Archive | September, 2012

Sex Strike

13 Sep

Isabelle Améganvi

The women of Togo have declared a sex strike! “We call on all women to deprive their husbands of sex for a week. For us, this is a way of pressuring all men to invest themselves in this struggle that the group ‘Let’s Save Togo’ has been leading for several weeks”

I’ve got a friend in Lome scoping out the situation and I’m dying to hear how it works. But the very concept is indicative of how women think about their personal power.

This article is in French, so here’s the spark notes translation: The strike is being organized by the female branch of the activist group “Let’s Save Togo,” which has been pressing the legislature to reform the electoral code before the upcoming elections in October and asking for the removal of president Faure Gnassingbé, who inherited the position after the death of his father in 2005.

Isabelle Améganvi (pictured above), vice president of the Alliance for Change, explained, “Women are the first victims of the devastating situation that we live here in Togo. This is why we are telling all women: one week without sex. This too is a weapon of the struggle.”

I have frequently commented on sex as a source of power for women in Benin (fyi Togo is next to Benin and they share many cultural and geographic similarities). But sex in this case is a source of power rooted in the power of a man, harkening back to the days of “Behind every great man, there’s a woman”…

Oh wait, people still say that. When are women going to stop defining their power in relation to the power of their husbands?

Running for office as a female politician in West Africa is extremely challenging, but women do it. Women are powerful business leaders, women are activists, women are in government.  This whole sex strike in Togo creates an ‘us vs. them’ gender dichotomy and it is a step in the wrong direction. The idea feels rather pre-suffrage, like, “Use your sexual powers to influence your husband’s vote!” I imagine it would be insulting to the women who have made it in politics, to imply that women’s power is in the bedroom.

On a side note, there was a mention of the strike in the Providence Journal, so kudos to the women of Togo for pulling an awesome publicity stunt!


Smart Women Should Watch Porn

13 Sep

Being back in the U.S. has made me question some of the assumptions I made about my own culture while studying sexuality in Africa, as has this Ms Afropolitan post.

I wondered about cultural influences on male sexual fantasies, questioning whether African traditions like FGM and dry sex ( were revealing of a distaste for female sexual pleasure.  Learning about these exotically horrific practices made me place American sexuality on a pedestal of female-friendliness.

But perhaps nothing is more revealing of predominant male fantasies than popular porn videos, and this article reminded me that we’ve got more than our own fair share of problems. The popularity of misogynistic porn in the U.S. should have us all reflecting on the ways in which early exposure to violent pornographic videos may be affecting our society.


The Myth of the Disappearing Man

13 Sep

A common observation has been noted by almost every Beninese person I’ve talked to throughout my research process.  Men and women, students and professors, research participants and random people on the street have all agreed that women are surpassing men as a percentage of the Beninese population at an alarming rate.

A frequently quoted statistic is that for every 10 children born in Benin, as many as 8 may be girls.  

Setting aside the dubious wording of this statistic, let’s talk about the variety of implications I have heard:

  • For a man to take only one wife would be unfair or even just plain wrong, given the masses of women who would then be relegated to the horrific fate of life without a husband. 
  • Women agree to be second or third wives, or mistresses to married men, because the gender imbalance leaves them with a scarcity of marriageable prospects.
  • Less emphasis should be placed on women’s empowerment, women’s rights, women’s entrepreneurship, etc. because men are in fact the threatened minority.  (I should be studying the sexual harassment of men, for example.) Although here it should be noted that the women’s empowerment movement in Benin takes the form of affirmative action policies, and the backlash is more against these policies that about putting women down, per say.

I found this 2:8 gender ratio, which works out to 0.25 males born for every female, absolutely incredulous.  But everyone was so insistent that scientific research backed up their claims, I decided to do a little investigating for myself.

According to the CIA World Factbook (United States, 2012 Edition), there are 1.05 males born for every female in Benin.  This means that on average, if 105 boys are born in a village in a year, 100 girls are born.

The World Bank’s World Development Report (2012 Edition) confirmed similar results, at 1.04 males per females at birth.  Humans naturally give birth to males at slightly higher rates than females.

Ok, so what about after birth?  CIA researchers found that in the under 15 year old population, there was a 1.04 male to female ratio. So again, more boys than girls.

Between the ages of 15 and 64 years old, the ratio begins to shift. 0.99 males to females, meaning very slightly more women than men.  99 men to every 100 woman.  And over age 65, there is a 0.69 male to female ratio.  

It is well-known that women live longer than men.  Men are more likely to be killed as the result of violent incidences such as homocides and warfare, and tend to die younger than women due to heart attacks and strokes.  Therefore there are virtually always more women than men among the elderly.  Although there is no further breakdown of the statistics available, I suspect that if the 15 to 64 age range were split into 15 to 49 and 50 to 64, it would be the preponderance of 50+ age women that tips the balance.  

