Social Science & Medicine 53 (2001) 1383–1396
‘‘No strength’’: sex and old age in a rural town in Ghana
Sjaak van der Geest
Department of Anthropology, Medical Anthropology Unit, University of Amsterdam, Oudezijds Achterburgwal 185, 1012 DK Amsterdam,
This article is part of a larger project on social and cultural meanings of growing old in a rural community of Ghana,
the fieldwork for which was carried out between 1994 and 2000. It deals with ideas and practices concerning sex among
the elderly. Informal conversations were held with individual elders and with groups of people that were, middle-aged
and young. Sex was generally regarded as a matter of ‘‘strength’’, which was diminishing at old age. For men the
concept of strength specifically referred to sexual potency, whereas for women ‘‘strength’’ was part of a more general
feeling of physical power and the ability to perform the many activities expected from being a man’s sexual partner. Sex
at old age is looked at with a considerable amount of ambivalence. On the one hand, it is something that the elderly
should have left behind them. On the other hand, sex confirms the vitality and status of the elder. If sex is practised at
old age, it should be orderly and restrained, ‘‘respectful’’. r 2001 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.
Keywords: Sex; Strength; Old age; Kwahu; Ghana
‘‘Your mind gets away from it.’’ (Kwahu man)
‘‘I want strength to get food to eat.’’ (Kwahu
Sex and sexuality are universally regarded as the
prerogative of young people. Elderly people are viewed
as sexually unattractive and not interested in sex. If they
are interested, there must be something wrong with
them. Sexual intercourse between elderly people is
typically ‘‘considered embarrassing or aesthetically
unappealing’’, writes Levy (1994, p. 291). She continues:
‘‘Images in the media and other forms of popular
culture, such as cartoons and greeting cards, tend to
portray older adults’ interest or attempts to be sexual as
humorous, ludicrous, scornful or repugnant’’, even as
perverse (see Butler & Lewis, 1986; Gibson, 1993, p.
111). A ‘‘normal’’ elderly person is not or should not be
interested in sex.
Recently, however, that view of the sexually disin-
terested elderly is being challenged by a stream of
publications. These should be viewed against the back-
drop of growing criticism of ageism. Levy (1994) points
at the contradictory evidence. On the one hand, decline
of sexual interest is indeed reported. Quoting a number
of authors, she mentions: ‘‘mental or physical fatigue,
preoccupation with business interests, over indulgence in
food or drink, physical illness, fear of sexual failure, etc.
Monotony in sexual relationships, related to over-
familiarity and the predictability of sex with the same
partner’’ (Levy, 1994, p. 291).
On the other hand, several authors emphasise
that sexual desires continue to be felt throughout
the life span, although there remains disagreement
as to whether this applies solely to men or to men
and women alike (Weg, 1983; Nadelson, 1984; Crose
& Drake, 1993; Hodson & Skeen, 1994; Minichiello,
Plummer, & Seal, 1996). Kellet (1991) concludes
more cultural than biological in origin. Traupmann
(1984) points at the discomfort of children thinking
(1918), witnessing one’s parents making love could
be traumatic for a child. Freud’s assumption was tested
in a study by Hoyt (1977), which showed that parental
E-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org (S. van der
0277-9536/01/$-see front matter r 2001 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.
PII: S 0277 -9536(01 )0 0222-2
sex was the most anxiety-provoking fantasy for young
people, men as well as women.
The literature on sex and old age is slowly expanding,
showing both consistency and contradiction. Consistent
are conclusions about the widespread social and cultural
production of the asexual elderly and the recognition that
underneath the abnegation of sex, sexual desires may
continue to exist until a very advanced age. Contradictory
evidence is reported with regard to what extent this
applies to what percentage of the elderly and whether
there are significant differences between men and women.
Virtually, nothing is known about cultural variations in
both the acceptability and the actual existence of
prolonged sexual interest and activity among elderly
people. The studies quoted thus far refer exclusively to
North American and Western European populations.
