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Breaking Tradition: Africans Told us What they Think of Open Marriages, Sexual Taboos, Polygamy & More

We asked our readers to share their thoughts on non-traditional relationships. Here's what they said.

When it comes to navigating sex and relationships as an African on the continent or in the diaspora, there are certain topics that we might find hard to speak about openly—even if we have strong opinions.

Though we live in a world that is seemingly more progressive than ever—certain subjects still remain taboo, especially as they relate to sexuality. Some might argue that another layer of stigmatization is added for Africans, many of whom come from conservative households. What about having children outside of marriage? Common in some cultures but frowned on in others. Polygamy—definitely traditional in some places but to others, offensive.

Haven't we've all wondered these things at some point or another? So, why not just address them head-on?

We asked OkayAfrica readers a few questions about relationships that are commonly considered "nontraditional," and what we received were colorful, honest responses that prove that it's much easier to talk about these subjects than you might have thought. Read them below.

Are you currently in, or have you ever been in a non-traditional relationship? If so what type?

Three young African women sit on the grass. One is reading a book.

How do you define your romantic relationships?

Photo via TONL

We gave people wide leeway to define non-traditional relationships so it was no surprise that when given the opportunity to reveal their feelings, many did. We got a handful of respondents living in traditional polygamous relationships, while others—mostly in the US—defined a similar situation as polyamorous, while others described situations that while technically cheating, were tolerated if practised under the radar. Here are some of the answers.

"Yes I am. I am in an open relationship with my Soulmate. We don't have sex but we do everything else a couple would do. We both have multiple sex partners and we are both bisexual." –– Dee, 50, Nigerian

"Yes. Polygamous." –– Anonymous 29, South African

"Yes. I was polyamorous and my partner was bisexual. I'm single now." –– Anonymous, 34, Nigerian

"I have been in an open relationship. We did so because of the distance, to release pressure on said relationship." –– Amanda Gielen, 27, Ivorian-Dutch

I have been dating a married man for two years. I'm almost certain his wife knows. But she has chosen to turn a blind eye.

"Yes, an open polyamorous relationship, and have been before." — Michelle, 37, Afro-Puerto Rican

"I've been unmarried all my life, but have enjoyed serially monogamous relationships since I was a child, and have occasionally lived with a paramour, as I have for the past 23+ years. Having had no sex with him for nearly a dozen years, I have cheated twice, briefly (which my loving but under-sexed mates never discovered). But during both times, the adjunct relationship was unfulfilling. Besides—cheating isn't cool." –– Anonymous, 53, African-American

"Yes I am. I have been dating a married man for two years. I'm almost certain his wife knows. But she has chosen to turn a blind eye. I sometimes wish her and I could meet and discuss our expectations from each other and our shared Significant Other. It would also help to have someone who has experiences with him to get to understand him better." –– Anonymous, 40, South African

How do you feel about open marriages?

People of color at a long table having a dinner party.

Can people in open marriages all get along?

Photo via TONL

Unsurprisingly this question elicited a wide range of responses from hard nos to enthusiastic yeses. But many saw nuance between those two positions. Others said while it wasn't for them, they respected the people who could make it work.

"No, there's no point. Don't marry, it defeats the point. Stay single and enjoy yourself." –– Anonymous, 30, Black British

"They require maturity, understanding, and honesty." –– Anonymous, 34, Nigerian

"I believe love and sex are two separate things. Making sex the height of love is harmful, especially to women. There are multiple reasons someone might want an open relationship. I have a friend that's currently in an open relationship because their girlfriend has a very low sex drive and just doesn't like having sex. Everybody's happy with the arrangement. I personally don't see a problem with an open marriage." –– Anonymous, 21, Sierra Leonean

"Not for me. Personally it nullifies the idea of "forsaking all others" when you say your vows. However, some people are able to separate physical and emotional fidelity/intimacy in that way and if they like it—I love it." –– Ene, 32, Nigerian

"[It's] antithetical to the idea of marriage." –– Anonymous, 23, Nigerian

"Marriage means different things to different people. I would not do it. I find it strange and think it requires a lot of emotional labor to maintain any kind of emotional/sexual/romantic relationship with more than one person who isn't really a part of your main relationship." –– Candace Young, 46, African-American

"Not a good way to foster a wholesome relationship." –– Anonymous, 26 British-Nigerian

"If it fulfills everyone's requirements in the relationship, I approve of it. However it has to be based on core principles and not just selfish lust." –– Id, 21, African (specific country not listed)

"When I was younger I believed in monogamy, but life has taught me different. I am currently happy in an open relationship."—Dee, 50, Nigerian

What do you think of cohabitation? Would you do it before marriage or no?

