The XX Factor

The Power of “Pum Pum” in Kenya

Over at The Root , Lisa Crooms has penned something of a takedown of the recent, very Lysistrata n Kenyan sex strike, wherein women, organized by the Nairobi-based Women’s Development Organization, went on an, ahem, handshake-only basis for one week . Their aim, as yet unresolved, was to prevent a breakdown of the fragile coalition government between Prime Minister Raila Odinga and President Mwai Kibaki, instated as co-leaders of Kenya after the surprising round of intranational violence in late 2007.

But what’s the point? Crooms writes :

At first glance, the Kenyan women’s sex strike seems like a clever political ploy. Like trying to force a junkie to kick his habit, the women involved are supposedly forcing their men to make a hard choice-put an end to the violence or kiss the pum pum goodbye for at least a week…

But this high-profile political demonstration, which ended last Friday, did more to threaten the image of woman Kenyan activists than it did to threaten Kenyan men. This is the country that elevated the cause of environmentalist and human rights activist Professor Wangari Maathai , who, in 2004, became the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Does withholding sex really meet the bar Maathai and other women activists set?”

I personally think conjugal disobedience and coitus interruptus are nothing short of brilliant. The ability to control one’s body, to decide where and when and with whom to have sex is a fundamental right that is almost never freely available to women, even in the United States. Marital rape statistics in America always shock me-and a new study based in Swaziland, which has among the highest rates of HIV infection (26 percent) in sub-Saharan Africa, suggests that the practical and psychological effects of such stolen agency are, of course, longlasting and detrimental.

At the risk of gross oversimplification, the problem of sexual violence is particularly pronounced in African societies matriarchal in name, but patriarchal in practice. From the non-criminalization of marital rape to the still-boiling sex trafficking industry, Croons gives an effective rundown of the various bedroom injustices in Kenya and beyond. (Nations like South Africa have been just shocking offenders on this front as well, and Senators Barbara Boxer and Russ Feingold will hold a joint hearing of the Foreign Relations Committee on the endless stream of rapes in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.) Her argument against the now-concluded strike seems to have been that it runs the high risk of backlash, reducing women to what they already often are-a sum of their private parts-rather than focusing on getting, say, more women judges or parliamentarians in government.

But I have a hard time agreeing with that. Where women are so much more vulnerable, it seems almost dangerous to avoid sex politics entirely. Sure, we’re probably talking about it more here, stateside, than they are in the Maasai market in Nairobi. But publicizing the idea that women have agency in sex is way welcome, especially in a culture that these eleven protesting women’s groups describe as ontologically dismissive of female sexual desire. As one of the organizers told the British Telegraph : “We have looked at all issues which can bring people to talk and we have seen that sex is the answer.”