Tag Archives: Vice

Let’s talk about dry sex in Africa (and about exotification

Wendy Syfret has a piece over at Vice titled “‘Dry Sex’ Is the African Sexual Health Issue No One’s Talking About.

Dry sex“, Syfret writes, is a disturbing genital trend gaining ground in some African countries. It has apparently been a thing for some time (see, inter alia, “The practice and prevalence of dry sex among men and women in South Africa: a risk factor for sexually transmitted infections?” in the journal Sexually Transmitted Infections, 1999).

In order to achieve properly dry sex, women insert dessicating substances — absorbent sponges, bleach, dust, ground-up vegetable matter, sand — into their vagina. This is done with the hope that the resulting dryness will provide their male partners with a ‘tighter’ sexual experience.

Sand. In. The. Vagina. This ghastly practice exposes women to increased risk of infection, and is acutely uncomfortable to boot. It’s also grounded in false ideas of sexual biology, not to mention unjust conceptions of sexual equality. Are men in Lilongwe or Joburg sacrificing their penile comfort in order to deliver a happier sexual experience to their female partners? (A quick Google search turned up no evidence that this is so.)

Syfret got in touch with Dr. Marlene Wasserman, widely known a sex health advocate and radio host in South Africa. She explains the spread of self-sacrificing sexual practices like dry sex as a differential in cultural attitudes regarding the sexuality of the two genders: “We can talk about penises and circumcision, which we do all the time, and the government puts policies into place. But dare we talk about vaginas? I’ve been doing radio for 20 years and the only time I’ve been reported to the broadcasting commission was when I referred to vaginas.”

Ugh; the social consequences of body-shaming male squeamishness. What a tragic mash-up of miseducation and misogyny, and stating clearly that I hope educators, advocates, and public figures like Dr. Wasserman can help make it a short-lived fad. I was glad to read that Wasserman recently helped the World Association of Sexual Health launch a declaration of sexual rights articulating the “right to pleasure.” As she tells Syfret: “Women are surprised that’s one of their rights. We know 33 percent of women have and tolerate painful penetration. That becomes part of what they expect from sex.” Let’s change those expectations.


There’s a consideration that comes to mind when I hear reports of bizarre practices like dry sex: the need to balance respectful and open empathy with an awareness of how journalism purporting to be foreign affairs cultural coverage might be a front for the age-old traffic in stereotypes. Given the distances — geographic, historical, economic, cultural, and linguistic — that separate readers in the US from the lives lived in the nations of Africa, it’s very easy for misconception and prejudice to mix in among the facts. In that context, it can be hard to distinguish rumor from reporting.

See if you can separate fact from fiction in a few representative samples:

  1. “Throughout Africa, we’re seeing teenage thugs getting high a concoction of sewage and kerosene called jenkem.”
  2. “We’re receiving reports of HIV-positive men in South Africa attempting to ward off the symptoms of AIDS by forcing themselves on pre-teen virgins?”
  3. “In certain regions of East Africa, albinos leave in fear of being kidnapped and dismantled for sale as traditional folk medicine?”
  4. “Women in Ghana, eager to keep their men interested and happy at home, are paying up to US$1,500 for laser treatments designed to reverse age-related vagina atrophy.”

Which of these chunks of reportage reflect true facts, and which are just the same old gods — fetishism, blood libel, various flavors of misogyny — poured into in new, Upworthy-ready bottles? (Disclosure: the last report, about vaginal atrophy laser treatment, is true, but it isn’t happening in Africa, and it is actually good news for cancer patients.)

Further reading: