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Sextech in Africa: Exploring the past, understanding the present (Part 1)

This three-part article series starts by exploring the state of sextech globally with a focus on Africa, particularly contrasting its rapid growth in the US and Europe to its comparatively slower uptake in Africa.
It highlights the potential advantages of sextech for African societies while unpacking the historical, cultural, and religious dynamics shaping Africa’s perspectives on sex and sextech, including colonialism’s enduring impact.
When you have read this post, you should check out Part 2, Addressing current barriers to innovation, next.

In this tech-driven era, where almost every facet of our existence has been transformed, it’s only natural for our sexual encounters and relationships to undergo similarly significant shifts. Sextech has emerged as a potent tool for enhancing and exploring sexual pleasure, education, and health. However, while sextech has gained increasing attention and acceptance in many parts of the world, there is growing concern that its adoption in Africa has been slower than expected.

This issue carries immense significance as sextech holds potential to empower Africans, individually and collectively, to manage their sexual health and well-being, and could notably aid in lifting the existing stigma and taboo surrounding sex across the continent.

Global trends in sextech adoption: How technology is changing sexual expression

According to BedBible Research, today in America, 78 percent of adults aged 18 and above possess a minimum of one sex toy, indicating a significant rise from the 65 percent recorded in 2017. Currently, the sex toy industry is worth around $35 billion, with the United States market accounting for $12.6 billion of the total value.

Stats from the SEXTECHGUIDE big sex survey 2019

The UK, France, Switzerland, China, India, Brazil, and more, are also huge players in this market, leaving South Africa as the only African region contributing to the industry.

In 2019, Nigeria took the lead on PornHub’s “Top 25 Countries Searching BBW” list, followed by several other African nations, including Ghana, Kenya, Egypt, Morocco, Côte d’Ivoire, South Africa, and Algeria. Despite the lack of comprehensive sex education in the region, it’s clear that many Africans are increasingly accessing sextech-related products and services.

The following year, sex toy vendors in Nigeria experienced a surge in sales, mirroring similar trends observed in other parts of the world. Consequently, more online African vendors have entered the market to cater to this growing demand.

Hannah Johnathan, a certified clinical sexuality coach, TV host, and sex toy vendor, has been in the business “for a little over three years and has made millions” in this time, she says.

Clearly, there is an opportunity for sextech to thrive in some parts of the world, so why is its adoption in Africa so far below the evident market demand?

Now we’ll take a look at some of the cultural and religious differences, access to technology and investment, and government regulations that may be contributing to its sluggish growth.

The evolution of British sexual morality: From repression to liberation

Professor Joachim Osur, a sex-focused writer and sexologist, suggests that Africa’s apprehension towards sex is historical. Two of the continent’s most infamous colonizers are the UK and France. Together, they colonized over 95 percent of Africa. With them, they brought cultural backgrounds, which served as the backbone of the laws and rules used to govern those states, some of which are still in operation in these countries decades after colonization.

“If you look at the former British colonies versus, let’s say, the French, you’d find a big difference. This is because the British instilled what I’d call Victorian culture among their colonies,” says Osur.

The Victorian era was marked by a desire to preserve traditional values and institutions, emphasising the importance of modesty, family, religion, and social order. Any attempt to challenge these values was seen as a threat to the stability of society as a whole.

While a lot has changed since then, “most of our laws and how we socialize were based on that. And if you look at the laws today, they talk about acts of morality, outlawing pornography, and sexually explicit things,” he continued.

He argues that the slow adoption of sextech in Africa can be attributed to these inherited conservative values taken from British laws of the 18th century. These laws promoted a conservative lifestyle that discouraged discussions about sex and the display of sexual content.

Osur further highlights that the absence of a distinct African tribe has led to the blending of African culture with other cultures, ultimately contributing to the globalized nature of culture. Additionally, the influence of Victorian culture has further complicated matters, trapping Africa in the “British morality of the Victorian era”.

