Men have always had a monopoly over pleasure, maybe more so in my patriarchal homeland Kenya than elsewhere. What was pleasurable, who could experience it, how others factored into the experience, to what degree – we controlled it all. 

Women were raised with the knowledge that they were going to have to take care of men’s whims. They were given the information on what that would entail: “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach,” they were told. A woman who was unable to cook was viewed as a pariah. Sex was more about the man’s pleasure than her own, and infidelity was just “men being men” while she had to be content with just him.

But times have changed.

The availability of more information in the public space on such issues as sexuality and gender fluidity, alongside feminist theory, has served to challenge the established rules. There are now people who know that they should be in charge of their own desires, their wants, their bodies. They are bucking the status quo, taking away from the superiority of men. We are not the centre of their attention anymore; we do not take for ourselves first and then dispense what we deem appropriate to the rest.

Read: Adventures from the Bedrooms of African Women and HOLAAfrica present: An ongoing visual sex and sexualities documentation project

Illustrator: Francis Y. Brown

Who started it?

But who said that men were best suited to be the custodians of pleasure to begin with? We hardly know enough about ourselves to ascertain what we want, so how could we do so for others?

“Your dress is too short…”

“Why is your dress so long?”

“You should smile more…”

“Why is she always laughing around men?”

“Homosexuality is unAfrican…”

“You’re a lesbian? That’s just a phase. You just need a real man to treat you right…”

We have been contradictory and misinformed in our actions. We lived oblivious to repercussions. We were gung-ho, breaking almost everything and everyone we came across.

The fractured state of society and the broken relations between men and women serve to highlight one thing: What we have been doing has not worked. The previous incarnation of men as the arbiter of what the right thing was for others to do with their bodies has brought us to this point. We try to apply broad-stroke rules and norms to a species where one of its members can be vastly different from the next. No one individual or group or entity can determine what is right and what is not for another.

Read: Ubungcwele be Hule: The sacredness of women who flourish in their sexuality

So what is pleasure? Who gives pleasure? Who gets it? How is the giving and receiving done? That varies from person to person, as it should always have been. This is finally becoming a conversation in a wider space, with some expected resistance. While some people might never relinquish the status quo, we will have more people who are aware of the power they have within themselves. That alone symbolises progress.

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.