Two young queer women in a relationship.

Would you move in with your boyfriend, girlfriend or partner before marriage?

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A practice that is the norm in many parts of Europe or North America was faced with pretty widespread skepticism by respondents with many asking why anyone would subject themselves to the difficulty of cohabitation without putting a ring on it first.

"I've tried it and won't do it again, unless it's with someone who is mature enough to love and understand me." Anonymous, 34, Nigerian

"Cohabitation is frowned upon in the Nigerian community. We find it hard to understand why you would cohabitate when you could simply have a "small wedding." But for whatever reason it can be necessary. It serves its purpose." –– Vee, 22, Nigerian

"Certainly, but not for a prolonged period if it weren't leading to a mutually agreed on goal (ie. Marriage or domestic partnership). I think it's important to get a sense of each other's habits and space needs. I'd wanna know things like how you squeeze the tube of toothpaste, and 'over or under' toilet paper roll set up..." –– Ene, 32, Nigerian

"Coming from a religious family, I used to think it was wrong but now that I'm older and independent I think it makes a lot of sense. You never really know a person until you live with them and have to deal with literally every part of who they are." –– Keneiloe, 24, South African

"I think it can work but there should be a time limit." –– Anonymous, 31, South African

What are your thoughts on polygamy (having multiple husbands or wives) or having multiple married partners in general?

Spraying money at Nigerian weidding. Green yellow and red West African fabrics.

Multiple spouses can be a headache.

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For many Africans, polygamy is widely practiced part of traditional life and a hotly debated topic in many countries across the continent. A large amount of reader respondents had a negative take on the practice, arguing that it was rarely fair to all involved—namely women, many of whom might feel pressured to join a polygamous relationship even it wasn't "their truth." Others said it was against their monogamous values while others said they wanted to do it but their partner wasn't willing.

"I think polygamy sucks purely because the wife is not allowed to also be in multiple relationships. If he can do it, she should have the option to do so too." –– Naledi, 23, South African

The reality is women suffer from this culture. They bear the brunt of lack of emotional support from their partner, and other practical problems. If the reality of polygamy was everyone lived in harmony and love, got into it consensually and not as a means to an end (e.g financial reasons—most polygamous people in Nigeria are rich according to the standards of their community) then I would support it more, but it isn't. So I am always wary to support it blindly without looking at this context. The context is important with this one." –– T, 28, Nigerian

"I think marriage is too sacred an institution and was designed to work within a monogamous framework. I am not sure about how happy or fulfilling a polygamous network would be." –– Ethel, 20, Ugandan

"I believe it's the African way but it's hard to convince my partner." –– Anon, 30, South African

"I don't think that's how God wanted it to be. I believe that one man and one woman are supposed to be together. Multiple people in a relationship can't be equally yoked." –– Anonymous, 21, African-American

I see it as exploitative when one partner can have multiple lovers but the other can't. On the other hand, polyandry technically isn't as exploitative as polygamy because women don't wield as much power in society." –– Anonymous, 45, African-American

Do you think it's okay to have multiple romantic partners at the same time if there is consent on both sides? Why or why not?

Young Africans posed together in traditional dress.

Is consent all that matters when there's multiple partners?

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There was surprisingly little disagreement here. Most respondents agreed that if everyone was happy then why not? It was in the details where people differed. Some said having multiple partners was just for the unmarried while others saw it as the peak of self-fulfillment.

"If you're not married then, yes. The way I see it, marriage is how you seal the deal on your relationship. So if you're not married, then I don't see why you can't live your best life. As long as you are safe and honest with your partners." –– Keneiloe, 24, South African

"As long as no one is having sex, sure." –– Anonymous, 37, African-American

"Until a certain point, what is it you're looking for that your current partner can't address? I don't think people should do it just because they can." –– Anonymous, 29, South African

"Yes, absolutely. If both sides are consenting, it means they are able to see past the physical aspect of the relationship and have a deeper understanding and connection with each other. It's a more reasonable option than cheating on someone you love." –– Id, 22, African

"Yes I do, because most people want to have multiple partners, but are afraid because of ownership, societal pressure and standards. I think we have different needs that cannot be met by one single person. I think we would be happier and more fulfilled as a people if we allowed ourselves to be loved by more than one partner, in a respectful and supportive way." –– Michelle, 37, Afro-Puerto Rican

What are your thoughts on having children outside of marriage?