African sexual identity through the ages: A historical perspective on sex-positivity

Osur also emphasizes that “we are losing our own culture because, if you look at the African culture, there was a way of discussing sexuality and making sure there was satisfaction in relationships. Perhaps if African culture was allowed to develop, we’d already have a booming African sex tech industry.”

This moral stagnation has caused people to forget that some sexual practices have prioritized pleasure in ancient African cultures.

In parts of South Africa and Uganda, Labia Stretching is performed for sexual enhancement “for the benefit of both partners, aesthetics, symmetry, and gratification.”

Dry Sex (the sexual practice of having sexual intercourse without vaginal lubrication to create more friction and pleasure, particularly for the penis) is also a sexual practice that was performed within some African cultures. While these practices are now considered archaic and controversial, there’s a clear understanding that sexual pleasure has historically been vital in parts of Africa.

Religion and sexual stigma: The intersection of faith and sexuality

In societies with deeply rooted established norms, any deviation from norms can be met with resistance and scepticism. This was particularly evident in Africa when condoms were initially questioned and rejected due to their association with sex, as it was considered outside the ‘norm’.

This way of thinking had detrimental consequences, reflected in high rates of HIV/AIDS casualties before the widespread acceptance of condoms. Religion, particularly Christianity, played a significant role in shaping this mindset as the use of condoms was perceived to be in opposition to the teachings of sexual abstinence prior to marriage. Consequently, the use of contraception and other forms of birth control was discouraged.

To make matters considerably worse, in 2009 the former Pope of The Roman Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XVI, made claims that condoms weren’t going to solve the HIV crisis on the continent; further fanning the flames of rebellion. What ensued was referred to as ‘moral opposition to contraceptives.’

People from more than 30 nations expressed their opposition to the use of condoms, deeming them morally unacceptable. Among the nine countries with the highest degree of moral opposition to contraception, Nigeria, Ghana, Uganda, Kenya, and Senegal were included in the ranking. Around 54 percent and 52 percent of the population in Nigeria and Ghana, respectively, expressed that the use of contraceptives goes against their moral beliefs.

The prevalent apathy and resistance to adopting healthier sexual practices among Africans is not a recent development, as it has long been ingrained in the cultural and religious fabric of the continent. However, the success story of contraceptives suggests that there is potential for the emergence of sextech in Africa, albeit not without encountering religious challenges.

For example, in a dated article from 2018, Zambia’s Religious Affairs Minister, Godfridah Sumahili, stressed that they wouldn’t stand and watch sex dolls destroy the country. According to Sumahili, Zambia is anchored in Christian principles, and one of the values is morality and ethics. “The use of sex dolls is definitely in contradiction to our natural heritage and our principles,” he said.

The morality that envelopes sex has created a hostile environment for anyone using and looking to build something remotely close to sextech in these regions. The result is societal stigma that surrounds the establishment of sextech startups and discouragement for individuals pursuing such ventures.

The foremost form of sex education in these parts is passed on through religion. During this learning process, anything that threatens or goes against the morality of the religion is omitted or deemed immoral, creating a knowledge void, leaving individuals ill-equipped to make informed decisions regarding their sexual wellness and health.

Navigating cultural taboos: The challenges of global sextech adoption

Despite the lucrative nature of the sextech industry in other countries compared to Africa, in American states where there are no laws hindering the creation of sex-technology startups, some CEOs still struggle to find investors, often due to the implementation of vice clauses. These can be enforced for various reasons, such as concerns or controversy surrounding the core aspect(s) of the investment—in this case, sex.

For instance, the OnlyFans debacle of 2021 where the London-based startup attempted to cease publishing pornographic content, was a result of significant difficulties raising venture capital as investors were nervous about the creator base being focused on porn.

The underlying cause of this apprehension may stem from personal moral beliefs, societal and cultural norms, religious beliefs, or other reasons that evidently aren’t just limited to the African context.

Nevertheless, the heavy weight of Victorian morality has been deeply entrenched in Africa, heavily contributing to sextech’s slow adoption. It is not the only reason though. Various technological, financial, and regulatory barriers continue to inhibit sextech progress.

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Tilewa K
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