It was, in part, growing up in a village in Limpopo that saw Theto Mahlakoana eschew the traditional ways in which women are expected to express their sexuality.
“As a child, I have never seen men huddled in a group saying, ‘Ooh, she made me feel so good; when I came, I thought I was in heaven’. All I would ever hear, as a young child and teenage girl, were things like, ‘Oh, nna ke mo nyobile, ke mo jele a ba a lla, a ithotela [Oh, I fucked her, I really ravaged her — she even cried and peed on herself].”
Mahlakoana, a 31-year-old writer and social activist who lives in Johannesburg, is one of a growing number of young women embracing the concept of sex positivity.
“We are owning our experiences and we are unashamed about the fact that our bodies can feel pleasure and that we can communicate that pleasure,” she says. “Because there is no shame in me feeling, and giving, pleasure. None. Really, it’s as simple as that.”
The website, Feminist Campus, says sex positivity is “grounded in comprehensive sex education, exploring and deconstructing gender norms, and promoting body positivity and self-love. It fosters safe spaces in which different identities and sexual expressions are valued and bodily autonomy is paramount.”
Sex-positive perspectives have become more popular in recent years. Google Trends noted “that the term ‘sex positive’ was rarely searched on the internet before 2008 but that searches for this term have since jumped dramatically”, according to a 2017 report by Canadian-based Chantelle Ivanski, titled Exploring Definitions of Sex Positivity through Thematic Analysis.
“Increased interest in sex positivity has occurred alongside a proliferation of discussions about the benefits of sex positivity,” says the report.
The term “sex positive” grew out of “the feminist sex wars; a period in which different feminist positions were pitted against each other”.
Feminists argued that pornography was degrading to women by representing them as disempowered victims who lacked sexual agency and needed protection. But “this view was criticised by a ‘sex positive’ movement in feminist and emerging queer theory that advocated for the liberalisation of female (and queer) sexuality through transgressive sexual acts”, says the report.
Mahlakoana says sex positivity is important because “sex has always been about the quest and conquering. As a woman, you are seen as prey and men the predators. That is the way men relate to sex, even conversationally. Because they want to say to their friends, ‘I conquered; I won; my balls are big; my dick made her cry and pee on herself.’ Because that suits the patriarchal narrative of conquering.”
Pri Hollis is a Johannesburg-based musician who, like Mahlakoana, has embraced the ideology, saying the silence surrounding sex is “the last bastion of patriarchy”.
“There is still this slight mysticism around sex. Yes, sex is something personal, where you are naked on so many levels, but I don’t understand why we don’t talk about sex,” she says. “If I am allowed, for example, to say, ‘my boss is really killing me’, then why can’t I come up to you and talk about my sexual experiences?”
Pam Gillingham, the director of the Family Life Centre, believes sex positivity is important for young women “as a way of embracing their sexuality and as a source of empowerment”.
She says the negative opinions about sex positivity stem “from the patriarchal system” and men — and even other women — feeling threatened by it. “Women are often shamed for owning their sexuality and being outspoken about it. For men, it’s almost a norm to express and embrace their sexuality. But this is usually around a sense of dominance and a sense of entitlement to do so.”
As a transgender woman, 26-year-old Thabiso Ratalane has adopted sex positivity despite, she laughs, “not getting laid that often”.
“Men sleeping with me often have questions about their own sexuality. This points to the fragility [of their thoughts on masculinity]. Because masculinity is in a way a performance for them — proving themselves to other people. Men are often trapped in their own sexuality, so sex positivity for women could actually liberate men from all the trappings of masculinity from these expectations of having to be unemotional, or rough, or always in control and being lustful of and objectifying women.”
Ratalane says that embracing sex positivity is particularly important, given her gender identity. “How I communicate my body is fundamentally sexual. I’m a transgender woman and what that means is essentially trying to align my gender with my sexuality and how that is communicated to everyone else. So, essentially, every day when I step out of my house, I am a sex object. If sex positivity is accepted and embraced more broadly, there is a higher chance that there will be acceptance for people like me.”
But embracing sex positivity goes beyond accepting transgender people. “Part of women’s oppression by men is to control sexuality. This includes the way women are told to present themselves, which ultimately leads to and excuses rape,” says Ratalane. “When women embrace sex positivity, they are in a way communicating their own agency and independence from men and consciously vying away from the oppressive gaze of others.”
Fighting this oppressive gaze is how the annual Slut Walk was established. Started in Canada in 2011 after university students there were told by a police officer that, if they didn’t want to be raped, they should stop dressing like sluts, the march now takes place in 160 cities around the world, including Johannesburg.
Karmilla Pillay-Siokos, the operations director of SlutWalk Johannesburg, says the #MeToo movement has made it more acceptable for survivors of sexual abuse to speak openly about their experiences, and “frees them to deal with that trauma in a healthy, reflective way”.
“The more women are free to deal with those traumas, the more space they have to become sex positive; to become more comfortable with their bodies again. When you can come out and say, ‘I was raped’, it gives you that space to own that and release all of the pain associated with that, and allows you to explore the positive sides of being a sexual human.”
Pillay-Siokos agrees with Mahlakoana, Hollis and Ratalane: “Opening up these conversations is one of the most important weapons in the fight against patriarchy.”
Women have been conditioned “for as long as we can remember, to be demure, innocent and virginal”, she says. That creates a particular mentality. “The moment you divide women into categories of good girls and bad girls, then suddenly the women who don’t match the stereotype of what a [good] woman should be like are the women who deserve to be raped.”
Gillingham adds that slut-shaming is not only “damaging to self-esteem and self-worth” but is also “often a projection of insecurity on the part of whoever is doing the shaming”.
“Slut-shaming is a way of trying to squash an ideology that is completely opposite to what their norms are. For young women in South Africa, it is therefore absolutely critical that this concept of embracing sex positivity is explored and that there are platforms for women and men to talk about what this means for them,” Gillingham says.
Mahlakoana takes issue with the way mainstream media has made slut-shaming “the cornerstone of a lot of its business” and adds that the “mainstream media has not been able to project reality through any other lens but the lens of patriarchy”.
A 2013 report, Putting the “Sexual” in “Public Intellectual”, by the University of Nevada’s Lynn Comella, noted that there is a risk of misinformation and “distorted realities” if sex-positive writers, scholars and educators do not challenge how the mainstream media frame discussions “about everything from sexual assault and rape to the difference between consensual sex work and human trafficking”.
Mahlakoana, with her years of growing up in that little village in Limpopo long behind her, might have walked away from those “distorted realities”, but she says she is still “an exception”.
“We need to get to a point where these kinds of conversations become the norm. Because these conversations are essentially a big ‘fuck you’ to patriarchy.”
Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the M&G