Anthropological studies of sexual behaviour in Africa,
for example, are extremely rare if we exclude the
avalanche of research on sexual behaviour as risk in
the era of HIV/AIDS (Standing, 1991; Standing &
Kisekka, 1989; Ahlberg, 1994; Savage & Tchombe,
1994). It is not surprising, therefore, that studies on sex
at old age in Africa are practically non-existent. Apt’s
(1996) study of elderly Ghanaians does not contain any
reference to the topic of sex, for example. This paper is
one of the first attempts to explore the field of sexual
desires and practices among elderly people in an African
community. The main objective was to record people’s
views on the topic and to analyse their statements in
light of their culture, with a particular focus on gender
differences. The result of this attempt is mainly
descriptive, which may seem disappointing to some,
but it provides a promising start to gaining insight into a
topic still surrounded by taboo and embarrassment both
among the elderly and younger generations.
The article is based on anthropological fieldwork in
Kwahu-Tafo, a rural town on the Kwahu Plateau in the
southeastern part of Ghana. The aim of the research was
to describe and understand the position of elderly people
in a rapidly changing society.
The field research involved open-ended conversations
with 35 elderly people, which were taped and later
transcribed and translated. Some people were inter-
viewed only once, others twice or more often. Apart
from these more formal conversations, this author often
went to greet the old people informally and chat with
them. These more casual visits enabled me to observe
the daily life of elderly people and the attitudes of other
people in the same house. Most of these observations
were recorded in my diary. In addition, old age was
discussed with many other people in the town including
opinion leaders such as teachers and church members as
well as with other key informants. Focus group
discussions were held with young people and groups of
middle-aged men and women. In three schools, students
completed a questionnaire expressing their views on old
people or completed sentences on the same issue. Some
students wrote essays about the old or made drawings of
them. The research was almost entirely qualitative, in
order to arrive at a deeper understanding of what it
means to be old and dependent. That understanding was
gradually acquired by the method of participant
observation. I joined some of the elderly at their farm,
in church and at funerals.
The elderly people in this study form a diverse group.
A few of them were well offFsocially, psychologically,
financially, and in terms of health. They were sur-
rounded by caring relatives and received attention and
respect. Others were quite miserable because of poverty
and loneliness. The extremes of happiness and misery
occurred particularly among men. Those whose lives
had been a success enjoyed the fruits of their work and
did not have any worries. Those who had been less
successful in their active days had often been deserted by
the ones they had failed to care for. A strictly applied
measure of reciprocity accounted for this difference in
well-being at old age. As a result, women usually found
themselves more in the middle than in the extremes.
Even if they had not been successful in giving their
children what they needed to progress in life, the
children recognised that their mothers had tried their
utmost and now returned their love.
Most of the elderly people were able to walk, only one
of the 35 spent the whole day in bed. Five of them were
blind, which restricted their movements considerably.
Two more were almost blind. Only one old lady suffered
from dementia and had to be ‘‘watched’’ throughout the
day. The care they received from people in the house or
children nearby included cooking food, helping them
bathe, washing their clothes, assisting them in visiting
the toilet, and doing all kinds of chores such as running
errands, buying food, and sweeping the room. Remit-
tance of money becomes increasingly important as a
form of indirect care, since many children are earning
their living elsewhere. The people who were actually
taking care of the elderly varied from wives, daughters,
and daughters-in-law to more distant relatives or anyone
who happened to live in the same house.
Their condition of life did not remain the same over
the period of my research. Some people who had been
vigorous when the fieldwork began, fell sick a short time
later and died. Others lost their partner or caregiver or
became more handicapped and lonely. In 1995, the
marital status of 29 elderly was as follows: seven still had
their partner (more or less), 11 were divorced or had
separated, and 11 were widowed. Of the 35 elderly
people who had been involved in this research, only six
were still alive in April, 2001.
