[In this conversation, Awino Okech and Nana Darkoa chat about the politics of bodies, debates on sex positivity, feminisms, sexualities and resisting patriarchy. Join the conversation in the comments box]
N.D.S: I have been thinking a lot about body politics. Our individual relationships with our bodies, the struggle some of us have to love our bodies, the necessity of honouring our bodies, treating the physical forms that house us in ways that are nurturing and nourishing. And also recognizing that for some people the struggle can be feeling trapped in the wrong body, being in a body that causes you pain, or being denied all of your body, that an essential part of you was taken away and there wasn’t much that you could do about it. When I think about all that bodies go through, the physical violence bodies face in ‘peacetime’, and war, the fact that whenever countries debate the passing of domestic violence acts, the stumbling block is invariably ‘marital rape’ because patriarchal societies assumes that (heterosexual) marriage confers ownership of the woman’s body to the man in perpetuity. This for me has always been an issue. The possessiveness of the woman’s body that is implicit in hetero-normative marriages that begins with the woman changing her name from that of her father to her husband – a passing down of the woman from one patriarch to another. I know very few couples that buck this trend. One of my recently married friends told me that he intends to also take his wife’s surname so that they both have the same compound surname. I’m somewhat encouraged by that, whilst recognizing that doesn’t necessarily signify that marriage will be a radically feminist one. But I hope it will be, and that these small acts of resistance can chip away at the master’s house. But these are small steps. What are the big acts of resistance that are needed when we work on issues around body politics?
A.O: I am a researcher who works with sexuality as a conceptual framework primarily to examine how the world relates to women’s bodies in particular and why their control, surveillance and deployment as resources matter to how states function. My engagement with body politics is therefore primarily located at this level. I remove myself from the conversation even though my work deeply implicates my own body, my choices and how I occupy spaces. I recognise that my ability to choose privacy is class based – I have options, I can choose. Even though some of my choices are constrained, they are fairly less constrained than a woman or girl who doesn’t have the education, financial resources and social networks that I have. I also know that I choose privacy when it comes to centring me in discussions on body politics because of my upbringing. One thing four years in a boarding school will do to you is that you will crave personal space. I have jealously guarded my personal space (physical, mental) since I left high school, which admittedly is close to two decades ago. My positionality when it comes to body politics is also informed by the very nature of patriarchy and that the levels of “exposure’, if you will, have greater consequences for women than they do for men, particularly if you are making decisions about public career paths. So I am more interested in what group experiences enable us to understand the world because individual experiences can also be very individual. It is this complicated space that has triggered my curiosity about how debates on sex positivity, sometimes reductionist interpretations of feminist theorising on the body, especially when taken up by Hollywood celebrities, water down conversations that were not only about allowing individuals to make a choice or have choice, but about what the lack of choices tells us about how to dismantle patriarchy. In this regard, does dismantling the system require doing the very thing it shames you for or does it require a different set of tools? The ways in which choice is deployed today makes it difficult to have meaningful conversations about mental safety, physical well being, health, pleasure and love. Our acts of resistance have to be located in communities of safety and care. Praxis should be located in the politics that generated this language. What are your thoughts? Do you think celebrities have done little for feminist debates on the body or am I a purist?
N.D.S: Hahaha. I do think in this regard you’re a bit of a purist, and that’s a good thing. Yes, I agree that a lot of contemporary conversations around sex positivity has been stripped of the radical feminist politics which laid the foundations, and made the case for the personal as political. And there is nothing more personal than the body, how one chooses to express that body, and whom one shares (or refuses to share) that body with. What I think some celebrities have done well is popularise some notions of choice, the importance of ‘getting your own’, even when it comes to sex, and being an ‘independent woman’. Yes, celebrities present these concepts in very simplistic and often contradictory terms but their messages get out to a larger audience. I remember going out for an event in Ghana on the day when Beyonce released her fifth solo album which included Flawless, a track featuring Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche. There was a young woman at the same event who was gushing over the Beyonce album that she had just bought off Itunes. I asked her what she thought of the song with Chimamanda, and whether she liked her books. Her response to me was something along these lines, “ I don’t know who she is. I could tell she was someone important. I thought maybe she was a Minister.” This educated, middle class Togolese woman living and working in Ghana did not know who Chimamanda was – arguably a celebrity, as well as one of the most recognised contemporary African writers, but she for sure knew who Beyonce was. And if Beyonce says ‘I’m a feminist’, that’s bound to have more of a positive reaction on this woman than if you or I did. And it’s complicated because as feminist activists we don’t seem to have a way to invite celebrity feminists (or feminists who are celebrities) into our activist communities, and to mutually support our learning, and to challenge ourselves when we are reductionist, or complicit in the systems that oppress us on one hand, and with the other hand shout out feminist slogans.
