Sexualities in Africa
- LAST REVIEWED: 17 August 2023
- LAST MODIFIED: 25 March 2020
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0215
- LAST REVIEWED: 17 August 2023
- LAST MODIFIED: 25 March 2020
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0215
Human sexuality is a highly complex phenomenon that involves the ways we feel, think, and act (or not) sexually, all subject to change over time in relation to our physical bodies as they age, and to the political economy and culture in which we live and relate to others. Nature (genetics, hormones, physical endowments) interacts with nurture (childhood socialization, culture, law) in ways that are not predictable and indeed often only rudimentarily understood. Scholars thus often prefer the term “sexualities” to reflect the contingent and changeable plurality of human sexual behavior, and the ways in which sex is conceived in relation to the wider worlds, seen and unseen. Yet in Africa, political and religious leaders frequently assert or imply that “African sexuality,” as distinct from “Western sexuality” or “Arab sexuality,” exists as a distinctive, timeless, and singular phenomenon, often in ways that promote harmful stereotypes. “Homosexuality is un-African,” to give one notorious example, is a widely made claim that has been made to justify vigilantism and state repression against sexual minorities throughout the continent. Certain features of Africa’s modern political economy, in conjunction with inherited gender, ethnic, and other aspects of culture and identity, have meanwhile facilitated the emergence of seemingly distinctive expressions of sexuality on the continent, or among specific peoples from regions within. For instance, high levels of male migration together with low levels of male circumcision and a long-standing culture of having multiple concurrent sexual partners have combined to abet the spread of HIV in southern Africa to a far greater extent than elsewhere, particularly in contrast to Muslim-majority regions. Such distinctions bear important social, health, and human rights implications. The study of how local or regional sexual cultures within Africa arose can thus potentially address harms, like HIV transmission, that are linked to stigma, stereotypes, secrecy, and shame around sexuality. This essay introduces some of the key issues as revealed through a range of literatures primarily in the social sciences and humanities. The various headings chosen for this article are for convenience only—the works cited in most cases transcend easy categorization, much as sexuality itself transcends neat heuristic borders. Note as well that the number of studies devoted to the topic has exploded since the late 1990s to shed light on an ever-widening circle of factors pertinent to understanding sexualities (alcohol and drug use, pornography, asexuality, cults, and social media, for example). I have included a small number of references to material in French but there are bound to be further rich sources in Arabic, in indigenous African languages, and in other former colonial languages like Portuguese that await future research projects.
Overviews, Science, and Critical Theory
Writing about sexualities in Africa has historically been heavily dominated by non-Africans, often using the language of science that obscured political motivations. Before getting started on our own research, we need to think carefully about the language, methods, and ethics used by not always well-intentioned sojourners. Notably, missionaries, colonial officials, and European travelers who expressed opinions about subtleties in African cultures in the name of science or civilization often did so without the benefit of linguistic or cultural fluency, and to promote normative values or vested interests. This is a point that African and other critical scholars have frequently stressed in their own interventions, from Kenyatta’s sarcastic comments on European “friends of Africa” in the 1930s (see Kenyatta 1961 under Anthropology), to richly theorized critiques such as Bibeau 1991, Arnfred 2004, and Tamale 2011. The latter, with Epprecht 2008, provides broad overviews of the development of professional academic disciplines that examined sexualities in Africa. They query how the personal politics of the authors and their interpreters affected the manner in which their subjects’ sexuality came to be represented in print and deployed for political purposes (see also Patton 1999 under HIV/AIDS, Massad 2007 under Islam, and Zabus 2013 under Critical Essays). The explosion of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s brought these issues to the fore in a sometimes furious way as people struggled both to understand why “Africa” was being hit so hard by the infection and to combat inherited stereotypes of “African sexuality” as inherently pathological. Caldwell, et al. 1989 was one influential attempt to resolve those tensions and to suggest a way forward. Yet, as the author of Ahlberg 1994 points out from her own close empirical study, even sympathetic attempts to formulate a singular “African sexuality” fall flat when set against the diversity of African cultures and historical experiences (see also Becker, et al. 1999 and Kalipeni, et al. 2004 under HIV/AIDS). Sometimes, however, the critique of the Western gaze and the scientific method is overstated, and Chirimuuta and Chirimuuta 1989 is included here as one poignant example. It is also important to note that African researchers are not immune to the same critiques of their scholarship (for example, overgeneralization, uncritical use of the ethnographic present, normative language, and so forth, some of which can be discerned in Maticka-Tyndale, et al. 2007). We need as well to be careful when making the critique not to lose sight of the powerful tools developed by theorists in the West. As Epprecht 2013 argues, these have demonstrably been put to effective use in Africa and transnationally, and thus it is possible to bridge Western or secular strategies for sexual health with Africa’s traditional faiths (see also Dube 2009 under Neo-Traditions). Bailey, et al. 2016 also vigorously defends the scientific method as a way to advance knowledge, to protect human health, and to promote human dignity. Overall, the scholarship cited in this section offers a rich engagement with key concepts that have influenced the production of knowledge about sexualities in Africa, and which may guide us toward sensitive and effective research in the future.
Ahlberg, Beth Maina. “Is There a Distinct African Sexuality? A Critical Response to Caldwell.” Africa 64.2 (1994): 220–224.
This succinct critique of the Caldwell, et al. thesis (see Caldwell, et al. 1989) draws on Ahlberg’s historical knowledge of transformations in Kikuyu sexuality to argue for an education system and health interventions focused on specific histories rather than sweeping claims for the whole continent.
