Africa’s Complex History With Sex Toys And The Women Challenging The Status Quo

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Sex and its politics will always be a scorching hot topic in Africa. Traditional views often clash with modern takes on sex and sexuality, with many African states outright condemning any part that aligns more with secular ideologies. Sex toys, in particular, have grown in popularity amongst adults seeking to add more thrill to their sex lives but in a continent that still prides itself on its conservative values this can prove to be more than tricky. 

Contrary to popular belief, sex toys have existed longer than many people think. 

“Before humans invented writing or the wheel, we had invented dildos,” says Hallie Lieberman, author of Buzz: A Stimulating History of the Sex Toy. The history of sex toys dates back to about 28-29 000 BC. It has become a billion-Dollar industry that continues to push boundaries and make statements about the importance of self-pleasure. It is not confirmed whether they were used as sex toys, but it is said that Neanderthals in modern-day Germany would carve stones into phallic shapes. A while later, around 500 BC, the ancient Greeks put their spin on things with brass-constructed dongs and vibrators were first introduced during the Victorian era. 

Fast forward to the 70s, and sex toys became a significant symbol in the feminist movement meant to signify the fight against sexual oppression and push sexual liberation. The air of shame surrounding the ownership and use of sex toys began to go away as more women proudly claimed their toys thanks to women like Joani Black, the owner of a sex shop in San Francisco and Betty Dodson, who frequently held workshops for women to gather and have healthy discussions about masturbation. 

“Masturbation is the ongoing love affair each of us has with ourselves throughout our lifetime,” Dodson believed. 

While sex toys have become much more common as more sex shops open up and television appearances like on one of the most prolific female-led TV shows of the previous decades, Sex And The City, some areas still shun their use. In some parts of Africa, they are illegal, and states still rely on shame to deter people from procuring any. 

Countries like South Africa and Kenya are some of the more progressive countries as the sale and nationwide distribution of sex toys is legal. However, in Kenya, sellers are advised to refrain from explicit displays of toys “to avoid the disturbance of public peace and breach of public morality.”

In Zimbabwe, confusion about the law on the sale of toys revealed that despite importing them being illegal, those interested in distributing these types of products should first approach the Censorship Board for approval, yet owning one is also against the law under the “censorship and entertainment control”. Zimbabwe’s stance here does not quite make sense. Zimbabwe is highly conservative, so women cannot explore their sexuality without being shamed. Ownership of a sex toy can land them in prison as they are seen as obscene. 

“Sex is not really seen as a thing for women. Sex is for men to enjoy. For women, it is still framed as essential only for childbearing,” said Debra Mwase, a programs manager with Katswe Sistahood, a women’s rights organisation. Her work includes lobbying for better access to sex toys in the country. 

The women of Zimbabwe are not taking the oppression lying down by reviving and adapting an old practice called Chinamwari. Chinamwari is a tradition that provides a safe space for women to meet and teach each other about the art of sex, including the various positions and seduction. It is seen as a rite of passage and has been passed down from generation to generation, as it also includes lessons for young girls on menstruation and marriage. 

Mbuya Sande, a Zimbabwean woman of Zambian origin, has been a custodian of the tradition for many years. The mother of 12, who is almost 80 years old, says she is often hired by people for their kitchen parties and bridal showers to share her knowledge. Chinamwari has adapted to the times, as many meetings are now held online. Videos can be found across Facebook and TikTok. 

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