Sexuality in the Twenty-first Century Looking through Nigerian Lenses

The highly divisive nature of the conversation around sexuality in Nigeria means that sexuality rarely emerges in the realm of public debate or analysis, leaving the topic stuck in the periphery of historical discussions.

In recent years, there has been a visible explosion of human interest in sexuality. While this is providing clear benefits, there still exists an uncomfortable reality that permeates sexuality and its modern experience. In a Nigerian context, a certain form of silence surrounds the topic of sexuality, and this silence has come to define both the ways sexuality is expressed and discussed. This silence, ultimately, is brokered by the twin factors of religion and a revisionist interpretation of indigenous cultural heritage.

Twin Factors of Culture and Religion

The highly divisive nature of the conversation around sexuality in Nigeria means that sexuality rarely emerges in the realm of public debate or analysis, leaving the topic stuck on the periphery of historical discussions. Sexuality and its agencies are often defined as private when, in fact, it is publicly celebrated and praised. For instance, sexuality in Yoruba cultures is publicly appreciated during the breaking of gourds by brides before their wedding night to determine fertility.

The pre-colonial history of African and Nigerian societies is mostly undocumented. Moreover, what history exists is only accessible through Western archives that reflect Western interests and biases. Having said that, the recollections of pre-colonial communities indicate that sexuality was absent from communal discussions and was only discussed in vague terms that did not leave room for sexual curiosity or expression, such that the language of sex was stripped from everyday communication. Where lessons and talks on sexuality existed in pockets in pre-colonial Nigeria, the lessons, according to available records, were often heteronormative, discussed only in the context of marriage. An example of this being the lessons learnt in the fattening rooms of Ibibio land, where young women were introduced to the art of seduction and romance, and received advice on improving their physical profiles to appeal to their husbands.

More commonly, sexuality in that era is viewed through gender—the most dominant being male and female—and the relationship between them understood as defined by power relations. Common narratives suggest sexuality and gender were intricately linked and politicized by the male party who were expected to control the economic means and not be intimidated by sexuality. Eno Ikpe’s study of human sexuality in Nigeria suggests that women were not viewed as sexual beings; that women were seen only as a tool for procreation (which was only allowed in the bond of marriage as pre-marital sex was a taboo). Communities turned blind eyes towards the frolicking of men outside the terms of marriage while women were expected to keep their virginity until they were wed (strict penalties were threatened and often applied on those who deferred this rule).

The colonial period largely followed the same politics of sexuality. Using the tools of imported religion and mannerisms, sexuality and its expressions were mystified and ultimately repressed. The intrusion of local communities by western influences and authority shattered the already fragile, hierarchical spaces for sexual lessons that existed in colonial Nigeria causing regressions in expressions of sexuality. Men were placed in positions of authority and women forced into subservient roles that reflected the sexual-gender hierarchy. This period is also important for the crystallization of heterosexual relations as the only acceptable expression of sexual relations.

The historical pattern of sexuality and its discourse in Nigeria can best be described as cyclical. In pre-colonial Nigeria, the language and tone of sexuality while nuanced and obfuscated was ultimately present in communities in Eastern Nigeria, the Middle Belt and the South West. However, the legacy of colonial Nigeria as regards sexuality has been the vilification and denouncement of its expressions and the assimilation of that vilification into our accepted history.

Michel Foucault in his widely-read study of sexuality in the Western world, History of Sexuality, dismissed the idea that from the seventeenth to twentieth century, sexuality discourse was visibly repressed. According to Foucault, this period inspired scientific observations of sexuality. He offered a counterpoint that the study on sexuality proliferated during this period aided by sexual confessions, which were encouraged by the Catholic church. While Foucault’s work primarily focused on the Western world, it is useful as an observation of sexuality’s ability to thrive in the public sphere despite religions objection to its expression beyond marriage.

The Demystification of Sexuality beyond Marriage

The historical silence around sexuality persists in areas that have low penetration of formal education and educational tools, yet young individuals in these areas are experimenting with their sexuality. Statistics show that the time between ages 10-15 is rapidly becoming when individuals have sex for the first time; virginal marriages are gradually becoming a rarity as young individuals explore their sensuality; and sexual alternatives like masturbation are no longer stigmatized.

The danger with young people exploring their sexuality is that they are doing so without prioritizing tools for ensuring the safety of the participating parties. This is unfortunate as unprotected sex can often lead to sexually transmitted diseases and infections, sexual abuse or, in the case of heterosexual participants, unplanned pregnancy. Since the silence on sexual matters persists even in their respective homes, it may, in turn, force these youngsters to seek unsafe pregnancy termination options.

Daniel Jordan Smith’s 2000 study of premarital sexuality and modern identity in South-Eastern Nigeria presents an image of older adults at odds with a generation of young people steadily negotiating their identities. Smith found that young people in South-Eastern Nigeria negotiated their identities through constructions of, and narratives about, sexual relationships that did not mirror the muffled sexual expression of earlier generations. Smith’s study even used the sentimental Nigerian outcry, ‘These Girls Today Na War-O’, as its title. Ultimatly, the study reflects the tacit acceptance of older groups of the rapidly changing identity of sexuality in the twenty-first century and their disappointment at the change in attitudes towards sexuality.

