Two weeks ago, an audio surfaced on WhatsApp, and later on Soundcloud/Twitter/Facebook of a man named Morris (pronounced Mollis by the woman in the clip due to the influence of mother tongue) having sex with a woman despite her repeated pleas for him to stop in two languages, and her saying she was tired and had surrendered. This is repeated severally throughout the recording, and the woman sounds genuinely pained.
Imagine my surprise when I came online to find Mollis being touted as a don for what was most definitely rape. Men were all over claiming that Mollis was their hero, and a man to be emulated, while some women were saying that she was having too much fun, or just couldn’t handle “some good dick.” Some people came out and said that she sounded like she was in pain, and that she had withdrawn her consent severally, hence it was rape, and Mollis was a rapist.
The backlash was unbelievable. We had people, mostly men, saying that it couldn’t be rape, because earlier on he’d told her that she had a good vagina and she said “thanks”; because what was she doing in bed with him if she didn’t want it; because, apparently, consent cannot be withdrawn mid-sex. Once you say yes, in their misguided opinion, you can’t change your mind. They forget that a woman has the right to withdraw consent midway into sex, the same way any human being has the right to change their mind and this has to be respected. To fail to recognize this is to dehumanize women. I was astonished at the number of men who may have done these things and not recognized that they were rapists, and the number of women who may have had this happen to them and failed to recognize that they had been raped.
Rape is sex without consent, plain and simple. When one of the parties involved in sex is unwilling or unable to consent, then no matter the circumstances, that is rape. We imagine rape to be something that happens along a dark path when a woman (or man) is waylaid by a group of strange men, or a single one, and amidst tears and fighting, is pinned down and violently penetrated. What about the woman who is taken out for drinks by a man, and then after she has one too many and is unable to exercise her right to consent, he forces himself on her? What about that married couple, when the woman is not in the mood but her husband makes her have sex anyway, and she is too afraid to voice her unwillingness/anger because of fear of physical abuse, or “sabotaging” the marriage? What about that ten-year old boy whose first sexual encounter is with the house help? To limit our definition of rape to the stereotypical image earlier mentioned does a great disservice to many, and causes them great pain.
To avoid the perpetuation of this cycle of pain, we should not just seek consent (that is, an affirmation that the person you want to have sexual relations with also wants to have sexual relations with you). We should take it a step further and seek enthusiastic consent – don’t just seek passive agreement to sexual relations, seek enthusiastic agreement – make sure the person is as psyched about the sexual activity as you are. They should not be impaired or unconscious. We have been told severally that “no means no” but this is no longer enough. It’s not just about being told no/to stop, it’s about getting a definitive, enthusiastic yes. The problem with the “no means no” school of thought is that it leads people to say that the concept of consent is confusing. It leads to people seeking to avoid a “no” as opposed to getting a “yes”. What if someone does not give a definitive no?
Here’s my school of thought: “No” means no. “I have a boyfriend” means no. “Maybe some other time” means no. Sometimes, even “Yes” means no, when the person being asked doesn’t have a real choice in the matter. Anything other than an enthusiastic yes is NOT consent. Why is this so important? Because women have been taught by society not to be direct for fear of being offensive or being attacked, so several times, a woman may not directly say no when she does not want to have sex. There is a fear of saying “I do not want this. Stop. No.” And even when they do this, as the woman Mollis raped did, they are not taken seriously. It is assumed she just can’t handle the dick. She’s secretly enjoying it. She’s moaning and crying because of pleasure, not pain. On the other hand, men have been taught that they have to work hard for sex – pursue, coax, plead – until they get it.
I want to believe that most people do not want to be rapists, but we must remember that we are surrounded by a culture that supports, and sometimes even encourages rape. Rape culture is a culture in which sexual violence, including rape, is trivialized and normalized. It shows itself through blaming the victims of sexual assault/rape; Emily Buchwald in Transforming a Rape Culture adds:
“…a complex set of beliefs that encourage male sexual aggression and supports violence against women. It is a society where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent. In a rape culture, women perceive a continuum of threatened violence that ranges from sexual remarks to sexual touching to rape itself…In a rape culture both men and women assume that sexual violence is a fact of life, inevitable…However…much of what we accept as inevitable is in fact the expression of values and attitudes that can change.”
This culture is so persistent, that people think of it as “the way things have always been/will continue to be”. Thus, we can make jokes about sexual violence, create memes, support celebrities like Bill Cosby and others who have been implicated in multiple rapes, and blame the victims of rape/sexual assault because surely they must have somehow brought this inevitability upon themselves. We forget that most rapes are committed by ordinary men who look just like our friends/brothers/fathers/cousins, because they are surrounded by a culture that okays rape and sexual violence. Perhaps accepting this is too painful for most of us, because it would mean that we are somehow complicit. But we are.
Rape culture is what allowed a police officer to strip search a high school girl two weeks ago, and when she found her with contraband in her underwear, allow pictures of her breasts and private parts to be photographed. These photographs then spread on WhatsApp yet again before going viral on social media. It leads us to believe that she was a “bad girl” and somehow deserves to be shamed for her behaviour. It is what leads people to share nude images of a minor, with such glee, without her consent (please remember that minors according to the law cannot consent.) It is what leads an officer of the law, alongside a photographer who should know better, to think it is okay to use a girl/woman’s sexuality to shame her for bad behaviour. These incidents show how Kenyan women, regardless of age, continue to be abused sexually and denigrated in the public eye with no reprieve.
Our troubling attitude towards sex and sexuality as a society is further seen in this story, published in the entertainment section of one of Kenya’s largest newspapers, in which a taxi driver had sex with his wife against her doctor’s warning, and woke up to find her dead after they stopped because she was in pain. Several jokes and puns are utilized in the story, such as “Act of rod” and “gland to gland combat”, trivializing the fact that a woman died from having sex with her husband after his insistence, ignoring the doctor’s warning. After she started gasping and becoming weak, begging him to stop, he just rolled over and slept. He did not rush her to hospital. When he reported the matter to the police, they dismissed him, telling him they were in no mood for his jokes, and that he should solve his bedroom problems without involving them. This is all after a woman died due to sex.
Something has got to give. We can, and must, change our attitude towards sex and sexuality as a society, or else more people will continue to be victims of sexual violence. We must begin to educate ourselves on how to have safe, pleasurable sex that does not create any victims. We must stop looking at sex as something a woman owes a man, and that he must take at all costs, such as rape or death. Instead, sex should be viewed as something two consenting adults agree to participate in for their mutual pleasure. We must stop shaming women for enjoying sex, and stop teaching them to be coy, because this enforces what men are misguidedly taught – that no means maybe, and that maybe can be turned into a yes if you persist long/hard enough. This way, sex is not something men take from women, but something they share. How hot would that be?
We should create and encourage a sex positive culture, where sex is not a dirty thing. One in which people are not ashamed of their sexuality, and instead embrace it and encourage others to embrace their own; where people are able to communicate their sexual needs to their partners in a safe/open environment. One in which both having sex and not having sex are considered okay. One in which we teach members of the society about their reproductive health and encourage them to take it just as seriously as the health of the rest of their bodies. We should focus on ensuring that all sexual activities are consensual; enthusiastically so.
“Yes!” means yes.
by Wairimu Muriithi
“Mr Speaker, if you do not slap a woman, you will note that her behaviours will not appeal to you. Just slap her and she will know you love her. This is when she will you call her darling.”
Kitale West MP Wafula Wabuge, July 1976
There are things that are said every day.
“A woman must understand that a man has needs he cannot control.”
There were friends you used to have.
“Sure guys will thirst over your naked pics but on the real no ninja wants to wife public property.”
There are things you often come across.
“Don’t dress that way. What are you trying to tell men? Do you want to be raped?”
There are ways to be.
“It’s because I’m a married woman. When you have a husband, you will understand.”
There are questions you ask.
“Boys will be boys.”
There are lessons you must learn from birth.
Feminism triggers, perhaps forces, memory-work.
Consciously coming into, living and learning through feminism calls for re-examination and necessary readjustment of personalities, priorities and perhaps most importantly, relationships.
There are jokes you cracked or cracked up at that are no longer funny because they have always been dangerous. You realize you have been policing yourself and others according to your socialization within very real patriarchal structures. You hear yours and your friends’ stories and comments about the women they met in the club, on the bus, in a meeting room, for what they really are – banal misogyny. You cringe at the person you have been, and the possible effects of the subtle and not-so subtle acts of violence you have committed against anybody who isn’t the heterosexual Kenyan – and typically respectable – man.
You wonder why it is that you were like that.
You begin to remember.
Your memory narrows in on those who are closest to you.
Feminism recognizes the importance of teaching the men in our lives, from as early as possible, not to endorse rape culture. There are necessary conversations to be had.
Last year, I talked to my teenage brother about rape for the first time. It wasn’t the most comprehensive of conversations, and there is still a lot of work to be done, but I was relieved—and, admittedly, a bit surprised—by his answers to my questions. He knows that rape can be committed by anybody. He knows not to victim-blame-and-shame. He knows that ‘nonviolent’ rape is just as bad as ‘regular’ rape. I remember specifically asking him if our mother had ever spoken to him about rape, as she has several times with me. He had never had this conversation with anybody: he just knows.
“Your dress is too short. You need to show men that you respect yourself, or they won’t respect you. Honestly, if it’s not for sale, don’t advertise it.”
Statements like these are commonplace in many women’s lives. We see and hear variations of them in our dailies, on the internet, in quotidian conversations and even, at some point, even in our own conscience. As I begin to remember, though, I realize how many times these words were said in my home, by my mother, in my brother’s presence.
I feel what is beginning to be a familiar stab of resentment.
When I re-hear the things I have been told by my mother, aunts, grandmothers and teachers over the years, a blame game begins to formulate. They have taught me to be afraid, just as they have taught my brother that women are, and will be afraid of him. They have taught me to be just-loud-enough-[but]-not-too-loud, and they have taught him to expect women not to be as loud as him. They want me to be just-successful-enough because there will be problems if I generate a salary higher than that of my husband, or because a too-successful woman is likely to pay less and less attention to her man and kids. They have taught him that women should hold themselves back for him. Many things we know about the static ways of men, we have learnt first or most vocally from a woman.
As I remember these life lessons, it once looked to me that women, more than the men, are largely responsible for upholding oppressive patriarchal structure, while many men can appear blameless and claim innocence. This is embodied in the defensive argument given by men when a feminist is calling them out for enabling patriarchy, especially by endorsing rape culture—the “not all men are rapists/misogynists/patriarchal/that bad” argument.
