A lack of sex education means young people don’t know much about human sexuality and can’t protect themselves from unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. Most people fumble into this territory, with married couples not being able to talk about their difficulties.
“Five minutes enjoyment is everlasting sorrow” was my late mother’s attempt to give me some sex education during my teenage years. She talked about early pregnancy and unwanted babies that result in nothing but truncated educational opportunities and poverty. Still, it confused me. What was the enjoyment?, my young mind wondered, and: What was the sorrow?, since having children in Yoruba land is the cherished goal of the society? She persuaded me with the poverty argument, showing me examples of women who got pregnant when they were in school as young girls and never finished their education. The enjoyment part was something never discussed. Probably like most people of my age, sexual education came in the form of threat, shame, guilt, and misinformation from well-meaning adults and the general society. There was no education about what was happening to our young bodies as we grew into puberty. Parents have no rational way of talking about sex and so the default is to preach abstinence, which everyone knows is a farce for young people whose normal development includes sexual desire. Young people are taught everything else by parents and schools but there is a black out on sex education. To complicate matters, some of the parents who make sex a forbidden territory for young people engage in all manners of blatant sexual shenanigans like extra-marital affairs and having children outside their marriage. Not too long ago, a relative found condoms in his undergraduate niece’s room and became so enraged he called her a prostitute and other unprintable names. He pontificated about her loose morals, while he himself, a married man, was conducting extra-marital affairs with a string of girls. Such is the nature of sexual discourse and sex education in our society. It is full of hypocrisy, ignorance, lies, confusion, and unhappiness.
Many young people muddle through their sexual life with little information. Consequently, young adults take the default cultural route filled with misinformation and superstition. Girls are not supposed to have sex. A good girl stays chaste till marriage; so girls are made to feel ashamed for engaging in what is a normal human need, while boys boast to each other about their sexual conquests, patting each other on the back. Neither gender knows much about what pleases the other, and this ignorance seeps into the conjugal bed.
A long time ago, the Yorubas had a tradition of announcing the virginity of the new bride the morning after the wedding. The family of the groom would send a sheet with blood stains, a full keg of palm wine, and other full objects to her family to indicate the bride “was found at home”, meaning she was a virgin. It was a cause for pride and celebration for her family, but for the poor bride who was not found at home, her family would be sent half of everything, indicating she was not a virgin, thereby bringing shame and dishonour to her family. We read about this in our Yoruba books when we were young. Evidently, the culture has changed since those long-gone days, but there has been no thoughtful and systematic way of developing a sexual education that helps both men and women understand this very important part of our lives. How far we have come about virginity was revealed to me in an incident when I was an undergraduate. An acquaintance, a fellow undergraduate, was a virgin. She decided to lose her virginity to a boy she liked very much and who seemed to like her as well. He was the attractive and rakish type, reputed to be successful with the ladies. To her shock, he refused her offer when he knew she was a virgin. He said he did not want to bear the burden or the emotional responsibility of being the first. We were all shocked to hear this development, but it was clear he was far ahead of us in thinking about this matter, and that he cared very much about her. He was also secure enough in his manhood he didn’t need to take that offer and then go on to boast about it to his friends. We have all been trained to see our virginity as a prize to be given to the right man. His rejection went against all of our cultural training and expectations. Another dear friend courted his future wife assiduously when we were undergraduates, partly because she was a virgin. They spent all their time together, including going to classes, since they studied the same course. They both got married as soon as they graduated and started a family. I ran into him a few years later and he told a story of regret and disappointment about a marital sex life that was a disaster. She could not bear his touch, and she was full of resentment. He said he became so sexually frustrated he started having an extramarital affair with a girlfriend who lived in another city. I did not have the opportunity to hear her own version of the problem.
Cultural practices that use shame, guilt, and fear also do a lot of harm, much of which directly affect women’s sexual development, and frankly also affects men’s sexual development too, in spite of their self-advertised dexterity in bed. Young women who are sexually active and in touch with their sexuality are called derogatory names…
Women are supposed to shun sex before getting married but are expected to be great performers in bed once they become married. Men, who are not under this cultural expectation, freely engage in premarital sex but know little about female pleasure, believing their satisfaction is the same thing as female satisfaction. For example, studies show that women take a longer time to achieve climax than men, therefore men who are educated about women’s needs engage in foreplay and care about what pleases their partners. The male who reaches climax thinks he has done a good job, while the female suffers in silence. Women say they prefer the sex act to last longer than what some men can manage. The lack of information and inability to talk about sexual needs and preferences is a cause of deep conflict in relationships and marriages. The woman’s clitoris has 8,000 nerve endings, twice those at the glans of the penis, making it perhaps the most erogenous zone in a woman’s body. Some cultures cut off the clitoris and vulva, sewing the space up, but leaving just a little opening for urination. These abominable practices, known as clitoridectomy and infibulation, are to prevent women from having any form of sexual enjoyment at all. It is an extreme form of control which leads to serious health consequences and a lifetime of pain. Physical harm is not the only form of control. Cultural practices that use shame, guilt, and fear also do a lot of harm, much of which directly affect women’s sexual development, and frankly also affects men’s sexual development too, in spite of their self-advertised dexterity in bed. Young women who are sexually active and in touch with their sexuality are called derogatory names like “ashewo”, prostitute, and “animasaun” – someone generous with her “possession.”