S. van der Geest / Social Science & Medicine 53 (2001) 1383–13961384
In this article, six of the elderly play a role: Kwame
Opoku who used to be a farmer and a trader and
functioned as an o`kyeame1in the Chief’s court; Yaa
Amponsaa, formerly a farmer and a trader who is living
with her three daughters; Kwaku Nyame, a former
cocoa farmer; Kwame Frempong, who used to be a
cocoa marketing agent; George Adu Asara, in his active
life, secretary to the Paramount Chief; and his friend,
Kwaku Martin, a man of many different trades: teacher,
trader, pig farmer. The last three men had attended
school in their youth.2
Reading through field notes and interview transcrip-
tions, the aim was to discover some common underlying
theme in the diverse experiences of old age. This essay
focuses on one aspect: what people, old as well as young,
think about love and sex in old age. It was only after
some time and much hesitation that the topic was
broached. Initially, this author thought it would not be
possible to include questions surrounding sexuality in
the research, having been made to understand that
sexual desires and sexual practices are secret."Okyeame
Opoku: ‘‘How somebody makes love to his wife or
girlfriend, he will never tell you unless you are his
friend.’’ Why is it bad to talk about it? The answer
completed the circle: because it is secret. If people hear
about your sexual habits or desires, they will talk about
them and may laugh at you. It is shameful. It is a breach
of intimacy. Instructions to young people about correct
or enjoyable sex were not given in the past or at present.
It is ‘‘not done.’’
Taking these warnings into account, there was some
pessimism about the possibility of discussing sex with the
elderly. Among the young, sex has become a more open
thing to do and talk about without ‘‘shame’’, but not
among the older generation. I was therefore rather
surprised to find many of them open to the subject and
willing to share some of their ‘‘secrets’’ with me. I say
‘‘some’’ because I am convinced that the most intimate
details were not disclosed. Extensive quotations taken
from these conversations reveal people’s ambivalence and
uncertainty about the topic of sex. What they declined to
say was often as significant as what they spoke about.
(The quotations may also enable the reader to interpret
for him- or herself the meaning of their statements.)
It cannot be denied that a certain culture of
‘‘prudishness’’ may have affected the conversations.
Among women, for instance, it seemed more proper to
deny than to admit an interest in sex. It took some time
before I realised this. In my own culture, most women
would probably be more embarrassed to admit having
no interest in sex. That bias towards denying sex was
particularly strong when one day we had a discussion
with 15 Christian mothers aged between 30 and 65. I was
initially doubtful that a group discussion of Christian
women would produce the kind of information I was
interested in, but a friend, a woman of 55 helping me
with my research, was more optimistic. My scepticism
grew when it was made clear that the women wanted to
have the meeting in the back of the church.
The discussion that took place under the eyes of Our
Lady of Good Counsel was much more fruitful than
expected, however. A lively debate occurred during
which I realised that some of the women were talking a
lot while others were completely quiet. All those who
had spoken emphasised that they were no longer
interested in sex. Some boasted about this. They
applauded one woman who said she had not slept with
a man in 30 years. It appears that those who spoke did
speak their mind and express their feelings and that their
remarks were reliable and useful. However, no access to
the views of those women who were still interested in sex
and practising it was made. My suspicion was that they
were the ones during the meeting who were silent and
possibly keeping those views hidden.
If sex is such a delicate and uncomfortable topic for
conversation, it is no surprise that one encounters
extremely contradictory statements. In answer to the
question ‘‘Is it good for old people to have sex?’’ an
elderly woman (AM) said:
AM: No. It is not good, you have led this sort of life, so
you have to stop (Yeabu
AM: Because I have already finished giving birth. I
have given birth to 10 children. One has given
birth to seven children, another to eight, another
to six. The youngest has given birth to four
children. So I don’t have to marry again.
S:Is it not good to have sex after you have ceased
giving birth to children?
AM: You see, I married my husband and had ten
children with him, and he died.
S: If he were still alive, would you continue to have
sex with him?
AM: Yes, if he were alive, I couldn’t have denied him
bra no bi ara).3
kyeame (often translated as ‘‘linguist’’) is an official at the
chief’s court. Yankah (1995, p. 3) describes the function of the
Lkyeame as ‘‘speaking for the chief’’: ‘‘Being a counselor and
intermediary to the chief, he is responsible, among other things,
for enhancing the rhetoric of the words the chief has spoken. In
the absence of an Lkyeame’s editorial art, the royal speech act is
considered functionally and artistically incomplete’’.