Superficially, this can appear to be true. I cannot recall a time my father, uncles and grandfathers have expressly forbidden me to do anything because I am a woman—this, I understand, is my privilege. All relatively successful in the capitalistic sense of the word, they encourage their daughters’ education, career formation and financial stability. Rarely has a future husband or child been mentioned. This is the forward-thinking, respectable man, who supports the empowerment of all women.
Yet this is the subtle manipulation patriarchy has taken on in an increasingly neoliberal world. While there are still plenty of men who are publicly and proudly the authority on the place of women, they often don’t need to say anything, or anything particularly ‘extreme’. Earlier waves of feminism have done what they set out to do. There are successful women occupying senior positions in businesses and governments and many manage to do so while’ juggling’ both marriage, in which they do not overshadow their husbands, and motherhood, to which they must commit themselves above all else. The ones that don’t, we must not turn into.
“Poor thing. I hope she is able to find a husband one day.”
“Don’t be a feminist, okay? Because I want you to be a nice girl.”
An OB/GYN I saw recently does not approve of feminism. Often, people’s introduction to feminism is fraught with stereotypes and/or singular stories. A feminist, according to popular opinion, is an angry woman who hates all men. She fights for female professionalism and equality in the workplace, and against marriage and children. She argues for equal rights in the eyes of the law and against the social requirement to look presentable and act feminine. She wants to have too much sex —angry sex— which makes her a whore, or no sex at all because she doesn’t need a man to satisfy her. In the long run, therefore, she will end up old and miserable and lonely, with no eggs and no man.
“There are things that are our culture. A very intelligent woman who teaches at the university sat here in front of me and told me she cannot cook for her husband. I asked her what she thought her mother thought of this silly behaviour.”
Given this introduction, there is little surprise how many women steer away from feminists and feminism. ‘Calling someone out’ on being a feminist, or performing feminism in subtle ways, becomes an insult. Calling an African woman a feminist comes with a further accusation from the rest of hetero-patriarchal Africa: feminism, like homosexuality, is Western.
“However you behave over there is up to you. But Kenya has not changed since you left, or even since I was a girl. Men here will not stop to think you are a feminist before they rape you.”
I shut up. Her lip curls. In the village they insist it takes to raise a child, the list of mothers dwindles. I used to call her my teacher. We no longer talk.
“You have to be twice as good to get half of what they have.”
“Kenyan women have been laying their bodies on the line for years.”
Wambui Mwangi, ‘Silence is a Woman’
“You must do your best; work hard, succeed and take care of yourself, because the world has never been, and will never be, kind to women.”
Women have survived. Women continue to survive. Feminism requires paying close attention to layers of histories underneath seemingly unremarkable words and deeds. In their continued warnings, anecdotes, forbidances and ‘excuses’, we begin to hear something else.
“You need to be careful about some of these men you befriend.”
“No man is going to marry a woman who constantly fights him. How long do you think the world will respect you as a single woman? And what man stays with a woman who will not give him children?”
Even though they may tell us, it is impossible to know the experiences they have had in the years before and during our existence. Nobody can speak of fear, or compromise, or adaptation unless they have known them intimately themselves. Somebody taught somebody taught somebody – showed them that certain things could be avoided if they just stayed in their place.
“Whatever happened to Mercy Keino didn’t have to happen if she’d been careful. I pray every day it doesn’t happen to you.”
We all know women who did not survive.
The seemingly logical solution, therefore, is that we should learn from their ‘mistakes’ so that our survival comes easier. We cannot emerge unscathed, for this would be impossible, but we are expected to remain strong in the unchanging niches carved out for us by conforming to them and avoiding trouble. This is their survival.
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.”
This is a favourite feminist go-to. Self-care is an inherent part of the struggle. What we may be guilty of ignoring, however, is that our methods of self-preservation exist in a different frame from those who have brought us up. We, as self-proclaimed feminists, may be quick to condemn our mothers for anti-feminist, and by extension anti-woman, performances. This thread of arrogance assumes our methods of self-preservation, whatever they may be, are superior to theirs. Our willingness to be known as feminists does not place us above their decisions, conscious or otherwise, to adjust themselves within patriarchy in order to survive rather than actively fight it.
“They wouldn’t grant me a passport without written permission from my husband, because I still had his name. All this country knows is that your husband owns you. I changed my name back, because nobody owns me. I am my own person.”
Conversely, it would be an act of violence to impose upon these women we look up to, having considered their own experiences and defiant survival, an identity of feminism if they do not do it for themselves.
It is the same violent erasure that accompanies the Strong Black Woman. Not only is the label of feminism as identity secondary, or even impossible, but seemingly small performances of defiance against patriarchy do not belong to feminism, just as compliance with it is not necessarily actively anti-women. Whichever it is, it is first and foremost self preservation. With this in mind, do we hear their warnings about how we dress, act and speak as projections of this self-preservation and not as active attempts to maintain policing?
“Well, I can’t tell you how to dress anymore. All I have to say is that if you are determined to be this way, I hope you’re prepared for the consequences of it all.”
There are words more brutal than blows.
This is how one of our conversations ends. My mother has heard feminist arguments for years. She wonders why I am willing to put myself in harm’s way for what she calls my intellectual-not-realistic principles. My aunt tells me she used to be a feminist, and then she got saved. That I am no longer Christian is her proof that feminism does more harm than good to the self.
I don’t know if they can tell that I, too, am afraid.
“Men don’t think the way we do. Boys will be boys.”
“Yes, and my brother is a boy.”
I don’t know if our mothers think their sons are not the boys that will be boys —the ones that will hurt women. If they do, I don’t know if their fear that their daughters might be raped is equal to the fear that their sons may one day rape. I don’t know if they believe their sons will be different from the men they have known and survived.
Another memory from many years ago:
“If ever a man touches you in any way you don’t want him to, scream. Run. Fight. leave. Come and tell me. There shouldn’t be anything you cannot tell me.”
I love you, she says [even though you are a feminist, her sadness and anger whisper.]
I love you too, I say, and see that I may never be able to tell her about the nights I walk home alone exhausted and in tears, the smell of fear and drunk men who got too close clinging to my clothes. I cannot survive the “but I told you not tos; I am not sure she can survive the pain.
“Please listen to Sauti Sol’s latest song Nerea. So done with it.” A close friend sent this message to me on Tuesday morning last week. Later in the evening, I watched the video with yet another friend. We were both irritated, and it has taken me a week to decide why.
The song is from a man to a woman he impregnated called Nerea. He is imploring her not to abort her pregnancy, citing that when a child is born, God also brings “his/her plate”, meaning that God provides, and that should she not want to raise the child, she can give it to him to raise it instead. They also provide a list of the people the child could grow up to be like, such as Lupita Nyong’o, Raila Odinga, Miriam Makeba, Barack Obama among others.
This makes it easy to write off the song, as it is based on a series of bad arguments. I was convinced that someone had paid them to sing this song, or, that they were doing it to go viral.
Sure, the child could grow up to be great, or he/she could become Hitler, Idd Amin, Mobutu Sese Seko, or Bloody Mary. Appeals to God are also not a good place to start, seeing as everyone has their own views on God – religion is a poor base for an argument that is supposed to be universal. The idea that the only reason women get abortions is to avoid raising the children or because of lack of support from the father is incomplete. Yes, in some cases, this is true; however, the costs even before birth are astounding. The cost of delivering a child at many hospitals in Kenya exceeds KES 100,000, and this does not include the numerous tests and checks that happen beforehand. Delivery at public hospitals may be free, but the quality of those services leaves a lot to be desired. It is expensive to carry around another human being for nine months: if one is young and unmarried, it leads to shunning and shaming, as well as the potential for abuse from partners. The woman’s mobility and ability to work and earn are also reduced. It is also likely that she could die while giving birth. Giving the child up to the father after birth, or for adoption, does not solve these issues.
It may be argued that the song is merely the opinion of six men, and that everyone is entitled to their opinion, and if we don’t like it we should just accept and move on, or ignore it. Unfortunately, the song has become the basis of a timely debate in Kenya over pro-choice vs pro-life arguments, reproductive health, and the rights of women over their bodies. As much as I would love to ignore this song and pretend it never happened, it did. I also believe that people are not entitled to their opinions – they are entitled to informed opinions, which should be challenged if they get in the way of other people’s lives and well-being.
The topic of abortion is emotive, and rightly so, because it cuts across several human phenomena: religion, sexual intercourse, gender/sexuality and policy. Several conversations have been had about women and the rights over their bodies, the rightness/wrongness of abortion, whether it should be legalized, the rights of the man in case of a pregnancy, and how these interact with religious views. However, one conversation that we are not having enough, which I feel is the most important one, is on reproductive health. What about Nerea? Sure, we know she wants to abort her pregnancy. But do we know why?
As at 2012, it was estimated that over 450,000 women terminate pregnancies each year in Kenya. In 2012, nearly 120,000 women sought medical assistance due to post-abortion complications. Almost all of these abortions are carried out in very unsafe conditions. More than 70% of the women who seek post-abortion care are not using any method of contraception prior to becoming pregnant. Among the women who sought post-abortion care in health facilities, 64% were married or living with a partner, 27.8% had never been married, and 7.5% were divorced. 16.5% were girls aged 10 – 19 and 31.7% were aged 20 – 24. Unsafe abortions contribute to 35% of all maternal deaths. 43% of births in the preceding five years were also reported by women to be unwanted or poorly timed.
Why are so many women finding themselves with unintended pregnancies?
I believe that our poor reproductive health practices are to blame. Women are either ignorant of their options, or lack access to contraceptives. Indeed, contraceptives only have a 46% prevalence rate in Kenya, and unmet need ranges from 26 – 78% in many parts. This can largely be attributed to misinformation: many people believe that contraceptives lead to deformed babies, drastically reduced sex drive and promiscuity. Despite major efforts towards family planning education, these myths still prevail, and lead to women and their partners making poor choices, or no choices at all, regarding their reproductive health. Over 30% of women have never discussed fertility issues with their partners.
I believe that we have been focusing our efforts on the wrong conversation. See, once a woman is pregnant, the zygote/foetus is in her body, and no matter the man’s or society’s view, she alone makes the ultimate decision since the zygote/foetus resides in her body, and directly affects her health, well-being and livelihood. It goes without question: a woman’s body is her own, regardless of the circumstances. A person’s body is all they can actually call their own on this planet, hence the concept of bodily integrity.
