Let’s Talk About Sex Shaming

Let’s talk about sex was a hit song from the American all girl hip hop trio, Salt-N-Pepa released in 1990. For the conservative nature of the times, it went straight to the banned list. But anyone alive and young during the 90s remembers Salt-N-Pepa for this song and not because of the safe sex message. Talking about sex in the 80s was stuff of taboo. We only talked about what was wrong with sex in public and regurgitated borrowed notions of what we imagined was great sex from popular media in private. The 80s and 90s were incredibly traumatizing times for young people in the blossoming stage of their sexuality. The ‘killer’ disease AIDS was ravaging lives in Africa and the dread of sex went viral. The HIV virus had weaponized sex to kill and the 90s gave birth to a sexually repressed society burdened with the shame of sexual desire.

Unlike any other disease we had known previously, AIDS not only condemned one to slow death but it was accompanied by public humiliation.  The kind of sin that taunted one to the grave and even after death, it was a disease whose name people were afraid to utter, hence the euphemism that typically appeared in the obituaries, “a long illness bravely borne”. 

I remember American comedian Chris Rock predicting a time when AIDS would be regarded as casually as the common flu and I suppose that time has come to pass. For the youth today, AIDS probably sounds like an ancient biblical curse in league of leprosy. HIV is still a major global public health issue but cancer is the new bad guy for a generation where the good lifestyle can kill. What the pioneering era of AIDS messaging and safe sex campaigns did quite effectively was attach the idea of sexual pleasure to shame. Most young people developed a morbid fear of sex and the possibility of catching “slim”. We placed our trust in condoms and faithfulness but those two offered no absolute guarantees. Condoms were breakable when used incorrectly and not always available in the heat of the moment and partners were not bound by honesty. They lied and cheated. Marriage was supposed to be the safe house but little did we know that in the hypocritical society were raised in, sexual infidelity was the norm rather than the exception.

It was common to hear conflicting couples lamenting over partners for ‘giving them AIDS’ a death sentence without their consent,  for it was a disease that lurked in the shadows, stalking young blood like a serial killer. Abstinence was the only guarantee to a disease free life and the choice of purity and sustained repression of desires, is what it took to stay alive.

I belong to generation that inherited the shame and guilt around sexuality at the prime of our lives. The purpose of sex was procreation and once that was achieved, the quicker one worked towards the goal of  celibacy, the holier they became.  No older couples talked about fulfilling sex lives especially after they had children. Conversations about sex were characterized by condemnation, anxiety, frustration and denial. We inherited a long list of sexual taboos that continue to trigger our buried notions of shame. In adulthood, these same sexual anxieties continue to plague a generation that copes by living in a state of duality and repression.  Internet pornographic fuels the closeted behaviour and offers a ready and self regulated escape in a pornified culture. Like masturbation, people indulge but nobody ever admits it for the shame is too strong to bear.

Sex is privatized and closeted. It is much safer to point fingers at those who break the rules of decorum and parade their desires in our faces, scoffing at our straitjacketed standards of morality. Sexual education has been outsourced to the porn industry and framed within religious and morality codes, which has neutered the notion of sex for pleasure. Out in the public streets, moral policing is conducted with the fury of a lynch mob.

Therefore when the public shaming that followed the #ifikiewazazi hashtag started trending it felt all so nostalgic. Young people imitating acts of sex that they had been bombarded with all their lives and the knee jerk societal response was to shame them. A case of adults re-enacting the shame that they endured as young people punished for acting out their need to feel sexual. Once you have been a victim of public humiliation, or at least a witness to it, one is more likely to pass down the shame.

Instead of condemning and actively fighting the licensed forces that peddle addiction and exploit vulnerable youthful lives, we blame youth for falling victim to neo-liberal forces we have miserably failed to contain and in most cases actively propped. There is no public shaming for the murderers of our children, the destroyers of economy, the immoral capitalistic greed that cannibalizes all because that is the new normal. They are the powerful elites and our shame has no impact on them, so we turn around and admire the audacity and arrogance they display as they scoff at our ideals of uprightness.

In our state of powerlessness, we turn our wrath to those we still wield some power over, the young, who we must criticize for violating our expectations of good behaviour and manner and then proceed to deliver lengthy lectures on moral standards we have miserably failed to uphold.

Oyunga Pala is a Kenyan writer, curator and editor. This blog examines the texture of everyday Kenyan and African life and the challenges of modernity and disillusion. The writings commonly feature the struggle of the Kenyan male to maintain integrity in contemporary society.


  1. You’re right about a hypocritical society. But it all starts with a good foundation in the home. Parents are failing big in this area either because of poor time management, bad example and not being ‘present’ to do a good policing at home. It all starts at home.

  2. The last two paragraphs should find their way to every living room of every Kenyan.
    Perfect analogy of what we really are.

  3. I’m very enlightened by your article. Is it then possible that the demographic of we who grew up sexually suppressed in the 80s are now the wild geese who are totally unable to be monogamous and faithful in long and short-term relationships? Is this the same demographic who at some point reached their tipping point and have now normalised extra marital affairs, bisexuality, swinging and casual sex? Could this suppression be the fuel that stoked the sexual liberation, insatiable desire and demand for sexual satisfaction we are now witnessing from women in their late 30s to 50s?

    I’d like to read about your thoughts on this in your subsequent posts.

    Keep writing your deep thoughts. They challenge me.

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