2The names of people mentioned or quoted in this article
have not been changed. When I asked the elderly people I
conversed with if I should give them a fictitious name to protect
their identity, they indicated that they wanted their names to be
‘‘boldly’’ written in my publications (they wished to be
3All texts preceding a Twi phrase is its English translation.
S. van der Geest / Social Science & Medicine 53 (2001) 1383–13961385
S:If your husband is dead, is it not good to marry
again and have sex with your new husband?
AM: If an elderly fellow is willing to marry me, I will agree.
S: At your present age, do you sometimes have the
desire to have sex?
AM: Yes, if I get an old man, I will marry him.
Another consequence of the secrecy around sex is that
there is very little popular or general knowledge about
sexual ideas and practices. People have to rely on their
own experiences, some ‘‘secrets’’, and on rumours. It is
very likely, therefore, that the information presented
here is of a certain idiosyncratic natureFthe Kinsey
Report of Ghana does not exist.
Kwahu-Tafo is a rural town of about 5000 inhabi-
tants. Most of them are Kwahu, a subgroup of the
(approximately) six million matrilineal Akan who live in
the south of the country. Akan is a collective name for a
number of ethnic groups that share important linguistic
and cultural traits.4They have a matrilineal inheritance
system which now is undergoing a process of moder-
nisation and individuation, although it is as yet
impossible to say where this process will lead. Decisions
regarding filiation, kinship adherence, family support
and inheritance, which are the result of heated
arguments and intensive social bargaining, are often
unpredictable. Much depends on the social weight of the
different parties. ‘‘Automatic’’ decisions based on the
application of unambiguous cultural rulesFif they ever
existedFare out of the question.
Marriage is an uncertain undertaking. Couples often
do not stay together because one of them has travelled
or is trading or doing other work somewhere else. It is
also possible that the wife prefers to stay in her own
family house if the husband has no place of his own and
the woman is not eager to stay with her in-laws. In most
cases marriage is also a temporary affair. Divorce is
common and both men and women initiate it (Bleek,
1975, 1977). Very few couples put their money together,
which may be the clearest indication that husband and
wife do not perceive each other as having one common
purpose in life. They are likely to have different interests
and they may attach more importance to their family
(abusua)5ties than to their marriage bond. After all,
marriage is only friendship, it is not abusua, as the
proverb goes (awade" e y" e " oyonk" o, " eny" e abusua). As a
result, the relationship of a father with his children is
ambiguous. He bears responsibility for them but strictly
speaking, his children belong to his wife’s abusua. The
extent to which he bonds with his children and takes
care of them depends very much on the person, his
character but even more his economic position. The one
who is well-off is able to build his own house and have
his wife and children gathered together. He will pay for
his children’s upkeep and education, and help his wife
financially with trading or farming. The wife and
children, in return, are likely to stay with him. A poor
man, however, may find it difficult to keep his wife and
children with him. He has little to offer them and they
may therefore seek support from her abusua. The
marriage may break down altogether if the wife thinks
there is no longer anything in it for her. Financially and
sexually, she is no longer interested in the marriage and
the man may find himself deserted in his old age.
The shifting loyalty, from the marital partner to the
abusua, is illustrated in an old story that my friend
Kwame Fosu told me to explain how matrilineal
inheritance came to the Akan.6
A certain man, Abu, was about to die. He went to the
" ob" osom (‘fetish’) and asked for help. The " ob" osom said
he would be saved if he sacrificed a child. The man
came home and discussed the matter with his wife
and they decided which one of their children he
would give to the " ob" osom. When he went to sleep the
wife secretly went to the children and told them to
run away because their father wanted to sacrifice one
of them. The next morning the man looked for his
children but they had disappeared. He then turned to
his sister and asked her to give him one of her
children. The sister felt pity for him and gave him a
child. To thank her, the man decided that he would
let his sister’s children inherit from him.
Kwahu-Tafo is a poor town unlike some of the other
towns on the Kwahu Plateau. Its inhabitants were not
very successful in trading and farmers encountered
many difficulties due to land conflicts and lack of rain.