The dual legitimization of education and incomplete acceptable knowledge about sexuality is evident in the sexual education classes that Nigeria offers. Initial efforts to introduce sexual education as a program of the National Population Policy of 1988 in Nigeria occurred through the institutionalization of population education classes as a tool for enlightening citizens about the problems of overpopulation. This then grew to include aspects of adolescent sexual education where the linkages between sexual threats such as HIV/AIDS, rape, sexual violence and a paucity of sexual knowledge and its peculiar advantages to the overall well-being of young people became apparent. Instructional materials still exist that perpetuate the subservience of the female sex and even imply that women or other sexual classifications—that are not men—should not express their sexuality.

The good news is that sexuality in the twenty-first century is on an upward trajectory. Increasingly propelled by Western culture and a vibrant, liberal African generation, attitudes towards matters of sexuality are less tensioned or dismissed, and there are more women in charge of their sexuality who wear that ownership proudly on their sleeves as badges of honour and reflections of changing times. The silence that defined the sex relations of earlier generations is now a whisper, albeit one that often threatens to become a booming sound.

Acknowledging Same-Sex Relationships

Perhaps the biggest breakthrough in twenty-first-century understandings of sexuality in Nigeria is the belated ‘acknowledgement’ of sexualities beyond the typical classification of male and female gender groups and heterosexual sex relations as part of the Nigerian reality. Indeed, the idea of multiple forms of sexuality existing in Nigeria is dealt with humour and treated dismissively in the heteronormative and hyper-masculine environment of Nigeria. But behind the japes, ‘gay jokes’ and casual prejudice is an acceptance—especially in Southern Nigeria—that other forms of sexuality exist. Sexual identities like transgender, agender, pansexual or queer are not shocking in certain circles.

In 2014, the Goodluck Jonathan administration signed the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act (SSMPA) into law. SSMPA criminalizes same-sex marriage and promises jail terms for owners and patrons of lesbian and gay clubs. Due to the passage of this Act, there has been an increased support for the sexual minorities in Nigeria and the promotion of their rights by campaign groups and members of the Nigerian LGBT+ community in the diaspora. In a strange turn of events, the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act that was supposed to signal a death knell for the Nigerian LGBT+ community has led to a heightened curiosity about the community that almost reflects empathy for their continued marginalization.

While acknowledgement of more forms of sexuality is on the up, understanding of them is not. It is not uncommon for anything that is not heteronormative to be tagged a phase, reducing matters of sexuality to a form of period or identity crisis. Ridicule towards non-heteronormative forms of sexuality remains wide-ranging, gay jokes are commonplace and widely recycled, and attitudes to alternate sexualities remain negative. At best, the everyday laboring Nigerian harbors reservations about homosexuality and, at worst, finds it morally repugnant and unnatural.

Historical Trajectories of New Expressions of Sexuality

The countercultural movement of the 1970s increased feminist agitations and redefined interpretations of gender in the West. While their male counterparts fought Hitler’s Nazism in Europe, women had been taking control of key parts of the American economy during the Second World War. Women formed sexual identities from the cultural revolution, and as globalization spread across the world, so too did the feeling that women can do as much as their male counterparts. Already, Nigeria had a history of women activism courtesy of the Aba Women Protests of 1929 and the Egba women in South-Western Nigeria organized by Mrs. Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti.

Sexuality informs identity. Previously, women weren’t allowed to express their sexuality and, as such, they were often portrayed as anonymous passengers of history, conditioned to have their identities bound to their fathers prior to marriage, their husbands during marriage and their children in the latter years of their lives. The rise of globalization in the post-World War 2 years spread new ideas of how women might rethink feminism and tackle gender imbalance. Globalization also provided opportunities which Nigerian women have thrived off, shattering the idea that identities cannot be formed outside their relationship with men. Western influence, while it shouldn’t be overstated, has been important. The idea that childbearing is the only reason for women’s engagement in sex has been replaced with the recognition that women desire satisfaction during romantic exchanges and the rejection of older ideas that men have an intrinsic right to a woman’s body and, by extension, her sexuality.

The ability of women to exert their sexuality is perhaps taken for granted when accounting for the increased involvement of women in professional or economic exercises because the gender-sexual hierarchy has been decisively turned on its head. A new generation of African women are no longer content to fulfil ‘traditional’ roles. The more women recognize their sexuality as just a part—important though it may be—of themselves, the more they take charge and lead revolutions roles in areas of governance, entertainment and policy-formulation.

Global Discussions, Local Realities

The Internet’s capability for linking like-minded individuals who are not able to express themselves easily in face-to-face interactions and providing tools for the exploration and understanding of their sexuality through cybersex, adult websites and sexual readings are contributory factors to the changes in attitudes towards sexuality in the twenty-first century. The vast reach and diverse content carriage of the Internet challenges existing inclinations and shapes perception about what sexuality is, what it should look like and how it is encountered. The gradual erosion of local media by globalization in the guise of the detailed and precise networking circle of social media means that a true global discussion on sexuality is taking place, reflecting myriads of points of view, perspective and thought processes on sexuality. Increasingly, Nigerian youths are partaking in this global conversation and shaping it on their terms.

The political authority of the day continues to ignore the issues of sexuality. This is, perhaps, in light of the insurgency problems in the North-Eastern part of the nation and the crippling effects of recession that we are only just taking stock of. The danger that persists is that political authority seems to be wilfully avoiding an issue of importance and while hoping it will dissolve without incidence. This only means that they are losing critical pulse on an important cause that has contemporary significance and won’t going away anytime soon