I am a non-monogamous, bisexual African woman deeply in love with love.

Meeting people, making connections, exploring their energies, discovering the many beautiful things you discover about a person’s spirit through the intimacy of diverse forms of relationships are some things I thoroughly enjoy. Most importantly, it is a process that is almost always spiritually empowering.

This article will not be a recap of my sexcapades, but an honest, philosophical exploration of what love is, what it can be, how it can be felt or expressed outside the norms of what love has been made to be.

A question I always get from friends is this: ‘How can you love more than one person at the same time?’ This is a question even I used to ask myself quite a lot. How could I not ask myself this question? Everything around me told me that love was monogamous and heterosexual. You were supposed to find your prince in shining armour, who would whisk you away to the land of Happily Ever After.

How does a princess find a princess? How the hell do you find two princes? Whose castle would you go to?

And the ‘castle’ is a very important element here for it is part of the hegemonic, patriarchal definition of love, where ‘castle’ symbolises the concept of possession and ownership. Love, defined in the heteronormative, ‘possesses’. It owns body, spirit and soul.

File picture: Homosexuality is criminalised across Africa, and LGBTI people struggle to imagine a life of visibility and freedom. lazyllama/Shutterstock

This stifling definition of love is forced down our throats in every area and at every stage of growth in our lives. Our introduction to it and indoctrination in it comes very early, by our parents to the cartoons we watch. Love was Snow White and her Prince. Love was Beauty and her Beast. Love was Rose and Jack. Love was all the Harlequin Romance novels with tall, dark, handsome, brooding men and beautiful, swooning women. There were never any stories of women and swooning women.

Read: The limits of imagining pleasure: Writing the history of African sex

I had my very first crush on a girl during a Girl Guides camp in primary school. That whole weekend spent camping in a forest with other Girl Guides was surreal. I spent it trying to catch a glimpse of her as she walked past. Trying to hold her hand. Trying to be part of her games. I understood then that I had a crush on her. I wanted her to kiss me. I wanted her to choose me for her group. She did. She noticed my particular liking for her and included me. After the camp, I never saw her again. Later, I remember being disgusted with myself for crushing on a girl.

When toxic love masquerades as true love

With this as my blueprint, when I started having my first crushes this definition of love was what I sought. When I went on in my late teens and early twenties to have intense sexual relationships, I looked for this ‘true love’ – which was really ‘toxic love’. What I found instead was a whole other rule book with very gender-specific instructions and very severe punishments for women who break these rules.

Rules like:

Boys will be boys.

Men cheat but you have to be the perfect woman so that you’re the one he keeps coming back to.

Do not nag. Do not complain.

Be perfect. Smile.

Be warm. Be fun.

Be ‘cool’. Try to keep his attention. Dress cool. Stop talking bookish. Don’t be boring.  Do not be a ‘ho’.

Guys talk and you will never have the chance to find your true love if all the boys know you gave it up.

Be a ‘ho’ in bed. Control your body count. Two people are too high a body count. What, you said six? I doubt there is any chance for you. Guys talk.

Guys cheat, so why the hell would you break up with him? You probably did something wrong to make him cheat. A man is the prize. You have to fight your sisters to get the prize. If you don’t, you will be a lonely old woman, so ‘make wild’.

You cannot have sex with girls.

And, finally, do not cheat.

Do not ever cheat. Women should not cheat.

And goodness, were the punishments for women who break these rules severe…

More rules:

If you loved someone, you would never hurt them. If you loved someone, you would never cheat on them. If you loved someone, they were your world, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Love was ownership of each other’s time, bodies, emotions. Love was the all-engulfing ownership of a life.

lesbian gay homosexuality
File photo: GayPrideMarch-26Oct13- 009. Photo: Niko Knigge/Flickr/ Licensed under Free cultural works/Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

I remember being called a ‘whore’, ‘dirty’, ‘used’ by one of my lovers when, in a monogamous relationship, I was caught cheating. I remember how he made me beg. My boyfriend at the time, in his hurt, despite how much he loved me, easily picked up the gavel of patriarchal judgment to punish me. I myself felt dirty and used. I felt confused by my feelings, which, while I was cheating, felt legit because I honestly loved the person I cheated with. It felt natural to cuddle with this person, to make love to them, to tell them how happy they made me. However, because of my indoctrination into ‘toxic love’, it became a battle between what I felt naturally and what I was told I was supposed to feel. Never mind that the person whom I cheated on had cheated on me several times in the past. Never mind that, despite the agony that was replayed over and over again whenever he cheated, according to the patriarchal rule book, I had to live with it. Because ‘men cheat’.

