Politics and Society
Why African parents can’t talk about sex
Do you recall watching a movie with your parents, talking and laughing, when suddenly a sex scene comes on which seems to drag on forever? That awkward silence as everyone tries to find the remote control, ashamed to be in the presence of such a scene.
That happened too often in my household. Nollywood movies were family-bonding sessions. However, when Nollywood went Hollywood, I ceased watching movies with my parents. It was more for their sake, because I didn’t want them to feel embarrassed. Sex was the unspoken taboo that nobody dared to mention, so watching it was a silent abomination. It was easier to act like it didn’t exist.
However it did and it does exist. We are a sexually charged generation, in a society where sex is at the forefront of everything that sells. Sex is the universal act that triggers a common feeling amongst people, whether in the Bandundu region of Congo or in metropolitan cities like London. So why have some of our African parents avoided teaching us this very important thing whilst growing up? Why is it an unspoken rule not to mention sex in a sex-saturated world? How do we learn without being taught?
There is an African proverb that goes: ‘It takes a whole village to raise a child’, but we all know that education first begins at home. So if our parents don’t teach us about sex, then ultimately we will learn it elsewhere, to our detriment or not. I always say a lesson hard learned should teach a person not to make the same mistake twice, but what do you do when that mistake stays with you for life? And who is to blame? Sex education at school was the first and only time some of us received it. Some of us in our twenties are still waiting to have that ‘talk’ with our parents. Many will die waiting.
As a Congolese woman I’ve noticed that there is a culture of silence amongst my community with the older generation on grave matters, such as sex or domestic violence, in order to preserve cultural survival and continuity. Nobody wants to be the one who appears to be different and be used as the example that other people in the community talk about. “We’re not white, we don’t do things how they do”, I’ve often heard said. If we were to break the silence and speak out, it would almost be like disrupting the harmony of the nest: so we remain quiet and act like we have no senses.
As second generation Congolese children growing up in the UK, many of us adopt this culture of silence with our parents. When we need them the most during those crucial transitioning stages in our lives, when our curiosity is enticed and we begin to develop sexual desires, we don’t even think to raise the subject with them. They’ve never spoken about it to us or made it approachable, so it becomes an uncomfortable subject between both parties. However, I believe parents need to ask themselves, are we really preserving cultural identity by keeping quiet about sex before marriage? Young people are having sex outside of marriage regardless and sexually-transmitted infections and teenage pregnancies are rampant in our community. So who is to blame for this?
Prevention is better than intervention but refusing to speak to your children about sex will not prevent them from having sex. The titillating unknown might even become a catalyst for uninformed and unprotected experimentation. Some parents will only know their children have been having sex when a daughter falls pregnant out of wedlock or a son admits to getting someone pregnant. Meanwhile, many choose to believe their godly sons and daughters, who attend church every Sunday and Wednesday and youth groups on Fridays, are still virgins.
These parents leave it to their pastor to preach to their children. But too many of us have been cowed by – and cocooned in – the church, with the result that we don’t have the courage to say anything. Fornication is wrong and we should be ashamed of it. Imagine how a sheltered 16-year-old girl who attends a youth group at church must feel if she falls pregnant? She’s the Devil’s child, that’s what we’re made to believe.
But she’s merely a sexual being who – out of curiosity – felt compelled to explore her sexual desires, and things might have been different had she been better informed. I’m sure some of our adults experimented with the condom when it was first invented – You mean I can have sex and there’s something that can actually prevent me from getting pregnant??? – As we know in African culture back then, getting pregnant outside of wedlock was the ultimate shame.
I remember that a few girls I knew growing up became pregnant (really young, about 14 or 15) and were sent back to Africa (no mercy, zero tolerance). At the time, I blamed the girls for their stupidity but later, as a grown-up, I blamed the parents for failing to educate their daughters. Punishing children for having sex, because you didn’t think it appropriate to talk to them about sex, only creates an even greater division between parents and their children. When you don’t mention something for so long, it becomes ever harder to have the sort of relationship where you can mention it. So what is it about our parents that they choose to ignore this important part of our lives? And only feel it’s relevant to speak to their children about it after they get married?
Some of our parents will have spoken about boyfriends/girlfriends but would never even mention sex. Did they choose to ignore this aspect of life or were they simply hopeful that we would wait until marriage? I decided to do a Google search to see if I can find any online articles regarding attitudes towards sex amongst the African community and most of the articles I came across led to HIV/AIDS. The scare factor dominates the education factor. Yes diseases exist, but how can we explain to our children about diseases if we don’t talk to them about the act of sex?
When is the best time to talk our children about sex? Is it when they start playing mummy and daddy with their dolls? Or perhaps it’s when they hit puberty, or maybe it’s when they meet their first boyfriend or girlfriend. The lucky ones might get it the night before their wedding. The best time for our parents, it seems, is no time at all.
We need to re-evaluate the way we address this issue of sex in the younger generation because, among other things, the world as it stands gives us easy access to so many things.
Last summer, I was in Kinshasa, Congo, for the first time and was shocked at the extent of the Western influence. It made me realise how African culture is developing, mixing what we have traditionally known as “African” with what we previously associated only with the West.
Older Africans who moved from Africa to the UK (or other parts of the West) still cling to the mentality of ‘being back home’ and to what their parents taught them, but what they need to understand is that their children are being born into a completely different culture. If these children have never lived back home, they cannot do things according to how they’re done back home.
Communication is the key to any relationship, and in order to have a better relationship and trust, parents need to speak to their children about sex before anyone else does. Talking about it with your kids might not deter them from having sex, but it might forestall a lot of headaches and irredeemable situations. Cultural survival and continuity can still exist if we educate our kids in line with the society we live in.
Of course, as a friend of mine pointed out, an adult must be equipped to have a conversation about sex with their child, and parenting classes might be a good idea for parents. But how many parents would like to attend this type of class?
A version of this opinion piece originally appeared on the author’s blog and is reproduced with her permission.