How Respectability Politics Hinders Expressions of African Women’s Sexuality

Photo by Cindy Leah

This is how most girls, cis or trans, come to understand the limits of our lives: we are introduced early to the guardians of girlhood known as shame and fear. 

From the moment our girlhood is detected, we are made to understand that we can be safe, we can be cared for, we can even be loved, as long as we follow the rules with which our families and societies bind us. Don’t sit like that. You’re not allowed to wear that. You can’t go there. The specifics of how we are taught to fear our desires and feel shame about our bodies might differ, but the message is always the same: you belong to everybody but yourself. Act accordingly.  

If our societies are to be believed, the rules for succeeding at girlhood are simple. To be a good girl, you must:

  1. Curtail your desires and your possibilities. 
  2. Respond with “how high?” when you hear “jump”, unless the voice saying jump is your own. 
  3. Present yourself as ornamentally but as unobtrusively as possible. 
  4. Obey in silence. Serve, also in silence. 
  5. Be surprised by acknowledgments of your beauty as if you have never seen your own face before. 
  6. Most of all, never let it be heard that a man—any man!–feels anything besides unadulterated pleasure around or because of you. 

The politics of respectability frames safety as a scarce resource; a conditional commodity, if you will. This way, women and girls can be kept in perpetual competition with one another for men’s attention and social approval. 

We are all taught by respectability that a girl who experiences harm has brought it on herself by transgressing somehow. As such, any girl who escapes gendered violence can pride herself on her personal goodness, and it is in her interests to refuse to ally with girls who do experience violence. On the other hand, girls who are harmed end up struggling with internalised blame, believing that they must have done something to bring such violations upon themselves. All of this works very well for those people who confirm the boundaries of their power by abusing girls, because it makes sure that they can continue to get away with it.

The quiet part—the aspect of this social contract that too often goes unspoken—is that the opposite of respectability is gender-based violence, particularly rape. When a girl follows the rules, she is respectable. When she doesn’t, she becomes legitimately rapeable. This is why shame and fear work so closely together to shape our collective experience of girlhood and womanhood in this world: don’t wear that, or you’ll get raped. You went somewhere you shouldn’t have, so you got raped. The tacit underbelly of the way girls are raised is that respectability is not just an ideal that we must live up to: it is also a threat that we must desperately hope we can escape. Like feminist scholar Pumla Gqola explains in her book, “Rape: a South African Nightmare”, rape is a favourite tool of the patriarchy for controlling women and girls.

Respectability and its scant rewards are some of the most effective of patriarchy’s deceptions, because women and girls all over the world continue to be indoctrinated into the belief that we can somehow escape misogynistic harm, as long as we ‘behave’. The effort to be respectable keeps women looking over our shoulders, not only in fear of who might be trying to harm us, but also in permanent concern about who can see our proper performance of femininity and reward us with protection as a result. 

Our society has told us all that there is only one way for women to be safe, loved and happy: by being ‘good’, i.e. sacrificing ourselves on the altar of other people’s comfort. When we submit, then we will be safe. Otherwise, we are to blame for the violence that society is so desperate to inflict on us. Women like Britney Spears know all too well how this misogynistic setup works. As a teenager she worked hard to maintain a virginal image, knowing that her musical talent would always take a backseat to patriarchal demands. Yet, one man’s baseless allegations of having had consensual sex with her were enough to turn the entire Hollywood machine against Britney, resulting in multiple nervous breakdowns that the world still remembers.

In the decades since Britney’s life was upended by a perceived failure of respectability, not much has changed. On social media today, women and girls who use their bodies as they please are invariably targeted with harassment. Whether it is by people mockingly photoshopping clothes onto dancers or models’ scantily clad bodies “to teach them a lesson”, or men threatening to remove privacy-preserving filters from women’s submissions to viral trends involving partial or complete nudity, the message is the same. “Conform to patriarchy’s arbitrary demands or be punished.”

None of this is by accident: such targeted abuse is designed to force women back into ‘proper conduct’, and to send a message to others about what awaits them if they transgress in similar ways. At family gatherings, women who dare to eat as much as they want or wear ‘immodest’ clothes are mocked, the prevailing threat being that they will be unable to attract men who won’t violate them. On the street, women who do attract men’s attention are expected to yield to said men’s desire or be punished with immediate, unprovoked abuse. And unfortunately, the most violent instances of this misogyny are reserved for those among us who are trans and out, living in poverty, visibly queer, or otherwise multiply marginalised in our womanhood.

The rules of respectability are extremely resistant to change, but fortunately, feminism has made it possible for women and girls to recognize that we can change them. Many of us now understand that the rewards for being ‘good’ girls and women are limited and inconsistent. We understand, for example, that we can be called ashewo just for existing. We realise that even when we are obedient, we can still be violated. We have heard too many stories of girls having their goodness repaid with suffering and pain. We have heard even the stories that weren’t told: from looking at the lives of many of our mothers and aunties, we glean truths that they have never spoken. Goodness won’t save us. Respectability won’t save us. It never has, because it was never designed to.

As a feminist, I realized long ago that respectability politics is a hamster wheel. It forces women and girls to strive for safety and humanity in a society that actively denies us these things, while telling us that it is our fault that they are out of reach. Thanks to feminist solidarity, I have learned that I can be safe, loved and valued by people who see me as a full human being. I learned that I don’t deserve to experience harm or violence no matter what I wear or where I go. I learned to lay the blame for the violence I’ve experienced at the feet of the perpetrators and their enablers. Most importantly, I learned that it is better to be free than to be good. 

The good girl I used to strive to be now lives in the rearview mirror of my life. And more than that, she is extremely happy for the girl I am today. She was so afraid, you see. So very afraid. But now, thanks to the wild girl I have become; the happy girl, the free girl, the loved girl, she knows that this fear was never hers to carry. Now it is the world that is afraid, because it has to bear witness to the heights a girl can reach when the only voice she listens to is her own.

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