Even when someone is dying from the loss of blood or a failing kidney, the people who can donate blood or a kidney have to consent to doing so, even when it is a life or death situation. No one can force them to do it, no matter what we think is right. In the same vein, organs from a dead body cannot be taken without the person’s consent while he/she was alive. Even corpses have bodily integrity. It therefore follows that ultimately, no matter what we say or do, pregnant women will have the final decision, and no amount of burying our heads in the sand can change that. This is why this argument is called pro-choice, and not pro-abortion. One does not have to agree with abortion, one simply has to recognize that the choice belongs to the woman in question, and that they simply have no control over it.
If people want to stop abortion, it would be wise to turn to methods that actually work. Rather than wait until we get to the stage of reproduction where all we do is fight based on pro-life vs pro-choice, religion, among other arguments, we should focus our energies on ensuring that women do not have to make this decision.
The biggest problem in Kenya when it comes to reproductive health is an information problem, followed by access to contraceptives, as illustrated by the statistics above. We should ensure that we teach people from a very young age about safe sex, and provide affordable contraceptives for those who are sexually active. Many young people are sexually active, and ill-equipped to handle it, with very little sex education beyond what is touched upon in biology classes. This leads to many unwanted teen pregnancies. We also cannot continue to castigate women who abort while railing against contraceptives and opposing sex education for the young, especially through our religious institutions.
Religious institutions often claim that their opposition to contraceptive usage is rooted in the belief that sex is for marriage, and that people who are married should be able to enjoy the “full benefits” of sex without using contraceptives. This creates a rather idyllic view of marriage and the sexual environment within it, which we know to be false: 64% of the women seeking post-abortion care are married or living with a partner. This echoes the HIV/AIDS statistics that have the highest rate of new infections in Kenya among married people. Why are the marriages that these institutions so strongly root for as a safe sexual environment so unsafe? Is it because of false expectations and misinformation? Is it because of the demonization of sexual pleasure? Deep introspection on this, beyond cries of “We are living in the end times!” may prove to be a better endeavour for religious institutions.
It is clear that laws against abortion, which Kenya has, do not stop abortion. They simply make it illegal, thus more unsafe for women, leading to many deaths, and in the case of survivors, many injuries, because of resorting to dangerous and painful methods to end their pregnancies. The quality of these services is usually poor due to the lack of regulation, and even when women experience abuse during the procedure, they cannot report it because it is illegal. The number of abortions is not lowered by this stance – the only thing that happens is that more women die because of it. It would be far better to decriminalize it (note that this is different from legalization; it simply means that the criminal penalties attributed to an act are no longer in effect). In countries where abortion has been decriminalized and contraceptive use is steady/rising, abortion rates reduce dramatically, and the injuries/deaths resulting from it drop as a result of regulation.
It is important to have women’s voices at the front and centre of this debate, as it primarily concerns them. Yes, it is important that other voices get heard, and yes, we may not like what they have to say, but to fail to put “Nerea’s voice” at the centre of this debate is akin to white people calling a conference to discuss black people’s issues but not having any black people speaking. It is preposterous.
Sauti Sol and Amos & Josh did not set out to sing a song about safe sex and reproductive health, but perhaps such a song is much more needed in Kenya at this point.
On Saturday, the 14th of March, my friends and I had had a great evening catching up over drinks, after which we decided to check out a 50% off offer on burgers at a local coffee chain. They did not have the buns we wanted, though, so we decided to go home. I decided to take a matatu home. They asked me, “Will you be safe?” and I said “Sure! It’s not even 10 pm yet! It’s still safe!”
I was wrong. I arrived at my bus stop at 9.40 pm. At this time, the matatus that serve my route are no longer at Bus Station, but in front of Argho House, which is all the better as the area is much better lit. They are usually parked bumper to bumper, and one has to walk in between them as one would in a maze to get to the one that’s boarding. It was a routine I was used to. Only that this time, a makanga decided to stand in my way and block me from getting to my vehicle.
“Madam, si ukuje twende?” he said while hovering in my personal space. “Mimi siendi South C,” I replied. Normally, this is where other makangas would move out of my way and let me pass. This turned out not to be a normal day. The man did not move. Instead he grabbed my arm, and continued to harass me.
“Ai madam, kuja tu twende!” he said while trying to push me in the direction of his matatu. “Niachilie!” I said. I tried freeing myself of his grip, but his hand fit firmly around my arm, and I was unable to. I repeated myself, and he still would not let me go. “Niachilie ama nitakugonga!” I said, realizing that I would have to resort to violence if he did not let me go. At this point, another makanga, presumably from the same route, came and tried to ask him to let me go. “Manze, achana na huyu dame.”
He still wouldn’t let me go, and kept trying to push/talk me into going with him. So I punched him in the face, hard. The look on his face was one of horror and disbelief, as if he did not expect that I actually could, or would, hit him. I ran through the maze and emerged near my route’s matatus. The two makangas ran after me.
“Shonde wewe! Wewe ni shoga! Fala! Unajua tunaweza kufanyia nini wewe? Tunaweza kukuvua nguo, hata suruali! Malaya wewe! Tutakustrip! Tutakupiga wewe!” They were right there in my face, and people watched as they threatened me, and they did nothing. The makanga who had started all of this came and hit my right breast. All this was happening so fast, but somehow, I managed to rein in my anxiety and stand up to them.
“Ati mtanipiga? Mtanivua nguo? Kujeni basi!” I gestured to them to come nearer and attempt. They came nearer, but did none of what they were threatening. Instead, they kept screaming in my face, and I kept daring them to try. It was as if my apparent lack of fear is what stopped them from physically attacking me.
I could not continue for much longer, so I walked to the South B matatu that was boarding and told them that if they didn’t call their Sacco officials immediately to handle the issue, I would not rest until I shut their Sacco down. They quickly offered that the guys harassing me were actually South C makangas, under 12 C Matatu Sacco, and called two of their officials. The officials came, and asked me to tell them what was wrong. It was here that I learned through experience the violence we subject people to whenever we ask them to recount acts of violence committed against them. I recounted what had happened to the Sacco officials, and they tried to get the two makangas to apologize to me.
Instead, they moved closer and continued insulting me, threatening to beat me up and strip me. The original aggressor came too close for my comfort, and just before he could touch me or harm me in any way, I slapped him and threw him on the ground. When the Sacco officials asked the makangas to state their case, they lied that I had found them standing there and hit the first makanga when he asked me if I wanted to board their matatu. I actually laughed at how much the story of what actually happened had been changed.
By this time, the Sacco chairperson had been called, and he came and made me recount my story yet again. Only that unlike the two officials that came before him, he seemed to firmly be on the side of the makangas. “Madam, in situations like these unafaa kunyamaza na kunyenyekea na uache wanaume wa-sort it out.” He had a problem with how assertive I had been, and I could tell from the look of scorn on his face that he only planned on making the situation worse. When I asked him to handle the situation with the members of his Sacco, he looked at me with a smug look and said “Hizi ni vitu tuta-handle wenyewe kwa wenyewe, sio hapa, na sio saa hii.” He completely refused to accept that his staff were on the wrong, and he made the situation worse.
I stepped aside and called my mother to ask her for the phone number of any senior policeman she knew. She struggled to hear me over the noise, but later on she sent me an OCS’s number. I called the OCS just to let him know where I was and what was happening, in case I ended up injured, raped, or dead. The matatu people overheard me, and when I got off the phone, they started taunting me. “Unadhania ni wewe tu unajua polisi? Sisi tunawajua wote. Hata ukiwapigia, sisi pia tutapigia polisi wetu, na hutasaidika. Hii kitu tuta-sort wenyewe, hakuna polisi atakusaidia.”
This was when I lost it, and started yelling at the crowd of men that had gathered around me to spectate but offer no help, wondering what the point of having all those witnesses present but being unable to obtain some form of justice was. My attackers continued to verbally attack me. The Sacco chairman continued to stand by, looking smug. The two other officials stood by, doing nothing. Then, a huge man started approaching us, and my attackers ran off suddenly, while the matatu they were filling up sped off.
The man demanded to know what was going on. “As who?” I asked. He was a policeman, apparently. Again, I found myself recounting my story, reliving the violence. I expected that he would be of some help, but it seemed that he was in cahoots with the Sacco. “Utafanya hivi. Enda Central Police Station, uandikishe hii kisa, halafu utapewa OB number. Ukishapewa hio OB number, kaa nayo, halafu kila siku ukuje town, uangalie kama utaona hao makanga. Ukiwaona, just stop the nearest policeman na umuulize awashike. That is what you can do.”
It was now 10.10 pm. The man wanted me to go to the police station at that hour, never mind how dangerous that may have been. What was even worse was his ridiculous suggestion, that I should spend my days in town seeking my attackers, and upon seeing them, I should run to the nearest police officer and ask for them to be arrested. All the while this man was talking to me, the Sacco chairman stood by with a smug look on his face. I let them know that that was about the most ridiculous suggestion I had ever received: it was inefficient, time wasting and insulting. He shrugged his shoulders and asked me “Sasa unataka nifanye nini? Hio ndio hali ya vitu madam!” The Sacco chairman repeated the statement, just to infuriate me. “Unaweza kushika hawa watu wa 12 C Sacco wamesimama hapa, they were witnesses to what happened, and they stood by and did nothing,” I said. The policeman insisted that he could not arrest them because he cannot compel them to testify to something they did not participate in. I was stumped. He then started taunting me. “Nionyeshe hao wenye wamekuumiza, nitawashika saa hii!” knowing very well that my attackers ran off as soon as they saw him.
The group of men that had surrounded me then started offering me unsolicited advice. “Madam, unajua utafanya nini…” I was so deflated, I just tuned them out and walked away. I gave up, sat on a flower bed and called my taxi driver to come pick me up. After that, I burst into tears. I had never felt so hopeless.
I got home and had an altercation with my mother, who was insistent that I explain everything to her regardless of the fact that I had no energy to do so. I got into my room and called 999, and was advised to report the case to the nearest police station. The attendant I spoke to was optimistic, because in cases against Saccos, the threat of collective discipline is usually enough to get them to co-operate.
