Gender and Migration: The Sexual Debut of Sub-Saharan African Migrants in France

By Marsicano, Élise; Lydié, Nathalie et al. | Population, April-June 2011 | Go to article overview

Gender and Migration: The Sexual Debut of Sub-Saharan African Migrants in France


Marsicano, Élise, Lydié, Nathalie, Bajos, Nathalie, Population


For immigrants, arriving in France may represent a major break in their emotional and sexual lives. Many arrive as adults, but a non-negligible proportion migrate when they are younger and therefore become sexually active after migration. Sexuality issues are rarely broached in surveys of immigrants, except in relation to sexual health. Yet sexual behaviours, and notably the context of sexual debut, are powerful indicators of unequal gender relations. Élise MARSICANO, Nathalie LYDIÉ and Nathalie BAJOS analyse the characteristics of the sexual debuts of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, based on a survey carried out in open spaces in the Paris region. They look at the timing of sexual debut, the age gap between partners, and the degree of consent to first sexual intercourse, by time and place of intercourse, i.e. before or after migration, and by age at migration. The authors reveal the broad diversity of immigrant histories in this respect, and show that for those who arrived before age 10, the conditions of sexual debut are similar to those of the non-migrant population.

Keywords: Sexual debut, sub-Saharan Africa, migrant, France, gender, socialization.

Research on gender relations and their recomposition in the migratory context, has developed considerably in recent years (Catarino and Morokvasic, 2005; Dahinden et al., 2007; Rigoni and Séhili, 2005). Some studies have shown that migration is not always a factor of progress and emancipation for women, since the living conditions in the country of destination can exacerbate gender inequalities (Catarino and Morokvasic, 2005; Falquet and Rabaud, 2008; Moujoud, 2008). In addition to the supposed opposition between the traditional societies of origin and the modern receiving societies, the countries of origin themselves have undergone changes in gender relations (Moujoud, 2008), while in France, gender inequalities persist, although in different forms (Maruani, 2005).

Although sexuality provides a good terrain for observing how gender relations are structured and recomposed (Bajos and Bozon, 2008), few researchers have looked at the affective and sexual trajectories of migrants. Gender relations are internalized and expressed as soon as young people become sexually active, and the fi rst sexual intercourse is revealing of differential socialization between persons born as boys or as girls (Bozon, 1993). While asymmetries in male and female situations at the time of sexual debut are observed in all societies, they are constructed differently in different contexts (Bozon, 2003; Wellings et al., 2006).

For people who have migrated, the context in which the fi rst sexual intercourse occurred may be different from the context of their socialization during childhood and adolescence. Sub-Saharan African migrants provide an excellent example, given the radical differences between the conditions of sexual debut in their own country and in France. In sub-Saharan Africa, women become sexually active earlier than men and the age gaps between partners are considerable (Bozon and Hertrich, 2001; Wellings et al., 2006). The recent changes observed there are refl ected in a postponement of marriage with respect to sexual debut, especially for women (Hertrich, 2007). In France, the conditions of sexual debut have changed considerably over recent decades, although they still reveal gender asymmetry (Bozon, 2008).

By analysing the characteristics of the sexual debuts of migrants from sub- Saharan Africa, we hope to shed new light on the impact of men and women's migratory trajectories on their fi rst sexual experiences, as well as any possible changes in sexual power relations after migration. To do this, we use a 2005 survey of 1,874 respondents who had migrated from sub-Saharan Africa and were now living in the Paris region (Île-de-France). After describing the survey and the variables, we present the characteristics of the survey population, and provide a brief description of the respondents' sexual debuts, taking account of individual and relational resources.

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