“Mili, your boxes have arrived but there’s something happening inside them,’’ a text from my housemate read some time in 2008. “Something is buzzing.’’
These were my relocation boxes and I had last seen them in Cape Town, four months prior to moving to Johannesburg.
Intrigued, I left work and hurried home with no suspicion of what said buzzing could be. Reunited with my boxes, I stood in front of them and, indeed, the top of the stack was buzzing, the humming deepening as I touched and let go and touched and let go of the box. I opened it and discovered the culprit: an old, bright purple phallic friend vibrating his batteries away.
About a year into my first job as a stylist’s assistant at Cosmopolitan magazine, I was asked to take home a dildo as part of an assignment. Staff members, experience or no experience, had picked one each from a smorgasbord of vibrators, bunny ears and other pleasure toys and were asked to try them out and write reviews. I was 20.
What did I know about sex? That it began and ended with the fear of getting pregnant or contracting sexually transmitted diseases. What I had learned from reading Cosmo was that sex was about pleasing the man and what I had learned from the world was to avoid the cardinal sins of pregnancy and disease, which in some way was also about pleasing my parents.
Add to that a constant fear of getting sexually assaulted, the fear of being slut-shamed when you express confidence in your body and the perennial underlying fear that you’re doing something bad because you are not married.
The idea of my own pleasure had not yet occurred to me.
Such was the sexual climate for a child growing up in the 1990s. Like most girls in South Africa, my sex education was steeped in fearmongering preventative theories cloaked in biblical levels of shaming. As children, we couldn’t even say the word and would coyly refer to it as “science, English and Xhosa” when we were all of eight years old during a game of “doctor, doctor’’.
This kind of shame, discomfort and embarrassment about sex didn’t just naturally peter out. Think of the woman who has grown up in this climate and maintained her virginity but on the day of her wedding is supposed to flick a mental switch, forget everything and open up for her husband, who has probably dipped his Jimmy in somebody’s Jenny prior to the wedding.
Even if a woman is not waiting to do it on her marriage bed, there’s generally a lot of unlearning that needs to happen before learning to have empowered sex. When I used the dildo for the first time, I didn’t really know how to make the leap from sheepish, guilt-filled sexual exploration to experiencing real pleasure.
It would take me years to unlearn my anxieties, to relax my pelvis, and even longer to overcome the patriarchal, porn-motivated idea of goal-oriented sex where it is more of a liquor-lubricated sport than a meta-physical connection.
It also doesn’t help that there isn’t enough knowledge around women’s reproductive systems and that most of the world’s gynaecologists are men.
Unlike Americans, at least we’ve managed to get the government out of our vaginas in South Africa, but there’s still a lot of demystifying to do, from the causes and treatment of conditions such as endometriosis to the fact that squirting, what they call kunyaza in East Africa, is not a new freaky deaky trick that women have learned in the past 20 years.
If our ideas about sex need to evolve, so does the messaging. On the one hand there’s the penitent Victorian approach to sex as an inherently bad thing being insidiously taught in our homes.
On the other is the oversexualisation of women’s bodies behind every screen you look at — and, somewhere in the middle, life orientation teachers and “cool’’ aunts are supposed to fill in the blanks.
So instead of only teaching sex in the parameters of safety and responsibility, how can we look at teaching boys and girls that sex is also a natural and delightful part of being a human being from an early age, from the time they start touching each other and asking awkward questions?
Most importantly, how can we restore the idea of pleasure around sex so that by the time puberty comes and a teenager is inevitably fooling around, he or she, but she especially, is empowered enough to be responsible and liberated?
My relationship with my dildo ended the day my domestic worker found it hidden behind some cloth- ing inside a cupboard and left it on my pillow as if to say: “Sies!’’
I have since learned the value of my middle digits.