Women’s Bodies and Suppressed Sexuality

The Regulation of Women’s Bodies and Suppression of Sexuality Initiated by African Mothers

When I was 12 years old, I exchanged a series of text messages with a boy from my school whom I had a crush on. Our interactions spanned day and night, filled with affectionate calls and playful texts where we shared what seemed like the most captivating details to my 12 year-old mind. We divulged our deepest, darkest secrets. We even exchanged I-love-yous. One day, my mum discovered our texts and was scandalised. When she asked if I was a virgin, I told her yes. She wasn’t convinced, so she asked me to lie back on my bed and spread my legs, so she could ‘inspect’ my vagina and the state of my hymen. 

African mothers play a leading role in policing and constraining their daughters’ sexuality. It is often from our mothers’ lips that we first learn the language of shame. They enforce fear-inducing beliefs rooted in religion, warn about damnation for natural attractions towards the opposite or same sex, and instil anxieties about eternal punishment. Upholding purity ideals and fixating on the symbolic hymen, African mothers perpetuate damaging stereotypes concerning sex, body image, and sexual expression. These harmful narratives lead to covert – and sometimes not-so-covert – trauma that requires prolonged introspection, a series of challenging romantic relationships, and expensive therapy to overcome.

Efehi*, a book editor living in Lagos, also had her virginity ‘inspected’ at the age of 10 by her mother. “She did this because I came home late from school. I’d stayed back to watch a football match that my crush was playing in,” she says. 

Efehi didn’t know the proper words for sexual/reproductive organs until she was an adult and Googled them herself. “My mother never mentioned them, and I went to a Catholic school all my life, where they skipped the topic. All the sex education I ever got was summed up in the same sentence my mother constantly reiterated: ‘Boys don’t get pregnant.’”

The first time Efehi heard a teacher talk about reproduction, it was while she was in Genetics class in the university. Diagnosed with PCOS at 15, Efehi didn’t see a gynaecologist until she was 18 and her period didn’t show up for nine months. “The fear of pregnancy was what made my mother take me seriously. I also had fear-inspired vaginismus, and couldn’t have penetrative sex until I was almost 27.” 

While Eve*, a social media manager at a Fintech was not exactly denied proper sex education, she still spent the better part of her childhood navigating bodily trauma and a mother who was obsessed about shaving her pubic hair. “My body developed quickly. At 11, I’d already developed pubic hair, and I also started to see my period around that time.” 

Eve’s earliest memory is of her mother shaving her pubic hair with a blade. She would cry at the constant cuts and stings, not understanding why her mother always wanted her pubic hair shaved, as though it was something to be shameful of. Sometimes, the blood from the tiny blade cuts stained her underwear. 

Ofilison*, a lawyer and writer, did not have her pubic hair shaved with a blade, but as a child, she constantly struggled with a mother who was overly concerned with keeping her ‘pure.’ “When I was 8 years old, my mum was almost obsessed about my virginity. She would bathe me and touch my breasts and vagina, asking if anyone had touched me there. Objectively, it was a good thing. But it bordered on obsessiveness because she did much more than that,” says Ofilison. “Whenever I kissed my brothers, played rough with them, she would scold me. She was always worried about me ‘breaking’ my virginity.’” 

Once, Ofilison, tired of her mother constantly touching her and asking her questions, asked her mother not to touch her anymore. “It only made her ask me even more questions. Then she brought my father to ask me questions too. Then they took me to a hospital to check my private parts for my virginity. I struggled to forgive my mother for that.” 

For Ginika*, an Operations Personnel living in Rivers State, Nigeria,  it was the threat of virginity tests that her mother often used to get her in line as a child. “Growing up, I’d hear of people whose mothers did virginity tests on them, by trying to shove an egg into their vagina. Some also took their daughters to the hospital, to check if their hymen was intact.” 

Ginika’s mother constantly threatened her with these stories. “I remember not having my period for almost three months. My mum was ready to take me to the clinic for a test. Luckily, on the scheduled day, my period finally came and I was saved from further embarrassment.” 

Like Efehi, Demi*, a jeweller and fashion stylist in Ibadan, was armed with little to no reproductive health knowledge growing up. “All my mother told me was that I mustn’t let a boy touch me,” she says. One of Demi’s most traumatic memories is going with her brother to watch TV in a neighbour’s house, because their TV had spoiled. “My brother left the man’s house just before I did. My mum saw me stepping out. I tried to explain that I’d only gone to watch TV, but she wouldn’t stop shouting and shouting.” 

In the middle of the night, Demi’s mother woke her from sleep, picked up a knife and stick, and beat her until some neighbours intervened on her behalf. “While she was beating me, she kept asking if the man had touched me. I cried no, but she didn’t believe me. I kept wishing that she would. My words should have been enough.” 

A few years later, an older Demi was seen in her mother’s shop, chatting with a boy who obviously liked her. After he left, her mother beat her until she wept. “These experiences made me resentful toward men, to some extent. Anytime a man was around me, I would be exposed to physical abuse and a lot of hateful words from my mum. It was as if being seen with a man automatically equated to pain.”

Jemima*, an administrative officer in Port Harcourt, grew up with a mother who was terrified of her not marrying as a ‘virgin.’ “Whenever my period was late, she would yell that I better not be pregnant. She tried to marry me off at 13, all out of fear that I might become ‘loose’ if I didn’t marry early.”

When Jemima was 16 and fresh out of secondary school, her mother convinced one of her teachers to take her in. “She asked my teacher to keep me locked in the house at all times, so that I would not have the opportunity to see men, spend time with them, sleep with them and become ‘loose.’” 

Ginika, Efehi, Ofilison, Jemima, Demi, and Eve represent just a handful of the countless women grappling with these distressing narratives within Nigerian and African society. Every day, numerous young girls and women contend with these stifling realities. Fortunately for Eve whose mother constantly shaved her pubic hair as a child, she did not internalise the shame. “I love the hair on my body,” she says. “I’m married now, and if I have a daughter, I’ll educate her on sex and her body. I’ll tell her that bodies differ. I’ll teach her to be proud of her own.” 

Demi, who equates men with pain because her mother beat her whenever she was seen with a boy, says that the experiences have stayed with her. “For years, it affected my relationship with my mum. I’ve been in many romantic relationships, and my mum has never met any of my boyfriends,” she says. “When it comes to conversations about men, I try not to have them with her. I think she has lost the right to be a part of my love life.” 

Ginika says that her mother did not know better. “She wasn’t great at sex ed. She was raised religious. They just didn’t talk about these things,” she says. “If she still holds the same views today, she’s certainly not so vocal about them anymore.”
To some extent, Ginika’s sentiments hold true. As I grew older, I shed ingrained negative beliefs about the body and sexuality, beliefs perpetuated by religion, societal norms, and even educational curricula that my mother instilled in me during my formative years. Both actively and passively, she took part in my unlearning journey, asking the right questions, and often acknowledging the systemic shortcomings in how women are treated. Her ability to evolve offers hope that other mothers can also dismantle harmful teachings and embrace new understandings. If we collectively unlearn and relearn – by seeking therapy, taking part in mindfulness practices, and exercising self-compassion — we can break the cycle of sexual shame and put an end to the transgenerational propagation of trauma.

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