In 1983 and 1984, severe droughts hit a large part of the
country, including Kwahu, and many people lost their
cocoa farms. Kwahu-Tafo has electricity, piped water,
and a clinic but only a minority has access to these
facilities. Erosion and lack of maintenance have caused
the collapse of many houses in the centre of town, which
gives the place a rather gloomy appearance. Few people
have the means to build a new house or repair their old
one. A painting on the wall of the house where I lived
showed a man climbing a tree. In the tree a snake is
4The main ethnographers of Akan culture are Rattray (1916,
1923, 1927, 1929) (who produced five volumes on the Akan),
Field (1960), Fortes (1969), Warren (1974), Arhin (1979) and
Oppong (1982). Studies focusing on the Kwahu are Bleek (1975,
1976), Bartle (1977) and Miescher (1997).
5Abusua is the matrilineage. The term can refer to a very
large group of related people (a ‘clan’), or to a more restricted
group of matrikin, three to five generations deep.
6Fosu, a teacher with a special interest in Akan tradition, was
helping me with the research.
S. van der Geest / Social Science & Medicine 53 (2001) 1383–1396 1386
waiting for him, below are a lion and a crocodile. The
text below the painting reads:"Obra y" e den (Life is hard).
One day, I visited"Opanyin7Edward Yaw Addo, an
elder in the nearby town of Abetifi. Kwame Fosu
introduced me to him. When we arrived, the " opanyin was
talking with three friends in front of his house. He
invited us inside where we had a long conversation.
"Opanyin Addo (A), two of his friends
"Okyeame Safo (S) and Kwame Tawia (T) also took part
in the conversation.
We talked about the different stages in a person’s life,
about the position of an " opanyin (elder), about funerals,
and about care. Then the topic turned to sex. The
conversation was in Twi. Most of the questions were in
English and Kwame Fosu (F) translated them. I
expected that the old men would not be very keen to
talk about this topic but the discussion was lively and
open and everyone seemed to be enjoying it. I asked
them if elderly people still had an interest in sex. Below
are a few excerpts from the discussion that ensued.
A. When you grow old, you have to leave behind all
the work you did and think about what is ahead
of you. You may know whether you are progres-
sing or going backward. Going after women is
based on love and happiness (Efis" e mmaa-p" e no
y" ede " od" o ne anigye na " efa). This time I am not
happy because I am not strong. You see I am not
strong. But chasing a woman takes more energy
than felling trees. It is very tiring ("Ey" e den papa,
" ey" e den papaapa). If you are old like mey now I
have sons and daughtersy If I go to take
someone while my son has not yet been married,
it would mean, that I have not thought about my
son. If you resort to chasing women it is not good.
There is no use in doing that. Even your children
will not look after you.
Is it you yourself who decides to stop going after
women or is it because there is no feeling for it?
Listen, it gets to a time that when you try to lift up
your penis it is not possible. It is dead (Tie, " eb" et" o
bere bi no na wopagya wo k" ote koraa a na " onk" o
baabiara. Na awu). And if your penis is not strong
there is nothing you can do with it (S" e wo k" ote yi
nso nni aho" oden a biribiara nni h" o a, wubetumi de
F. Is it true that men keep their interest in sex longer
In fact, you have asked a question. We men are
quicker with our mouths (Mmarima, y" en ano na
" ey" e hare). A woman feels a man more than a man
feels a woman. Men are quicker in asking for it.
You go to tap her shoulder. Women won’t ask for
it. Look, if you leave your wife and stay in
Hweehwee [a nearby town] for only four days, she
will think you are fornicating over there. By all
means she will think that you are going to do
something. You see? I conversed with a certain
woman as we are doing now. She said that as for
us men, we are only quick in speaking about sex.
She said I should ask a feather with which we
prick our ears: Is it the feather or the ear that feels
the sensation (Takra no na " ey" e d" e anaas" e aso no?)?
I could not give any answer [laughter]. I could not
answer. You see what I mean? Therefore, as
regards the feeling, it is women who get most of it.
