Black love: on relationships, sex, love and intimacy

By: Athambile Masola*

The rules of engagement between men and women have changed. Gone are the days when many African women had to wait to be married off to a man (often chosen by her family) and she would be passed on from her father to her husband. The culture of relationships has altered the choices men and women make when it comes to choosing to be in a relationship with a man or a woman. Living in a post-colonial society has meant an intense interrogation at gender equality in the African context. If men and women are recognised as equals in the public space (noting the complexity of the lived experience especially where violence against women is rising) then we must accept that the private space where intimacy, love and sexuality are performed must be altered too. Relationships are part of the private space (the home and the bedroom) but the politics in private spaces spill over into who we are in public life—the fact that heterosexual relationships are still advocated as the norm across Africa as an important part of performing public life, law and national discourse (an example being the increasing visibility of the institution of the First Lady). As a heterosexual, educated woman, I am in a privileged space as I can make decisions about my sexuality. I know I can easily access contraceptives without judgment (in fact it is an imperative for me if I am to protect my career and sense of self). I also have a voice to demand security where I live. However, there are obvious dangers to my sexuality as a woman living in a very violent society where rape and sexual violence against women is a part of my reality once I step out the safe enclave of my home.

Often I think that questions about men and women’s sexuality are often taken for granted in national discourse. But where public discourse is increasingly masculine with male political leaders or influential men have opinions about what women should wear and look like in parliament; the South African president’s highly publicised rape case and his glib comments expounding that women must have children as an imperative to their womanhood; these comments have to make us think about the politics of intimacy and sexuality in the bedroom.

This begs the question: are people loving differently in a postcolonial society? Ideas about masculinity and femininity are constantly shifting, but do we have the language to fully articulate these shifts? In the African American context, bell hooks, in her book, “Salvation: black people and love” (2001), has argued that in the black community there has been an emphasis on defining well-being as material comfort, and thus undermining the significance of including intimacy and emotional well-being. hooks insists that,

Our collective crisis is as much an emotional one as a material one. It cannot be healed simply by money. We know this because so many of the leaders who preach to us about the necessity of gaining material privilege, who are holders of wealth and status, are as lost, as disenabled emotionally, as those among us who lack material well-being. Leaders who are addicted to alcohol, shopping, violence, or gaining power and fame by any means necessary rarely offer to anyone a vision of emotional well-being that can heal and restore broken lives and broken communities. … Since our leaders and scholars agree that one measure of the crisis black people are experiencing is lovelessness, it should be evident that we need a body of literature, both sociological and psychological work, addressing the issue of love among black people, its relevance to political struggle, its meaning in our private lives.

The question of “the independent women” is often flagged as one of the reasons relationships between men and women aren’t what they used to be. More than once people have lamented that because I am educated I will struggle finding a man who is not intimidated by me and therefore willing to marry me. The thought that I could want to be in a relationship with someone and want to see myself as an equal (and vice versa) is often seen as unnatural or unrealistic. Even when we agree that men and women are equal, it seems that when it comes to intimacy the rules change. Women are still expected to fit into the mould of the non-threatening model of femininity where men have prowess in the bedroom. The last outpost that men can have control over is within the bedroom.

After I graduated with a Masters, my cousin warned that “nje ufunde kangaka, xa uyiCEO ngenye imini uzuyazi ukuba imfundo yakho uzoyishiya emnyango uze ukwazi ukuba yinkosikazi.” (Now that you’re educated, when you become CEO one day, you will have to learn to leave your education at the door and walk into your home and be a wife). She said this at a time when I wasn’t in a relationship and I was flummoxed by the idea that should I become a wife I will have to disengage my mind and ideas and “become a wife”.  More importantly, I wonder if the same expectation is ever made on men.

The idea of gender equality in public domains as well as within private spaces such as the home and the bedroom means that we have to understand intimacy with a different language where romantic love is interrogated. Other writers have posited that

In a postmodern society, the pursuit of romantic love has lost its popular appeal, with people instead showing a preference for confluent love. Confluent love is active and contingent. It jars with the one and only qualities of romantic love. The yearning for the idealised other who is necessary to transform ‘me’ into ‘we’ forever becomes diminished. Confluent love initiates and sustains a relationship of equals and allows individuals to actively choose the development of the sense of the self…The mastery of sexual skills for both men and women emerges as an important feature of confluent love; this is different from romantic love where only men are expected to specialise in techniques of ‘seduction and conquest.

The idea of confluent love shows that the possibility of changing the discourse of the bedroom will be a consequence of how we envisage equality of men and women. I’m aware that I am discussing this within the context of relationships between men and women (more so from my personal view as a privileged, heterosexual woman). What happens in homosexual relationships? What happens where monogamy is not the agreement? What happens in a polygamous relationship?

In writing this piece I realised that I still haven’t entered into the private space of the bedroom but rather I have questioned the politics that may influence the private space of intimacy and love. Perhaps this would require me to be more open about what happens in my bedroom and how my partner and I make sense of our sexuality as people. The danger with these conversations is that we are left with generalisations about who we are as men and women. Do these generalisations help explain the choices my partner and I make about our relationship as individuals? This requires more than an understanding of the politics between men and women, but it requires vulnerability too.

*Athambile Masola is a regular Bokamoso Leadership Forum Contributor. Read her short biography and previous articles here.

Athambile Masola

Athambile Masola is a teacher at Claremont High School. She has a Masters in Education from Rhodes University. She was previously named one of the Mail and Guardian’s Top 200 Young South Africans. She also writes for, the Mandela Rhodes Scholars Thought Leader page and on her blog: ixhantilam.

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