Arnfred, Signe, ed. Re-thinking Sexualities in Africa. Uppsala: Nordiska Afrikainstitutet, 2004.
Arnfred introduces this collection of essays with an incisive overview of the history of writing about gender and sexuality in Africa, including a respectful critique of blind spots or moralism in Western feminist approaches (see also Nnaemeka 2005 and Oyéwùmí 1997 under Gender). Chapters that follow bring nuanced feminist research ethics and analysis to a range of case studies from around the continent.
Bailey, Michael J., Paul L. Vasey, Lisa M. Diamond, S. Marc Breedlove, Eric Vilain, and Marc Epprecht. “Sexual Orientation, Controversy, and Science.” Psychological Science in the Public Interest 17.2 (2016): 45–101.
Summarizes the state of the art of scientific research on sexual orientation, including genetic and hormonal versus environmental influences, frequency and types of nonheterosexual orientation, and evidence of “contagion” and “cures.” The science does not support the arguments in favor of repression of consenting adult sexual relationships. It strongly advocates human rights and education pertaining to the full range of human sexuality.
Bibeau, Giles. “L’Afrique terre imaginaire du sida: La production du discours scientifique par le jeu de fantasmes.” Anthropologie et Sociétés 15.2–3 (1991): 125–148.
An often scathing critique of the poor quality of research and Eurocentric or racist assumptions that underpinned early epidemiological studies of HIV and the high prevalence of AIDS on the continent, this article makes a powerful appeal for scholars to adhere to the principles of rigorous scientific inquiry. (Title translation: Africa, the imaginary land of AIDS: The production of scientific discourse through the interplay of fantasies.)
Caldwell, John C., Pat Caldwell, and Pat Quiggin. “The Social Context of AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa.” Population and Development Review 15.2 (1989): 185–233.
Australian demographers challenge both moralistic judgments of African hypersexuality and unhelpful countermyths with a new singularity principally aimed at HIV/AIDS researchers: “a distinct and internally coherent African system embracing sexuality, marriage, and much else” (p. 187). Africa’s “fairly permissive” sexual attitudes stand in contrast to the repressive, guilt-based Eurasian “system.” The argument draws on an extensive, albeit selective, reading of ethnographies from around the continent south of the Sahara (see Ahlberg 1994 for a critique).
Chirimuuta, Richard C., and Rosalind J. Chirimuuta. AIDS, Africa and Racism. London: Free Association Books, 1989.
Like the authors of Caldwell, et al. 1989, the Chirimuutas were motivated to write by a desire to contest derogatory stereotypes about Africans’ sexuality that seemed to be driving HIV/AIDS research and policy in the early years of the epidemic. Their passionate antiracism sometimes leads them into unsupported conspiratorial thinking and denial of the seriousness of HIV/AIDS.
Epprecht, Marc. Heterosexual Africa? The History of an Idea from the Age of Exploration to the Age of AIDS. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2008.
This study (also published in Africa by UKZN Press) argues that a blind spot toward same-sex sexuality in Africa was created over time through travel stories, anthropology, ethnopsychiatry, and the early epidemiological studies of HIV. Many factors reinforced the stereotype that homosexuality is un-African in the face of abundant contradictory evidence, including as presented in works of fiction by African authors as far back as the 1950s (see also Epprecht 2004 under “Homosexualities”, Banks 2012 under Neo-Traditions, Achmat 1993 and Gevisser and Cameron 1994 under Homophobia and Heterosexism, and Dunton 1989 and Zabus 2013 under Critical Essays).
Epprecht, Marc. Sexuality and Social Justice in Africa: Rethinking Homophobia and Forging Resistance. London: Zed Books, 2013.
Considers strategies to contest a political and religious backlash against human rights for sexual minorities. It finds sources of inspiration in traditional notions of uBuntu, Islam, and Christianity and argues against human rights fundamentalism that overinvests in legal challenges to inherited homophobic laws and attitudes (see also Hendriks 2009 under Islam, Nkabinde 2008 under Neo-Traditions, van Klinken 2013 under Masculinity, and Theron, et al. 2016 under Education and Activism).
Maticka-Tyndale, Eleanor, Richmond Tiemoko, and Paulina Makinwa-Adebusoye, eds. Human Sexuality in Africa: Beyond Reproduction. Auckland Park, South Africa: Fanele, 2007.
An edited collection of somewhat uneven scholarship primarily from Nigeria, Kenya, and North Africa. Major themes include broaching sexuality topics in African classrooms (see also Bennett and Reddy 2007 and Epprecht and Egya 2011 under Education and Activism), religion (see Chitando and van Klinken 2016 under Christianity), and paths to promoting healthy/pleasurable sexuality (see Undie 2013 under Reproductive Rights and Sexual Health). Some chapters have a moralistic or normative tone that sits uncomfortably with the concluding call for more evidence-based research.
Tamale, Sylvia, ed. African Sexualities: A Reader. Cape Town: Pambazuka Press, 2011.
Dozens of established scholars, activists, and artists explore diverse aspects of sexualities in Africa. The underlying premises are that a) feminism, human rights, and sex positivity are necessary to the attainment of sexual health and social justice, and b) these are not Western imports to Africa. These concepts are embedded in African traditional cultures and can be nurtured without inciting a patriotic backlash if approached with sensitivity to local context (see also Izugbara 2011 under Neo-Traditions).
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