As for the overall population, the CIA calculated an even 1:1 gender ratio in Benin. 1.00 men to each woman.  

Now let’s face it. People are not referring to elderly women when they talk about second wives and mistresses.  Something is not adding up.

The myth of the disappearing man conveniently justifies polygamy and male infidelity, while propagating the image of the chaste, loyal female. If there are so many more women than men, men can have multiple partners who are each loyal to him alone.  

But if the vast majority of men have multiple partners, and the gender ratio is equal, something is not adding up.  Society must seriously reflect on this reality as it questions the institution of polygamy in the 21st century.  


“Without a discourse tha…

13 Sep

“Without a discourse that enables women to step beyond the bounded, limited notions of sexuality as being either tied to reproduction or to the avoidance of disease or violation, we cannot begin to imagine ourselves in new and profoundly life-transforming ways.”

Patricia McFadden, On Sexual Pleasure as Feminist Choice


Joyeux Journée de la Femme!

13 Sep

Joyeux Journée de la Femme!

Today is International Women’s Day, which is widely celebrated in Africa. I spent the morning at the American Cultural Center’s seminar on Women in Public Service, keynoted by Beninese Minister of Justice Marie-Elise Gbedo (left, pictured here with Embassy Public Affairs Officer Rhonda Watson). Madame Gbedo is a popular and controversial figure in Benin who I have been trying to meet for the past 5 months, so today was very exciting for me.

She called for solidarity among women, noting how often she hears women say they prefer to hang out with men, or they prefer to work with men. She was talking about Benin, but how often do we hear that in the US? She reminded me yet again that while I am currently focused on women’s rights in Benin, Americans have work to do as well.

During the question and answer portion of the session, I asked her about sexual harassment and barriers to enforcing the law. She responded by decrying the sexual promiscuity of Beninese youth, and even making some explicit comments about sperm on the playground (all of which will be broadcast on national television this evening). But most interestingly for me, she noted that the wild new sexual trends among youth have little to do with affection or with female pleasure. She actually said (in french) – these sexual relationships are just about making the boy ejaculate and then it’s over. EXTREMELY bold words for a public official at an official Embassy event.

I think I’m in love with this woman.


A Message to Women from a Man

13 Sep

Yashar Ali does a great job of explaining a position I am constantly trying to defend – the degree to which gendered behaviors are culturally constructed.

Honor and Chastity

13 Sep

Yesterday a motorcycle taxi driver lectured me on the importance of chastity. I must be vigilant in protecting myself, he said, and be wary of the dangerous Beninese men. I should have only girls as friends, or maybe married men, because male friends will inevitably try to trick me into sleeping with them.

That evening, one of my host sisters echoed his sentiments. The Beninese men are very dangerous and not to be trusted, she warned (and not for the first time). They have their objectives and they will say and do anything to attain them. They are very tricky. We Beninese women, we grew up here so we know, but you don’t know how deceitful they can be. You can never trust them.  They will date you for years just to get you in bed, if that’s what it takes.

For a while I wondered what was wrong with these Beninese men, that they were all so scheming and dishonest. But I am beginning to appreciate the context. Female chastity is a matter of honor here, and honor is a very big deal.  A woman who gives in easily to a man’s sexual advances is not respectable, and so when a man asks her out, the proper behavior is to refuse him for at least the first few times, if not more. Plenty of married women will tell stories of their husbands chasing after them for years before they finally relented and accepted. 

Well in the U.S. we would call that harassment, if not just plain stalking. 

The male pursuit of sex at all costs is seen as natural, so that sexual harassment is often written off as with a “boys will be boys” attitude. Even when married men stray, no one is ever surprised. Maybe it’s wrong, but it is also normal.

The burden of responsibility for maintaining chastity and honor are therefore placed on the woman, which she is regarded as more capable of controlling.  She is expected to conform to societal and family dictates regarding what she wears and where she goes, with whom and when, in order to avoid being sexually harassed or violated.  So if she is victimized, she must not have been following the rules.  The advice I received was to help me understand those rules and maintain my dignity. (I think this is also the justification for my 8M curfew).

That’s not to say we’re doing so much better in the U.S….  Same problem, different norms.

This is an idea that has preoccupied me recently. When the Beninese discuss sexuality, men are described as less capable of controlling sexual desires. I recently participated in a sexual harassment awareness event at a middle school, and the presenters actually said, “Men are animals who cannot control themselves when they see a woman…,” then urged the girls to stop wearing short skirts. This is a flawed approach to dealing with sexual harassment because society expects women to submit to men, to elders, and to authority, while simultaneously expecting them to control the sexuality of men who are both older and in positions of authority over them.  Even girls who follow the rules, who dress conservatively and do not flirt with their teachers, can be harassed.

I hope that my research on the subject will contribute to finding more effective ways of addressing the issue.  No woman, whether she is American or Beninese, whether she is following the rules or not, deserves to be victimized.