Sexuality Policy Watch

Subverting Love Stories

Originally posted by Clare Coultas at the LSE blog on 14/09/2016. Available at: 

LSE’s Clare Coultas questions the portrayal of love in global sexual health promotion campaigns and argues that it is imperative that connecting love with safety and protection in sexual health needs to be rooted in subversion for such campaigns to succeed.

Monogamous love is frequently used in global sexual health promotion efforts to try to inspire choices about “safe sexual practices”. Yet there are two crucial and potentially harmful assumptions here: first that choice is something that every individual views as being available to them; and second that love stories will always inspire. In fact a long history can be uncovered in which particular conceptualisations of love have monopolised and been used to marginalise; a legacy which I argue needs to be exposed and disrupted. I draw on my work in East and Central Africa however the core of my arguments hopefully speak to people from a whole range of different contexts. For what alternative possibilities are opened up in love stories when more dominant representations are subverted?


There is a notable absence of love in many of the widely published historical accounts of Africa. The main reason for this is because the writing published and distributed about the continent was largely derived from the work of foreigners often connected in some way to colonial enterprises. In a book of collected papers called Love in Africa edited by Jennifer Cole and Lynn Thomas, this silence about love is explained as an effect of the colonial fascination with the “other,” and a narrow focus on the values of kinships and exchange in marriage, infused with insidious notions of white superiority. The contributors to Love in Africa go on to describe how the loving and intimate aspects of relationships in Africa (demonstrated clearly in songs, poems and love medicines) were largely ignored. They discuss how Western projects of “civilising” and “developing” Africans maintained by the spread of Christianity, school education, and media, have hijacked public narratives about love in Africa, constructing it as a modern thing that can only be found in companionate relationships and smaller “un-African” nuclear families. The work of Jennifer Hirsch, Mark Hunter and others describes this as the marketisation of love in which companionate marriage becomes a “deliberate strategising” used by people who consciously want to claim a modern identity, built on commodities, consumption, and an individual’s ability to move in and out of relationships as a matter of choice.

But what about the large proportion of people for whom consumption—in the capitalist sense of access to consumer goods—and individual choice are limited? The urban-poor young people I have spoken with in my research in Tanzania describe relationships with others which are, as with everything else in their lives, deeply entwined with more omnipresent struggles for survival. Many stated categorically that “there is no real, true love here” because of the “hustle” for money and commodities, for girls, commonly only accessible through intimate relationships. As one girl describes it, “relationships here are all profits first, love later”. In comparison to the “love conquers all” narratives found in Hollywood movies and the monogamous love pushed by NGOs, the lived experiences available to these youth just don’t match up. Furthermore when they describe their relationships they don’t just talk about themselves and their sexual partner(s). Care and responsibility to their families are also present, making the individual agency which is at the core of Western conceptualisations of love and good relationships highly problematic. Despite the good intentions behind many of these campaigns, it needs to be recognised that there is a point at which these simplistic and individualised notions of love stop inspiring and actually contribute to the demoralisation of people already marginalised.

Ama Ata Aidoo, in African Love Stories: An Anthology talks about a cultural shift in Western publishing away from the tragedy and torment of love, connected to “the business of selling joy and happiness” (p. viii) and the white [and I would expand this to overall privileged] solipsism contained in this. She and others are part of a wider movement aimed at disrupting this marketised, one-dimensional and marginalising version of love with the creation and promotion of love stories that more diverse audiences can identify with. Yet I think that an important part of this also needs to include the opening up of love itself for redefinitions, and working to move beyond the dualistic good and bad, tragedy versus joy of it. The Ancient Greeks had around 30 different words to describe love in all its various forms. Yet in the modern West this pluralism has been reduced to the prioritising of one amalgamated form that masks and denies space for the potential tensions and contradictions between for instance romantic passion, love of family, love which endures, love of self.

A Kenyan friend once told me that the greatest colonisation of all was the enforced learning of the coloniser’s language and the knowledge that was lost in this process. She went on to explain how life skills are contained in Swahili sayings that make people think, in their ambiguity often signposting important questions over simplified answers to the complexities of life. “It is not this way in English,” she said laughing. And I think that this holds an important learning point especially for something such as love. For to love another is complicated and hard, and [Western] reductionist versions not only marginalise but also belittle the efforts that have gone into relationships where endurance prevails. Discussions which problematise love rather than promote one shallow idealised form of it could be of much more use to these urban-poor youth, whose marginalised lives are likely already overrun with contradictions of all different kinds. In this way I suggest that any effort aimed at connecting love with safety and protection in sexual health needs to be rooted in subversion. Where critical questions are used to foster the skills needed to deal with and disrupt the complexities and power struggles in love and life in general.

This article was first published on the Subversive Storytelling blog.

Clare Coultas is a doctoral researcher in Social Psychology at the London School of Economics and Political Science, UK. She has over five years of experience working for child- and youth-focussed non-governmental organisations (NGO) in East and Central Africa, and has delivered trainings and developed toolkits for the use of participatory and arts-based methods in these contexts. Her current work focuses on knowledge encounters between development organisations and communities and she has a number of papers in publication in this area of study.

The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Government of Senegal, Africa at LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science

Source: London School of Economics and Political Science

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