Demented Goddess (DG): Minna, sex-positive feminism champions the freedom of women to display their desires. The Demented Goddess is pretty ‘cunt-out’ – but how would you assess the erotic value of keeping female sexuality more private, as in some African and Muslim cultures?
True, sex-positive feminism champions women’s freedom to display their desires, as women should be able to do. However, we must remember that women living in patriarchal societies are unfree. A complete expression of desire relies on the freedom to shape what you desire in the first place. That is not to say that we can rationalize desire. Nobody knows exactly why they desire whomever or whatever they desire. The word erotic comes from Eros, sexual love, and sexual love has a mysterious element to it because so much of what we are sexually enamoured with is shaped in the subconscious, and that’s a mysterious place.
Consequently, the extent to which there is erotic value in keeping female sexuality private, has to do with the extent to which there is erotic value in mystery.
If you use contemporary western/globalized culture as a gauge, it seems mystery has little value. By contrast,exposure has great value in contemporary western/globalized culture. This is because exposure is a behavioural trait that is easy to exploit for commercial purposes. The more that capitalists know about you, the more they can sell to you. Yet if there’s anything decidedly anti-erotic, it is capitalism and its fake and fleeting promise of pleasure. It may thus seem that those African and/or Muslim cultures that keep female sexuality private are honouring mystery, and therefore eroticism. Yet erotic mystery is seldom the motivation in these cultures either. In many African and/or Muslim cultures, advocating privacy is about control and convention.
Control and convention are as antithetic to eroticism as commodification and exploitation. Which brings us back to the original point, namely that the biggest obstacle to women’s erotic pleasure is patriarchy. Not least because the patriarchal system and its foot soldiers (capitalism, religion, imperialism etc.) encourages indifference to life matters. Whereas eroticism, for all its dependence on mystery, requires zest, passion and intimacy.
DG: What are the pressures on African women who chose to be polyamorous?
The same pressures as on all women who choose to be polyamorous. No matter where in the world a woman is from, and no matter what type of relationships she has, the main pressure is that she is forced to have them in a patriarchal society – a society whose norms diminish rather than elevate her.
Gender politics don’t disappear in polyamorous relationships: the needs for safety, agency, honesty, expression and pleasure are needs a woman has to insist on and can never take for granted in patriarchy. If anything, polyamorous relationships, by virtue of being unconventional, make the question of gender politics even more urgent for those involved. That can either result in more safety, agency, honesty etc. or less.
Patriarchy deprives us of the joy, trust and faith needed to cultivate intimacy, and polyamorous relationships aren’t in themselves an antidote to the void that the collective lack of intimacy creates. Nor do they automatically cater to freedom. Intimacy and freedom arise from the nurturing of honesty with oneself, others and the cosmos. Patriarchy encourages men especially, but increasingly women too, to be dishonest in matters of intimacy. By intimacy, I’m not only speaking about sex. Intimacy is about the connection we feel with life; nature, dance, music, art, humanity. you can’t cultivate valuable connections with these things without honesty. Think of how your favourite song, book, food or painting affects you; or the stirring you feel when you witness the natural world at its most sublime or hear a baby’s laughter. There is a tremendous honesty to such experiences. When we are intimate with life, we can bring intimacy into our relationships with others.
Nevertheless, by nature of African societies being patriarchal in a deeply traditional way, polyamorous African women, like any kind of unconventional African women, face huge judgement. Part of it is that women are not supposed to freely own their sexuality when they are single let alone when they are in a relationship. I don’t mean to imply that polyamory is only about sex, but inevitably this is what society will think and they judge a polyamorous woman as loose. There’s a predictable double standard. It’s okay for men to be poly but not for women.
DG: You come from a mixed Nordic and African background. Which of your ancestries is more matriarchal and how does this link to female erotic power?
You see, all cultures are matriarchal at their core. Women are the generators of power, the creators and sustainers of life. Try as it might, patriarchal cultures will never eradicate that deep, subconscious knowledge. What may differ in cultures is how much of that core truth shines through. It’s like painting over an old table with shiny lacquer. If you sand it, the table is revealed to be wooden.
There are unexpected similarities between Finnish and Yoruba cultures. Both are patriarchal. Finland has a perennial cultural legacy of machismo – although modern Finland has changed this legacy rapidly and, I should add, admirably. Whenever I visit Finland, I am struck by how Finnish men can generally be very masculine yet also comparably very feminist. In Nigeria, it’s the other way around. There is a historical graceful, feminist masculinity culture, but thanks to the spread of male-supremacist ideology, through popular culture, religion, imperialism and the favouring of patriarchal indigenous mindsets over feministic indigenous narratives, masculinity has become more macho with time.
The last parallel to draw between Finnish and Yoruba culture – Yoruba, by the way, is my particular ethnicity within Nigeria, although Yoruba culture shares similarities with other West African ethnicities that now comprise Nigeria – is that the two cultures have a similar mythos in which the feminine archetype is simultaneously strong but repressed.