A lack of sex education means young people don’t know much about human sexuality and can’t protect themselves from unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. Most people fumble into this territory, with married couples not being able to talk about their difficulties. The cultural myths that only bad girls have sex and men are virile super performers need to be put to rest. This myth of male sexual power is assumed in polygamous marriages. Pleasing one woman is hard enough; how does a man engage two or more women and honestly think he’s pleasing them all sexually? It’s a ridiculous myth.
Some married women take matters into their hands and engage in extra-marital affairs. A lot of marital conflicts and even divorces occur because of unsatisfactory sexual lives. Women who have been trained all along to be passive sexually cannot suddenly be vixens in the marital bed without education, and men whose perception of the sex act as a form of narcissism to feather their masculine nest, need to be educated differently, so that they can be better lovers to their wives and partners. It should be lifelong education because many factors affect sex as people go through life. Age, illness, weight gain, grief, unemployment, stress, childbearing and rearing, unresolved emotional difficulties, hormonal imbalance, and fear, are some of the factors that have profound effects on the sexual lives of couples. Both men and women need to be educated on how to manage their difficulties so that they can enjoy satisfactory sexual lives. People also need to know how to protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases, some of which could be deadly. HIV and Hepatitis C are examples.
It is time to take sexual education seriously in our culture. To relegate this vital aspect of life to the nebulous space of “cultural education” without scientific knowledge, pragmatism, and honesty behind it, is a disservice to the many men and women whose relationships and health are suffering, and to the young people who need good information…
Here in the United States, the society is evolving to recognise different types of human sexuality. Even though the Supreme Court has allowed gay and lesbian couples to marry, some people continue to discriminate against them because of their religious and personal beliefs. Such cases end up in court. There is the idea that homosexuality does not exist in our culture, so Nigerian lawmakers took a most unusual step of criminalising homosexuality under this hypocritical assumption. Homosexuality has been openly practiced in Northern Nigeria for a long time, and the Yorubas call gay people adofuro. Some diaspora parents bury their heads in the sand like the ostrich, wishing away their children’s evident homosexuality. I was at a graduation party for a young woman going off to college. As usual with Nigerian parties, there was a lot praying, and during one of those prayers I heard, “may you never be gay.” I looked around and saw many of the young people looking puzzled by this request from God. The fact is, diaspora youth have gone through an American education which taught them about the diversity of human sexuality. They are living in a society where some of their classmates and friends are not only gay but are products of gay marriages, sanctioned by the law of land. Yet, a prayer was uttered aloud in public wishing young people not to become gay. I wondered to myself how the young adults who are gay in the audience felt. They must have felt shame, guilt, and alienation. There is a high rate of depression and suicide among young gay people because of the shame and rejection they suffer from their loved ones. Being gay is not a choice. It is as biologically determined as being heterosexual. Some young adult children of Nigerians and other immigrants are becoming vocal about their homosexuality, writing about it, and living their lives without hiding their sexuality.
Last week, in Spain, according to the BBC, an Algerian immigrant, Abdel Wahab Taib, 29, was shot to death in Barcelona by the police because he launched a knife attack at a police station. It was first thought to be a case of terrorism, but upon investigation, they found he was a man distraught so deeply about his homosexuality he decided to die by what is known as “suicide by cop.” A person who uses this method deliberately engages in an act to provoke a deadly response by the police, because he wants to die. He ex-wife said he felt shame and guilt for being homosexual as a Muslim. He was tormented enough to take the path of death out. Abdel is not different from the young people among us who are homosexuals. The outcomes will only be different if we treat them with love and acceptance.
It is time to take sexual education seriously in our culture. To relegate this vital aspect of life to the nebulous space of “cultural education” without scientific knowledge, pragmatism, and honesty behind it, is a disservice to the many men and women whose relationships and health are suffering, and to the young people who need good information on responsible and healthy sexual development. The states that preach abstinence-only in the United States have the highest rates of unwanted teenage pregnancies. Civil society organisations, public health departments, educational institutions, the media and film industry have a responsibility to enlighten the citizenry on how to live sexually satisfying and healthy lives.
Bunmi Fatoye-Matory was educated at the Universities of Ife and Ibadan, and Harvard University. She lives with her family in Durham, North Carolina. She is a Writer and Culture Advocate. Email: email@example.com