Sex and the Third World Woman

Photo: Claude Sauvageot

W WHITE tiles gleam and taps sparkle in the bathroom. A woman stands in a flowered nightdress and brushes her hair in front of the mirror. She smiles at her reflection. ‘Don’t forget your pill,darling’. The voice comes through the open door behind her where a man is sitting up in bed reading a magazine. She reaches for the little packet and swallows a tiny yellow pill before switching off the light and walking back into the bedroom. The couple have no children. She is 28. Sometime she wonders whether she ought to have a baby before she gets too old but she enjoys her job and doesn’t want to ruin her slender figure.

In a clinic thousands of miles away a Mexican woman asks to be sterilised. She holds a whimpering baby in her lap and a three-year-old clings to the folds of her grimy skirt. Five children survive out of the eight she has borne. She aborted the last one with a fork on the instructions of a local midwife and her face still looks strained and pale from the ordeal. Her husband never knew and she will never tell him. She is 28 too.

A pill taken in comfort. A child aborted. An irreversible operation. It’s calledfamily planning. But between the three there is a world of difference.

The privileged Western woman is torn between secure motherhood and a satisfying career. For her, family planning cuts the link between sexual pleasure and procreation, leaving her free to fulfil herself as she wishes. In the Third World the major family planning method - abortion-is more likely to be used as a desperate measure to break into the grim cycle of procreation, ill-health and continued poverty.

But not all women in the West have the loving support of their partner and a rewarding and lucrative job. And not all women in the Third World have to use abortion as a furtive and lonely last resort. Between these two extremes there are millions of women in both worlds who are not in abject poverty but for whom economic considerations still play a major role in their decision making. Many must make the choice between another baby and new clothes - or school fees - for existing children. Others have the choice made for them by a domineering husband. Some are not even allowed out of their houses to go to the family planning clinic.

The idea that the pill is a licence for untrammelled and irresponsible sexual enjoyment must make such women laugh bitterly. For most of them family planning is still about sex and babies - not sex and pleasure. And marriage is about social and economic security - not love.

‘I want my husband to be a good person,’ says a Sri Lankan woman to Perdita Huston in Message from the Village. She is not talking about a thoughtful lover or an affectionate companion. No, a good husband for many woman is simply ‘Someone who will be interested in the family, who won’t drink and who won’t waste money, whatever little we have. If we have enough money it doesn’t matter having more children.’ The same plea came from almost every woman she spoke to - from Mexico to Sudan: ‘Give me a husband who doesn’t beat me, who talks to me, who gives me money’.

It has not always been this way. These same women talked with sadness of the changes they had witnessed over the years. Wherever they came from they spoke of disintegration in the relationships between men and women. ‘Men were better in the old times; they took care of their families,’ sighed a young Kenyan girl. ‘There was a better understanding between women and their husbands then. There is no trust between men and women any more.’ And where there is a loss of trust, then communication between husband and wife must also suffer. It would be surprising if a joyous sex life were to flourish.

Development and modernisation may be to blame for these changes. ‘Development often causes a diminution of the productivity and status of women’ argues Esther Boserup in Women’s role in Economic Development. We are now witnessing in the developing world the same changes that came with the building of factories and cities in Western societies. The position of many women in the Third World has actually suffered because of economic development. Men are in a better position to take advantage of the education, employment and technologies that are now available. That extra year in school, the new job and extra money in their pockets, the new tractor - they all widen the gap between the sexes and bind women even more closely to the home and the land.

This widening gap sometimes ends in virtual segregation, with women and men moving in completely different worlds. In Muslim communities contact between men and women can be so severely restricted that a woman is not even allowed to speak to the men outside her family. Her husband becomes the stranger who goes out to work during the day and spends the evenings with his friends. He expects his wife merely to serve his meals, submit to his desires and bear his children. ‘Sex is for the men to enjoy,’ said Muslim women in Bangladesh to Jenneke Arens and Jos van Beurden. ‘We ourselves do not get much pleasure from it.’

Where women need family planning most, they are least likely to have the freedom to get it. According to a UN survey of couples in urban India, Iran, the Philippines and Singapore, the more a husband dominated in the family, the more children were produced by his subservient wife. This was because matters like sex and birth control were never discussed. A selfish man would not consider using the time-honoured preventatives like coitus interruptus or abstinence.

A demoralised woman lacks the knowledge or courage to take responsibility for her fertility. ‘The man wants sex and the children come,’ complained another Sri Lankan woman. ‘Yet the women in this area are afraid. They say there are after-effects of family planning. They say that you wont live long after you start using these things,’ Male-centred development aid also threatens whatever companionship and equality there was between husband and wife. Men now earn money for their labour. But in most countries a woman’s agricultural and domestic work is still unpaid and undervalued. A woman’s lack of control over her fertility reflects this economic dependence. And if she is unable to assert herself in the market place or in the house, it is even less likely that she will have the temerity to assert herself in bed.