On Wednesday, 18th March, after telling my father what had happened, he accompanied me to Industrial Area Police Station, where I was seen by a female police officer he knows. It was a relief, because she did not engage in blaming me for what happened, and she did not ask me any insensitive questions. The incident was recorded, and I received an OB number and a P3 form (for assault). The policewoman filled her part of the P3 form, and told me to go to a hospital for assessment of my injuries (I did not have any, but when claiming assault, you have to go through this), get a summary report, then take this report to the police doctor, who would fill in his part of the P3 form. Then, I was to bring this form back to the police station, find out the policeman/woman who had been assigned my case, and then record a statement.
I followed her instructions. I went to a private hospital, where I recounted what happened to me and was assessed for injuries. Then, I headed to the police doctor. It struck me as insane, the fact that we only have one police doctor in Nairobi (he sits at Milimani Police Station) and that he does not work in the afternoon. I did not know this beforehand, so I went to the police doctor’s office at 2 pm. I had been warned of a long, winding queue that starts as early as 4 am, so I chose to go there at the time I am least productive. I had been told by my policewoman friend to call her in case he gave me any trouble.
His receptionist was a kind man, interested in helping me. He asked me what had happened, and I recounted yet again what had happened. He was empathetic, then he informed me that because he felt sad on my behalf, he would let me see the doctor; that the doctor’s hours end at lunch time. He wrote that I was a student on my form, to make my visit smoother, and I thanked him and told him that next time, I would come early. “Tunaomba kusiwahi kuwa na next time,” he said.
Upon entering the doctor’s office, he asked me what I was doing there, and I told him I was there to get my P3 form filled. He told me to sit down, and asked me to recount what had happened, so I did, again.
“Sasa mama mkubwa kama wewe, unaweza acha vitu kama hizo zifanyike? Kwa nini?” he asked. I was incredulous. “Ati sasa walikushika? Kitu ndogo kama hio, huwezi achilia? Lazima ufuatilie? Ai!” So I explained that the men actually threatened to physically harm me, to which he laughed. “I will never understand how women are assaulted and raped. Why do you have a mouth?” I thought this was a rhetorical question, so I did not respond. I just wanted him to fill my form so that I could get out of there. “Why do you have a mouth? I am asking you!” So I said “To eat and speak, I guess.” “And when the worst comes to the worst, what do you do with that mouth?” “You bite, I guess,” I said. “Exactly! You bite! So how are women attacked and raped all over and they have mouths!” Then he laughed for what seemed to be an eternity. “In fact, when someone is threatening to rape you or hurt you, you do not resist. You let them think you are actually going to let them do it, and then when they get near, you bite!” He continued to laugh.
“Where do you go to school? What do you study?” I cooked up a story that involved me being in my final year at a private university. “Do you have a job lined up? Have you even ever had an internship?” I continued to cook up my story that involved my being an undecided final year student who did not know what she wanted to do. “And now, this case, you plan on going to court? And pursuing it?” I answered yes. “Just because you were touched and threatened with stripping?” He continued to laugh. I lost my patience, and told him that I did not come to his office for his misguided remarks or unwanted counsel. I just needed him to do his job and fill in the P3 form, which he was yet to do. Instead, he had spent almost fifteen minutes taunting me, and I told him that for a medical professional, he should be deeply ashamed for saying the things he had. I could tell that he was not used to people speaking their minds to him.
He filled in the P3 form, and then asked me for KES 300. I only had KES 1000, but he told me he would give me change, which he did. It was then that I realized why the receptionist had insisted on writing that I was a student: I may have been charged more or never been attended to otherwise. He handed me my P3 form, and I asked him for my receipt. “Ati receipt? For what?” To which I responded “If you are mandated to charge me for this service, you should have a receipt book, therefore, I want my receipt.” He started laughing and said “Kumbe wewe ni mwerevu sio kama wale wengine? Leta hio mia saba.” I handed him the KES 700, and he returned my thousand shilling note. He pulled it out of a huge wad of notes, which I assumed was what he had managed to swindle out of other unfortunate people who had to see him, seeing as there was no other alternative.
I managed to get my P3 form back to the station and record my statement. On my way out, I went to thank the receptionist for helping me, to which he said “Nakuelewa tena sana. Hao watu wa matatu hawana heshima. Inabidi uwaripoti, hio kitu walikufanyia ni mbaya sana, nakutakia kila la heri kwa hio kesi.” I wished he was the doctor instead. The investigation on the case is ongoing, and I have learned a lot of things from this experience.
Every time I have been made to recount my story, it is as if I am reliving the violence. This is why we must be careful whenever we unnecessarily ask victims of sexual violence to tell us what happened. We are forcing them to relive the violence. I always knew that the stripping of women never has anything to do with what a woman is wearing. It is an act committed by men (or women) who wish to disempower a woman when she acts in a manner that is too empowered for their tastes. It is a cowardly act. I have experienced several people asking me “What were you wearing?” as if it matters. I was dressed in my regular uniform, a shirt and pants, and the issue of stripping only came up when I punched the makanga who thought he had a right to my time, space and body. When I showed him he did not, he aimed to humiliate me in the worst way he could imagine.
The fact that I seemed not to care about being beaten and stripped took the joy and satisfaction they would have got from doing it away, which was why they did not do it. The beating and stripping of women is meant to humiliate them and cut them down to size. I also always knew that asking “Did you report it?” is a harmful question, but I have learnt it anew because of what the system puts women who report through. I can only imagine a woman who has been raped or beaten up being forced to go to the police station, answer intrusive/insensitive questions because she did not have the privilege of having a relative with an empathetic police friend, then go to see that police doctor, who does not understand how women get beaten or raped. I can imagine him taunting them, laughing at them, asking them how they could let it happen. I can imagine him asking them why they have mouths, then signing their P3 forms and demanding for money for a job the government already pays him to do.
I have learnt that too many men feel entitled to a woman’s body, such that street harassment is a regular thing, and when you stand up to it, you get threatened with violence, and you get laughed at by insensitive doctors. Women are thought of as a resource that exists to satisfy men’s needs. Which is why a statement like “pesa, pombe, siasa na wanawake” exists. Women are not people, they are playthings for men, and when they prove otherwise, they must be cut down to size.
I have been asked why I am doing this; why I am pursuing justice through our legal system. It is because I want to stand up so that other women may never have to go through what I went through, or worse. So that people can see that even when you do everything right, our system will still let you down, and punish you at every juncture to get you to give up. I am doing this to teach the two makangas a lesson. When I offered them an opportunity to apologize, they did not, instead, they insulted me and threatened to beat/strip me. They thought they could threaten my life? Well, I will shit on theirs.
I am doing this so that whenever a man thinks of harassing or assaulting a woman, he will think twice, because he doesn’t know when he will run into a woman like me who will punch him in the face and get him thrown in jail. I am doing this so that everyone knows that “What were you wearing?” is an irrelevant question.
Most of all, I am doing this because I cannot believe that this is what can happen when a woman simply wants to go home.
I’ve always been the type of person to claim that “weed does nothing for me, really, which is why I don’t smoke it.”
On Saturday, I found myself defending my position again to a friend at his house. We had just left a function, and I needed some downtime before I headed to my next event, so I went with him and another friend to hang out at his house. We found his brother there, already very high on weed. His brother said how I couldn’t possibly be able to smoke weed from a bong because I would choke on it, and his brother, my friend, offered me an opportunity to redeem myself when the next round was lit up.
Sure enough, I could take weed in a bong, and I only choked once, compared to others who choked more than once. However, my insistence that “weed does nothing for me” proved to be untrue, because I found myself very quickly high, and in need of a nap. I went to one of the rooms and locked myself there for a nap. I napped for about an hour when I heard a loud knock on the door. I opened it to find my friend’s brother there, claiming he needed something from the room. I told him I’d leave the door open so that he didn’t have to disrupt my nap.
What happened next still feels like a bad dream. He proceeded to come into the room no less than eight times, and hover over the bed. I have very good reflexes, so each time he came in, I woke up and asked what he wanted, because I was just trying to sleep. The first time, he was genuinely confused that I woke up, and kept apologizing and saying “I thought you were asleep, I didn’t mean to wake you…” so I said “It’s okay, just get what you want from the room and leave me alone.”
The third time, I woke up to his hand on my body, under my arm, very near my breast, and he pretended to want to see if I was cold, which was when I told him that if he was so concerned, he could get me a blanket. He came back with the blanket alright, and attempted to touch me again under the pretense of covering me with it. I woke up five more times to him hovering over the bed. The sixth time it happened, I asked him “what the fuck do you want” and he proceeded to say he was sorry over ten times. I told him to “get the fuck out and leave me alone” because I really needed to be done with my nap so that I could head to my next engagement. Because there were other friends in the house, and I could easily beat up the guy (I have taken a couple of martial arts classes for self-defense, the guy in question has probably never had a day of exercise), I did not feel terribly threatened, but I felt threatened nonetheless.
The second last time he came to hover over me, he found me seated, awake on the bed, texting a friend. I could almost touch the disappointment he felt when he stopped dead in his tracks at the doorway upon realizing I was awake. He left quickly, then came back the eight time with some fake excuse about how he needed some keys, and he left the house without his phone, or his wallet, for almost half an hour.
I struggled with telling my friends what had just happened in the last hour. Was it a good idea to do it? I wondered how to tell my friend that his brother was a bonafide creeper. I could imagine what might be said about the situation. “He was high” or “What were you doing high on weed anyway?” or “You know you were asking for it when you decided to take a nap in that room while you were high” or “You know such things happen when a group of young people get together and drugs are involved” or “Nothing even happened to you, why are you complaining? Do you know that some people actually get raped?”
For the first time, I understood what it meant to be completely helpless in the face of your assaulter. When we were leaving the house, he came back, and I couldn’t bring myself to look him in the face, talk to him, or even scream out loud about what he had just done. I felt disempowered. I wanted to take an endless shower, because I felt dirty.
I wanted to be sure that I didn’t actually make all this up, and decided to work on an approach to tell my friends the next day. Then I thought back to what had happened when I arrived at the house. When my friend’s brother had asked me how long I was planning to stay, and I said “no more than an hour” and he said “well, that’s a pity, I was hoping you could stay longer” and I mistook that for friendliness. Was that when he started planning his “approach”?
I thought back to the last time I was at this house. I had come over for what ended up being a party, and ended up getting cozy with my harasser’s cousin. What my harasser couldn’t see, perhaps, was that his cousin and I had a long history together, and our interaction at that party was a continuation of this. Perhaps what he saw was a girl who was “loose enough”, one who “deserved it”. Perhaps this was when he started planning this?
