In my experience as a black African child in a black African home, talking about sex was out of the question. You couldn’t even watch people kiss on television without removing misplaced fluff on your corduroys or looking straight into the TV with a blank expression, lest your eyes sparkle or reveal any kind of curiosity.
Although I caught glimpses of soapies like “Days of Our Lives” and “the Bold the Beautiful,” and how the characters serially ‘made love’, I never asked my mom to fill me in about what Ridge and Brooke got up to when they finally laid on the bed.
My conversations about sex, instead, were led by other kids my age who had claimed to have lost their innocence while playing mantloane or house-house. These anecdotes were usually relayed by girls who had played mama in the storeroom at the back of a friend’s home with a boy who had fulfilled the duties of papa. I was always relegated to playing the child in those situations so I would listen with wide eyes and gurgle with giggles when my young companions spoke about what mommy and daddy got up to.
I cannot say whether the interactions I was privy to were true or not, what I do know is that I never dared to repeat anything that I’d heard to anyone who was older than me. I found those interactions to be a sacred playground ritual, like swapping polony sandwiches during our first lunch break.
So it was with a rush of anxiety one day in Grade 7 that I heard my Life Orientation teacher squeal, “Don’t forget to ask your parents to sign your permission slips, please.” I hadn’t told my parents that our school would be holding a sexual education class one day after school. My heart performed unknown acrobatics at the thought of approaching my parents with this fact. It was time for the big S-E-X talk. At 12, their memory of me as a toddler in pink dungarees and pig tails was probably still fresh in their minds. Not that my undeveloped body made it hard to forget, I had a chest as flat as an ironing board and curves that rivaled a ruler until I was about 16.
So asking my parents to sign the permission forms made me feel like I was opening the window to a secret life of sex chats and the curiosity that accompanied them. I wondered whether they would think of the form as an admission of guilt to some or other dirty pre-teen lifestyle. I was honestly a little ashamed. Not ashamed of my body or the things it could potentially do, or that I had allowed myself to be in situations that placed me in the most misleading conversations about sex. I was ashamed that I had to ask my mom to give a complete stranger permission to point out the most candid things about my body on a chart. The things that I would have rather let her explain to me in the affectionate yet firm language I had grown to love but also respect about her.
If I had the choice between having an honest and open conversation with my mom about my body, its changes and the urges that came with it or listening to a trained professional telling me about my reproductive system, 12-year-old me would have naturally chosen the latter because it’s easier to hide your questions in a sea of doe eyes and pimpled faces than it is to lie to your mother about whether you understand what she’s saying or not.
Looking back as a 26-year-old, I would have rather had my mom call me to the bedroom she shared with my father to let me know how mantloane is actually played. I would have loved it if my mom and I had established a relationship deeper than her buying me sanitary pads as an item on the grocery list.
It was a missed opportunity for her to probe whether I was on my period because I was still a virgin or practicing safe sex. Sounds like the last thing a teenager would talk to her mom about but I fantasise about this kind of openness being the eraser of the line that currently exists between my mom and I talking openly and honestly about sex.
In high school I relied on my own assumptions, and once again, the refurbished recollections of those my age to find out what losing your virginity or how having sex was like. I entrusted my Biology teacher with the task of mapping out how my monthly cycle worked and I caught glimpses of pornography to see what the sexual acts looked like. I carried on this way until I finally did the deed in my first year of university, and unlike my final year in primary school, I didn’t approach my mom to inform her that I felt ready to enter the next stage of my life.
There’s a cloud of silence that hangs around my sex life between my mom and I. The most we’ll talk about is pregnancy but not the act that brought it about. It’s sad to think that the person who could give me the best information about my body and the pleasures I should treasure from it, is the one I’m the most afraid to approach. I often wonder if it’s a generational burden because bedroom matters are often seen as confidential and talking about them openly is taboo.
My mom probably signed my permission slip because it would limit the amount of questions she would have to answer about my body, maybe it saved her from feeling awkward about discussing a topic she had never discussed with her own mother before. As a sexually active individual, I can recount instances when I’ve wanted to call my mom and tell her how anxious I was about waiting for my period or how I had an encounter I regretted. Not that I want talk to my mom like I would a girlfriend, but I am thirsting to be drowned in the wisdom and comfort I am engulfed in when I talk to her about the frustrations I face in the other areas of my life. I lust for her insight to counter my sexual angsts—for her unwavering knowledge instead of a web search—to comfort me when I’m right or completely wrong.
I often wonder if I’ll ever be able to have intimate conversations with my mom or how I’ll ever begin them at all. Or am I wrong for even thinking about it as a possibility? Is open sex talk with my mom just a fantasy I may never realise?