By Kira Seiger

Male sexual privilege and the physical and psychological consequences for women are inextricably linked with international disparity, inadequate education, inaccessible healthcare, disease transmission, sexual trauma, and the status of women across the globe. One cultural example of male sexual privilege is a practice referred to as “dry sex,” which is extremely prevalent in Sub-Saharan Africa—namely Zimbabwe, Malawi, Zambia, Zaire, and South Africa. In order to provide heightened arousal for their male partners, women insert substances into the vaginal canal that dry their self-lubrication. Sand, powders, detergents, salt, cotton, shredded paper, herbs (such as from Mugugudhu trees), and even mixtures of soil and baboon urine (known as mutendo wegudo) are used to induce vaginal swelling, heat, and dryness prior to intercourse.[1]

The painful practice of dry sex leads to sores, bloody lacerations, and epithelial harm to both the vagina and cervix. The resulting lesions increase the transmission of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections by providing direct contact with blood. Applied substances during dry sex remove natural bacteria in the pelvic region that would normally fight sexually transmitted infections, thus increasing the likelihood of acquiring diseases. Furthermore, even if condoms are used, the friction during dry sex increases the likelihood that the condoms will break.[2]

In Zambia, where one in four people are HIV positive, the number of women participating in dry sex is astounding. A cross-sectional study of 812 Zambian women living in the urban capital city, Lusaka, revealed that two-thirds of the women had participated in dry sex and half of the women were currently practicing dry sex. The majority of these women had little to no formal education, were of low socioeconomic statuses, or had grown up in rural Zambia.[3] Another study conducted at the University Teaching Hospital in Lusaka revealed that dry sex was practiced by 86% of women of many socioeconomic statuses and ethnicities.[4]

While many women willingly participate in this practice, they are confined by social norms. In societies where sexual pleasure for men is elevated not just over the sexual pleasure of women but also over the physical and psychological wellbeing of women, many females feel they do not have a choice. Women fear that their husbands will leave them if they protest, so speaking out challenges their economic stability.[2] Prostitutes in Zambia have expressed that if they do not partake in practices to dry and tighten the vagina through inflammation, the men feel the self-lubrication and refuse to pay on the basis that the women are unchaste. Both men and women often view dry sex as a symbol of loyalty.

In order to comprehend how deeply and culturally ingrained this practice is and to begin innovating ways to combat the devastating consequences of dry sex, one must know how the tradition is maintained from generation to generation. Adolescent women are counseled during initiation ceremonies, conducted by extended family members or older women in the community for a period of time ranging from one day to over a month. Initiation ceremonies, or puberty rites, are central forms of sex education in Zambia, as 84% of women initiated at puberty and 90% of women initiated before marriage receive sexual education during the ceremonies.[5] Many women have not been introduced to sexual topics prior to initiation, as it is often taboo to speak about sex in Zambian families. A study in six urban districts in Zambia revealed that 87% of women go through this initiation process at puberty, and many women are counseled right before marriage.[5] For the Ila people and the people of Northern and Luapula provinces who speak Bemba, nearly every girl participates in the puberty rites. As evidenced, most women in Zambia are receiving their sex education from initiation ceremonies. So now, let’s examine the curriculum.

Initiation ceremonies, known among the Bemba as “chisungu,” focus on male sexual privilege, teaching women how to treat their husbands and behave properly around them. They are taught not to refuse sex if their husband requests it and that the male’s sexual pleasure is first and foremost. Personal hygiene is taught in the form of older women teaching girls how to apply herbs to their genitals, thus increasing male pleasure through dry sex. According to Zambia’s National AIDS Council:

“Initiation ceremonies and practices that prepare the girl-child for marriage are common and widespread in both rural and urban Zambia. Some of these practices may increase risks associated with STD and HIV transmission. For example, among the Tonga and Bemba people of Southern and Northern Provinces respectively, instructions include lessons on how to use corrosive herbs and ingredients to dry out the vagina in order to increase male sexual pleasure. This form of sex has been earlier referred to as dry sex.”[6]

Furthermore, the use of condoms is not emphasized, and 6.5% of women report having discussed condoms during their initiation.[5] Those who were briefed on condoms were told they were unreliable and provided limited preventative measures for contracting HIV. Women are told to avoid extramarital sex but that such an act should be expected of her partner. Despite being aware of the prevalence of HIV in Zambia, women leave initiation ceremonies believing that using condoms are not necessary, even if they know that their partner is having extramarital sex.

A major element of initiation ceremonies is the subordination of the adolescent female to the elder women in society. Younger women are thus very inclined to follow the instructions of the older women, and this is true of young women who have reached higher education as well. In a sample of female students ages 19 to 28 at the University of Zambia, 62% approved of the initiation ceremonies and 88% expressed they would follow the teachings of the ceremonies.[5] Since initiation ceremonies are so widespread and ingrained in Zambian culture, reforms need to be made to the ceremonies in order to emphasize the dangers of dry sex and ways to prevent HIV.

Not only does dry sex subordinate women to men, but it leads to the rampant transmission of diseases and sexual health problems. In many instances, it is a form of marital rape and inhibits a woman’s right to protect herself from physical harm. Education and treatment are necessary moving forward, yet the attitudes towards such sexual health problems and the access to care are extremely disparate throughout the world.

Kira Seiger is a junior at Stanford University majoring in Human Biology. 

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[1] AIDS: The Agony of Africa. M. Schoofs. The Body: The Complete HIV/AIDS Resource. 1 Dec. 1999. http://www.thebody.com/content/art2762.html.

[3] The prevalence of the use of ‘dry sex’ traditional medicines, among Zambian women, and the profile of the users. Mbololwa Mbikusita-Lewanika, Hart Stephen, Jane Thomas. Psychol Health Med. 2009 March; 14(2): 227–238. doi: 10.1080/13548500802270364.

[5] Traditional Cultural Practices of Imparting Sex Education and the Fight Against HIV/AIDS: The Case of Initiation Ceremonies for Girls in Zambia. Augustus K. Kapungwe. African Sociological Review, 7, (1), 2003, pp. 35-52.

[6]  Suffering in Silence: The Links Between Human Rights Abuses and HIV Transmission to Girls in Zambia. Human Rights Watch. 2002. http://www.hrw.org/reports/2003/zambia/zambia1202-04.htm#P388_57566.

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