I thought back to one of my friend’s stories, about how she went out with some friends and came home, and allowed them to crash in her house. She awoke to one of them on top of her, having sex with her without her consent (she was asleep when he started) while another one watched on the sidelines, cheering him on. I remember how she related what she went through, and how pained it made me feel, and wondered, was this what this man was planning for me?
By the time I got home, I was feeling disgusted with everything, including my clothes, which I tore off in anger and threw in a pile, staring at them as if they had something to do with how I was feeling. I could barely stand the contact my skin made with my pajamas, or with my bed. I wished I could sleep in a bed of air, with nothing touching me. Until now, I can feel my harasser’s hand on my body, and no matter how hard I try to forget, or wash it off, it refuses to go away.
Upon waking up the next day, I told two dear friends what had happened, and asked them to help me understand what was going on. They agreed on almost everything. That the man in question had no good plans for me. Perhaps he even planned to rape me. He definitely planned to touch me sexually. All this was going to happen without my consent, probably because he knew that there was no way I would consent to doing anything with him, high or otherwise. He had probably done this before. Successfully, in fact. This was probably why he was so shocked and confused each time I woke up and caught him hovering over me, perhaps planning on how he would touch me. I also had to tell his brother and my other friends what had happened that night, so as to let him know he couldn’t get away with it, and so that they could keep an eye on him in case he tried this on anyone else. Or, in case he ever raped someone, because rape is the next stop on the train he is on.
I decided to call a female friend who was there that day to tell her what happened, and ask her to confront my friend and his brother on my behalf because I did not have it in me to do it. I was nervous before calling. Would she believe me? I felt the fear that all other sexual harassment/assault victims feel: will they believe me? Will they say it’s my fault? Was it my fault?
She believed me. She was understanding, and she said that she would handle it. I felt safer. I felt sane – I was not crazy. I did not make this up. I did not do it to myself. And then I cried, on behalf of all those who have had it much worse than me. The burden of what had happened, what could have happened, and what has happened to others before me was all too much. The fear they must have felt. The pain when they were told it was their fault. The loss of sanity when no one believed them. The self-doubt when they started to tell themselves that perhaps they made it up, perhaps it did not happen. The nightmares.
Then I thought of my harasser, and how, when confronted, he will say that I must have imagined things. That what I said was actually not what happened. That he came to check on me eight times in my sleep because he cares, deeply. That he did not touch me sexually. In fact, he only made contact with my body accidentally when covering me with a blanket to ensure that I did not die of hypothermia. He will ask why I am trying to ruin him, and perhaps even shed a few tears to cement his position. He will garner their empathy, and convince them he could never do such a thing. He will make my friends doubt me, if even for a second.
He will continue to live his life unscathed, perhaps considering this a light warning, while I continue to try scrubbing the feeling of his hand off my skin.
by Aisha Ali
Trigger Warning: Sexual assault, rape
Two weeks ago, I switched on my phone after having it off all night and a series of text messages immediately came through. One was notification that my friend had tried to call me several times. Then frantic texts.
“Are you awake? I need to talk to you.”
“Please call me as soon as you switch on your phone. I’m in a terrible state.”
“Something terrible happened last night, I need you.”
My hands started shaking as I tried to compose a message to her.
“Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit. Are you OK?”
Then I called her. But I knew. I already knew what she was going to tell me. I sent a quick prayer. Please let it not be bad.
A man had attempted to force himself on her. He found her alone after her friend had gone to get something from the car and pushed himself on her. He lifted her top and violently groped her breasts while trying to kiss her. She fought him until finally he left, laughing at her. The whole time he was doing this he kept telling her “just give it to me”. When her friend came back and confronted the guy, he told her with a sneer “You’re alright, aren’t you? I didn’t do anything.”
She left that establishment as fast as possible and all she could think of was going home. I imagine, she wanted to lock herself in the only place she could feel safe.
She did not report the incident.
Several years ago, on a holiday trip sponsored by a company I used to work for, my boss sent one of my colleagues to give me some documents to take to his room. When I got there he grabbed me and started kissing and groping me. He tried to remove my clothes. I told him to stop several times until he finally let go of me.
“Why are you being so difficult?” he asked me. “Fine, then go.”
He was angry.
He was not the only man who had tried to force himself on me. There was the time a ‘friend’ tried to force himself on me and another friend had to intervene. There were also other men who felt like they could just cop a feel, just a small touch of my body, without my consent. Some I’ve fought, with words mostly. Majority of time I went home and cried it away.
I have never reported any of them.
Two weeks ago, Kenyan Twitter was lit on fire when Dr. Wambui Mwangi accused writer Tony Mochama of sexually assaulting Shailja Patel at a gathering in her house on the same day my friend was assaulted.
Initially, Shailja had chosen to remain anonymous and not go to the police. Through his blog, Keguro Macharia asked for collective community accountability. The first question a lot of people asked was if she reported the incident. And then when they found out that she didn’t report it, they asked why she didn’t. If she really wanted justice, she should report.
Later in the week, Shailja reported the incident to police.
I have been thinking about what the question “Did you report?” means for a person who has been sexually assaulted. I don’t like asking victims this question until they tell me what they want to do next. I feel there’s an underlying message that’s being sent when this question is asked. Reporting gives the accusation validity. Reporting makes it true. Because why wouldn’t you report if it were true?
Victims of sexual assault react differently. Some choose to come out gun blazing. Some withdraw into themselves and deal with the trauma. But the nature of sexual crimes is that they are about power and control.
The perpetrators aim to show the victims that they can take away control of their bodies at any time they feel like it. They will touch you when they choose, they will grope you when the choose and they will rape you when they choose. The most overpowering feeling I got when I was assaulted was helplessness. There was nothing I could do to stop him from doing whatever he wanted. And the only way a victim can try to get their life back is by being in control of what happens next. Every action thereafter should centre them. Asking a sexual assault victim “Did you report?” first makes me very uncomfortable.
This question informs the victim what they should do. It tells them what they need to do before they get our response. It also tells them that the only way their assault matters is if they reported it. This question skips everything the victim has been through; their state of mind, the trauma they are going through, and jumps straight to what we want to be done. This question is more about us than the sexually assaulted. It binds our actions and our support to the police report, and not the victim’s experience.
My friend and I never reported our assaults. Many women for various reasons never do. Did we get assaulted? Is our word valid? Are we allowed to talk about it?
The history of sexual violations on women is marked by women being shamed into silence.
Women were never believed, and they were made to feel it was their fault they were sexually assaulted. Yes, a lot has changed. A lot of people have worked hard to improve this. But women are still made to feel like it’s their fault. We are now silencing them by saying we’ll only listen to them if they report. And that unless they report, their experience, their word, isn’t valid. Never mind that even when they report, they still get silenced in other ways.
Yes, I know that the only way we have to make sure that perpetrators are prosecuted and some semblance of justice is served is by reporting. But the question “Did you report?” as the first thing a victim is asked does not address what the victim has just gone through. It does not deal with the violation. It does not allow the sexual assault victim control of what happens next. Reporting will only help a victim if they are allowed to make this decision. And only by being allowed to take back control will a victim start reclaiming what was taken from them.
So maybe instead of asking victims of sexual assault “Did you report?” we need to ask them “What do you want to do?”
Let’s give them back control.
Aisha Ali is a writer. Follow her on Twitter @bintiM
In every nation, archived away are unaired episodes on subjects which are either conveniently ignored or so internalised by society that they cease to be seen as injustices and thus retain a sense of banality. One such issue is that of misogyny, the negative attitude we hold towards females which men, women, society, government and institutions are complicit in and how the silence around this both in Kenya and globally leaves a deafening echo.
We could discuss the important and largely erased role of women in the creation of this nation, we could dissect Dr. Wambui Mwangi’s ‘Silence is a Woman’ and we could refer to the array of feminist literature (including Brainstorm’s free ebook) to illustrate the fact that the experience of misogyny is not just a theory or imagined concept, it is an everyday reality. However, perhaps the best way this phenomenon is understood is through the voices of those that experience it daily.
A 44 year old woman talks about how her daughters, aged 14 and 16, have had a group of men at the roadside wolf whistle and shout obscenities at them while they return home from school every day for the last year. When she confronted these thugs they threatened her, and the police told her there was nothing they could do. She sees her older daughter struggle with this to the point that the child no longer wants to leave the house. She is ashamed of her body, of her place in the world, feeling responsible for the actions of these men who feel it is their right to objectify and verbally abuse a female child, undermining the complaints of her mother as she too is a woman.
Serena, a sex worker based in Nairobi, tells me about the times she has gone to the police to report a crime only to be threatened with arrest unless she has sex with them. She says she has lost count of the number of her colleagues who have gone missing or been found dead, but as women and that too sex workers, they are quickly forgotten, “their case files left rotting just like their bodies.”
She has had the crème de la crème of Kenyan men buy her services; “The more respectable their public persona, the more disgraceful their behaviour behind closed doors. Many of these men are married and seem to hate women. They think they are not just paying for sex but also an opportunity to get violent with us, and there is no point reporting it for we are women and sex workers at that, policemen will never listen.”
At the end of the interview she adds “Everyone says ‘why do you sell sex?’ Do they ask the men ‘why do you buy it?’ No, because in this country it is one standard for men and another for women.”
Misogyny and patriarchy are not just a societal issue. They seem entrenched in our political systems and reproduced through the silence and words of those in power. One just has to look at the case of Evans Kidero slapping Rachel Shebesh. Where were the clergy, the President and the First Lady to condemn this? When such scenes play out in public with very little consequence, why would people be shocked when they hear about a woman who found messages from her husband’s mistress on his phone, and when she confronted him he found it justifiable to attack her violently for looking through his phone? It shows what we as a society accept and so quickly forget.
Most recently, both the silence and the unfortunate opinions of Members of Parliament regarding the yet to be passed Protection against Domestic Violence Bill have been telling. The allegation is not that these MPs are misogynists, it is that their attitudes (particularly in terms of their dismissal of the Bill, their questioning the existence of sexual harassment, marital rape and comments such as Benson Makali’s saying that wife beating can be a sign of ‘love’ in some cultures) are denying women the rights which will protect them. This inadvertently reinforces misogyny.
A Nairobi based counsellor tells me of the number of women both in rural and urban areas that have been raped, beaten or sexually assaulted by husbands, partners or strangers but chosen not to report the crime because of the culture of victim blaming and impunity for men. It reminds me of my interview with two rape survivors in Uganda who heard the phrases “What was she wearing?” and “She must have done something to attract it” numerous times when their cases were discussed; this rhetoric is reinforced despite the fact that studies have shown rape is about power, control and violence.
