Sex and censor-bility

On 14 February, Showmax started streaming local docuseries Sex in Afrikaans. This six-part series follows a different sex related theme or activity in each episode, and documents the participation of Afrikaans speaking people in these activities. 

The themes range from sex toys to pornography to BDSM and swinging, and include the perspectives of experts, such as sex toy specialists, and members of the public, including people who have been part of the swinging lifestyle for years. The show also has a 10-person panel, four couples and two singles, all Afrikaans, joining clinical psychologist Bradley R Daniels in frank conversations about sex, picking up on the relevant themes, and openly mapping each couple’s thoughts, feelings and experiences. 

Sex in Afrikaans has been described as “eye-opening” and “ground-breaking”, giving voice to the sexual desires of people who “live and breathe in silence” on the topics of sex and sexuality. Rian van Heerden, the producer and narrator of the show, says the motivation behind the production is the lack of conversation on topics of sex in the Afrikaans language, and that he wanted to create a show in which people could “call a spade a spade”, removing some of the topic’s taboo and sociolinguistic stigma in the process.

This is not the first time I’ve heard or read these sentiments. I interviewed the late Ryk Hattingh, first editor of the first Afrikaans porn magazine, Loslyf, for my MA thesis in 2012 and 2013; during these conversations Hattingh expressed the same motivations as Van Heerden does now. As documented in my thesis, Hattingh’s very first editor’s letter in June 1995 declares Loslyf the “first Afrikaans sex magazine that does not beat around the bush … Loslyf is a magazine for Afrikaans-speaking adults who feel themselves part of randy humanity, people who want to see their sexual desires in print and not only mumble about them in bars and around the braai.” 

Watching Sex in Afrikaans I was reminded of these words. I could not help noting that Hattingh’s sentiments have not changed from 1995 to when I spoke to him during the course of my research, and that Van Heerden, in 2022, share the same ideas about Afrikaans speakers and sex and sexuality. How is it that nearly 30 years after the first issue of Loslyf was published, associating the Afrikaans language with topics on sex and sexuality is still seen as a transgression and a ground-breaking boundary to push? 

As a researcher in cultural codes, and one with a longstanding interest in this particular topic, I could not help but try to understand these almost stagnant sentiments on representing sex in Afrikaans. With this article I attempt to outline some of my thoughts on the matter. Given the restrictions of space, these will be reductive, and I hope to find ways to elaborate on my thoughts in the near future. 

(Showmax)

What happened in the past? 

In cultural studies we speak of a flattened landscape of representation when a certain topic is not represented or permitted in the public cultural sphere. Such cultural landscapes are not inherently flat, but are made flat, singularised and silenced. In the Afrikaans cultural arena, sex and sexuality are topics that have been flattened and silenced in the past with concerted legal, religious, and broader cultural efforts. 

The relationship between the Afrikaans language and Afrikaner cultural identity is a contentious one, mostly related to race, that is beyond the scope of this writing. To sketch a historic overview, the two are used here in close connection with each other, the way it was promoted under Afrikaner nationalist rule to imply a specific white South African identity. The Afrikaans language is, however, no longer a signifier of purely white Afrikaner culture.

Under the apartheid dispensation, Afrikaner unity was revered and celebrated. As part of this goal of unity, constitutive elements of Afrikaner identity were proclaimed and protected. These elements included racial purity, cultural separatism, purity of the Afrikaans language, and moral “integrity”. The “moral weaknesses” linked to sexuality and sexual promiscuity were seemingly resisted, especially on state level, and supported in legal and religious discourse, most notably with strict censorship laws, anti-miscegenation laws and a church-state conflation. 

The apartheid dispensation’s stringent moral and religious censorship aimed to control and oversee the representation and publication of sexual material. In this process, the government attempted to provide a point of identification for Afrikaners regarding sexuality and the taboos associated with it. This censorship resulted in a distinct state-sanctioned definition of how topics on sex could be expressed, and involved a devotion to “moral purity” as it concerned the sexual lives of South Africans in general, but more precisely so of Afrikaners. 

The roots of the conservative state-endorsed representation of an Afrikaans/Afrikaner view on sex and sexuality are summarised by CJ Langenhoven in 1930, referring to any discussion or reference to sex as “an un-Afrikaans, anti-Afrikaans, modern teaching they [Afrikaners] have never heard of”. 

