personalities. If the eligible men women are attracted to in Ghana are these rich (or with a well paid job), powerful, famous men with strong personalities then the balance of power in such relationshipsis likely to be in favour of the men unless the woman is equally rich, famous or powerful. If the women are equally rich, powerful or famous then there is the likelihood that their egos will clash. I think thats why celebrity marriages don’t last.

  • True NVit. Definitely, when the man is richer and more famous, he tends to wield more power in the relationshp. But as several women will tell you, it’s the quieter, poorer, less famous ones that in the long run bcome even bossier once you’re married to them! Oh yes.
    You see, in my opinion the 2 biggest reasons why men wield power in relationships in africa are: 1. most people saw their dads wield more power in the relationshp so that’s all we know- how many of us saw our mums stand up to our dads when they were payin more attentn to the extended family, cheatin on our mums, beatin them etc? how many of us saw our mums pregnant and yet doing most of the housework in the house? yep, all those things define the relationshp we also hv l8r on 2. society pushes women to get married, hv kids and stay married at all costs and so women are willin to tolerate whatever kind of nonsense from any man if only it would allow them to become mrs. with 3 kids. so long as i’m a mrs, i dont mind if it’s common knowledge that my mr. is screwin anythin in skirts, @ least i hv the ring. get it?
    in my line of work, i interact daily with women seekin divorces, complainin abt being abused by their men or their men neglectin the kids etc, some of these women hv richer partners but a good portion of these women hv partners earnin similar amts of money as they do or partners who used to earn (or still earn) even less than these women there’s stil imbalance of power in their relationshps
    my colleague is better educated and earns similar money as her husb bt she’s puttin her career on hold next mth cos her hubby thinks ‘it’l b betta if she stays @ home for him & the kids like a good wife’; my other colleague earns more than her hubby but he chooses to be in the US doin some flimsy course for like forever while she’s here handlin all responsiblities and payin all bills,and she knows that durin the months he’s away, he’s definitely shaggin some other woman bt she sucks it up and raises the kids here & hopes for a betta day cos she doesnt wanna leave him & hv the tag of ‘divorcee’. End of my long rant for today!

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