Yours is once, that of the woman is thrice.
So if a woman grows to be abereway
She will never stop?
But as for a man hisy
His is short.
That of the woman is everlasting ("Emmaa de" e no
de" e s" e " ew" o h" o ara ne no).
Hers [her vagina] is a path, it always lies there. His
[penis] hangs, it bends down and does not lift itself
This morning there was a conversation with
ladies, some old, some younger. But they all said
they were not interested in sex. They remarked: I
have no strength, I have no desire (Minni aho" oden,
me k" on nn" o). I wonder if there is a difference in the
enjoyment between men and women.
The man’s enjoyment is once, but the woman’s is
Did you say a woman may grow very old before
her mind gets away from it?
And that a man does not grow very old before his
mind gets away from it?
At all! As for a woman, even if she becomes very
oldy It is a path. A bicycle can ride on it.
T.It is over a year since I took a woman (Mefaa
" ebaa " eboro afe) [looking miserable].
Yet, he is there (Nso " ow" o h" o). S.
7"Opanyin (‘elder’) is someone past middle age who is
considered wise and experienced and behaves in a civilised
and exemplary way. According to Rattray (1916, p. 23) the term
is derived from nyin (to grow) and apa (old, long-lived). My co-
researcher Anthony Boamah gave a different etymology: Wapa
nyin (ho), which means: you have passed (wapa) the age of
growing (nyin). The " opanyin, therefore, is someone who has
stopped growing (taller). For a more elaborate discussion of the
concept of " opanyin, see further below in this article (see also
Van der Geest, 1998).
S. van der Geest / Social Science & Medicine 53 (2001) 1383–13961387
T. I am still alive. I have no desire for it (Me k" on
You have no desire?
He has grown old.
I have grown oldy Nothing attracts me in sex. I
sleep. My mind has moved away from it
(M’adwene afiri so). I am old.
What about you [to S]?
As for me, I speak the truth. I am old, I am old.
Sickness disturbs me but as for me I do it small
small (Me de" e mey" e no kakra kakra). [laughter] I
have spoken the truth. If you are doing anything
with somebody it is nice to speak the truth. I for
one, I do it a little bit. When I am doing it I tell
her to take time. I tell her not to rush. I am not all
that strong (Aho" oden nni h" o papa).
F. An old man may marry a young woman or an old
woman may marry a young man. Do people
approve of that or do they speak against it?
I am old. If my uncle dies and I marry his young
widow people would mock her.
F. (to Sj): They will laugh at her because her
husband is an old man. Is it because the old
man is not strong sexually?
What about an old man who does not inherit
woman? For instance, you have your wife, your
equal. And then you go to marry another wife in
addition to your first wife. What will people say
They will tell you: Oo hou!
Oh hou means what?
Why? They will ask you: Why? An old man taking
this young lady. Will she stay? (Akwakora
woak" ofa ababaawa yi."Ob" etena?)
Why won’t she stay?
Because even though you can give her anything to
eat, you cannot sleep with her.
You cannot fuck her (Worentumi nni no). Say it
plainly to him.
F.What, if an old woman marries a young man?
What will society say about that?
When an old woman marries a young man, people
will ask her whether she can pound fufu. At your
age, you want to marry a man. Can you go and
fetch water, can you pound fufu? Can you go and
They will ask the woman?
Yes. An old woman should not marry a young
man since she is not strong.
Two things stand out in this conversation. The first is
that the men were very concerned about respect. Interest
in sex should not damage one’s reputation. A good
father diverts his interest from sex to taking care of his
children and avoids competing with his sons for women.
That would be extremely embarrassing for him as well as
for his sons. Public censorship also extends to other
aspects of sex at later age: a young woman who marries
an elderly man will be laughed at, which also affects the
man. The second striking thing is the men’s emphasis on
sexual potency and strength in a more general sense.
Chasing a woman, one of them remarked, was harder
than felling a tree. Women, they thought, do not have
that problem. They can continue to have sex much
longer than men.
