Ever heard of sex? Well, apparently, it’s an activity many people engage in all over the world, some on a daily basis. Yet, it remains more practiced than discussed. While doing my research for this article, I found myself searching for statistics around sexual satisfaction. However, I was greeted with the bitter discomfort of being a curious African internet surfer. Most of the statistical reports I came across concerned only European or American countries. After some time, I gave up in frustration. Don’t get me wrong, I did come across data on Africa, but it mostly framed sex as a medical problem, with an emphasis on either reproduction or sexually transmitted diseases, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Even more intriguing was the fact that critical data found on sexual pleasure in Africa was based on academic research, thus only accessible to a very specific elite. On the other hand, the woman’s womb, vagina, and vulva (outer part of the female genitalia) were discussed as objects in need of rescue, a narrative often promoted by NGOs. One could blame this data gap on the Google algorithm bias, or the world’s long ill-founded history of curiosity and obsession with African women’s bodies.

Nonetheless, this power dynamic in debates around women’s bodies shouldn’t stop us from being critical about African societies and promoting equity for all. Unfortunately, sexual pleasure is often avoided and treated as a secondary issue, forgetting that a high sexual self esteem is immensely beneficial to one’s mental health, as a number of studies have demonstrated.

Before going any further, it is of ethical relevance to mention that I am in no way a sexologist. I am a first year masters student in Anthropology who happens to be very curious about genital self image on the African continent. Keeping in mind that one could do a whole podcast series on this theme, I will be discussing the intersections between genital self image, sexual self image and self pleasure, based on my personal experience, the books and articles I have read on the topic. 

Sex memories

Whenever I think about sex, I am reminded of a scene in a book I read, Always Another Country, by the South African writer, Sisonke Msimang. In her Sex chapter, Sisonke recalls accidentally seing her uncle and his German girlfriend have sex. She was rather shocked by the dynamics of their ongoing sexual relation. She recounts: 

“I was only six when I stumbled upon a man and a woman in flagrante, but I was old enough to know that she was having far too much fun. I knew this because I could hear it in the way she chuckled, which I knew  she was not supposed to do because what she was doing was something only men were allowed to like”.  

This profound scene highlights many women’s perceptions of what their relationship with sex should look like. As mentioned previously, sex has often been depicted as a way to reproduce and a source of pleasure, mostly prioritizing men. When I was a little girl, the official name for my genitals was “pipi”, a French word for pee. As I became a teenager, new words like “Chatte”, the French equivalent of pussy, or vagina emerged. Throughout my life, the intimate link between society’s perceived function of my genitals and its most common names played an important role in my genital self image. While one could argue that “pipi” is not necessarily a bad name for kids, the objectification of women’s bodies by society makes it hard for young girls and older women to have some sexual agency outside of the victim, the sexual object, and the reproductive system.

I personally must admit that sex was a performative act for a very long time, both with my partner and myself. I remember going from an extremely passive performance, one that Sisonke would probably identify with as a little girl, to trying to act  like a porn star.  After a failed attempt at the latter, I finally came around finding myself, a very long and tedious journey of rediscovery and unlearning, as our ideas about sex are formed at a very young age.  This video by Africa uncensored speaks to the sterotypes about sex and introduces us to African women who openly speak about sex in a healthy way. 

While there is a lot to say about sexual relationships, I would like to specifically focus on self-pleasure because even though most of the research projects around female sexual pleasure are conducted in places other than Africa, the correlation between positive early childhood communication, women’s positive views of their sexual selves, and a positive sexual experience seem to be relevant to many women. The first time I tried touching myself, I was clueless and honestly disgusted. How could this ever be enjoyable? How could I touch myself this way? At the time, I barely knew what my vulva looked like, and had no idea what the buzz around the Granfenberg-spot (G-Spot) was. Luckily, the Internet was a blessing (at least, before I started reading about the digital divide and Google page rank). One of my favorite videos about self-pleasure is from the YouTuber, Adina Rivers

At the beginning, it was hard to embrace my sexual self  because I, like many other young women, had a low sexual self esteem and a negative genital self image. This low sexual self esteem may be even lower for women who have been sexually harassed, insulted, or embarrassed. Everyday, women’s bodies are scrutinized and subject to critique and violence. While I would recommend therapy to address sexual violence traumas, making a consious decision to own your own body could go a long way. 

Boosting your Genital Self Image 

Pornographic movies have often given the wrong ideas about labias, resulting in unrealistic expectations. Contrary to popular belief labias are rarely symmetrical. However, once you decide that the surreal porn videos, instagram posts or sexist advertisement campaigns have no right to police your body, you can start  to see and appreciate your labia for what it is. Lock yourself up in the bathroom or in a room, get a mirror, and get to discover your sexy self! Notice every single detail. The hair, the beauty marks, the stretch marks on your ass, no matter the size. Get familiar with your beautiful vulva, your clitoris, and every corner of your inner and outer labias (lips of the vulva). 

Image Credit: Fanidh

To ease this process it is important to consume healthy sex positive erotic films and media content such as the Africa uncessored video shared above. Consuming content that will feed rather than drain your sexual self esteem and genital self image is key. Once you’re comfortable enough with your genital image, you can explore yourself in more depths, with your own fingers or a sex toy. Doubtlessly, it will be awkward the first few times you try. Be patient, and always remind yourself that you are safe and alone. No need to perform, no need to worry about protection or diseases. Just you, your body and the 8000 nerve endings at the tip of your clitoris. Isn’t this magical? And trust me, this is just the tip of the iceberg! Imagine the power and pleasure that would come with making yourself enjoy multiple toe-curling orgasms. 

As you may imagine, this article has barely touched the surface of self-pleasure. However, I do hope that sharing bits of my experience, along with the resources shared throughout the article would spark your curiosity about self-pleasure. After all, a social media narrative analysis on the effects of Covid 19 on our sexualities show a growing enthusiasm for self-pleasure. This is indeed the best time for self discovery. Why not light some candles, play something nice, and explore yourself the next time you want to travel to pleasure land? I promise you, you and your partner (current or future) will be grateful!

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