Yes I totally had sex before marriage. Yes. I know it’s right up there on the list of ‘unforgivables’ for Nigerian girls. Right alongside wearing short skirts (a.k.a. practically begging to be raped), having children out of wedlock, not getting married, getting married and not having children, getting divorced, etc. But I was curious. I had urges, so I wanted to satisfy them.
In secondary school, a lady came to give a talk to ‘just the girls’ I.e. it had something to do with puberty, periods or pregnancy. However the secrecy and hush-hush nature of these talks told all of us implicitly that these apparently female dominated issues were actually shameful. I can’t remember what the lady said, but the damaging ‘dirty secret’ feeling definitely stuck. I certainly carried that forward in my relationship with my body, and eventually, both my sexual and non-sexual relationships. There is much left to be desired in our verbal and non-verbal cues regarding girls, boys, our bodies, sex, and relationships. And you know why? Because that secrecy leaves young people isolated, with unanswered questions, all while navigating perfectly natural hormonal changes. It’s like we are shushed, punished and deserted just when we need even more support. And this leaves us in a precarious, and extremely vulnerable position. Let me draw one of many lines from point A (isolation), to point B (danger).
Not talking about sex leaves young girls especially vulnerable in an already imbalanced power dynamic with male (and usually older, which is a whole separate but related problem) partners, and stranded when we need the emotional support to be able to see through and outrightly reject unsafe behavior. A friend mentioned that her ex-boyfriend refused to get tested, stating “I know I’m clean. But if you get tested, then I don’t need to”. My friend said that at the time, she thought lack of money was the real reason he didn’t want to do the tests (cos it didn’t make sense otherwise). In retrospect, she recognizes that his response should have been the red flag to leave the relationship, but she was too distracted by the concurrent stress of trying to get tested in Nigeria without all the judgement from health workers. These fears, alongside the fear of not getting caught, and the learned guilt for what she was doing, kept her too occupied to pay attention to the fact that the person she was about to have sex with was extremely irresponsible and had also probably been engaging in high-risk behavior prior. There was also no responsible adult that could give her the safe space she needed to weigh all this.
My mum was big on using fear as a way to keep us from venturing near sex. I know it was probably how she was taught, (and it certainly seemed to mirror the church’s method) but it had serious drawbacks. It certainly made it impossible for me to approach her with genuine questions. So I found other ‘teachers’. My boyfriend (at the time) was the only one willing to talk about it with me in a non-judgmental and non-scary way (even though he had his own personal motives). So I had him, lots of secret Mills and Boone books, and mainstream media.
In addition to the known issues with my above mentioned sources, one of the tragedies of our informal sex educators -TV and media – is that they are so busy entertaining and selling a narrative of hot and passionate sex that they intentionally skip the conversations about testing, birth control and protection during sex. They don’t normalize the pause to put on a condom, or the conversation between partners about testing beforehand. Instead it profits on the dysfunction and drama of girls/women who had sex and dont know if they might be pregnant for another 2 weeks. Unfortunately, there is nothing new about profiting off women’s bodies while providing little to no recourse. This, of course also makes the necessary (and potentially life saving) conversations non-existent. Like we grow up not knowing how to initiate discussions around STD testing before starting sexual relations with a new partner, and thinking that stopping to put on a condom is a complete buzz kill. “That’s not sexy. Like…no one does that!”. When actually, these simple acts should be normalized so that they are perpetuated, and literally save lives!
So on one hand, our parents and church refuse to make sex less taboo. We then rely on media which refuses to neither normalize these necessary and life saving aspects of consensual and safe sex, nor make being pro-choice/pro life simply about access to birth control in the first place. Then of course in Nigeria if you get pregnant outside of wedlock, there is a crashing domino effect and your world is ripped apart like clockwork; abortions are illegal, stigma is rife, and the resulting high school drop out rate for young girls is a given. Pregnancy outside of wedlock is effectively a death sentence for young girls (with comparatively little effect on the boys involved). Yet everyone thinks our current sex education just needs to tell young people to focus on God more. At the same time, child marriages are somehow exempt from the International Childs Right Act, and continue unchecked.
I remember trying to explain this morbid fear of pregnancy (and the potentially damning consequences on my life) to my boyfriend and his reply was “if you get pregnant, I get pregnant too. It’s not just you.” Yet he refused for us to take precautions like condoms. He effectively dismissed my fears as illegitimate even though he would actually face none of the consequences (neither the pregnancy nor the degree of fall out). This reminds me of the article where male partners disregard their partners’ concerns, and dictate their own risk tolerance as all that matters despite facing fewer consequences. It’s madness. But don’t get me started. I did not have the words that I have now to tell him that he was insane, and break up with him on the spot. My hope is that after you read this, you will; and that there will be increasingly safe spaces for young people to get accurate information for decisions that are one pause away from being the difference between life or death.
Young people are having, and will continue to have sex. It’s a perfectly natural act and in fact inimical to our very existence, so we cannot keep shrouding it in silence and shame. What we must do is ensure that every young person can recognize and get safety from predatory behavior, understand consent, and have access to resources to make sure that any sexual encounter is both safe and by choice. Some people have no knowledge about germ theory and it shows. This is life threatening ignorance. Heck, you can get STDs like Herpes from just sharing drinking cups, not to talk of kissing! So it’s not useful to just keep quiet about it. Our new COVID reality has exposed that there are simply some things we can no longer afford to take for granted especially when it comes to our personal safety, hygiene and boundaries.
Rather than drive young people to the shadowy fringes where they are more prone to exploitation and harm, sex education needs to be more open, less shameful, and much more honest. But we have a long way to go. Long term, the words I want ringing in young women’s ears are: “Do I feel ready? Do I feel safe? Am I consenting? Do I feel unpressured? Do I have a condom? Have we gotten tested and have I seen the results? Am I on birth control? If I ask him or her to stop will they?” I want her to feel confident to not proceed if her mind tells her that even one of those answers is ‘no’. This is in much better stead than the searing guilt and unfortunately loud “Am I going to hell? Will I perform? Am I sexy enough? and Will he like me more?” that distracts from any sensible thoughts about safety, and usually leads to disastrous consequences, loaded mostly on her.