I started this brilliant book voraciously, stealing a few pages while waiting on the bus and a couple more when in line at the grocery store. I finished it hesitantly, unwilling to let go of the dear companionship it provided for a few days and return to solo living. The Sex Lives of African Women is somehow both inviting and instructive: it soothes, teaches, and reveals with a gentle hand and a clear voice. In light of the isolated lifestyles we have led since, and even before, the coronavirus pandemic upended our worlds, The Sex Lives of African Women fosters genuine connection, to the forthcoming women that inhabit its homely pages and—more importantly—to yourself and whoever you might be at the time of reading.

In 2009, Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah co-founded the award-winning blog, Adventures from the Bedrooms of African Women, with Makala Grant. “It is our hope that the blog provides a safe space where African women can openly discuss a variety of sex and sexuality issues with the intention of learning from each other, having pleasurable and safer sex and encouraging continuous sex education for adults”, states the blog’s about page. Sekyiamah often recounts how going on a girl’s beach trip earlier that year on the occasion of her 30th birthday during which she spent “so much time having really frank, open conversations about sex” lit her creative spark. Upon landing at Kotoka International Airport in Accra, she quickly called up Makala—her best friend—and got her on board in setting up a blog dedicated to fostering open, honest conversation about African women’s sex and sexuality.

Edited by Sharmaine Lovegrove and published by Dialogue Books, The Sex Lives of African Women succeeds that decade-long project. It is a collection of over 30 first-person portraits of women from Africa and her diaspora curated out of a series of interviews conducted by Sekyiamah over a period of 6 years. From political efforts to control their fertility to denying their personal right to pleasure, African and diasporic women’s sexuality has always been subject to extreme policing. A liberating collation of sex-life stories across the sexuality, gender, political, religious, geographic, and even racial spectra, The Sex Lives of African Women sets out to do the very opposite.

“Everyone will come away standing a little taller and breathing a little lighter, buoyed by the affirmation that we are all normal and that the marginal is central.”

One minute we are in Senegal, witnessing an alternative narrative of polyamory in which being one of many wives affords you the free time to prioritise yourself. The next we are in Egypt, where schoolgirl queer crushes are routine but grown-up lesbians shunned. Later, we are with a 6-foot-tall heterosexual who identifies as such on the basis that she cannot fall in romantic love, but only make love to, women. From the mixed-race wheelchair user who pines after the first love she rejected and the trans woman who laments her physical attraction to cis men, to the kink-loving wife who is allowed to explore away from her vanilla husband and the vivacious teenage girl’s sexual escapades in Brazil, there’s an interview for you in here.

The Sex Lives of African Women is so incredibly powerful and has found such incredible favour because it completely, utterly, and irreversibly upends the mainstream narrative of African women’s sexuality, a narrative that does not account for their relationship to sex beyond the confines of the heteronormative patriarchal capitalist complex and its valorisation female reproduction. Some will find affirmation in how this collection validates sexuality in all its wonderfully curious guises, and some will find an invitation to step outside their social confines and touch—if only imaginatively—another mode of existence. But everyone will come away standing a little taller and breathing a little lighter, buoyed by the affirmation that we are all normal and that the marginal is central. The Sex Lives of African Women is a safe space: it is pure, unadulterated freedom, somehow magically distilled and transformed into a 304-page book.

The Sex Lives of African Women is a safe space: it is pure, unadulterated freedom, somehow magically distilled and transformed into a 304-page book.”

The book is split into three consecutive sections titled self-discovery, freedom, and healing. These culminate in an interview with the author herself, a thoughtful editorial move that honours the powerful vulnerability of all those who have found the strength to out the most intimate parts of themselves. As in Adventures from the Bedrooms of African Women, all the interviews make use of pseudonyms to protect the identity of the interviewees. Internet trolls have spent years subjecting the blog and its bloggers to abuse, telling its fans that they’re all going to catch HIV and attempting to discredit the women’s choice to speak their truth. No one takes them seriously, and every single voice that makes up this collection contributes to a triumphant chorus that broaches the deep-seated topics with clarity.

It may be that quality that has led some to call it the ‘African Three Women’. While the need to legitimise Black creatives via comparison to one of their white contemporaries is exhausting, this comparison is especially irrelevant. In her two-star review of Three Women on GoodReads, Roxane Gay generously gifts us a delicious she-went-there moment in noting that this non-fiction about desire and sex could be titled Three White Women. The representational gaps in The Sex Lives of African Women are far less transgressive and are mostly down to the domination of middle-class women. Though it lends this collection of isolated interviews coherence, that overrepresentation can get repetitive and make you think of what alternative ways there might be to tie diverse stories together. Since its inception in 2009, the interviews on Adventures from the Bedrooms of African Women have been organised into heterosexual and lesbian accounts. Sekyiamah admits to the outdatedness of those categorisations in this age of increasing understanding of identity’s fluidity and invites anyone willing and able to sponsor a significant rehauling to holler.

“It is, of course, largely heterosexual interviews that make up the difficult stories healing, and largely queer interviews that are the stories of joyous freedom.”

But the categories in The Sex Lives of African Women—self-discovery, freedom, and healing—are immaculately curated, reminding us of the various challenges thrown up by the heteronormative capitalist patriarchal complex we face in the journey towards gender and sexual equality. It is, of course, largely heterosexual interviews that make up the difficult stories healing, and largely queer interviews that are the stories of joyous freedom. In this book, queer people—not blondes—have more fun and the sexual revolution begins with those who intimately understand the politics of sexual desire. The representational gaps and stories we do not get are, in a sense, implied in The Sex Lives of African Women’s celebration of difference and unbending orientation towards freedom.

By Jane Link

JANE LINK is a master’s student and an editor for Split Lip MagazineThe Publishing Post, and her own beloved bigblackbooks. When not trying to land her first job in publishing, Jane loves to read historical fiction, self-help, and everything by Black voices. She dreams of one day setting up an independent dedicated to publishing those voices. You can find her @verybookishjane on Twitter.

NANA DARKOA SEKYIAMAH is a feminist activist, writer and blogger. She is the co-founder of Adventures from the Bedrooms of African Women, an award-winning blog that focuses on African women, sex and sexualities. She works with the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) as Director of Communications and Media. You can find her on Twitter.

How Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah’s The Sex Lives of African Women will set you freeThe Sex Lives of African Women by Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah
Published by Dialogue on 22 July 2021
Genres: #ownvoices, African, African American, Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Latinx, Afropean, Black British, Contemporary, Debut, Feminism, Womanism, Non-fiction, Queer, Sexuality
Pages: 304
Format: Hardcover
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five-stars

The Sex Lives of African Women uniquely amplifies individual women from across the African continent and its global diaspora, as they speak of their diverse experiences of sex, sexualities and relationships. Many of the women who tell their stories in this collection recall the journeys they have travelled in order to own their own sexualities. They do this by grappling with experiences of child sexual abuse, resisting the religious edicts of their childhood, and by asserting their sexual power. From finding queer community in Egypt to living a polyamorous life in Senegal to understanding the intersectionality of religion and pleasure in Cameroon to choosing to leave relationships that no longer serve them, these narratives are as individual and illuminating as the women who share them. The Sex Lives of African Women provides a deep insight into women's quest for freedom, highlights the complex tapestry of African women's sexuality, and bestows upon all women inspirational examples to live a truly liberated life.