Academic journal article Ahfad Journal

'Man No Be Wood': Gender and Extramarital Sex in Contemporary Southeastern Nigeria

Academic journal article Ahfad Journal

'Man No Be Wood': Gender and Extramarital Sex in Contemporary Southeastern Nigeria

Article excerpt

This article examines the relationship between gender and extramarital sex in southeastern Nigeria. Using ethnographic case studies from the Igbo-speaking region, analytical attention is focused on how extramarital relations are shaped by class, by rural vs. urban residence, and by the continuing importance of marriage and parenthood. The degree to which contemporary constructions of gender are increasingly defined through discourses about sexuality is explored. Sexual relations are shown to be an arena in which the aspirations, problems and contradictions of modernity are contested and negotiated, with the outcomes very much shaped by conceptions of gender.

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Introduction

Many Igbo men will say plainly that it is a man's right to have many women. "It is our culture," many men told me, "and it cannot be changed." In fact, Igbo cultural constructions of appropriate sexuality are changing dramatically. While traditions of polygyny are incorporated into modem narratives about Igbo men s sexual rights, today's extramarital sexual relationships are altogether different from older customs of polygyny. In the past, the economic costs of marrying and the burdens of supporting a wife and her children meant that the number of available female sexual partners was limited. Because most women married not long after puberty, the pool of sexually available unmarried women was small. Concubinage, prostitution and other less easily classified forms of sexual liaison are not new (Uchendu 1965a), but various social customs (including levirate for young widows) assured that, in general, women of reproductive age were married. There were always (and continue to be) extramarital sexual affairs betw een men and women who were themselves married, but customary sanctions and taboos assured that this was a risky practice that, even if common had to be carried out discreetly.

With contemporary demographic changes in women's age at marriage, a nominal acceptance of a Christian concept of monogamy, and a growing disparity in wealth in Nigerian society. the scope for extramarital sexual relations has changed and widened. If not the most common, by far the most obvious form of extramarital sexual liaison in today's Igbo society is between married men and younger, unmarried women. Igbo people talk about the phenomenon of "sugar daddies" and their young women as if it were a new problem, characteristic of a changing society-a problem of 'modernity. When I lived in Owerri, the capital of Imo State, for three years from 1989-92, people used to lament (but also laugh about) the plethora of cars parked outside the gates of Alvin Ikoku Teachers College on Friday and Saturday nights--cars belonging to married men who were there to meet young female lovers. The structure of these relationships has very clear gender and class dimensions. Alvin Ikoku Teachers College has male students as well. B ut it was inconceivable that married women would park en masse outside the college waiting for young male lovers.(1) Nor was it possible to imagine that poor men would be waiting outside on foot or with their bicycles.

Extramarital sexual relationships in Igbo society take many forms. Below I describe several of the most common types. My analytical and theoretical interests lie in understanding how the changing nature and structure of extramarital sexual relations affect and are affected by the social construction of gender. Moreover, I want to examine how extramarital relationships in Igbo society are shaped by class, by rural vs. urban residence, and by the continuing importance marriage and parenthood, even as it becomes ever more possible and accepted that sexual relations can take place outside marriage and without a procreative function. I explore what extramarital sexual relationships tell us about the intersection of class and gender in Igbo society, and how notions of manhood and womanhood might be changed or changing in contexts where public discourse about extramarital sexual relations has become more prominent. …

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