A report released by the US State Department in 2013 said “(In Kenya) the rate of reporting and prosecution of rape remained low because of cultural inhibitions against publicly discussing sex, particularly sexual violence; the stigma attached to rape victims; survivors’ fear of retribution and police reluctance to intervene.” At this juncture 16 year old gang rape survivor Liz comes to mind. The sentence given to her rapists was to mow the lawn at a police station; where that day local policemen failed her, today the Kenyan legal system is continuing to deny her justice as we wait for the trial to resume.
Perhaps the most common experience of misogyny is when women face men who possess double privilege obtained through patriarchy and wealth. Have we all not heard whispered the names of men who hold prestigious positions, and are well respected, yet are also known to be womanisers that routinely not only indulge in extra-marital affairs, but also in subtle ways make it their aim to ensure that the female figures they encounter both for personal and professional reasons are continuously silenced?
These men will offer women jobs in return for sex, chase employees they find attractive and fire them when refused, alternatively if a woman gives in to their advances, once the sex is over their work contract will be too. Taking these stories to the media or the courts is seen as pointless, the fear is the man will with the shield of patriarchy and wealth weather the storm while the woman will be viewed with suspicion, her word against his.
I interviewed 26 year old Sarah, a public relations executive who worked for a well known public figure. This gentleman was married with 3 children. Initially he would tell her he liked the way she dressed and praise her performance at work, but this soon turned into flirting and suggestive remarks. He then began asking her for dates, and upon refusal he would accept her no then days later, humiliate her in staff meetings. She had gone from ‘golden girl’ to ‘incompetent.’ His proposals involved this urge to ‘own her’ and when she would refuse, he would send her emails with the aim of knocking her confidence, such as “You dress like a cheap hooker. This is not the way to come to the office” and “I saw you talking to Andrew. This is an office not a dating agency” and “Your standard of work is so poor, I do not know how or why we recruited you.”
Sarah was soon forced out of the company by him and did not have enough faith in the legal system, media or society to take up a case against this man. This is an example of everyday misogyny, and the way we as women are already defeated before we begin the fight in the face of some men feeling that a woman’s worth is based upon how obedient she is. What astonished Sarah most was the number of women who told her to give in to his advances as it would make her life easier. They too, like many other women, were unknowingly internalising the system as it internalised them.
From being paid less than men (Study titled ‘Gender Disparities in Africa’s Labor market’ indicates that Kenyan women earn 11% less than men), to being objectified and thus unheard, to having to consider dressing in a way so as not to arouse their male counterparts, misogyny in the workplace is rife. It is a barrier to empowerment and is often accepted because employment for many means survival.
How many women do you know who have found men to be that glass ceiling in the workplace that they cannot reach above? How many women that are part of the Kenyan media sit on TV looking beautiful and asking those gentle questions which keep them in jobs, for if they stepped out of line they would just be replaced by another pretty face?
On the other end of this spectrum are the women who air their brutally honest views on social media only to have groups of men and even women tweet them abuse because they are women. When witnessing these toxic online wars, it feels as if the men hold a God given right to define whether a woman’s views are valid or not, or whether her profile picture on Facebook is too ‘sexy’ and therefore she should be dismissed. We have Amb Amina Mohammed, a woman, speaking for us on the world stage but we want to silence those that speak uncomfortable truths within our borders.
Worse still is when women speak out about this issue, they are branded ‘drama queens’ and their femininity questioned, for this in itself is a threat to the status quo, a threat to a system which demands possession of the female body and mind. How many will read this piece and dismiss it? How many will brand the writer and anyone who agrees with her as ‘having issues’ or being a ‘man hater?’ or ‘not understanding culture?’
From the boardroom to the bedroom to the streets, the toxicity of misogyny, in which the media, government, institutions and individuals have been complicit, has suffocated many into silence. From schoolgirls to sex workers, it manifests in a variety of ways with one common consequence: the disempowering of women in Kenya. We can legislate all we want and throw in quotas and requirements for how many female MPs there should be and the like, but both patriarchy and misogyny can only be challenged through a revolution in our individual thinking – through a redefinition of what it is to be a man. Masculinity should not be equated with control and power, and women should be able to empower themselves without misogyny being a barrier.
No longer can culture, casual sexism or societal practices be allowed to justify the existence of a system which somehow makes undermining one half of the population the norm. This is not about gendered roles or women being oppressed, it is simply an acknowledgement of inequality. In the words of Keguro Macharia, misogyny has been able “to recruit young women to its cause” that they do not even realise they are victim to it. It has become too easy to be a man, too easy to understand women as quirky girls with charming habits and idiosyncratic style.
Is it however not just silence which allows it to grow, it is denial.
This past weekend, I was fortunate to attend the second Atieno Project Unconference and learn about how the law affects women, especially bills and acts written with women in mind, such as The Protection against Domestic Violence Bill (2013) and The Reproductive Health Care Bill (2014). The discussion was lively and informative, and there were parts of both proposed pieces of legislation that stood out to me as outlined below.
The Reproductive Health Care Bill (2014)
This Senate Bill is for an Act of parliament to provide for the recognition of reproductive rights, to set the standards of reproductive health, provide for the right to make decisions regarding reproduction free from discrimination, coercion and violence; and for connected purposes. The Bill, should it pass, aims to promote women’s health and safe motherhood, rapidly and substantially reduce maternal and child mortality rate in Kenya, as well as ensure access to quality and comprehensive provision of health care services to women and children.
National and county governments are required to make available contraception and family planning services, including the options available, counselling, information as to the advantages and disadvantages of the various contraceptive options and general education on contraceptives. This is extremely important as Kenya’s population is expanding at an alarming rate and we may not be able to feed ourselves if this continues (we are still unable to feed ourselves now, but this would get worse). 43% of pregnancies in Kenya are unplanned, which makes sense because contraceptives only have a 46% prevalence rate. Unmet need ranges between 26% – 78% in some areas. This contributes to the high population growth rate as well as poverty levels, so once this Act is in place, it should help mitigate this damage.
The Bill also covers gestational surrogacy. It entitles everyone to gestational surrogacy, making such agreements valid if they are in writing and signed by all parties involved, they are entered into in Kenya, and the surrogate is domiciled in Kenya at the time of agreement. If the surrogate mother is married or in a relationship, her partner must consent. This also applies to the partner of the commissioning parent, if any.
The Bill prohibits reward or compensation in cash or in kind for surrogacy, and one must be the mother to at least one child to become a surrogate. The prohibition of commercialization is to protect disadvantaged women from being used in “surrogacy farms” for profit. There was a gap regarding surrogacy in the Kenyan law, as was shown by this case in which the petitioners WKN and CWW, the genetic parents entered into a surrogacy agreement with JLN, the surrogate mother who underwent In-Vitro Fertilization (IVF). After the twins were delivered at MP Shah Hospital, there was a dispute as to whether the birth mother or the genetic mother should be registered in the Notification of Birth issued by the hospital. In the law (The Births and Deaths Registration Act) birth is defined as “the issuing forth of any child from its mother after the expiration of the twenty-eighth week of pregnancy, whether alive or dead”. The hospital therefore needed guidance from the Director of Children Services as to who the birth mother was. The Director decided that since the children were in need of immediate care and protection, and surrogacy agreements were unregulated by law, the best option was to place them under the care of a children’s home and allow the parents to adopt them after they were six months old, which is why the parents and the surrogate rushed to petition against the children being put up for adoption at the Children’s Court. They also sued the hospital at the Human Rights Court for breach of right to privacy, and the Director for illegally taking the children.
A groundbreaking judgment by Justice Majanja was made: Children born of surrogacy agreements are the same as any other children, and they have a right to certainty of their parentage under the “best interest of the child” principle. Thus, they are entitled to the identity of their genetic parents and, in principle, the registration of the genetic parents as opposed to the surrogate mother as a parent must be allowed. The hospital was found not to be at fault, while the director was found to have violated the fundamental rights of the petitioners, especially since there was no dispute between the surrogate and the parents. Had this Act been in existence, this whole case would not have had to happen.
Another great thing about the Bill is that it stipulates that maternal care shall be provided by medical practitioners, clinical officers, nurses and community health workers, as opposed to just doctors. This is important, especially to women in areas that have little to no access to doctors. It is also beneficial when it comes to making the call to terminate a pregnancy, which is permitted when these trained healthcare professionals, after consulting with the pregnant woman, decide that continued pregnancy is a danger to maternal health, or as a result of pregnancy, the life or health of the mother is in danger. Termination is then allowed once the woman consents, or if it is a minor or mentally unstable person, once the parents/guardians consent.
Another area in which the Bill excels is that it provides for the reproductive health of adolescents. This is a big issue in Kenya, given that 103 out of every 1000 pregnancies are attributed to girls aged between 15 – 19 years. Reproductive health services are to be made adolescent friendly, and parental consent is not necessary. This ensures that adolescents will feel freer to seek medical care when pregnant. Children aged between 10 – 19 years old must have counselling and signed consent from their parents to begin contraceptive use. The Reproductive and Child Health Care Board will be tasked with providing reproductive/sexual health education and information to adolescents, facilitate provision of non-judgmental, affordable, comprehensive and confidential reproductive health services, as well as policies to protect them from physical and sexual violence and discrimination. The Bill also provides for a Reproductive and Child Healthcare Tribunal that will hear and determine matters and complaints arising from the breach of this Act.
The Protection against Domestic Violence Bill (2013)
This National Assembly Bill is for an Act of parliament to provide for the protection and relief of victims of domestic violence, to provide for the protection of a spouse and any children or other dependent persons, as well as matters connected to these. Kenya currently has no legislation on domestic violence, an oddity in the global legal scene.
The Bill is very progressive, as it defines clearly relationships and situations under which domestic violence may occur, and strives to protect potential and actual victims. Domestic violence is defined as violence, or threat of violence against a person, or imminent danger to this person by someone with whom they are, or have been in a domestic relationship with. Violence is widely defined, and includes widow cleansing, virginity testing, interference from in-laws, damage to property, stalking, economic abuse, emotional or psychological abuse, and sexual violence within marriage, among others. A single act may amount to abuse, as well as a number of acts that form a pattern of behavior. Domestic relationships include marriage (ongoing or previous), sharing a house, family relationships, engagement (ongoing or previous), co-parenting, as well as close personal relationships. Unfortunately, however, it does not include house helps, as this is an employer-employee relationship.
