One Saturday afternoon when I was about 10-years-old, I found a DVD when I rummaged through a cousin’s drawer looking for spare change to go buy a treat from the corner store. The cover of said DVD was a collage of voluptuous naked women, some contorted into poses, and others mounted on top of each other. Underneath that DVD, I found a few others with similar covers, this time with men too. I was instantly intrigued. And sure, shocked too, but mostly intrigued. I did not yet quite understand what I had stumbled upon, but I knew that this was clearly something I was not supposed to see- I was rummaging in a drawer that didn’t belong to me so I wasn’t supposed to see anything in there at all, but the strict parental guidance on our DSTV also let me know that I certainly was not supposed to see that much nudity. And if I wasn’t supposed to see it, I had no idea how to begin to ask anyone about it.
It’s almost been a month since Netflix and Shondaland’s brainchild Bridgerton was released, and there is an observation that I, and tons of watchers could not help but reiterate via twitter: sex for the girls in Bridgerton is a best kept secret. Before the period drama plunges into a salacious feast of the Duke devouring his Duchess in every place (and in every way), we are made aware that most of the girls from Regency England’s elite families do not know what sex is. I don’t mean the mechanics of how sex happens, although they are unaware of that too, but literally what sex is. The seeming absurdity of this fact is partly realised by the season’s it girl Daphne, expressing her desire to bear children and be a mother over and over.
But of course, I know this is not absurd at all. Historians have attested to the show’s accuracy in portraying the girls’ ignorance, and also, Bridgerton is not exceptional in this way; I can think of many cultures, including my own that operate similarly. The insistence to keep girls in the dark when it comes to sex is universal. In fact, patriarchy’s project of upholding ideas of virginity and purity would be far less effective if girls not only understood the ins and out of sex, but could also discuss them freely.
“I found out about sex because of my dad. You know how they used to sell porn tapes? Well I found one of those and put it on. It was on a boat, like a massive sex party on a boat and I was like what is this? I didn’t understand what it was until much later, but yeah I was 7 or 8” - Sarah*, 24-years-old.
Amusingly, introduction to sex by way of dad’s DVD was the most reoccurring response when I asked several women to share the first time they found out what sex was. 25-year-old Nadia shared that the DVD she found when she was 11, titled My Very First Time, featured “a couple fucking on a garden, while having a picnic,” and 28-year-old Beatrice’s find “was all women, which was confusing at first and then quickly fascinating.” She laughs before adding, “I went from ‘huh?’ to ‘Oh!’”
For 55-year-old Neema, her introduction was far less candid; “I think I heard it first as gossip, ‘so-and-so got caught doing it’ or ‘they were found at this random spot alone’ so even if you are not quite sure what the ‘it’ was, you know you ought not to do it yourself,” lest you end up the topic of village gossip. “I guess I understood it to be wrong to be naked in front of other people,” 19-year-old Aliya* says after recanting accidentally walking in on her parents doing ‘it’, “which made me feel like what I saw was private. Like maybe I was being intrusive.”
There are two common threads here: firstly, variations of the thought, “I’m not supposed to know this” and secondly, “I have to keep this newly found information to myself.” Regardless of the introduction, it seems like for many women, what followed right after is this seedling of shame. The inkling that you cannot ask anyone because then you would have to admit that you know (although ironically, many of us barely actually knew) something. I’m of course generalising given my frame of reference, one that I more or less share with the women I spoke to, but without even quite understanding why, most of us knew admitting to having seen those DVDs, or heard the gossip, would be awkward at the very least, and damaging at its worst.
The conundrum that Bridgerton’s Daphne faced, the idea that indulging in any carnal need before marriage would have her ‘ruined’ is pretty common across the globe. In fact, even merely being seen with a man who was not a relative or revealing that you know of sexual desire would imply a lack of virtue. For Waswahili from the east of Africa, the way to mitigate the possibility of a girl being ‘ruined’ was to make the initiation into sexual activity a lot more systematic. You have a mkungwe- a traditional teacher and trainer of sex and sexual pleasure- who would initiate one into sexual activity. “To prepare her for life as wife, she would be put inside right after her first period,”** Margaret, a mkungwe, explains, “she would then be taught in great detail what sex is and how to please her husband.” “It is obviously frowned upon for a man to be seen with too many women, and they too would be taught about sex with other elders,” Margaret says, “but it's fair to say that men face far less scrutiny on the matter.” Many other cultures have their own variation of this rite of passage.
So, in both cultural contexts, there is no room for women to explore sex and pleasure on their own terms before they had to explore it on the basis of fulfilling a duty to their partner. Which brings us to the inherent contradiction of being a sexually active woman while navigating patriarchy, with a capital P: you need to be so chaste and pure that you have no idea (or seem like you have no idea) what sex is, but also be a wilful and skilled participant right after you are partnered. This contradiction has been regurgitated again and again throughout pop-culture, so much so that we can no longer blame ‘tradition’ for its prevalence. Ludacris even coined it rather succinctly in his song, Nasty Girl, “a lady in the streets, but a freak in the sheets.”
I, and the women who shared their stories with me, experience a very different reality to both the characters in Bridgerton as well as Swahili girls who would have gone through the aforementioned rite of passage. Time and cultural shifts have it such that, best case scenario, the transition between stumbling upon a sexual image, identifying it as sex, and experiencing it for ourselves is not systematic, nor abrupt. But instead, the repression manifests in the fact that secrecy and shame around sex for the most part, still very much exists. Historian and content creator, Mikai McDermott talks about the “politics of shame,” and how “in African and Caribbean communities, shame is a really important factor in talking about sex and your worth, and womanhood and how those things are all inextricably linked.” The emphasis on purity endures- absolute notions of being ‘ruined’ have been replaced with a fixation on the body count dictating one’s worth, and popular misconceptions about women’s bodies. Far too many still believe that a vagina loses elasticity with each sexual partner and just last year, the release of Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s ‘WAP’, ushered in a sleuth of misguided opinions about vaginal lubrication, or in some cases the lack of. Not to mention the existence of the orgasm gap, and other forms of sexual inequalities.
We have only recently began to take apart the shame shrouded in sex-talk, and its arguably even more novel for candid talk not to revolve around notions of celibacy, marriage or other kinds of romantic commitment. The better part of this movement has been largely led on the internet by sex workers, and even still, the phenomenon of the sex positive influencer for instance, is extremely new. Most who have pioneered these conversations have shouldered the burden of being viewed as devoid of sexual virtue, or even deviant, and sometimes have even been victims of violence on and offline. We see this happening all the time on social media, and it probably encourages our reluctance to be open about sex ourselves.
All the women I spoke to, including myself admitted to only having healthy circles where we can be candid about sex, sexual health and pleasure very recently, which is ridiculous (albeit understandable) when you think about the fact that most of us admit that our first encounter with what sex was, happened a few years before teenage-hood. Although a lot of this is deeply embedded into our social fabric- so I don’t imagine it would change any time soon- I can’t help but think of how much healthier, or more enjoyable women’s sex lives would be had we just gotten the space to simply talk about it. And I think it's important to reiterate that I don't just mean sex with partners, I mean the full breadth of what it means to be a sexually healthy person.
It is super easy to identify Daphne’s lack of knowledge and the systems that foster it as repressive, but we need not look that far away, or in the past, to notice similar patterns of repression in our current spaces. While aspects of Bridgerton are indeed overdramatised (is it even a Shondaland production if it's not dramatic?), the ignorance around sex and sexual pleasure, as well as the fixation on chasteness for women, is unfortunately, not one of them.
*Names have been changed to protect the identities of those who shared their information
**This conversation was translated from Kiswahili.