There is a chorus that is often sung at traditional Xhosa weddings: Uthwel’ ilitye umnt’ozel’ intombi.

This idiomatic phrase, directly translated, means “Burdened and heavily laden is the woman who gives birth to a daughter!” It is fitting that such a refrain is sung at weddings. Perhaps because this affirms the notion that a mother has done well in producing a young woman suitable for marriage. While the phrase may also be interpreted as a fact of life regarding the dangers of raising a daughter in a violently patriarchal society, the focus of this affirmation is on the idea that the young woman has not brought shame to the family that has raised her, especially by not having children outside of wedlock or by being “known” by a plethora of men. It determines a mother’s success or failure. This refrain is therefore the bedrock of respectability.

On the other hand, when a young woman attempts to make sense of the changes she is experiencing while trying to hold on to the childhood she has always known, she is often met with the response “Uvuthiwe”. This is isiXhosa for “You are ripe.” “Ripe for what?” is often not answered. The first time I heard this was when my body had started changing ahead of my consciousness. Thanks to patriarchy (which affirms masculine boldness) it remains one of the greatest betrayals I have ever experienced.

So, by the time I had “the talk” with my parents it was too late. I knew way too much already. But my parents did not know that. So, the first sentence to come out of my mother’s mouth about sex and the raging hormones surging through my body from my medulla oblongata (this prefix would set the tone of the conversation) was, “When you get married….”. Add the fact that my mother is a nurse and I could never escape the reality that sex would kill me if “indulged in” (parents tend to step up their register when they feel awkward) outside the confines of marriage. Perhaps the reason the conversation was always couched in terms of marriage was my Christian upbringing. Many of us grow up in homes governed by Christian respectability with the odd splash of “immoral” viewing of Days of Our Lives and the Bold and the Beautiful. Most of us have watched these soapies (even if by default) and we can recall with much laughter the times that music (the saxophone instrumental) was one’s cue to quickly exit the lounge before Ridge tore off Brooke’s clothes – or was it Eric that time? 

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In addition to the politics of respectability that informs many a black South African millennial’s childhood, there was the fact that while South Africa was grappling (and still is) with a shameful racist past, one that often rears its ugly head in our current political dispensation, the post-Apartheid moment has also been riddled with death. And this death is linked to pleasure. This informs much of how sex and pleasure are represented in mainstream spaces, particularly in television shows. If South African television was not airing shows centred on upward mobility (Generations) or race relations in desegregated neighbourhoods (Suburban Bliss), there were shows that juxtaposed sex with death (Soul City). In the meantime, international shows – American shows in particular – gave us nuanced representations of what it meant to be young and black, a case in point being Living Single and, at the turn of the century, Girlfriends. In this part of the world, the turn of the millennium came with a youth series called Soul Buddies and the Love Life campaign, which centred on addressing the HIV/Aids epidemic that was gripping our nation. The Oscar-winning Yesterday further shed light on the vulnerability of poor rural women to the virus.

Advertising and Hollywood movies proliferate ideas of sex, yet traditional African parents still treat the act as a taboo topic, one which is not to be discussed with teenagers (Source: Simon Watson/Getty Images)

The postcolonial condition of we young people is one that is increasingly juxtaposed with sex and death. Sex and pleasure are not in conversation with one another, but sex and its potentially fatal consequences are. Are campaigns centred on precaution, de-stigmatisation and awareness-raising necessary and welcome? Yes. But what I am pointing out is how mainstream conversations about sex are barely nuanced and how these have fallen into the problematic trap of associating sex with death. This conversation has become far removed from black people’s experience of sex. While HIV/Aids campaigns have made significant gains in awareness-raising, a problematic artistic misrepresentation of sex and pleasure remains.

My meditation on pleasure has less to do with sex than it has with who actually gets to access pleasure within the sexual context. I have observed that this conversation affects black millennials across gender lines. In a patriarchal society sex is about power. Boys are taught that sex is about proving one’s manhood. This is why women are reduced to sexual objects, rather than sexual equals. Sex as a tool used to assert dominance is one of the reasons that, as a country, we are caught in what seems to be an unending nightmare: rape. Rape cannot be seen as sex, as it is violence. Sex becomes the vehicle through which to assert dominance and enact violence over another (feminised) individual. Femininity is thus seen as a weakness; the antithesis of hyper-masculinity – hence it is not necessarily attached to gender. It is anything that does not fit.

The other issue is rooted in conservativism. Sex is seen merely as a means to an end – and that is maintaining the family line. I have had conversations with young people who refuse to believe that their parents have sex. For these people, sex was solely for the purpose of having children. Sex outside of reproduction was unimaginable! And they expect to “suffer the same fate” when they reach their parents’ age.

It is strange that we should hold conservative and damaging views about sex, yet the pleasure aesthetic hovers over our everyday existence. You simply cannot switch on your television or drive on a freeway without encountering advertisements or subject matter that engages sexuality.

