Entertainment of Thursday, 20 May 2004

Source: LYNDSAY DUNCOMBE - CBC News Viewpoint

In Ghana sex is taboo and cool

It happens at internet caf?s, restaurants, and even press conferences. You'll be sitting there – e-mailing, eating, whatever – and all of a sudden, some well-meaning yet harsh-sounding woman will come up behind you, grab the waistband of your pants and whisper coldly, "Please pull up your trousers."

For Ghanaians, accidentally flashing underwear in public (particularly if the person happens to be wearing a thong) is an offence of indecency. It's "abuskeleke" – a word defined by the unofficial Ghanaian dictionary on ghanaweb.com as "tight fitting trousers; girls that like to wear tight fitting pants that show off their shape/curves." Some Ghanaians use the words to describe the Britney Spears-inspired western clothing worn by many women in Accra, and others use it as a term of affection. Yelling "Hey, Abus!" seems to be the equivalent of "Hey, you look hot tonight."

Thongs aren't the only things Ghanaians are being told to keep in their trousers. Driving through Accra, you see large painted billboards with pictures of smiling couples telling passersby to abstain from premarital sex. There's an animated commercial on the state-owned television starring an adolescent boy who's beginning to have "urges." His father tells him to go play soccer. The advertisement ends with the boy happily doing just that – a perfect smiling picture of youthful abstinence.

Last Valentine's Day (a HUGE celebration here), community and church leaders lamented that all the talk and publicity of couples and love would lead to promiscuity. My colleagues have explained to me that one-night stands only happen where I come from – and very rarely in Ghana.

On the one hand, all this anti-sex propaganda makes sense. According to the Centre for HIV Information, 28,000 Ghanaians died of AIDS in 2001. And although the country's HIV infection rate (around three per cent of the total population) is nowhere near as bad as in South Africa or Botswana, Ghanaians are increasingly aware that having sex can be deadly.

And then there's religion. About 60 per cent of Ghanaians are Christian, the other 40 per cent Muslim (about 20 per cent also hold traditional beliefs). Religion – and in many cases, strict observance of religious doctrine – permeates so many aspects of regular life in Ghana, from the beautiful gospel music that spills out of churches into Accra's streets, to the scripture-inspired shop names (such as "Jesus is my Saviour Carburetor Specialist"), to the special areas set up at workplaces reserved for Muslim prayer. And for many religious Ghanaians, sex is exclusively part of marriage.

But on the other hand, this country is oozing sexuality. Accra nightclubs are full of couples grinding and shaking their bodies in ways that would make Beyonc? blush. Locally produced hip-life (popular music that blends traditional "high life" sounds with hip-hop beats) videos are full of sexual innuendo and situations.

In the same internet caf?s where women routinely have their pants pulled up, groups of teenagers (mostly young men who, according to the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation's advertisement, would be better off playing soccer) pool around the few computers that play movies and watch live porn.

"Lots of young people are having sex," explains Araba Koonsom, a 27-year-old reporter and anchor at MetroTV, and my personal guide to all things Ghanaian.

"You know, with globalization and the world becoming a global village, young people are seeing things on TV and in magazines, and now they want to be like that. They want to identify with their peers in the western world and other parts of the world. They see their peers having sex and they feel there is nothing wrong with it. They are heavily influenced by what they see."

But Ghana's rush of sexuality can't simply be blamed on pirated DVDs and overpriced fashion magazines. I know lots of women who've experienced unwanted advances from older men who've likely never seen GQ or Cosmo. And I've heard American Peace Corps teachers based in villages far away from westernized Accra say their students are busy going at it instead of playing soccer.

For whatever reason, Ghanaians seem to collectively abhor and embrace sexuality all at once. Both attitudes (the abhorrence based on strict colonial religion, the embrace on western media) could be attributed to the cultural influence of outsiders. But somehow, Ghana has achieved a weird balance.

Sex is, at once, taboo and cool, simultaneously dangerous and commonplace. It's OK to wear the sexiest thong you can find – just keep it in your pants.