Attitudes toward Sexuality

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Attitudes toward Sexuality


Privacy. Sexuality was considered a private matter and was seldom discussed in public. It was unacceptable for a person to express sexual desire by caressing or kissing someone in a public place. Parents waited until their children were ready to marry before they discussed sex and sexual pleasure with them. In most Muslim cultures sex was rarely discussed in the presence of unmarried family members, and women expressing sexual pleasure openly might be considered evil or loose. When the issue of sex did come up, the discussion was generally restricted to procreation.

Menstruation. Once a young woman reached the age at which she began to menstruate, her contacts with men were severely restricted. Like other phenomena that were not immediately explainable by common sense, menstruation was seen as the work of evildoers or “witches” and inspired fear in young women. Especially if menstruation lasted beyond its normal duration or the blood flow was unusually heavy, her mother or aunt might employ the services of magic or medicine men whom they believed were capable of expunging evil spirits that witches might have implanted in the young woman. A woman who was menstruating was not allowed to make direct contact with medicine men, or men with similar powers, because such contacts were presumed to bring bad luck to the community, which could come in the form of bad harvests, deaths of loved ones, or even wars. Generally, for the entire duration of their menstruation, women were socially and physically isolated. Sex during menstruation was considered an abomination and was severely punished.

Virginity. While sexual intercourse was not treated as “dirty” or “bad” in traditional African cultures, there were taboos associated with it. In most of these cultures, virginity was extremely important for young women. Most unmarried women were required by custom to refrain from sexual intercourse until the first night of married life, and in some cultures divorced adults were also expected to remain celibate until they remarried. On the first night of her marriage a first-time bride was required to prove to her husband that she had not had previous sexual encounters with other men. In some cases, she was required to bring a white sheet to the bedroom on her wedding night. If the groom came out of the room later with a bloody sheet, his new wife’s innocence was demonstrated and was rewarded with an elaborate celebration. Her father would be held in high esteem for bringing up his daughter with authority and diligently enforcing the clan customs. If a young woman had lost her virginity before her wedding night, her mother, not her father, was blamed for shaming the family, and both mother and bride risked being exiled from the village. The family of a bride who had lost her virginity before her wedding also had to return to the groom’s family all the gifts that were given as bridewealth. In societies where she was not exiled outright, the law required that the disgraced bride had to return to her father’s compound in shame. A woman so disgraced was unlikely to find another suitor. She would either remain single for the rest of her life or become one of the concubines that rich men turned to for sexual favors. Because of this rigid emphasis on virginity, sexual intercourse was treated with utmost respect. During dating, little physical contact was allowed between prospective grooms and brides, and they were strictly forbidden to have sexual relations. Any contact between a courting couple took place in the presence of adults, mostly older women.


In non-Muslim West Africa, widow inheritance was an age-old practice, especially among ethnic groups in southwestern Nigeria and Ghana. On the death of her husband, a widow became the wife of an eligible member of her late husband’s family, usually a brother or cousin of the deceased. In some cases where the deceased had more than one wife, the older son might be eligible to inherit one of his father’s wives, especially the younger ones. Widow inheritance had very little to do with property rights. In both ancient and modern African societies, marriage was seen, and is still seen, as the establishment of symbolic relations between two families. In endogamous marriages, that is, marriages where the spouse belonged to the same clan, widow inheritance was thus seen as a recognition of the continuation of the sacred link between two families. In an exogamous situation, that is, when the woman came from a different clan than that of her husband, the rules of inheritance would be different. Among the Okrika people of southeast Nigeria, a widow in an Igwe (small dowry) marriage, in which the dowry had not been fully paid, could not be inherited by a relative of her husband. By the rules of Igwe marriage, she had to be returned to her family once her husband was deceased. A woman in an Igwu (big dowry) marriage had to remain in her husband’s clan, and she was likely to be inherited, especially if she was still capable of bearing children. At death, she had to be buried in her deceased husband’s compound. It should be emphasized that there are regional variations regarding widow inheritance. Each clan had specific rules and customs that guided widow inheritance.

source Paul Bohannan and Philip Curtin, Africa and Africans (Prospect Heights, III: Waveland Press, 1995), pp. 71-72.

