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Generational Identity and Sexuality
American Anthropological Association Meetings
November 1999, Chicago, IL

By Elisha Renne (Univeristy of Michigan)

2000 Copyright © American Anthropology Association

Sexuality was discussed directly or indirectly in all the papers. It is important to realize, however, that the term sexuality is part of a larger configuration of attributes including social relations, sexual relations and reproduction. Mirka Prazak (Bennington C), “Playing Sex: Changing Perceptions of Sexuality in the Kuria Community of Rural Kenya,” discussed the reevaluation of sexuality most specifically and ethnographically. She focused on views of adolescent sexuality as expressed by older Kuria women, younger women and a few (younger) men. Elise Levin (Northwestern U), “Childbearing in Generational Perspectives on the Future and the Past: Guinea, West Africa,” concentrated on the views of three different generations of women toward childbearing, particularly with respect to how they assess family size. Her paper discussed sexuality indirectly in terms of postpartum abstinence and premarital sexuality. Amal Fadlalla (Northwestern U), “Negotiating Narratives of Past: Strategies and Rituals of Fertility among the Hadendowa of Eastern Sudan,” was also concerned with generational evaluations of childbearing, although with a different focus. Her paper examined the ideology and associated rituals of son preference. While the link with sexuality was least spelled out in this paper her discussion of changes in the autonomy and education of some younger women suggests that some reassessment of sexuality may also be going on. Paula Davis (Brown U), “On the Sexuality of ‘Town Women’ in Kampala: Modernity, Marriage and Death,” examined generational and gendered evaluations of urban women who have asserted autonomy in the urban setting of Kampala. In Kampala sexuality serves as a moral barometer for assessing autonomy. Finally Kearsley Stewart (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), “Towards an Historical Perspective on Sexuality in Uganda: Reflections and Refractions on the Reproductive Lifelines of Grandmothers and their Daughters,” considered generational evaluations of adolescent sexuality of Ugandan girls. Rather than focusing on how young women themselves view their own sexuality she examined stereotypes promulgated by an older generation.

Stewart’s paper pointed to another theme that linked the presentations, namely the connection between generational evaluations of sexuality and power relations. The characterization of the immoral early sexuality of young women is related to elders’ sense of their loss of control—in terms of authoritative knowledge—over young people. This is particularly the case when knowledge based on western education and medicine is privileged over elders’ knowledge. For example, Stewart reported that Ugandan elders are struggling to address HIV/AIDS, but they are unable to effectively control the epidemic; this results in a loss in their status as respected elders. In Davis’s paper, this nexus of sexuality and power relations revolved around female autonomy—both social and political. In Fadlalla’s paper, the generational reevaluation of son-preference ritual suggests a larger concern over power relations and control of the sexuality/autonomy of young childbearing women by men and by older women in the Hadendowa community. While the process of the reevaluation of family size in relation to changing power relations in the Guinee town of Dabola described by Levin was less explicit in the material presented, there is some discussion of mother’s-in-law attempting to control the fertility of their son’s wives. Finally, Prazak’s paper was quite explicit about this connection, arguing that the sexual education provided by older generations of Kuria men and women reinforces relations of the superordination of seniors over juniors, males over females.

While due to time constraints the papers were unable to address the larger social and political contexts, in various ways they all alluded to larger—often national or international—dimensions from outside the local community that have served as an impetus for changing evaluations of sexual mores. For example, Fadlalla mentioned the “Northern Sudanese” as a reference point for women who are changing the treatment of infertility, son-preference ritual, daughter’s education and possibly other particular aspects of sexuality that are not specified. The elite status of the “Northern Sudanese,” or Balawait as they are referred to locally, partly explains this behavior but it would be useful to unravel the idea of “Northern Sudanese” as understood by these women. Similarly, Stewart mentioned teachers and health personnel as important new sources of respected information. It would be interesting to know just who these teachers are and whether they share the same misconceptions about Bunyoro adolescent sexuality as those that are held by other adults. Prazak also noted that young Kuria women are learning new information about sexuality from teachers, although it is not altogether clear from where young men are getting their information to reevaluate sexuality. Nonetheless, there is a remarkable convergence of views on the marriage-sexuality-reproduction complex mentioned earlier on the part of young Kuria women and men, many of whom say that they want to marry monogamously and who think that female circumcision is no longer necessary. Prazak suggested that government programs have affected this thinking but some sort of network analysis might help in explaining exactly how this information is assimilated as local knowledge.

Finally, one unexpected dividend resulted from these papers, namely the various methodological conundrums faced by those who research sexuality, and how, when possible, these difficulties are addressed. This was clearest in Stewart’s paper which noted that epidemiological and biomedical studies of HIV/AIDS in Africa tend to be largely ahistorical and acultural. During her research, she incorporated the use of reproductive lifeline techniques to obtain more detailed information from women about their owns lives and those of their daughters and also to provide these women with information that would help them to open up new avenues of mother-daughter communication. Prazak’s paper was quite explicit about the difficulties of doing research on sexuality, particularly among people who refrain from talking about such topics between adjacent generations and where talking about or showing any interest in sexuality has distinct gender associations that change over time. For example, the sexual identity of older Kuria men relates to the idea that one should NOT discuss sex. This presents an interesting research challenge. Prazak also mentioned the more well-known problems associated with using survey methods to collect data on sexuality. Finally, Levin, in her comparison of different age-group thinking about childbearing, made an interesting observation. While different evaluations of childbearing behavior (including premarital sexuality and sexual abstinence) correspond fairly well with different generational age-groups, the correspondence is not airtight. Some uneducated women in the youngest group have more in common with the middle-aged group than with their actual age-group mates with respect to their views toward childbearing expectations. This observation raises the question of how broadly we can make claims about distinctive generational views and about generational views in the first place.

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