Reading Progress:

How The Sex Lives of African Women will set you free

by Jane Link

Some will find affirmation in how this collection of interviews validates sexuality in all its wonderfully curious guises. Some will find an invitation to step outside their social confines and touch—if only imaginatively—another mode of existence. But everyone will come away standing a little taller and breathing a little lighter, buoyed by the affirmation that we are all normal and the marginal is central.

Socials - The Sex Lives of African Women

I started this brilliant book voraciously, stealing a few pages while waiting on the bus and a couple more when in line at the grocery store. I finished it hesitantly, unwilling to let go of dear companionship and return to solo living. The Sex Lives of African Women is somehow both inviting and instructive: it soothes, teaches, and reveals with a gentle hand and clear voice. In this time of isolated lifestyles we have led since, and even before, the coronavirus pandemic upended our worlds, The Sex Lives of African Women fosters genuine connection, to the forthcoming women that inhabit its homely pages and—more importantly—to yourself and whoever you might be at the time of reading.

In 2009, Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah co-founded the award-winning blog, Adventures from the Bedrooms of African Women, with best friend Makala Grant. “It is our hope that the blog provides a safe space where African women can openly discuss a variety of sex and sexuality issues with the intention of learning from each other, having pleasurable and safer sex and encouraging continuous sex education for adults,” states the blog’s about page. Sekyiamah often recounts how going on a girls beach trip earlier that year for her 30th birthday, during which she spent “so much time having really frank, open conversations about sex,” lit her creative spark. Upon landing at Kotoka International Airport in Accra, she quickly called up Makala and got her on board in setting up a blog dedicated to fostering open, honest conversation about African women’s sex and sexuality.

Published by Dialogue Books, The Sex Lives of African Women succeeds that decade-long project. It is a collection of over 30 first-person portraits of women from Africa and her diaspora curated out of a series of interviews conducted by Sekyiamah over a period of 6 years. From political efforts to control their fertility to social norms denying their personal right to pleasure, African and diasporic women’s sexuality has always been subject to extreme policing. A liberating collation of sex-life stories from across the sexuality, gender, political, religious, geographic, ethnic, and even racial spectra, The Sex Lives of African Women sets out to do the very opposite.

Everyone will come away standing a little taller and breathing a little lighter, buoyed by the affirmation that we are all normal and the marginal is central.

One minute we are in Senegal, witnessing an alternative narrative of polyamory in which being one of many wives affords you the free time to prioritise yourself. The next we are in Egypt, where schoolgirl queer crushes are routine and accepted but adult lesbians shunned. Later, we are with a 6-foot-tall heterosexual who identifies as such on the basis that she cannot fall in romantic love, but only make love to, women. From the mixed-race wheelchair user who pines after the first love she rejected and the trans woman who laments her physical attraction to cis men to the kink-loving wife who is allowed to explore away from her vanilla husband, there’s an interview in here for you.

The Sex Lives of African Women is so incredibly powerful because it completely, utterly, and irreversibly upends the mainstream narrative around African women’s sexuality, a narrative that does not account for our relationship to sex beyond the confines of the heteronormative patriarchal capitalist complex and its valorisation female reproduction. Some will find affirmation in how this collection validates sexuality in all its wonderfully curious guises. Some will find an invitation to step outside their social confines and touch—if only imaginatively—another mode of existence. But everyone will come away standing a little taller and breathing a little lighter, buoyed by the affirmation that we are all normal and the marginal is central. The Sex Lives of African Women is a safe space: it is pure, unadulterated freedom magically distilled and transformed into a 304-page book.

This collection is split into three sections titled “Self-discovery, “Freedom”, and “Healing”. These culminate in an interview with the author herself, a thoughtful editorial touch that honours the powerful vulnerability of all those who have found the strength to out the most intimate parts of themselves. As in Adventures from the Bedrooms of African Women, all the interviews make use of pseudonyms to protect the identity of the interviewees. Internet trolls have spent years subjecting the blog to abuse, telling its fans that they’re all going to catch HIV and attempting to discredit the women’s choice to speak their truth. No one takes them seriously, and every single voice that makes up this collection contributes to a triumphant chorus that broaches the deep-seated topics with clarity.

The Sex Lives of African Women is a safe space: it is pure, unadulterated freedom magically distilled and transformed into a 304-page book.

It may be that quality that has led some to call it the “African Three Women“. While the need to legitimise Black creatives via comparison to one of their white contemporaries is exhausting, this comparison is especially irrelevant. In her two-star review of Three Women on GoodReads, Roxane Gay gifts us a delicious she-went-there moment in noting that this book about desire and sex could be titled Three White Women. The representational gaps in The Sex Lives of African Women are largely down to the domination of middle-class women; their overrepresentation can get repetitive.

Since its inception back in 2009, the interviews on Adventures from the Bedrooms of African Women have been organised into heterosexual and lesbian accounts. Sekyiamah admits to the outdatedness of those categorisations in this age of increasing understanding of identity as fluid and invites anyone able to sponsor a significant rehaul to holler. But the sections in The Sex Lives of African Women—”Self-discovery”, “Freedom”, and “Healing”—are immaculately curated, reminding us of the various obstacles on our journey towards gender and sexual equality. It is, of course, the heterosexual interviews that largely make up the difficult stories healing, and it’s largely the queer interviews that are ones of joyous freedom. In this book, queer people—not blondes—have more fun, and the sexual revolution begins with those who intimately understand the politics of desire. The representational gaps and stories we do not get are, in a sense, living in The Sex Lives of African Women’s celebration of difference and unbending orientation towards freedom.

By Jane Link

JANE LINK is the founder of bigblackbooks. She is also a publishing professional holding two master’s in literature from The University of Edinburgh and SOAS. Find her on Twitter @verybookishjane.

NANA DARKOA SEKYIAMAH is a feminist activist, writer, and blogger. She is the co-founder of Adventures from the Bedrooms of African Women, an award-winning blog that focuses on African women, sex, and sexualities. She works with the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) as Director of Communications and Media. Find her on Twitter @nas009.

How The Sex Lives of African Women will set you freeThe Sex Lives of African Women by Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah
Published by Dialogue on 22 July 2021
Genres: Sexuality, Womanism
Pages: 304

The Sex Lives of African Women uniquely amplifies individual women from across the African continent and its global diaspora, as they speak of their diverse experiences of sex, sexualities and relationships. Many of the women who tell their stories in this collection recall the journeys they have travelled in order to own their own sexualities. They do this by grappling with experiences of child sexual abuse, resisting the religious edicts of their childhood, and by asserting their sexual power. From finding queer community in Egypt to living a polyamorous life in Senegal to understanding the intersectionality of religion and pleasure in Cameroon to choosing to leave relationships that no longer serve them, these narratives are as individual and illuminating as the women who share them.

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