Illegitimate Children. Rules and moral attitudes regarding children born out of wedlock differed from one society

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to another. During early times it was more accepted than later in the period 500-1590. Generally, having illegitimate children was not condoned. Except in certain cultures, such as the Okrika people of southeast Nigeria, children born to unmarried mothers were rarely kept within the family, particularly in patrilineal descent groups, where the son stood to inherit from his father. In such groups children who were born out of wedlock were either taken to the village of the mother’s father or sent to nearby villages as servants or slaves. In matrilineal descent groups, however, the matriarch usually kept illegitimate children in the family unit as her own children. In other cultures, children born out of wedlock were kept within the family unit but were automatically accorded subordinate or inferior status. A woman who had a child out of wedlock was usually subjected to abuse and isolation. She lost her social ranking among her age group and could not join the ranks of married women in the village during important celebrations. Depending on the way she became pregnant, she might also be exiled from the village. If her pregnancy was the result of sexual intercourse with a husband who subsequently rejected her because she was not a virgin when he married her, the members of her family, and the clan in general, might be sympathetic to her plight. However, if such a pregnancy was the a result of “looseness” or rape (which was rare), it would result in automatic expulsion unless the rape was not directly the woman’s “fault.” Women who had children born as a result of incest were required, together with their mother and possibly other related siblings, to move entirely away from the village.

Concubinage. Concubinage, which was widespread in West Africa during the years 500-1590, is the practice of keeping several women as sexual partners outside the family unit. Even today, many West African men have concubines. If a man’s wife were unable to produce a male child, then he was allowed by tradition to have extramarital affairs with other women, some of whom might eventually become his wives. A man could also take a concubine if his wife did not satisfy him sexually. In most West African cultures, male children were considered essential to perpetuate the family name and tradition. A woman’s failure to bear a male child was considered sufficient reason for the man to bring another woman into the family. In ancient times, concubines performed the same functions as wives but were not allowed to take part in family ceremonies and gatherings. However, male children born to concubines had the same rights as all other children. Indeed, though illegitimacy was socially stigmatized later in this period, it was not during early times. The practice of keeping many concubines could elevate a man’s social status and be seen as proof of his wealth. Widows who could not remarry and women of lower status usually formed the pool of women from which men drew their supply of concubines.

Prostitution. There is no evidence of the existence of brothels in West Africa during the period 500-1590. While rich men did indeed engage the services of unwed women for sexual pleasures in return for economic support, these women might eventually qualify as wives, especially if a relationship resulted in the birth of children. In such cases the man would be expected to bring the woman home as a wife. With increasing contacts between native Africans and Arab traders from the north, however, prostitution began to emerge in urban centers, where these traders spent weeks if not months waiting for their wares to be traded or sold. This sort of prostitution existed only during trading seasons. Men who had sexual intercourse outside marriage normally underwent purification rituals. Muslim traders were particularly likely to perform such rituals, which were required by their religion.

Homosexuality. Homosexuality was not considered a socially accepted form of sexual practice in most parts of West Africa. However, it did exist. Among pastoral and cattle-herding cultures, some forms of male bonding can generally be considered homosexual in nature. In cattle-herding tribes, young men spent several months each year searching for pasture for their herds. Because they spent such a long time away from the village, many of these herders developed bonding mechanisms that involved sexual touching, especially mutual masturbation. During initiation ceremonies a young adult man was usually placed in the care of a village elder, with whom he spent several weeks in the forest. During this period, sexual contact between the older male and the inductee was considered an essential part of the initiation ceremony. In other nonpastoral cultures, especially among the Yoruba in the south-western part of modern Nigeria, male bonding, which usually involved touching and holding of hands or the wrapping of one’s arms around a male friend’s waist, was common and generally not viewed as sexual contact. Women bonded more often than men. It was not unusual for two unmarried women to lie down together, caressing one another in an intimate way as an expression of friendship. Usually this practice stopped once the women were engaged and ready to take on the responsibilities of grown women. While homosexuality was publicly frowned on, it was often practiced privately, especially between adult men and young boys. Hausa and Fulani elders in northern Nigeria and elsewhere in northwestern Africa, especially Mali and northern Ghana, were known to keep young boys as servants to satisfy their homosexual desires.


George B. N. Ayittey, Indigenous African Institutions (Ardsley-on-Hudson, N.Y.: Transnational, 1991).

Yaya Diallo and Mitchell Hall, The Healing Drum: African Wisdom Teachings (Rochester, Vt.: Destiny Books, 1989).

F. Ivan Nye and Felix Berardo, The Family: Its Structure and Interactions (London: Macmillan, 1973).

W. N. Stephens, The Family in Cross-Cultural Perspective (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1963).

Victor C. Uchendu, “Concubinage among Ngwa-Ibo of Southern Nigeria,” Africa (London), 35 (April 1965): 187-197.