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Sex talk

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A couple weeks ago I was working on International Video Fair Trust’s (IVF) Sex in the City of Harare Project. My feelings at the time were excitement around discovering that talking about sex in Zimbabwe, it turns out, is not all that taboo. My feelings have not changed. The fourteen participants (seven men and seven women) were indeed brave over the course of six days of filming at a hotel in the Avenues. They were part of a revolutionary project; an important step toward breaking taboos and creating spaces to talk about sex, not only in English, but also in local languages. The participants professions included a soon-to-be radiographer, pastor, personal assistant, and journalist among others. They were aged between 23 and 53. Some were single and some were married. Some were parents and some were not. One participant, with heartwarming honesty, spoke about why he was choosing to wait until he was married before he had sex. And much to his credit, he embraced being the lone virgin in the group with a sense of humor. After watching the film Spreading the Word, which traces the making of Eve Ensler’s award winning play Vagina Monologues in Botswana and Mozambique, the group ended up conveying their own vagina monologues. And penis monologues. As I said, with a sweet sense of humor, this young man said: I don’t yet have much use for my penis. But of course humans are sexual beings and it was clear that he emphasized “yet” in his comment.

During the production, the participants looked at issues pertaining to sexuality such as self-awareness and whether sex involves pleasure or pain or both and to what extent. They talked about gender-based violence, HIV and AIDS. And they talked and talked, in detail, about their sex lives. We learned about the ways (male and female) condoms can be an exciting part of foreplay. Some participants shared personal stories concerning how experiences with violence and/or sexual abuse have shaped their sex lives. There was discussion of the ways certain sexual positions are more pleasurable for men while other sexual positions are more pleasurable for women. The project benefited greatly when a facilitator from Padare-Enkundleni/Men’s Forum on Gender joined us for one-day. His calm, caring, and adept persona blended with his ardent stance as a gender activist/feminist created a positive space for people to speak about vulnerabilities in general and in relation to one’s sex life.

The participants laughed; some cried. But most of all they relished in the opportunity to share, open up, and expand their sexual minds. There were some tense moments, largely around recognizing that opening up and expanding the mind carries different levels and degrees for each individual. Some participants discovered that, in comparison to others, they were not as open about sex as they might have thought they were. These levels and degrees of openness pose challenges in conceptualizing and producing a film. Yet they are exciting challenges, ones that potentially make this film groundbreaking. The challenges raise important questions about how to productively balance the ways people might be simultaneously (perhaps paradoxically?) open to talk about sex, but at the same time, have firmly fixed views about what sex entails. This is to say that speaking openly about sex is not necessarily the same as having an open mind about sex. Seems that sex is a topic which requires a lot of self-exploration. To really ask yourself: How open am I to understand and embrace the diversity of sexual desires, practices, and acts that do very much exist in the present, and also to engage in connecting the present to the past and reality to imagination?

The participants signed up for various reasons, but all signed up eagerly. Not surprisingly, one of the first people to respond to the call for participants was Grace Mutandwa, a prominent journalist, who back in the day, wrote a weekly column that explored issues of sexuality. She is also the author of the excellent novel Whose Daughter My Child?. Grace’s participation was invaluable and one interesting thing with her presence was that the group remembered her column, with interest and admiration. This is a column she stopped writing in 2002, yet six years later it remains prominently on people’s minds. Grace indicated in her application she has been able to “vault over the cultural barrier where sex is a taboo issue”. Seems to me, given the sustained interest in her column, Zimbabweans are seeking spaces to read and speak about sex and a great many Zimbabweans have vaulted over the cultural barrier where sex is a taboo issue (or at least want to).

Spending six days/five nights on location seemed to create a great sense of camaraderie among the group. Also, it seemed that, in stepping away from everyday life, people used this experience to get to know their sexual selves more intimately. By embracing the experience in this way, everyone involved learned an awful lot about the lives of the participants. The researcher in me is gushing over this as it represents incredible data. But there also was a touching aspect to this. I enjoyed, on Friday during the closing reception, seeing the everyday re-enter the participant’s lives. Suddenly some of the significant others joined the group; they were physically present as opposed to the previous days when they were spoken about. When I met one participant’s husband I felt like I knew him already. It’s interesting and as I said touching. In a sweet and encouraging way. He was the husband of the oldest participant, a 53 year old woman. This participant, throughout the week, had spoken openly and with from the gut honesty that comes with age and experience. I suppose that’s big reason why when I met her husband I was seeing a couple who have had an enjoyable sex life for 32 years as well as a happy marriage for 32 years. And I think there’s another 32 years in their future.

All this said, Sex in the City of Harare and all its boldness and openness is moving forward. The second stage of the filming will take place by September and will include interviews with prominent personalities. The film is due for release in 2009. Sex in the City of Harare is being produced by the International Video Fair Trust as part of the Zimbabwe Film Practitioners Joint Programme funded by the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Harare.

7 comments to “Sex talk”

  1. Comment by tc:

    It would be good if people unable to see the film could also get an idea of the content. If some of it could be published in text format or something? It sounds really interesting.

  2. Comment by Chengeto:

    Interesting, I hope they will be able to dwell on the sublect of sexual minorities too!

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  4. Comment by Jannet Mudavanhu:

    It is very interesting to note that people in Zimbabwe are now open to talk about sex to the extend of accepting to appear on a movie!! If you do not mind me asking were there any gays and lesbians on the group and how did they fit in with heterosexuals. Iam doing a study on the attitude of the church to homosexuality, but Iam also looking at the society’s attitude to the whole issue of sex and sexuality. My overal intension is to come up with suggestions on how the church should approach gays and lesbian in a Zimbabwean context. Is it possible for me to attend not as a participant but an observer? Thank you.

    Jannet Mudavanhu

  5. Comment by Kubatana.net speaks out from Zimbabwe » Blog Archive » Violence and masculine performances:

    [...] programme and the film project.  The methodology follows that used for the 2008 filming of IVF’s Sex in the City of Harare.   The basic idea is this:  Create a safe space for people to speak and debate openly and [...]

  6. Comment by Paul Deorga:

    I think this is a really healthy step forward for Zimbabwe. Sexuality is a natural part of life, and should be expressed as freely as any other topic; no longer should it be a taboo, in any country of the world.

  7. Comment by Abdul King:

    Paul Deorga – I totally agree. As an academic on sexuality, I know that people *need* to be able to express their sexuality if they are to live fulfilling, happy lives.