They say everything happens for a reason: you may lose a friend only to discover that they didn’t have your best intentions at heart in the first place, or miss out on what you think is your dream job only to be presented with an even brighter opportunity. Or, you might find yourself caught in the chaos of a global pandemic and shut yourself inside with little social contact for weeks at a time and discover that you’re actually very horny and you might have to take matters into your own hands.
Apparently not, judging by the recent boom in Nigeria’s sex toy market. Now more than ever, Nigerians are opening themselves up (see what I did there?) to new sexual horizons, and it may have something to do with the lockdown orders that were placed over major cities back in April of 2020. According to the Premium Times, sex toy retailers in Nigeria received record sales in the two weeks leading up to the lockdown, ran low, and even sold out on most of their stock.
Now, this may make sense to the non-Nigerian: of course sex toy sales would skyrocket in the middle of a pandemic! It’s not like people have the option of going out and finding other people to fulfill their sexual needs. For the Nigerians though, especially women, this information might give you a little bit of pause: sex toys selling out? In our God (And orgasm) fearing nation? How could this be? The answer is simple: it’s all a façade.
We project the image of a pious, morally superior nation while having the highest rates of porn consumption in Africa. The way we speak about sex – or rather, don’t speak about it- has created a culture of shame and sex-negative attitudes, especially when it comes to women. We act like it’s unnatural to have sexual desires. But if that’s the case, then who is watching all this porn and buying all these sex toys?
A key element of Nigeria’s sex-negative culture- especially when it comes to female pleasure– is our collectivist ideals. Our culture values the reputation of the collective over individual fulfillment. Every decision we make, what we choose to do with our lives, and with our bodies, must meet a single criteria: it cannot reflect badly on the other people in our lives. That means our families and our culture.
Ah shame, the invisible hand that keeps us in a chokehold to live up to arbitrary standards. Add in a sprinkle of religious dogma and now you really have a cocktail of some pretty harmful emotions. I mean, who wants to put their soul on the line and be banished to hell for eternity?
What this presents is a society filled with people with urges and desires but are told by communities and religious leaders alike that these are deviant, immoral and will eventually lead to their ruin. You also get a culture where sex education in schools is overwhelmingly focused around abstinence, and any attempt to expand that limited view is met with fear-mongering and petitions from “concerned” parents for such materials to be removed from schools. You get a culture where self-pleasure in particular is seen as a sin, a shame and an act of self-harm.
Lovely, isn’t it?
Particularly in women, who have to deal with the added layer of purity culture, sex is a big part of the discourse growing up. Women are meant to go “unspoiled” and only think of sex in terms of pleasure for their partners and procreation. A woman’s pleasure is not factored into the sexual experience, or it’s an afterthought, and taking that pleasure into her own hands means that she’s loose.
Times are thankfully changing though and there’s clearly a new cultural interest in sex toys and aphrodisiacs that’s being spoken about more openly. With the internet and social media platforms at our disposal, more spaces are popping up where people can talk honestly about sex and masturbation. These are conversations that we desperately need to be having to offset the shame that these discussions are usually steeped in.
Women also seem to be at the head of this new self-pleasure revolution in Nigeria. The founder of Intimate Pleasures, Mrs. Iheoma Obibi, aka Madam Butterfly, is a vocal advocate for women’s sexual exploration, stating in an interview with BBC News Africa she says that “part of the problem we face in Nigeria and Africa generally, is that women are shy about negotiating their sexual pleasure…what we are told is you have to save yourself for your marriage and be a virgin. When you marry, you are there to satisfy your husband. You are not really told that you are there for any pleasurable fulfillment. You’re told that you have sex for procreation.”
Social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram also play a big role in this more open discussion about self-pleasure, and despite the fact that many of these platforms have policies that are supposed to suppress this kind of commerce, the Instagram sex toy business is booming right now. Online sex toy shops like Intimate Pleasures are behind this boom, giving way to anonymity and ease of access to their products. Getting a new rose vibrator is now as easy as scrolling through listings on Instagram, calling a Whatsapp number, and making a quick transfer. The social shame element becomes null and void.
Despite all these years of shame and religious trauma about self-pleasure, the tide is turning. There are more avenues for Nigerian women to explore their sexualities, and they can do so in relative privacy. Obviously, there is and will continue to be pushback, as there always is when a largely conservative society sees a push for progressive change.
Sex toy vendors face a lot of this pushback directly, especially when they’re women. In an interview with Adventures from the Bedrooms of African Women, Mrs. Iheoma Obibi stated that she has received outright threats for the work that she does: “A gentleman had called accusing me of all sorts, about how I was encouraging the women to be prostitutes, leave their husbands, etc. He then proceeded to threaten to deal with me”. This reaction, although on the more extreme end of the spectrum, shows us that a woman’s sexual agency is seen as deviant and a corrupting agent. The thought of a woman taking her pleasure into her own hands terrifies men, because they no longer have that control over her. If only in a sexual context, she doesn’t need him, and even worse: her agency may rub off on other women.
We still have a lot of work to do to destigmatize open discussions of sex and sexual health in Nigeria, but it’s safe to say that the pandemic has proven to be a kind of turning point. After all, what else is a person meant to do when they’re stuck inside all day with access to the internet and certain needs that must be met? Read a book?