This patriarchal rule book made very generous allowances for men who could not be monogamous but punished severely any woman who was non-monogamous, who loved women or showed any such tendencies. Any small showing was nipped in the bud before it had any time to grow. To allow it to grow was to allow it to challenge the sovereignty of masculine power.

Then there is the other side of this very unbalanced situation, where patriarchy gives men a pat on the back for displaying virility and masculine prowess, which is so toxic that it seeps into teenaged boys’ spaces, where they feel out their masculinity by competing on ‘player’ status and high ‘body counts’. Another effect of this patriarchal bias is where otherwise monogamous men are taught to be polygynous to ‘prove’ their masculinity; while women are whipped into monogamy. Polygynous men and monogamous women – definitely a combination for heartbreak highway, with women’s bodies and hearts as collateral damage.

Read: The sex lives of Northern Nigeria

Finding out you’ve been cheated on in what was supposed to be a monogamous relationship breaks the spirit in heavy ways. The problem got worse when women were told that their pain and suffering was ‘supposed to be’; that there would be the empty reward of being crowned a ‘good woman’, the rare ‘ride or die’.

Love became like playing a game of Monopoly by the rules when every other player had thrown the rules to the wind; where women’s bodies and hearts were accepted as inevitable collateral damage. This was how I was made to think of myself in this very violent space that was supposed to be ‘love’. It is no wonder many women go through spells of depression that remain with them for the rest of their lives. It is no wonder that sometimes the long-term effect is the erasure of any zeal for life and being, or a distortion of what you really are. I first cheated because my partner at the time had cheated on me several times. It was a bid to find an outlet for my pain. But it only made it worse. 

At the age of about 13, I remember watching a woman who had just discovered that her loving husband had had a secret child with another woman. How did she discover this? The child just showed up at their marital home, sent by her mother to meet her father. I remember her going mad for a short while, walking beneath the trees, talking to herself, tearing leaves and talking to the leaves. It was such a heartbreaking sight. Yet, the fact that she did the ‘respectable’ thing of staying married to this man and ‘forgiving’ him, even though the blood price was the negotiation of her humanity in exchange for his, was all that the people around her cared about.

After my own experiences, I decided to end this toxic cycle in my life. I was going to be true to myself, no matter what the consequences.

A new rule book

What does being a non-monogamous, bisexual woman living in Ghana mean? How do I live out my love life? In a series of heartbreaks, just like everyone else. Then in a series of magic-stars-exploding, universes-merging, sun-rising-metaphors, fireworks-and-confetti moments. Those times when you really see the beauty of the moon and stars and sun or how suddenly beautiful the smudge of purple paint looked on what was supposed to be a grey wall. My life is a journey into truly loving for love’s sake, not for what I get in exchange, not for the possession of the person’s body, time or emotions but for they themselves, as they are, without the confetti, for their spirit.

This love meant understanding that they did not by default owe you their time or their bodies or compromises. Neither did you owe them yours. Instead it was an honest exploration of feelings, real connections of spirits and bodies. When all that love is is pure emotion, without tentacles attached, free as a feather in the wind, where only real raw emotion guides you both. Where every action comes from the pure need to show or express love or care or whatever that emotion is that makes you genuinely want to know how the other person is faring, want to spend all day lounging in their arms, sharing a meal, arguing about the top ten legends of acting, smoking together, sharing intense moments reliving the pain of a childhood trauma, then making epic love with this person, all the while knowing that they can do these very same things with someone else and you can do these same things with someone else and that doesn’t mean what they feel for you and what you feel for them is not genuine.

This all sounds beautiful and dandy, but it isn’t. It is not easy to love for loving’s sake. From time to time I slump back into heteronormative ideas of love and become demanding, jealous of my partners’ other partners, needy and depressed. It’s not easy to love without ownership because for your whole life, from your very first baby step, you are taught toxic love. You are taught love as ownership, and the punishments are so severe that it can leave one scarred for life. So, for me, it has been a painful process of unlearning, a process that is still ongoing. But each day, as I grow stronger in being honest with myself, loving myself so much as to be ready to love someone else with the same intensity, I feel the rewards. I laugh longer, feel happiness deeper, love more intensely, and appreciate humanity better with clearer, non-biased eyes. 