If pleasure is not smothered by precaution, it is misrecognised as an explicit vice. When you navigate black conservative Christian spaces (these may be orthodox or charismatic churches), pleasure and lust are like conjoined twins. The love songs of the wisest and wealthiest biblical king, Solomon, smoulder with sensuous pleasure, but are more often than not glossed over, if they are touched on in the first place. The issue is not so much the doctrine of celibacy or abstinence, depending on where you are in life when you convert. The problem is found in burdening women and girls with sexual purity. The “Jezebelisation” (yes, I made that up) of young women is at the centre of the sexual shaming of Christian women. An open, honest forum for discussions on the meaning of being a Christian living in a human body and how to make sense of your relationship with sensuality and pleasure has yet to become commonplace.

It is baffling that even with the likes of performers like Brenda Fassie, Boom Shaka and later Lebo Mathosa (when she pursued a solo career), South Africa remains sex negative when it comes to the kind of conversation I mentioned above and, more specifically, who gets to claim ownership and full expression of their bodies. When asked what she likes to do for fun MaBrr responded: I drink Hansa…and I fuck. To firstly like beer, a beverage often associated with men as beer in advertising enjoys an ambassadorship of men (never mind that a woman is behind one of South Africa’s biggest beer brand Castle, Lisa Glass instead of her husband Charles as I would discover in Beer, Sociability and Masculinity in South Africa), and sex is nothing short of breaking with respectability. This is further punctuated with the comparisons with the princess of Africa, Yvonne Chaka Chaka. Ironically one of Chaka Chaka’s biggest hits is about beer brewing. However in the context of this song, such production is in service of the men who drink it. It does not unsettle respectability. Then again, it might not be entirely puzzling, given that figures like MaBrr and Lebo function at the margins of our conservative society. Kwaito outfit Boom Shaka in which Lebo was lead singer was the subject of Nelson Mandela’s disdain. The former statesmen and father of the “Rainbow Nation” is alleged to have said, “Andiyifuni iBoom Shaka (I do not approve of Boom Shaka)” particularly for Lebo and Thembi Seete’s racy outfits ( I recall the It’s About Time video here) and “suggestive” choreography. I deliberately make use of inverted commas here because the very adjective points to how certain expressions are described in ways that fit a framework and context of respectability and policing. To whom is this choreography suggestive? For whom is it uncomfortable? Why can’t women determine how they present themselves in public without it falling under scrutiny? In an Independent Online article in which various artists recall fond memories of Madiba, Theo who was also part of Boom Shaka recalls the president’s complaints to which he responded, “We wanted to create something different for the youth”. Interestingly, Brenda hosted Lebo at her home when he was 14 years old.

Brenda Fassie shares the stage with Mandela after the late Afropop singer’s hit “Vulindlela” was adopted by the ANC in 1999 as a campaign song. Picture: Christiaan Kotze

These were not artists who appropriated sensuality and sexuality, in all its nuanced and fluid forms, for shock value. Their visibility, in life and posthumously, in South African popular culture in no uncertain terms demand that we shift our gaze to a subculture of young people engaging with pleasure in serious and rigorous ways. I therefore cannot think about what the pleasure aesthetic means without challenging the very racist and colourist bias that informs which experiences of pleasure are deemed legitimate.

On the surface, black women who push back against respectability by owning their bodies and exploring pleasure on their own terms are shamed – but behind closed doors – they remain objects of consumption; a guilty pleasure. Ultimately, shame is at the centre of how “unwanted bodies” are interacted with. A woman may be seen as undesirable in racist and colourist terms, but patriarchal entitlement will ensure that sex is had regardless. And in this instance the woman’s pleasure is of no consequence. 

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But in spite of this reality, black women across gender lines continue to push back against policing and respectability. Women are thinking through what pleasure means to and for our bodies. As such we are defining for ourselves a pleasure aesthetic that centres on our humanity. It begins with reclaiming ownership. From girlhood to womanhood, a black girl’s body is not her own. In girlhood, the father (regardless of whether he is present or not) is the custodian of innocence – until marriage, when this is transferred to the husband, the custodian of sexuality. This is at the core of the hatred for black lesbians in this country; because their identity breaks with that belief.

Photo by Siphumeze Khundayi Muse: Thabile

So I have not defined pleasure and what it looks like. I do not think that is possible, given how personal that subject is. This results in it taking on varied meanings. I am also not interested in distracting myself with current definitions of pleasure because they are neither inclusive nor imaginative. Pleasure in the mainstream is profit-driven. After all, sex sells. Therefore, at the centre of the current pleasure aesthetic is commodification. And in a patriarchal, violently masculine society, women are the biggest losers.

However in this quest to reclaim my body and define what pleasure means to me against the glare of patriarchy, I have to first be gentle with myself. If we are to learn from the subversive communities of black people who see pleasure as a realm for magic-making, a blank canvas awaiting art, the first thing is tenderness. The basis of unlearning is tenderness. You are ridding yourself of an aesthetic calloused by exploitation and commodification.

The article is part of a series of articles under This is Africa’s collection titled, Flame, Fever and Fantasy – A collection of African desire and pleasure.