Pregnant African bride in a white dress.

Is having married parents important to bringing up a child?

Photo via TONL

There was little consistency in the answers. While some saw a strong marriage as necessary to raise a strong child, others saw no reason why they couldn't raise kids on their own. Some said a child needed two parents while somebody said it didn't matter how many parents—plygamous or polyamorous—it was the legal protection that was most important.

"It happens all the time and people need to get real about that. For the sake of single mothers and their children we (in the USA specifically) need to stop stigmatizing single motherhood." –– Anonymous, 28, African-American

"That's a No No. Because of the legal protection Marriage offers childrens, I will always advise people to have children in wedlock. May it be open, polygamous etc..." –– Id, 22, African

"I think it's hard for children to feel emotionally grounded without stable, loving parents who are involved in a mutually-committed, legal relationship with each other, as well as being actively involved in their children's daily lives." –– Anonymous, 53, African-American

"Better than raising children in loveless marriages." –– Anonymous, 27, British-Nigerian

"I used to make this joke in secondary school about how I am a "bastard." It was supposed to be tongue in cheek, as a bastard literally means someone born outside of marriage. It has never bothered me that I was, and I think nothing negative of other children starting their lives in this manner. I especially do not project negative thoughts on women who do this either. It is what it is. If ultimately a child grows up in a loving and supportive environment, that's all that matters really." –– T, 28, Nigerian

"*cries in disappointing my beautiful mother* these things happen. I don't believe that it should be something that people are beaten up over, but I think that in 2018, there are multiple forms of contraceptives. So cover up, bro/sis." –– Ethel, 20, Ugandan

"I don't like it. I believe in giving children a strong foundation, and I think two parents in the home is the best way to start." –– Candace Young, 46, African-American

Overall, would you say that your beliefs on love, sex, relationships, and marriage differ from those of your parents? Why or why not?

African bride

How do your parents think about these relationship issues?

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This was the one question across the board where everyone said yes, to one degree or another. All our respondents had very different attitudes toward sex and relationships than their parents. Some based it on strong religious beliefs in the older generation or misogyny while others pointed to some similarities deep down but a reluctance among parents to admit to their beliefs.

"Yes, because I've watched traditional marriages unfold and I don't think that is what I want for myself. The whole idea of "sticking it through" regardless of what you're going through is something I refuse. I believe that I am more conscious, or self-aware rather, of my needs, wants and dreams, to settle for something I'm not fully absorbed in." –– Ethel, 20, Ugandan

"Yes, very different- my dad believes in polygamy for himself only. He is misogynistic and believes women have their place. My mother accepts cheating, I believe it is a divorce-able offense, and it is not my duty to serve any man." –– Anonymous, 30, Black-British

"Yes, when it comes to sex. They view sex as an obligation in marriage, I view it differently. But our views on love and marriage are the same. I expect one to hold the values of marriage if they choose that route." –– Anonymous, 23, Ugandan

"I believe a relationship should add value to one's life and be as positive as possible. If holding on to more traditional forms and ideas of relationships happen to have an adverse effect on mine, I will look to solutions outside the box. I don't believe I differ too much from my parents in this sense as they support polygamy, cohabitation etc. They are not in support of the "more modern vices," but the "older" ways of doing things they can understand and even try to explain and press on me. It's a subtle form of hypocrisy really." –– T, 28, Nigerian

"Yes. My mother very much believes that men NEED to be married and have a woman to take care of them. While women SHOULD be married. She's much more about traditional gender roles. I reject these notions of the need/should." –– Candace Younge, 46, African-American

"Completely. My parents only support traditional marriage. They may softly agree in the "live and let live" idea but they would not be supportive if any of their children did these things. They use their religion as a guide for others' lives while I use it to guide my own." –– Anonymous, 28, African-American

"Yeah, my mom is super Christian so obviously some of my opinions are based on that, but as I've grown and been exposed to so many people and situations, my ways of thinking has changed. I will say that my views on marriage are very much influenced by what my mother taught me, that it is a sacred institution and you have to be really sure about whether you really want to do it or not. Which is why I don't want to get married. Lol. Regarding relationships, my mom always told me that men are trash. She didn't say it outright, but it was very easy to see why she felt that way, so I'm always cautious when I meet someone. On sex, my mother never had an opinion or talked to me about it. Just STDs. So everything I know about sex, I learned from my friends and personal experiences."–– Keneiloe, 24, South African

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