Loving someone should never have been tied to what you should expect to get in return. In ownership comes possession and in possession is an imbalance of power. Loving without ownership helps us erase all hierarchies of power that are embedded in the many oppressive societal systems we internalise.

Of course, as there are people like me who can feel this way with multiple people, there are people who can love without ownership in monogamous situations. Sexuality is not a static thing. Not everybody plays out one type of sexuality. Nature is fluid, sexuality is a very fluid thing. There are people whose greatest experience of sexual pleasure and loving another is when they experience it with one specific person. Then it is an intense experience of tumultuous pleasure. Some experience this with multiple people in a variety of ways, and to lose one of these people may be to lose the whole experience of it altogether.

My non-monogamy is not the status quo or blueprint for learning to love without ownership. And by all means, one can feel this love for someone of the same gender; for some people it is most intense with someone of the same gender. And sometimes this intensity of love can happen in moments – or sometimes in just one specific moment – when universal balance is shifted to other dimensions and in the next moment everything goes back to the old rhythm. The most important thing here is to be honest and true to self, to who you are and what makes you happy, without compromising self to fit spaces that would end up killing your humanity.   

However, finding love and connection outside the traditional spaces, being brave enough to live life as my own, being this non-monogamous, bisexual woman in a conservative, hyper-religious African society, is not an easy path to follow. It means constantly negotiating in misogynistic spaces – and often these spaces are the beds I’m about to have sex in, with men who think that my freedom to love and choose love is their automatic patriarchal freedom to own my love and use it as they would with their warped misogynistic beliefs of love, or with women who slut-shame. But this struggle is something I am willing to bear to be true to myself.

When I learnt to love this way, learning to appreciate moments with people and really enjoy the time they had given me, sex became a thing of very intense pleasure. I started to ascribe language and importance to what I needed and felt during the best sexual or romantic moments. I realised how much pleasure it gave me to talk deep into the night with a woman or man who gave me intellectual pleasure. How pleasurable it was to end such a conversation with sex – sometimes. How pleasurable it was for me to discover for the first time, or every time, new pleasurable spots on their bodies. To hear them express their pleasure when I touched them on a pleasure spot. I loved it when I was with a partner who had no inhibitions about anything but rode the sexual wave with me, wherever it took us. And when I started silencing my patriarchy-induced shame and guilt, I realised how important a new sexual experience was for me to have. I learnt not to dismiss my feelings as nasty, insatiable lust.

The act of sex, whether it was a hard and rough fuck or a slow grind, became an act of lovemaking for me. The caress of a kiss, the tickle of a tongue, the tight hold as she or he shook in orgasm, all of it became an act of worship for me. Time could be a moment or forever. It did not matter.

Toxic love teaches you that you own the person and the person owns you. It is no wonder, then, that we are bound for disappointment and pain when our partners do not live up to this expectation. When they give their time to something else – chasing a career, work, interest in another person – it hurts. Worse, in all of this, is living with the constant fear of your partner breaking their promises to you in this paradigm of toxic love. It turns people into ugly versions of themselves: overprotective, jealous and controlling.

So I try to love without ownership, and I love hard. Loving this way has taught me a lot about respecting spirits, respecting bodies and respecting the time the universe has kindly granted me with these people. I make sure to enjoy it for as long as it lasts. 

Loving without jealousy, loving without bitterness, loving without. Because it really means loving as you love yourself. And the first step that everyone forgets in the divine rule is loving yourself. Loving yourself as you exist in your innermost thoughts and feelings, without your parents’ definitions of you, or society’s definition of what you must be or do or feel. Loving yourself to the fullest, such that another person does not validate or invalidate you. Loving yourself so much that you truly get it when it is time to love someone else; that they should be able to feel as they feel without having to compromise themselves.

Toxic love teaches us that we are inadequate in ourselves, gives us a ‘property’ mentality, which makes us believe that we lack something in ourselves that need to be filled. Imagine all the trauma that is inevitably caused when people set out to have relationships with this toxic mentality ingrained in their psyche. But really learning to love yourself and appreciating yourself frees you from all that.

Love is a free, illogical flow of powerful energy that spreads across the universe as wide and deep as the ocean. The universe lives and functions on pleasure – the pleasure of alliances, of giving to get to give. In this process of exchanging pure pleasure, the energy is healing, rejuvenation and birth. And this is Love. 

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.