On 21 April 2016, the Stevenson Gallery in Johannesburg opened a group exhibition titled ‘Sex’. Lerato Bereng, the curator of the multi-disciplinary exhibition, said she wanted to take the analysis of sex beyond academe and called on featured artists to engage with it as a lived experience. Controversial, to say the least. We joked amongst friends how outraged our parents would be, not to mention the number of African countries where the exhibition would have no hopes of being staged in the first place.
What this exhibition got me thinking about was that we needed to adjust the lens on sex by challenging the secretiveness that often governed its discourse to interaction with it that is open, frequent and public.
When we hear the word ‘sex’, we are automatically inclined to assume pleasure
The many shades of intercourse
When we hear the word ‘sex’, we are automatically inclined to assume pleasure or violence or something sacred. People can be carnal or spiritual about it, but the bottom line is that human beings are a sexual species. We do it in different ways – to a partner’s feet; a woman wrapping her lips around the mouth of a bottle, dirty talk – and there are a host of wild and bizarre fetishes, some of which I discovered through the exhibition, like bestiality in the form of fish porn, and torture. In spite of this universal knowledge, we limit conversations on the topic to intimate spaces with only our trusted friends or complete strangers, based on the belief that even if they passed judgement, it would not matter.
For some, sex is a horrific affair; a reminder of being violated, manipulated and used, or it brings up a reaction to psychological traumas that occurred during adolescence. For such individuals, the topic alone is a negative trigger that reminds them of everything that is wrong with the world. It is difficult for them to develop trusting relationships with others because they are paranoid that they might be in danger of re-living their torment.
And then there are those, particularly women, who are terrified of sex because it hurts. Such people might have tried therapy and other techniques to overcome their fear but with no success. Again, such cases are not readily discussed because sufferers fear being perceived as freaks of nature.
How could something so natural and beautiful be transformed into a method of torment?
When sex crosses over to the dark side
When one reads about cases where sex was used as a tool of punishment, one is forced to stop and process carefully. This was the case with one of Zanele Muholi’s installations, which consisted of a ten-year timeline of lesbians murdered and ‘correctively’ raped.
And what words are there for the women who resort to self-harm to numb the stigma and pain attached to being a sex worker because the very society they serve shuns and ridicules them? As if dealing with abusive pimps is not enough. There is also extensive literature on people being wooed into the porn industry only to find that they are expected to participate in uncomfortable sexual acts in front of the camera, while being hooked on drugs.
I remember vividly how emphatic my mother was about me being weary of strange men talking to me and enticing me with gifts as a child. Besides the fact that I already did not like people much (I can see now how that was a good thing) my apprehension was intensified by stories I would hear about Mr So-and-So preying on young girls for sexual purposes. That was coupled with reports that I heard on the news about men who said raping young girls, or even babies, cured them of HIV and AIDS. As an adult I am confronted with confessions by women whose husbands or partners use sex to control and subdue them. Then there are individuals who are bullied out of using protection, resulting in their deliberate infection with HIV. These issues are only the tip of the iceberg, but they always make me wonder: How could something so natural and beautiful be transformed into a method of torment?
When it comes to sex, the line between secrecy and discretion is a thin one. While there is nothing wrong with being discreet about sex and we all have our different ways of approaching it, it is nonsensical to still be so secretive about it. It is everywhere around us anyway. When something as sensitive as sex is put out in the open for analysis and discussion, it becomes a less touchy subject. Through more public dialogue and exhibitions such as this one at the Stevenson Gallery, its merits can be appreciated and the negatives attributed to it can be addressed more effectively.
Of all the natural things we are conditioned to suppress throughout our lives, sex and sexuality are the hardest to regulate. This is fact. I am not advocating for irresponsible sexual habits; on the contrary. My point is that the act of sexual intercourse is not ‘bad’ in itself. It is our attitudes to it and what many have come to accept as ‘normal’ that need serious adjustment