Thursday, February 25, 2010

Sex is a mental thing

by Holly
It was a hard day. For vicarious reasons. I have little claim to feel sad, angry and betrayed. I’m trespassing on someone elses pain and I have no right to take it home with me. But I do and I can’t help it. I always come home to a violence-free house and a partner that loves me madly. I never, ever worry what he might do to me tonight.

No one I talked to today* could say the same. I've decided I need several hours in the presence of really wonderful men to each hour of hearing about rape. Thankfully, there are amazing men in my daily life—Ben—and many excellent Ugandan colleagues and friends that help me balance out my over-exposure to the wake of other men’s depravity.

A couple of days ago I went to a meeting with some agencies working on Gender Based Violence. Suddenly, I was taken back to Lira, 2005. It’s funny how little “coordination” meetings change in 5 years. But that’s beside the point. (the point, is still to be determined—perhaps it’s just the catharisis that comes after sharing things too heavy to carry alone) Sitting there, I kept thinking of how many women have no idea these NGOs exist or what services they could provide them. I’ve been asking women who they would go to for help if something happened to them. They typically say something like, “Well, I hear that there is a group in town called ‘Human Rights’ but I don’t really know what they do.” Several different NGOs have hotlines—one for counselling, another for legal advice, etc. I suggested they make a joint card with all of the available hotlines—written in Acholi and distribute it as widely as possible. I’d like to have such a card to leave with some of the women I talk to.

It might do a little good. I recalled one of the women. She’s not going to report her husband to the police or seek legal advice. She just wants him to stop. She wants to talk to someone without them making her feel more ashamed than she already does. “If I tell anyone,” she lamented,” they’ll just ask me why I got married if I don’t want to have sex. They’ll say it’s my duty to satisfy him.” She wants someone to tell her it’s not her fault. She wants someone who can commiserate. “My sister,” she touched my arm and shook her head, “when he comes home so drunk and violent and with the smell of alcohol, how am I supposed to begin?”

A card with phone numbers isn’t going to help her. She can’t read. She doesn’t have a phone.

And then I remembered (the gist of) a provocative question my supervisor asked me. (I think/hope he was going for a reaction and not reflecting his opinion.) If marital rape is a normalized experience, does it do more damage than good to problematize it? Maybe, if women don’t perceive being violently forced to have sex as wrong they are less traumatized by it’s occurrence, accepting it as a normal part of interaction with husands.

Preposterous. (this is my obligatory more refined substitute for what I really think: b*** sh**. My mom always said that using vulgar language was a sign of a poor vocabulary—but honestly, once in awhile profanity is simply most apt.)

Every woman I’ve talked to that shared her experience of being raped by her partner experienced it as something wrong. They KNOW it’s not right. To suggest otherwise is demeaning. “What I know,” one of them told me after sharing the violent forced conception of her first child, “is that making love is supposed to be an agreement between a man and a woman.” Living in a village in Africa, makes this no less true than anywhere else. Another woman told me how she has never talked to anyone about it except for her husband. “I tell him, ‘What you’re doing is bad! This is the wrong way to treat your wife! Strangers do this to strangers but you should be ashamed to do it in your own house!”

Say what you want about cultural relativity. Acholi women like foreplay just as much as the next woman. Whether you sleep on a papyrus mat on a dirt floor or a pillow-top king-size mattress, women want the person lying next to them to respect their yes and their no. Perhaps to persuade them—but never to force them. Most of them are angry that they live in an environment where people around them identify ways they are to blame and make excuses for the man’s behavior. One of my personal fravorites: “well, maybe he is just trying to save them both from HIV” –implying that the only alternative to benevolently forcing one’s wife to have sex is to have sex with someone else.

A couple of months ago I had a chat with the Resident District Commissioner for Gulu. A male colleague came along and made a comment I might’ve been tempted to slap him for if I weren’t a pacifist (to be fair, I’ve seen how well he treats his wife and he’s a good guy)—something about how marital rape was a difficult issue because men have “greater sexual appetitites than women.” I bit my tongue. And sat on my hands.

Ochora, (the RDC) leaned back in his chair and stared at the ceiling thoughtfully before he delivered his verdict. His gigantic belly protruding onto his desk when he leaned forward. “Sex,” he pronounced, “is a mental thing. It is mentally driven. If the wife says she is not in the mood then men should be able to understand.”

(*For confidentiality purposes, I did not post this on the day I wrote it.)


Anonymous said...

good thoughts.

-a friend of a friend

Kudzayi Leonard Mazumba said...

Touchy piece. You could safely say tis the same pattern from Eastern, Western, Central and Southern Africa where I am. And that 'we' regard sex as taboo has it that survivors and perpetrators alike dare not talk about it.