While there is no opportunity for many women to be anything other than indifferent to their sexual satisfaction, the lack of concern is rarely shared by their men. ‘Chastity’, ‘fidelity’ and ‘modesty’ are the bywords of many societies where a man’s power predominates. While a woman may shrug her shoulders and stoop again to her work, she is surrounded by a whole spectrum of traditions and taboos, designed specifically to restrict any sexual desire or pleasure she may experience.

These restrictive traditions range from the simple requirement that a young woman be ‘honourable’, through removal of the clitoris, to radical female circumcision and infibulation whereby the labia and clitoris are removed and the vagina sewn up.

Nawal El Saadawi describes the recurrent agonies entailed in radical circumcision in Sudan in The Hidden Face of Eve. ‘On the marriage night it is necessary to widen the external opening by slitting one or both ends with a sharp scalpel or razor,’ Recalling her own relatively mild operation in Egypt she remembers being told that ‘the existence of this small piece of flesh would have made me unclean and impure and would have caused the man whom

I would marry to be repelled by me . . . I was six years old that night they carried me to the bathroom . . . I could not forget that painful incident that deprived me from enjoying the fulness of my sexuality’.

In many parts of the world it is irrelevant whether a woman’s clitoris is intact or not. Intercourse is so brief and brutal that she may as well have been circumcised. She gets no pleasure in any case. ‘A man is like thirst and a woman like a river. Whenever a man is thirsty he has to go to the river to quench his thirst,’ says a man from Jhagrapur village in Bangladesh. ‘For us sex is a matter of only five minutes,’ he admits. ‘We go who-amm and its finished’.

A man’s pleasure is everywhere condoned while a woman’s desires are often feared as being dangerous and unclean. Where men have political and economic power they also seek control over the sexuality of their wives and daughters.

Marxists claim that female sexual oppression is explained by the patrilineal inheritance of wealth. A man controls cattle and land and wants his wealth to pass to his sons. He therefore demands that his wife is faithful to ensure that she bears only his children. Before marriage women must remain chaste, because an illegitimate child inherits nothing.

This explanation ignores the fact that women’s role as an inferior caste preceded the development of private property - and even in socialist countries their status is still lower than that of their husbands. The feminist emphasis is more on a woman’s control of her own fertility. When a woman is really free to choose whether to bear children, then this biological source of inequality can be eradicated. So birth control is only the first incision, slicing away at male domination. Other things must follow.

Family planning is not only about sexual liberation. Our Western preoccupation with erotic pleasure is a luxury born of privilege. In the Third World millions of dollars are spent on birth control technologies but there is almost no research about ‘love’. A couple in the West seeks personal and sexual freedom. A couple in the Third World has a ‘population problem’. For both family planning is the answer’.

This is not to say that people in the Third World don’t fall in love. Or that poor women are never able to enjoy sex. In Botswana young women in Tlokweng, just outside the capital of Gaborone,spoke to me with relish of their romps in bed. After a meal of sorghum porridge and bojalwa (beer), three girls with fashionable plaited hair and platform-heeled sandals lolled back in their chairs, laughing in the candlelight.

‘Gordon is tired of me’, said Mpho with a grin. ‘He says I work him too hard’. ‘You have no shame,’ teased Miriam, making love only a week after having your child. It would make your mother cry.’ ‘But if I want to, why should I wait? Old Dora talks rubbish when she says it can make your child die’. These same girls occasionally receive a black eye from their boyfriends. But if there is fun to be had,. they obviously make sure they have it.

Elsewhere, complete sexual satisfaction is often considered a woman’s right. ‘In Uganda’, reports Mere Kisekka in Beliefs and Practices, ‘a normal woman was expected to reach her climax three or four times before the man’. If she was not satisfied she could even complain to her in-laws!

It is hard to reconcile these widely differing views of sex: pain and mutilation in parts of the Arab world and frank revelry in some African tribes. But a couple’s equality in bed is likely to reflect their social and economic equality. The Botswana girls who spoke to me have jobs with the Government and are paid as much as their boyfriends. In outlying rural areas and where development agencies have barely penetrated, reasonably egalitarian societies still survive. Although women do not have complete equality with men, the female hierarchy still has an authority that is totally lacking in many Arab and Asian societies.

‘Men must be taught that we are human beings like them and must lead human lives like them’ said a young Kenyan girl to Ms Huston. Once this equality is assured then sexual satisfaction will follow. The female orgasm is not an end in itself but a bright symbol of triumph in the battle for female liberation.

New Internationalist issue 088 magazine cover This article is from the June 1980 issue of New Internationalist.
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