A.O: So I have a male friend in Ghana who is raising daughters and he sends them to Adventures.com. I think folks should be as sex positive as they desire. We all need to have a healthy relationship to our bodies in whatever shape, form, size and ability they come in. We need to have healthy communication in our intimate relationships so that people know what they want, what is non-negotiable from the very beginning. These are conversations to be had before and during intimate relationships. For those who subscribe to marriage, they have to be had before marriage and continuously re-negotiated. These steps requires a lot of unlearning on everyone’s part. Learning to talk, learning to know your body – alone, knowing what makes you happy and what you don’t like, that is your job, learning to say no, learning to say yes. Women need to be in charge of their relationships. Jane Bennett in an article in Feminist Africa speaks about one of the things that “fear of the queers” did was to re-centre sexual pleasure. Everyone is terrified of queer people because they are having sex, seem to be enjoying it and the rest of the world doesn’t get why they should be enjoying something that runs contrary to their standard. This is in a context where all conversations about heterosexual pleasure were in the main captured by disease, violence, philandering, inequality and harmful traditional practices. I am not arguing that some of these things do not feature in same sex relationships. A friend of mine told me when her daughter turned eighteen, she sat her down and said they needed to plan how she was going to have her first sexual experience with someone else. Fear that her daughter’s first sexual encounter with someone else may not be by choice. She has two sons, she never talked to them about the same issue. Her argument was simple, you are going to be in charge of how that sexual experience happens, it is not something you will leave to happenstance. Fundamentally, this was also a conversation based on fear. Re-connecting with our bodies positively and in a healthy way is critical but the big tension I see in sex positive conversations is the need to distinguish what I have the luxury of engaging because I have the headspace, the time and the kind of relationships to choose pleasure AND taking that to the next level of undoing the systems that make bridal showers in 2016 focus on women pleasing their husbands through all kinds of acrobatics that are likely impossible spontaneously. The dissociation continues. Recognising the fact African women’s sexual lives are not always framed by violence while acknowledging that there are women who that is what they know. How do we re-write those histories of trauma? How do we do both? I am not talking about blog pleasure in the afternoon as well as do violence against women activism.
There is something missing in the conversations I see today on sex positivity. I don’t want to see another nude cover because that does little for me in advancing structural conversations but I know I am in the minority here. I recognise that visual representation is a critical part of breaking barriers, – but many years after Tyra Banks became the first black women on the cover of Sports Illustrated, that has done little to change how black women in America are read, represented or interpreted in mainstream media and private spaces I would imagine
N.D.S: As a blogging and social media aficionado, one of the things I have loved is how African women and queer African bodies have harnessed the radical possibilities of the Internet to provide space to hold community, dialogue and engage with each other about our diverse sexualities, and our right to bodily integrity and sexual pleasure. I feel proud that, in some way, my own blog ‘Adventures from the Bedrooms of African women’ has contributed to that space, as well as blogs like HOLAA, and Ms Afropolitan. If anything, these online spaces have provided a virtual meeting place where women and queer people can gather to share, listen to one another’s story, and know that they are not alone in their ‘weirdness’. In a world where women’s sexualities is usually portrayed in rigid dichotomies of the ‘madonna’ or ‘whore’, it’s important for women to claim and speak to sexualities that cannot be neatly boxed, and packaged for sale.
As you rightly point out Awino, the textual and visual representations of diverse sexualities, and the whole expanded dialogue around ‘sex positivity’, is important, and yet it’s important that these conversations do not end up being co-opted and become products that feed the patriarchal male gaze. On a personal note, there are times when I have wanted to post my nudes because I look at them and think, “Damn you look so hot”, and then I stop myself because I recognise that I only want to share them because I do look good, and because I still have so many issues with my body, and usually these are pictures which are masking the parts of my body that I most hate, and what I am really looking for are affirmations from my community. But maybe that is a legitimate desire, to be affirmed in a world when the majority of us have bodies that do not fit what gets fed back to us in magazines, television and film as beautiful and desireable.
Awino Okech is a Lecturer at the Centre for Gender Studies – SOAS, University of London
Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah is a Blogger, Writer and Communications Specialist.