There are, for example, fascinating parallels between Aino, a mermaid spirit in the Kalevala, the national epic of the Finnish people fusing oral history and literature and Oshun, a mermaid deity in the Ifa Corpus, its Yoruba equivalent. In both cases, erotic passion is the source of both their power and their demise, in a male-dominant narrative.
DG: Female sexuality is often regarded as having been manipulated, abused and appropriated by the patriarchy. But erotic play also allows exploration of the self and each other. What aspects of Eros do you feel we should talk about, more?
Above everything, in patriarchal societies, female sexuality is repressed. To repress means “to exclude automatically from the conscious mind” and that is precisely what the core of patriarchal culture does to female sexuality – it propagates that there is no such thing as female sexuality. Whether through symbolical, socio-political or physical castration, women are rendered sexless bodies that exist for men to express their contrarily uncontrollable and bursting sexual urges with, and to eventually impregnate in order to expand their lineage.
Sexuality is an integral human quality; it is a driving force in our actions and behaviours. So when culture teaches that women lack this integral human quality; and that women enjoy sex only because they want a relationship, closeness or some other mushy sentiment that men supposedly never crave, it is no surprise that both women and men become confused about women’s actual sexuality. Like everything else in emotionless patriarchies, women’s sexuality then becomes a problem to be solved mechanically (by men, of course). A woman cannot even claim her own orgasm as proof of her sexuality, rather the credit or pressure is on the man who “hits the spot”. This is why the patriarchy loathes no women more than lesbians. They disrupt the patriarchal idea that women exist simply to please men.
This repression of sexuality is at the root of women’s general oppression. As the feminist activist and author, Audre Lorde, argues in her essay, “The Uses of the Erotic”, the erotic is a resource “that lies in a deeply feminine and spiritual plane” and its suppression is the suppression of “a considered source of power and information within our lives.”
Eroticism assumes that all humans, women included, are sexual beings, and that this very fact makes them human. I of course don’t mean that asexual people aren’t human but even to be asexual is to react, if ambivalently, to the inescapable sexual nature of humanity at large. If to be human is to be a sexual being, as I am arguing, then the human species is a playful species because sex is an explorative, pleasure-driven and somewhat mischievous pursuit.
DG: The mischievous aspect of erotic feeling seems to get lost as we tackle vexed questions of power.
We talk little about Eros in popular discourse. The dominant sexual narrative is either graphically and indifferently pornographic, or recoilingly prude and restrained; two sides of the same coin. Both have to do with the repression of human and especially female sexuality. Both are shocked reactions to said repression.
Eros is by contrast an honest expression of human nature. It doesn’t care about the narratives and institutions we bind human sexual nature into; marriage, religion, the porn industry. It has no regard for temporality. A casual hook up can be more erotic than sex in a marriage of many years. Eros is essentially non-moral, not to be confused with immoral, but rather with not giving a hoot. Eros is only preoccupied with the exploration of the human sexual nature within, the discovery of something raw, pure and enticing in the process.
DG: Many of us have attempted sex buddying only for it to backfire. Is it ever a good idea to attempt an erotic friendship?
No. Haha! It is never a good idea, but hey, it can be hellava lotta fun. Not everything one does should be idealistically sound or life becomes like sitting in an exam. However, it is important to say that because we are forced to live in emotionless patriarchal societies, it is difficult to foster a sense of safety between two people, let alone two people who don’t care for each other beyond sexual contact. Yet a sense of safety is in most cases central to erotic satisfaction. Therefore, when sex buddying, there is still a need to cultivate passion, closeness and intimacy to create a safe, explorative and comfortable atmosphere. Many heterosexual women refrain from demanding passion, closeness and intimacy from sex buddies because it suggests that they want something more serious and lasting which in return would send their sex buddy scurrying off to find a woman who is as indifferent and robotic as he is.
As a result, while sex buddying may satisfy a need for attention or contact, it doesn’t automatically satisfy women erotically. “The erotic”, to quote Lorde again, “comes from sharing deeply any pursuit with another person”. To put it simply, casual sex/buddy sex – like all popular sexual narratives – needs to be reimagined, and from a woman-centred perspective. Casual sex can be wonderfully erotic, if it is on your terms and you feel safe. Even if it’s a non-committed relationship, you can still demand a full mind-body-soul experience and not just a wham-bham-thank-you-ma’am experience from your lover. Most women I know enjoy no-strings attached sex as a concept, but because the narrative favours men, they get less out of it in reality. That by the way ought to be the feminist motto of the 21st century – to experience unspeakable joy in reality and not simply in concept.
Minna Salami is a Finnish and Nigerian writer and lecturer, and the founder of the multiple award-winning blog Ms Afropolitan. Her first book, Sensuous Knowledge, a collection of essays applying an Africa-centered feminist sensibility to issues of racism and sexism is forthcoming from Harper Collins and Zed in 2020.
Minna Salami was in conversation with the Editor of The Demented Goddess, Soma Ghosh, Twitter, @calcourtesan.
All photos by Nadyah Aissa. Twitter @nad_ay