Sex in African literature

October 27, 2016

Just before the turn of this century, sex education was a taboo in African countries with exception of South Africa.According to a study published recently on sex and health, more than 30% of the Year 10-12 students surveyed in Nigeria, South Africa, Ghana, Zambia, Kenya and Tanzania reported having had sexual intercourse, while 82% have experienced some form of sexual activity.When sex is evidently a part of adolescent lives, it would be remiss not to include it in the literature written for them.Early sexual encounters are rarely like those depicted in soap operas and movies. Instead of romance and seduction, they are often awkward and uncertain, performed in stolen moments while parents are absent.In African countries, very little scholarship has focused on depictions of sex in young adult literature. Literary depictions of teenage sex have largely been ignored, contrived or obscured by didacticism.In South Africa, usually it’s not the inclusion of the literary sex scenes themselves that generates discussions about suitability but it’s the way they are depicted.Sex is clearly a topic that young adult readers want included in the education system.Not to include sex in books for contemporary young adults is to agree to a de facto conspiracy of silence, to imply to young readers that sex is so awful, so traumatic, so dirty that we can’t even write about it.

Young African people have an unprecedented level of access to graphic depictions of sex, both in literature and online.Any content discussed within young adult literature, or any literature for that matter, needs to be warranted. Sex scenes should only be included if they progress the plot or befit characterisation.Young adult readers across Africa are astute. If a sex scene is trivial or included just to sell books, the readers will likely recognise this and reject the premise. Scenes of intimacy should read as close to the truth of the physical act and the emotional investment as possible.It is also important to consider the way young adult literature is told usually from the first person perspective.Some books being used for sex education in Zambia that I have seen in the past, first person narratives offer readers a direct line to the thoughts of the characters. Critically, first person portrayals of sexual encounters are likely to focus just as much, if not more, on the internal thought processes related to the act, such as questions of readiness and performance, as the graphic depictions of the acts themselves.To be effective, intimate scenes in young adult literature should include character discussion of the event from anticipation to reflection.Regardless of which age group you’re writing for, depictions of sex where the sexual encounter is consensual and not acts of rape or sexual abuse are most powerful when they are subtle.This was not necessarily a feature of many novels before the turn of this century in African schools.The narrative preoccupations of young adult literature have shifted. Descriptions where the protagonist describes wanting to feel your firm-soft tits and put myself into you to feel your wetness no longer predominate.Contemporary young adult literature describes sex acts with more consideration. Candid and sincere depictions of sex acts in young adult literature in Africa will help to contextualise an experience which is often a reality in the lives of many young adults.Doing so helps young African readers to make sense of their own sexual experiences and assist them in developing their own language surrounding intimacy.

Contador Harrison