Illustration by Naomi Gennery
When I was a teenager, I marvelled at the freedom boys my age had. They could leave the house whenever, no questions of who, what, when, where and why. They had more liberty when it came to how they dressed, who they associated with, and what they did with their time. For many young women — especially women of colour — living at home with their parents, the situation isn’t quite so free and open. Your space is not really your space. Your movements are conditional to the approval of your parents. It’s especially frustrating when you’ve had a taste of freedom, living by yourself away from your parental home. It’s even more frustrating when you’re trying to have an active sex life.
For the six women I spoke to, university was their first real experience of being away from their parents. There was no parental figure hovering over their shoulders; the only rules they had to abide by were residence rules on noise levels and the common kitchen area. Out on their own and able to make fully independent lifestyle choices, their sex lives thrived. They could have sex with whoever and whenever, and with no major life responsibilities other than studying, they had the time and energy to explore their sexuality.
“Sexually, they were living the dream, enjoying a freedom they’d never experienced before. That all stopped when they moved back home”
Karabo* moved back home in December 2017 after finishing her degree. Before that, her sex life away from home flourished: “My sex life was amazing! It was poppin’ girl. I basically had sex whenever I felt horny. I never had to worry about the time, or how long the person should stay for.” All the women I spoke to agreed: being physically away from home gave them the chance to let loose and explore in a way they hadn’t been able to before. They could be spontaneous, adventurous, cuddle, have sleepovers. Sexually, they were living the dream, enjoying a freedom they’d never experienced before. That all stopped when they moved back home.
According to the Pew Research Centre, the number of young adults moving back in with their parents after university is rising. It’s mainly for financial reasons: rent, bills, groceries and furniture can get pretty expensive in the current economy, and for the women I interviewed, high youth unemployment in their countries (South Africa and Zimbabwe) and cost of living means that there’s a high chance of finishing university without having a job lined up. In order to save money and stay in a safe environment, young adults move back home. Although you’d have lived with your parents before, the situation is different. You’re an adult now. You like things done a certain way. You’ve created your own routine, a routine that can clash with your parents’. For young women who move back home, it can also mean a restriction of their sexual liberty.
“I went from an avid sex life to literally nothing. I feel like part of me was taken”
For Ruva, living with her strict, religious parents means that having sex is no longer an option. “I had a great sex life at university. I had a sense of liberation. I went from an avid sex life to literally nothing. I feel like part of me was taken.” She did try to find sexual partners through dating apps but trying to go out and meet new people was impossible with her parents checking her every move. They know her work timetable and expect her home at a certain time, so that means no spontaneous plans or meet-ups.
Sharon’s been home for the past 10 months. Not only did she live away from her parents for five years, but she also lived in off-campus accommodation. “I definitely had more options as far as with whom and where I could have sex. Also, in university, there was the luxury of having sex on a bed every time.” She went from being answerable only to herself to adjusting to her parents’ rules. “As long as I live with my parents, I have to respect their rules and let them know where I’m going and who I’ll be with.” Having to cope with the adjustment from university to the working world was a big step for Sharon, and when it came down to sorting her priorities, sex just wasn’t one of them. “Most of my time and energy is dedicated to building my career and making money.”
“If my boyfriend had his own place it would be better, but he also lives at home”
No more spontaneity – they all agreed that was dead and gone. Now, if they want to have sex, they have to plan and plan and plan. When to do it, where to do it, getting protection. And the infrequency of it all! Before they had the choice of having sex as often as they wanted. The times they have sex are now few and far between. “Having uninterrupted intimacy is a struggle,” says Thandi. “There’s no Netflix and chilling, no cuddles all night.” She’s been home for three years now, and her sex life has changed significantly. Although she’s in a relationship, it’s still difficult to find time and space to be intimate with her partner. “If my boyfriend had his own place it would be better, but he also lives at home.” And although some of the women did admit that one or both of their parents were aware that they were sexually active, they never really talked about it.
Anna’s been home for one year and seven months. Her parents both know that she’s sexually active, and although her father is okay with it, she senses silent disapproval from her mother. “My mother’s religious. She wanted me to wait until marriage.” Despite the drop in frequency, Anna still enjoys sex. “If there’s one thing I learnt, it’s that frequency does not equal enjoyment.” Going to work, meeting new people and different social circles is a jump from university boys and residence rooms. Even though she’s living at home, Anna’s found a new sense of empowerment and control in her sex life.
“Black African Christian parents. They would kill me! They would be so disappointed. I guess this isn’t who they think they raised!”
For those whose parents don’t know, there’s the added pressure of abstaining from sex until marriage. Tshiamo’s been home for nine months, moving back after university. Although she can drink around her parents, she never wants them to find out about her sexual activity. “Black African Christian parents. They would kill me! They would be so disappointed. I guess this isn’t who they think they raised!” It means she’s all but kissed her sex life goodbye. “My sex life is over. Being home kills your freedom.” Although her job gives her the freedom to have an active social life, that stops when it comes to sex. Now whenever she wants to have sex, there’s nothing she can do. “I just drink and go to sleep.”
For Zanele, being home for a year has changed how she thinks of sex. Her parents know and accept that she’s sexually active, but the pressures of adulting has put a strain on her sex life. In university, she could have a somewhat carefree life: although academia is incredibly stressful, it doesn’t compare with having to deal with the pressures of work and becoming an adult member of society. Moving back home meant being reunited with her long-distance boyfriend, but the excitement she once had is gone. “Working and being a proper adult can drain the life out of you, me in particular. Sex is not a priority but rather a solid support system and someone to love and be loved by.”
Being a young woman is hard. Transitioning from university life into the working world brings with it a physical, emotional and mental change that can be difficult to adjust to. What can make this transition more difficult is going back to a home space that is unwilling to negotiate house rules now that you’re an adult. The sex lives of young women is only one part of their life that changes with the return home. Where men have more freedom and are viewed more as adults, single women who live with their parents have to deal with the same house rules they had when they were children.