If Sexuality were a human being… (Introduction to 'African Sexualities: A Reader')

Published: May 11, 2011

If Sexuality were a human being and she made a grand entrance (l’entrée grande) into the African Union conference centre, the honourable delegates would stand up and bow in honour. But the acknowledgement of and respect for Sexuality would no doubt be tinged with overtones of parody and irony, even sadness, because although Sexuality might represent notions of pleasure and the continuity of humanity itself, the term conjures up discussions about sources of oppression and violence. In fact, once Sexuality got to the podium and opened her mouth, the multiple complexities associated with her presence would echo around the conference room.
The Reader on African Sexualities (hereafter referred to as the Reader) intends to translate these echoes into comprehensible notions and concepts, carefully examining their different wavelengths and the terms of their power and laying bare the theoretical, political and historical aspects of African sexualities. The term ‘African sexualities’ immediately provokes the questions: who/what is African? What is sexuality? Who determines what qualifies as African sexualities? Among other things, the Reader attempts to address these deeply complex questions through the lenses of history, feminism, law, sociology, anthropology, spirituality, poetry, fiction, life stories, rhetoric, song, art and public health. In this way the Reader offers a rare opportunity to theorise sexuality through various modes. The idea is to deconstruct, debunk, expose, contextualise and problematise concepts associated with African sexualities in order to avoid essentialism, stereotyping and othering.
The material in this Reader has been carefully selected to surface the complexities associated with what has been pandered as African and the issues surrounding sexuality that have been taken for granted. One of the main challenges for contributors to the Reader was to refuse to perpetuate colonial reification of ‘African’ as a homogenous entity. Hence, the title’s reference to African sexualities is not because we are unaware of the richness and diversity of African peoples’ heritage and experiences. Jane Bennett’s essay in Chapter 6 addresses this issue at great length.
Any reference to the term ‘African’ in this volume is used advisedly to highlight those aspects of cultural ideology – the ethos of community, solidarity and ubuntu[1] – that are widely shared among the vast majority of people within the geographical entity baptised ‘Africa’ by the colonial map-makers. More importantly, the term is used politically to call attention to some of the commonalities and shared historical legacies inscribed in cultures and sexualities within the region by forces such as colonialism, capitalism, imperialism, globalisation and fundamentalism. Even as these commonalities are proposed, however, readers will find them challenged.
Although diverse forces interrupted the shape of sexualities on the continent – redefining notions of morality, for example, and ‘freezing’ them into social and political spaces through both penal codification and complex alliances with political and religious authority – differences among continental spaces meant that such interruptions had diverse effects. Such forces further attempted to standardise global ideas about African sexualities, often erasing questions of diversities and complexities of sexual relations. As the material in Part 1 reveals, however, colonial methods of researching, theorising and engaging in sexualities in Africa left indelible and significant imprints on people’s sexual lives.
This, however, is not to suggest that the continent became a hostage of its late colonial history. As the materials in this Reader clearly show, the continent is currently replete with vibrant movements, some seeking to reinforce sexual hegemonic powers and others challenging, subverting and resisting imposed modes of identity, morality and behaviour patterns. Some of the subversions have deep roots – Parts 2 and 3, titled ‘Sexuality, power and politics’ and ‘Mapping sexual representations and practices of identity’, respectively, offer expansions of these issues and excavate the political origins and social consequences of the politics of sexualities in Africa.
We speak of sexualities in the plural in recognition of the complex structures within which sexuality is constructed and in recognition of its pluralist articulations. The notion of a homogeneous, unchanging sexuality for all Africans is out of touch not only with the realities of lives, experiences, identities and relationships but also with current activism and scholarship. Ideas about and experiences of African sexualities are shaped and defined by issues such as colonialism, globalisation, patriarchy, gender, class, religion, age, law and culture. Because these phenomena are at play elsewhere in the world, and because of the various historical links that connect Africa to the rest of humankind, some theoretical and conceptual approaches that have informed sexualities studies elsewhere have relevance to the way writers think through questions of African sexualities.
Sexualities are often thought of as closely related to one of the most critical of biological processes, namely reproduction. But contemporary scholarship understands sexualities as socially constructed, in profound and troubling engagement with the biological, and therefore as heavily influenced by, and implicated within, social, cultural, political and economic forces. The study of sexualities therefore offers unending lessons about pleasure, creativity, subversion, violence, oppression and living. Attempts to define the term sexuality often end in frustration, and become in themselves exercises about writers’ own orientations, prioritisations and passions. As Oliver Phillips reminds us:
‘Sexuality can be defined by referring to a wide range of anatomical acts and physical behaviour involving one, two or more people. We can relate it to emotional expressions of love, intimacy and desire that can take an infinite variety of forms. Or it can be implicated in the reproduction of social structures and markers through rules and regulations that permit or prohibit specific relations and/or acts. In the end, it emerges that these definitions are far from exhaustive. None of them are adequate on their own but that when considered all together they reflect the multiple ways that sexuality is manifest and impacts on our lives, and that above all; these definitions all consistently involve relations of power.’ (Phillips 2011: 285)
It is this question of power to which the materials in this Reader return time and again.
As a continent, Africa has made significant progress in creating the space at policy level for discussion of sexual and reproductive health and rights. Since the International Conference on Population and Development held in Cairo, Egypt in 1994, the African Union has adopted the Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol),[2] the Plan of Action on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (Maputo Plan of Action),[3] and the Campaign on Accelerated Reduction of Maternal Mortality in Africa (CARMMA).[4] These continent-wide efforts have boosted the possibility of creating national policies on a wide variety of issues including gender-based violence, access to reproductive healthcare and a focus on sexualities education, among others.
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