A protection order is the final order made by the court in a matter concerning domestic violence. It applies to the person for whom it is made and their children. It can remain for up to five years, after which it can be renewed, and breaching it holds a fine of up to Sh. 100,000 or imprisonment. An application for a protection order may be made by the person under the threat of violence, or by a representative, such as one’s employer, relative, fellow employee, neighbor, guardian of a child or a guardian appointed by the court, a religious leader, a medical practitioner, counsellor, police officer, an NGO for victims of domestic violence among others. An interim protection order may also be made on application without notice, outside ordinary court hours if a delay would result in the risk of harm or undue hardship to the applicant or his/her children. Such an order prevents the person against whom it is taken from following, watching, loitering near or preventing access from places, occupying the same land/building as the protected person without express consent or making any other contact unless it is an emergency, relating to custody of a minor or under any special conditions. This will make victims of domestic violence feel physically safer.
The Bill obligates the police officer to whom domestic violence is reported to advise the complainant on all available measures of relief as well as their rights to apply for such relief, which is a good move given the callous manner in which many police handle cases of domestic violence. It also permits the complainant to request an officer of the same gender, as they may be more empathetic, and make the complainant feel at ease. Such a police officer is also permitted, unlike before, to make an arrest and prefer charges without a warrant on suspects of assault. The Inspector General of Police is also tasked with ensuring that police are well-trained on domestic violence matters, that they respond fast and efficiently and without causing fear.
The Bill also protects children from psychological abuse, deeming one an abuser if he/she exposes the child to physical, sexual or psychological abuse of a person with whom he/she is in a domestic relationship with. The person on the receiving end of the abuse will however not be found to be an abuser as well. The Bill recognizes, rightfully so, that children are also victims of domestic violence.
Another triumph is that it mandates the Cabinet Secretary for health, in partnership with county executives, create policy to provide temporary emergency shelters for victims of domestic violence. This policy shall also address public education and awareness, research and development on domestic violence, availability of psychological support and legal aid. Subsequently, any person that believes that domestic violence is being/has been committed may report it, and may not be intimidated for doing so. They may also not face disciplinary action for doing so, unless it is proven that the information is false.
These Bills may be late, but at least they are existent now. Societies usually evolve faster than their structures, and the law has to play catch-up. What we can do now as the Bills are discussed in parliament is share them with our networks so as to educate them on what would change if/when they become Acts of parliament, as well as to help them hold leaders and members of their societies accountable. To follow their progress, please use the Bills tracker tool.
“Oh,” the man said. “Oh, yeah— starry-eyed coon with way, way too much money, who thinks there ain’t nothin’ more important than the lives of some crazy black faggots.” He grunted.
Though he was surprised, Eric laughed. “If you are one— a black faggot, I mean— that can seem pretty
important to you, actually.”
Recently I’ve been wondering about the ways in which we let words travel. In a conversation I hear casual warnings like “Don’t be gay” being thrown around. An accusation that, even in its ‘innocence’ is a strong disincentive. When gaming a friend says “Dude, you play like a girl.” Again, I can’t swallow the meaning. After pointing it out it becomes “Well, I didn’t mean it like that but everyone knows that girls can’t game.” In yet another conversation someone says “But that’s bitches. A bitch will always call another bitch a bitch.” I find this one particularly ironic. Even within itself the statement realizes that the word bitch is an insult. Yet, casually, it is used to refer to any person who is female.
These are things we experience every day.
Gukira writes about banal misogyny:
Banal means dull, boring, uninteresting, unremarkable. What passes without comment. At once background and foundation. What can be taken for granted. I am interested in how misogyny backgrounds banal—how it becomes banal, expected, unsurprising, the thing that need not be named. Indeed, the ground on which choices about, for, and by women can be made. Misogyny is dull.
How did misogyny become dull?
I’m reminded about conversations we have with our mothers and fathers about our place in society. I’m reminded that, as a man, I’m a disruptive force. How uncomfortable it becomes for me when I walk into a room and things reshuffle to accommodate me. The things we do without thinking, speaking. I’m reminded of going to family gatherings (mine, theirs, ours, yours) and sitting with the men around the television while women slave in the kitchen. I’m trying to imagine how these roles are so easily absorbed by us. How they weave themselves into the fabric of our society. And, in thinking about this, I find myself paying close attention to how we use words and how quickly we speak away possibilities.
“You’re a man. You must be able to provide.”
“You’re a man. You must not cry.”
“You’re a man. You are a rock.”
These are the lessons we are taught.
I’m trying to find a way around these words that we use every day. Words of identity that we use to insult, to hurt. Thinking about what these words mean. And, even as I think about this, it is important to remember that because they are so deeply woven inside ourselves, it is hard to unravel them. Taking such problems apart involve re-thinking a lot of presumptions we have about ourselves. Think about having a male house help. Or how we are still shocked at seeing a female pilot. There are presumptions we have made about life because someone said something.
Which brings me all the way back to the beginning.
Ever thought about what you mean when you stand and say “Oh my god, that’s so gay!” What warnings are being given? What lives are being erased? What lives are being asked to remain silent? With a little modification this statement slowly becomes “That’s so gay.” Then “Don’t do that, it’s gay.” Then “Gay things shouldn’t be done.” And, eventually “ Don’t be gay.”
There is no such thing as an innocent statement.
Sara Ahmed reminds us of the problem of perception:
“…exposing a problem is to become a problem then the problem you expose is not revealed. For example, when you make an observation in public that all the speakers for an event are all white men, or all but one, or all the citations in an academic paper are to all white men, or all but a few, these observations are often treated as the problem with how you are perceiving things (you must be perceiving things!).”
I come back to the problem to perception, because now I’m thinking about how we take such criticism. I’m thinking about how conversations continue.
“That’s so gay.”
“Hey, don’t say that – it’s offensive”
“Why? Are you gay?”
“Umm no. I’m not but I’m trying to…”
“If you’re not gay why do you care? You must be gay gay gay.”
As in the conversation above, the problem has been shifted from the offender to the offended. This casual shift in frame is seen every single day. Eventually it becomes a stereotype “Anyone who is offended by X must be X” and on and on it continues. Again, words are used to break bodies. Again, broken bodies are used to pave the path for the patriarchy.
“Make it because you still have hands”
I’d like to modify that to: make it because you still have a tongue. It’s impossible to analyse how words have been used to destroy people without thinking about what kind of world they have been used to build. Yes, a broken world – but a world. One where we live and, sometimes, thrive. And, in knowing that words contain the capacity to build, to grow, to stretch and to imagine, we cannot ignore their important role in rebuilding/repair.
I’d like to imagine a world where identity is not an insult. Where being is enough. Where being as one is, is not cause for alarm, or distress. Where “Don’t be such a girl” is not used to insult people. Where “That’s so gay,” is probably the most absurd thing one could say. And, imagining this world, I’d like to begin building it.
When I was talking to a friend about writing this I told her “But this is so obvious, I don’t even know what I’d write.”
She asked “What do you want to say?”
“Can we stop calling people gay as an insult?”
“Then write that”.
So I have.
This essay is taken from Brainstorm’s second e-book, (In)Sanity: What “Crazy” Looks Like, which is on mental health in Kenya and is available for free. DOWNLOAD IT HERE to read more such essays.
What can I tell you about myself? I’m a single mother of two wonderful children, I’m half Kenyan but grew up in Britain my whole life, I like reading and nature walks.
Oh yeah, and I’m a sex addict.
It’s not something I talk about often, but unfortunately it’s a rather large and inescapable feature of my life. I wanted to write this essay to discuss underlying personality traits and mental health issues commonly suffered by sex addicts, and why many people make the move to sex addiction as a coping mechanism. However, when I started to research this essay I found that there is a huge amount of scientific information with definitions, symptoms, causes, treatments etc., but very little personal documentation about how this actually feels and affects people like me in everyday life.
There are bitter and biased articles from hurt spouses or churchy, preachy articles about how to spot a sex addict in your congregation and what to do about it, but this makes people like me sound like predatory, dangerous individuals with no morals, no control over our actions and insatiable sexual appetites.
Lock up your husbands ladies, I’m on the prowl!
In reality, I haven’t chosen the way I am. Seriously, no one would choose the battle I have to fight every day to keep my thoughts and actions on the straight and narrow. Sadly, it’s a battle that I often lose, but the war is a long term thing.
What is Sex Addiction?
Just for a moment, I’ll follow the example set by those other papers and briefly mention what sex addiction actually is, but I’ll do it in my own words as an addict, and in as simple language as possible:
- It is a progressive illness – If left untreated, it will get worse and behaviour will become more extreme.
- Where sexuality is used in the wrong way – instead of sex being a celebration of love, sex becomes a desperate act to feel good about oneself and make a connection with instant intimacy (if sex is the end result behaviour), or using pornography to create a feeling of desirability and success without the risk of intimacy.
- Where sex or porn is used to create a “high” – there is now research that suggests the brains of sex addicts have imbalances in dopamine and serotonin, which are neurotransmitters associated with mood regulation and pleasure. Also long-term sexually addictive behaviour re-wires the reward systems of the brain, so addicts feel that they must continue with these behaviours or they may not survive. So, sex addiction is now being viewed by many professionals as similar to drug addiction.
- When the high wears off, sex addicts will experience withdrawals and cravings – this is partly to do with a “comedown” from the neurotransmitters, but also stems from a need to reenact the rituals and behaviour patterns of getting close to our “fix”. Sex addicts will go to great lengths to avoid withdrawals.
- Sex addicts will usually experience shame and self-loathing from their behaviour and seeming lack of control – this is a common theme described by every sex addict I have spoken to, and of course this is something I have experienced myself time and time again. When I was caught “in the bubble” of my sexual behaviour, I was completely powerful and untouchable. The next day, I could not look myself in the eye in the mirror, and I’d tell myself “Never again!”
- This shame and self-loathing will not stop the behaviour from resurfacing again and again – in fact, I’d repeat the same crazy stuff at the next available opportunity just to make myself feel better.
- Sex addicts will start using deluded thinking to explain and justify their behaviour – Many, many excuses can be used, such as “I was bored/tired/stressed/angry/horny/lonely/happy/excited/celebrating/commiserating…” the list is endless and we genuinely manage to fool ourselves. Yes, outright lies can be told, but the reasons behind those lies are often true to the individual. Defensive towers are built with this skewed thinking to protect the self.