The Publications Act 42 of 1974 was passed to replace the Publications and Entertainment Act 26 of 1963 and the Indecent or Obscene Photographic Matter Act 37 of 1967. The Publications Act 42 of 1974 gave censors control over newspapers, books, periodicals, posters, pamphlets, illustrations, and any other forms of visual or written publications and all public entertainment. Any of these publications could be considered legally undesirable if they were found to be “indecent or obscene or … harmful to public morals” in any way, defined by the search for a “Christian view of life”. Definitions of indecency and obscenity became fluid and subjective, not stipulated and defined by law. 

The resultant state-sanctioned version of sex, or rather the legally permitted way of speaking about sex, was one of a radically conservative nature, with an emphasis on reproduction (in heterosexual relationships), legitimacy (as defined by the state), and secrecy and decency (both indicative of elements of sin and shame). 

A moral cocoon was spun tightly around Afrikaners and this implied adherence to strict notions of sin and transgression that further helped to limit the terrain in which Afrikaners could, both legally and morally, explore and talk about sex. This had direct implications too for speaking about sex in the Afrikaans language. 

On the one hand a conservative and “morally pure” Afrikaans discourse regarding sex and sexuality was legally and religiously circulated. One the other hand, and as a result, any sentiments or representations in opposition to these official forms were made to appear non-existent. 

Although apartheid censorship laws could not keep these sentiments or thoughts, feelings, and experiences around sex and sexuality from arising, these laws attempted to at least remove them from full public view, flattening this cultural landscape and creating the impression that these sentiments did not exist associated with the Afrikaans language.  

(Showmax)

Why do these sentiments persist? 

It is against this historical backdrop that the sentiments of Ryk Hattingh and Rian van Heerden around discussing matters of sex in Afrikaans need to be understood. This part of South Africa’s past also has to be considered in trying to understand why, nearly 30 years after the first issue of Loslyf was published, making any connection between the Afrikaans language and topics on sex and sexuality is still seen as transgressive and radical. The reasons that these sentiments persist are certainly multiple and complex, but I would like to offer three brief thoughts. 

The first is the nature of discourse. In this context discourse can be understood as the collection of representations and knowledge on a certain topic. This may include thoughts, writing, visuals, music and laws. Think of writing on a white board with a marker to illustrate your ideas. When you erase that writing to write something new, the marks of your old ideas will probably still remain and still be vaguely visible underneath what you are trying to write now. Discourse functions in the same way. Even though new laws have been written and passed and the Afrikaans language has had ample opportunity to expand what it can and may speak about, the traces of the past and its ideas are still visible. These traces make themselves seen in the way that a 2022 Afrikaans docuseries on sex and sexuality is still thought of as transgressive and somehow shocking, as though the content still does not fit the language it is associated with. 

The second thought is also related to discourse. It is important to remember that actual sex is different from representations of sex. A specific kind of representation of sex and sexuality was created and maintained by the apartheid government’s censorship laws, and this specific representation and the actual sex lives of (Afrikaans) citizens should not be confused with each other. 

Just as Loslyf played up the previous conservative and limiting representations of sex and sexuality in the Afrikaans language so it could be viewed as alternative in relation to these, Sex in Afrikaans may succeed in doing the same. The first episode opens with archival material of people in traditional Afrikaner dress, most likely during the 1938 Great Trek Centenary Celebrations and sets up the history of sex in Afrikaans in relation to previous laws and religious codes — representations in discourse. 

Discourse is powerful and an important force to reckon with in cultural studies, but as long as the past relationship between sex and Afrikaans is only ever accessible through limited and limiting representations in discourse, any oppositional expression, such as that this Showmax series offers, will arguably be seen as ground-breaking in comparison. Especially if, in discourse, no alternatives were allowed for in the past. 

Last, the relationship between a unified Afrikaner cultural identity and moral purity has previously been mentioned. It can be argued that in times of perceived threat to this identity, there may be a collective nostalgia for those markers that contributed to a sense of unity in the past. In a time when Afrikaner cultural identity is widely claimed to be under threat, there is seemingly a shared sense of morality and a move towards more conservative values. This point relates to the previous one in that it could be against these values that Sex in Afrikaans and this kind of expression in the Afrikaans language appears out of place and eye-opening. 

Sex and the sexuality may arguably remain a thorn in Afrikaans flesh until the cultural landscape on these topics are properly broadened by encouraging the real-life thoughts, feelings, and experiences of a more inclusive array of Afrikaans speakers.

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Marnell Kirsten
Marnell Kirsten is a senior visual studies lecturer and researcher. She has a keen interest in media and communication studies, and understanding cultural trends in representation and communication. She writes in her personal capacity.

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