Vodka Yonic features a rotating cast of women and nonbinary writers from around the world sharing stories that are alternately humorous, sobering, intellectual, erotic, religious or painfully personal. You never know what you’ll find in this column, but we hope this potent mix of stories encourages conversation.
I was 12 years old on school holiday in Kasane, a tourist town in the northeastern corner of Botswana. I stood in a long aisle facing products labeled “feminine hygiene.” My father waited at the end of the aisle with the trolley. He tapped his foot. He looked anywhere but at me. He called down the aisle that he was going to KFC.
I searched for the red-and-white box of Kotex pads my mother always bought and picked up the first pack that resembled it. I had been using pads exclusively since my first period a few months before. My father came back with the trolley, handed me a 100-pula note and told me to pay for my own “stuff” — like my totally normal bodily function was something I should be ashamed of. I only realized my mistake when I had the shopping bag on my lap in the car, the “TAMPONS” label on the box staring back at me.
When we got home, I told my mother about my mistake. I asked her if she could teach me how to use tampons since I wasted so much money on them anyway. My mother looked at me like I had just told her I had killed the neighbor’s cat.
“No,” she said. “I’ll get you pads tomorrow. You should never use tampons. You will spoil yourself.”
You will spoil yourself. The words have echoed in my mind for years. I am trying to get rid of that voice, the voice that tells me that my pleasure and comfort are sinful. There is lingering guilt each time I seek pleasure. In my late teens, I worried: Will I go to hell for feeling cared for, for feeling passion? For spoiling myself with more than tampons?
My awakening came when my body started getting noticed by boys and men. These boys and men were not shy when they referred to my body parts. My butt got the most mention, but this wasn’t new to me; my family had gotten a head start. They had sexualized my body before I even knew what sex was. I have been told to change into “appropriate” attire when male relatives are in my parents’ house. I am still told to cover up as a grown woman. I can’t dance when I am happy in front of my male family members because “my whole body moves with me,” my relatives say, suggesting that I am asking for something.
While the comments of boys and men — strangers to me — were more explicit, they were not very different from those of my family. My body was and is the problem. This is the message I get from every interaction. But how could something I feel safe in be so dangerous?
My sexual exploration has been tentative even as a woman in her late 20s. In trying to make sense of my existence, I have grown closer to finding out about those who lived before me. I have always been curious about where I come from. My immediate family members, though African themselves, are strictly against African spirituality. I come from a Reformed Baptist Church family; my parents have attended this church for almost 50 years. I decided to consult someone in touch with an element of African spirituality called ancestral reading. Taking this step went against everything I have been taught from birth.
I booked myself a session, wanting to hear especially from the women in my bloodline — women who had gone through life and had ascended to higher ground with knowledge.
On a quiet afternoon in September, I sat with a spiritual guide. In the middle of my consultation, she asked if I had any questions. I hesitated for a while, but she waited as though she knew I needed answers. I asked her about love, a pursuit that had ended in tears and anger for me in the past. I asked her if I would meet “my person” in this lifetime. She laughed and said I had met some of “my persons” already. When I specified that I meant someone romantic, her answer intrigued and terrified me.
“Your ancestors say you should explore sexually. You need to know your likes and boundaries before this person is presented to you. When you do know yourself more, it will be that much sweeter when you meet this person.”
Through the drumming in my ears, I was entranced. Had she been spying on me my entire life? But I knew this was a message from someone special, someone who understands who I am because they are a part of me.
Exploring my sexuality has always seemed dangerous, like I was going against my nature. But what I didn’t know years ago was that the views I had about my body and sexual identity were not my own. There were views I had internalized from my parents, my family, my church and my country. I regularly referred to other girls who freely embraced their sexualities as “sluts” — the label made me feel better about my confusion.
I have learned that trauma from growing up within strict structures takes a lot of personal and professional help to work through and overcome. Getting this green light from an ancestor has erased my lingering guilt. My pleasure and what I want to wear are not wrong. I am searching for adult toys and ways to sexually explore. I have ancestors who approve of me going after my needs and wants — and that is enough.