- Sex addicts will block out risks that their behaviour will bring – risk of disease is obvious, but consider money spent on escorts or prostitutes; getting on the wrong side of the law with public sex, voyeurism and extreme internet porn; having no spare time because planning our behaviour and fantasizing about past behaviour is all-consuming; and having to more or less live a “double life” so that other people don’t find out .
- All in all, it leads to an unmanageable life – My own addiction causes me a great deal of guilt and confusion, but I wasn’t caught in the trap of active sex addiction for long. I have seen how bad it can get. Sex addiction steals and ruins people’s lives. In the most extreme cases, I have seen people who have lost their partners, children and friends. I have seen marriages break down. I have seen people lose their jobs, homes and even face jail and restriction to their personal freedom. At the very least, each and every sex addict at one time or another feels that they are a terrible, worthless, broken, isolated being, with no idea how to change, or how they even got there in the first place.
How do I know that I’m a sex addict? Is it because I have a high sex drive? Well, yes.
However, many addicts do not want sex at all, because pornography has left them so switched off to the opposite sex that they cannot stop viewing them merely as sex objects for their own gratification.
Is it because I think about sex all the time? Yes, sexual fantasy and obsession is a feature for most addicts. During my worst times, my every waking moment was devoted to thinking about or chasing sex.
Is it because I have no morals? No, I have morals, but during active addiction I lose them completely, because my addiction is bigger and more powerful than my conscious thoughts. I often think “This is wrong, I shouldn’t do this” but a fog settles in my brain and then I’m free from my morals. It is a very liberating place where I don’t have to take responsibility for my actions (until later, and trust me the comedown is terrible), and it’s also very addictive.
Is it because I can’t control myself? The word “control” is hard to define in this context. Sex addicts can control their behaviour and go for periods without sex, but this is known as “white knuckling”. An addict will believe they have their behaviour under control, therefore they will then give themselves permission to go on a bender, “safe” in the knowledge they can “stop at any time” (think of an alcoholic having dry spells). So, overall, there is no control.
Is it because I don’t care about myself? Yes, sadly that is true, but I am learning the error in that kind of thinking.
To illustrate the above points, I am going to tell you a story. This is the reason that I realized I was a sex addict:
7 months ago, I went to a house party. A group of very nice looking men lived together, and I had had my wicked way with a few of them. They were all sitting drinking, and I gravitated towards one of them who I had previously had a couple of mind-blowing nights with. The fact that he was getting married in a month’s time was of no consequence to me at that point. We were flirting a little, but then he suddenly started fighting with another one of the guys. I didn’t know what was happening and I hate fighting. His mouth and hand were bloody and he kept accidentally smearing blood on me while he was drunkenly posturing. Eww. It was a stressful experience.
Looking back, I was really rattled by all that. Here is where I am different from other people. Instead of dealing with it, I chose block it out, and I did that by approaching one of the other guys who I knew was interested in me and started flirting with him. He was a very willing victim, and soon I was sitting on his knee while he was kissing my neck.
I found some stupid excuse to go to his room, but he knew the score and followed. The clothes were off pretty soon. Soon I was rolling, I was high from my drug. We didn’t actually have sex, he was too drunk to perform, but he helped me push the stress away. Between his kisses and caresses I found my peace, my safety. I was safe in the fog I had created, and not even another friend barging into the room in the middle of the action could stop me (Although, I’d slept with him too so him seeing me naked was neither here nor there. No, not the fighter. Another guy).
I’m not done.
We got dressed and we all decided to hit a club. The guy who I had just been with, who had been so happily pleasing me an hour previously, began to ignore me. I guess I was a box that he felt was ticked. I was still safe in the fog so I just ignored him and didn’t feel snubbed. That is a risk of being intimate with men that you don’t care about, and who don’t care about you. I blocked it out and danced.
I’m not done.
We drove back to their place and the fighter appeared. He was sober and showered and no longer blood stained. I was just starting to lose the buzz of my drug so I decided to top myself up to keep my high. I found some stupid excuse to go into his room and…well you can imagine the rest. Another mind-blowing night to fantasize about later.
Afterwards, I spent a couple of days in this blissed-out high and spent endless hours having romantic fantasies about the fighter. Then the comedown arrived and I felt truly, truly awful. How could I have done that? What was I thinking? I could not justify having sexual contact with 2 different men in one night. Stressed out or not, that was not normal. Oh my God, I’m abnormal. There’s something wrong with me. How do I fix it? Can I fix it? Who can I turn to?
It went on and on. I was ashamed and terrified.
It was not drugs or alcohol I was craving. I have a very different intoxicant and it was in complete control at that point. There are many other stories, not all as bad as that, but that was the last time I was truly out of control to my addiction.
So, what makes a sex addict?
To ask a simple question – is it nature or is it nurture?
The answer is – both.
Referring to literature again, it appears that all addicts (alcoholics, drug addicts, gamblers, exercise addicts) share some physiological traits:
Biologically, as well, as addicts having neurotransmitter imbalances as mentioned above, addiction is highly hereditary, with many sex addicts having parents or siblings suffering from various other addictions. Addicts are seen to have a lower level of cortical arousal, so we display extroverted behaviours to “top up” our low arousal level with adrenaline, as well as showing “thrill-seeking” behaviour. For sex addicts this could be engaging in risky sex, or looking up progressively more extreme pornography to up the ante.
Psychologically, while there are no set personality traits that cause addiction, addicts have several personality factors:
- 1. Impulsivity and compulsion (sex addiction is not currently recognized as an illness in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), but it is described as Excessive Sexual Drive in the International Classification of Diseases by the WHO. Some professionals maintain that it’s a branch of obsessive compulsive disorder. You know, just to confuse us more.
- 2. Valuing being different, combined with weak commitment to socially valued goals for achievement
- 3. Having a sense of social alienation and a tolerance for deviance
- 4. Heightened stress and lack of coping skills
Just being predisposed to these natural-selected personality traits and biological quirks won’t necessarily lead to sex addiction, but teaming up with certain environmental factors can lead to disastrous results.
A traumatic childhood as a prominent feature in most addicts I have spoken to, but not all. This doesn’t always mean physical or sexual abuse, but it often means having parents who cannot emotionally nurture a child (sometimes due to their own addictions or mental health issues) which can lead to many small perceived traumas. This can lead to a child feeling uncared for, and many will then make the leap that they are not worth caring for. The more sensitive children may turn to outside influences in an attempt to alleviate the inner pain they experience.
Mental Health Implications
What does it feel like being a sex addict?
Imagine you have a best friend. I’ll call her Addie. Addie is a lot of fun. You feel free and strong when you’re with her. When you’re sad, Addie will do her best to make you feel better by reminding you of fun times to try to make you feel happier. When you’re happy, Addie’s presence makes you feel amazing – powerful, desirable, sexy, beautiful, smart, strong and if you mess up you can say “It wasn’t me, but bless her cotton socks, Addie got carried away again. Won’t that girl learn ha ha ha!” Honestly, you just don’t know what life would be like without Addie.
Sadly, Addie is crazy and out of control. She is exhausting, infuriating, and sometimes you do not understand why she does what she does. She becomes a larger and larger feature of your life until you have forgotten where you end and Addie begins. And when you try to break free, you realize that Addie has cleverly made a cage – you are afraid of life without Addie. She hurts you, over and over again and you can’t stop her. Addie is stronger than you, she bullies you, she controls your thoughts and actions and you’re afraid of her. You feel yourself disappearing a little more each time she makes you do something that makes you ashamed.
And Addie is a part of you, and always will be.
It really, really sucks.
I have been attending Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA) meetings for six months. While I can never consider myself “cured”, I am happy to report that my life is improving, one day at a time. I have met various sex addicts, and I can honestly say that it can affect anyone, at any age, from all walks of life, at any time. This is by no means scientific, but I have picked up a few common themes from observation and conversation with other addicts:
- 1. I am yet to meet any female addicts whose sole problem is pornography. The female addicts I have spoken to will watch porn, but the main problem is sex with multiple partners. However, most men’s main problem is porn addiction, with sex outside of relationships, cybersex and purchasing sex in various forms also featuring.
- 2. All of us have problems dealing with stress.
- 3. From what I have seen, we are a highly immature, rebellious, selfish, self-pitying, self-centred, sensitive, creative and proud collection of people.
- 4. We suffer from fear, and over-react to stressors in everyday life.
- 5. All of us have problems with self-esteem and self-worth. This appears before sex addiction takes hold, and is worsened as we begin to hate ourselves for our active sexually addictive behaviour.
- 6. Many of us have had difficult relationships with our parents and have had what we perceive to be difficult childhoods, but that is highly subjective. Sexual abuse does not feature highly. However, many people will not reveal to that to others during meetings or phone conversations, so I have no idea of “official” figures.
- 7. Sex addiction is overwhelmingly a male issue, so female addicts feel extra stigmatization and guilt.
- 8. Self-destructive tendencies feature highly. This could stem from not feeling cared for during childhood, therefore not feeling worthy of happiness.
- 9. We feature “all or nothing” thought patterns and struggle with moderation. Indeed, sex addiction, alcoholism and overeating overlap.
- 10. A distorted sense of time. Addicts can literally lose days of their lives watching pornography, and I have seen myself lose hours in sexual texting or fantasy. Time flies by when we are in active addiction, yet drags by at a snail’s pace when withdrawing.
- 11. Addicts often feel isolated, alone and that no one else understands.
It has taken a lot of soul searching, but I am done with blaming myself for being a sex addict. Whether it’s my brain, personality, upbringing or all three that led to me being an addict I’ll never know, but none of those things are my fault. However, I do not for one second condone my reactions and resulting actions because I still chose to be led down a path where I put sex before everything else.
Guilt, self-loathing, low self-esteem and low self-worth feel like familiar garments to me. However, I am learning to move on from the past, see my place in my addiction and stop blaming everyone else. By forgiving myself I can begin moving forward. This is thanks to the 12 Step SAA (Sex Addicts Anonymous) program, which is a journey of spiritual discovery linked to a fellowship of men and women who support each other in moving towards recovery.
“Recovery” is not defined as abstinence, rather it is freedom from those behaviours which cause us shame. Every individual chooses the behaviour that they wish to stop. In my case, I no longer wish to have sex outside of a relationship. There have been a few close calls, but at this time I have not had sex in five months. I am very grateful for this. I have no idea what the future holds, but I know I’m not alone.
If you have read this essay and feel it resonate with you, know that you are not alone and help is available.
The author of this post chose to remain anonymous. To read more such essays, download our book (In)Sanity: What “Crazy” Looks Like.