This conversation and another in the morning of the
same day marked the beginning of several discussions
about sex that took place both with men and women,
elders, middle-aged people and youngsters. Usually,
when I approached women on this topic, I asked
Monica Amoako, a woman of 55, to accompany me.
A year after the above conversation, Monica and I
visited an old lady, Yaa Amponsaa, in Kwahu-Tafo.
The lady showed us a church document, which stated
that she had been born in the year 1905. We
(A=Amponsaa, M=Monica, S=Sjaak) talked about
the way a man and a woman loved one another in the
olden days and how a girl was prepared for marriage.
We then broached the topic of love and sex in old age
and asked what she thought about it.
A.Now I am old. It is many years ago that I slept
behind a man (medaa barima akyi). When you
grow old, you begin to change and when you are
changing, you also change your character.
Is it because it is difficult when we get to a certain
age that we don’t want to do it [have sex]
Well it is a type of work that you should stop
when you grow old. There are however some old
people who still like it.
Did you stop doing it because you lose the
enjoyment of it or did you stop because people
will say: This woman is old but she still goes after
I do not have the taste for it.
I agree with you. When I was a young woman at
the age of 30 I remember how I enjoyed having
sex with my lover but now that I am around 50, I
have lost the sort of feelings I had during my
youthful days. So I do agree with you if you say
you don’t have interest in it. I do not know what
will happen if I grow to your present age, but I
may also dislike it.
Why are you not interested in sex?
It is not something I need like we need food. A
S. van der Geest / Social Science & Medicine 53 (2001) 1383–13961388
nurse once came to educate us that there is no
need for a woman to run after a man. What is
important is that you should eat a little in the
morning, in the afternoon, and in the evening.
That will help you to be healthy. Good health
does not remain by meeting a man. That is the
advice my granddaughter gave to us in the church.
I took that advice and have stayed away from sex
and I look healthy every day.
Why is it that women always say they do not have
the strength to meet a man. Is there any special
strength that you need before you meet a man?
I do not know that. According to my character I
do not like to do it. If you are a woman and you
become older, you should not indulge in that act.
It is bad to do that work.
I believe that the whole reason is that you don’t
have the feeling or taste for it.
If you would marry now and your husband
wanted to have sex with you, would you do it?
That is different. When an old man is staying with
an old woman in marriage, that is different. When
one day you are there with your husband and he
likes to come to you, you will agree but that is
different. Once in a while if the old man wants to
do it, you may allow him.
If you are there with your husband, and the man
loses his sexual power and he wants to play with
your sex organ, will you allow that?
That is possible because the woman remembers
his strength when he was young. You will know
how to stay with him and play with him.
Which of the two, a man or a woman, keeps the
desire for sex longer and which of the two enjoys
I can’t tell what happens to others. What I know
is that a man and woman can marry during their
youth and stay together until they become old and
are separated by death.
I believe it is the men. Because some men who are
rich during their old age, may go and marry a
young girl. If they did not have the strength or
desire, they wouldn’t have done so. It never
happens that an old lady marries a young man.
The old lady who does so is the one who was once
a harlot. Men at the age of sixty or even older
sometimes marry girls who are eighteen years.
This is a difficult question but you must try to
answer. Do women have more pleasure during sex
or is it the men who enjoy most?
It depends on their love for one anothery.
I believe that the woman enjoys most. I remember
when I was young how I had the feelings. So if
you divide the enjoyment proportionately it will
be one for the man and two for the woman.
Mother, what is your opinion about it?
A. Well, that is something natural. When you see the
man then you have the desire for it. The two of
you become happy so if he sleeps with you (" ofa
wo) about once or twice, then you all sleep. That is
what I know.
S. Suppose you grow old and have a husband but
you feel you are not strong enough to have sex
with him. If the man wants to go and take another
woman as his lover (mpena), will you agree?
When the man wants to take another woman, I
can’t tell him to go and find a woman. It depends
upon his own character.
If he secretly takes a woman and it becomes
known to you, will you stay unconcerned or will
you quarrel with the woman.
I will not say anything. If a man has the feeling
and goes out, I will not say anything. If you don’t
mind him it is there that he will pamper you and
provide you with your needs.
A lot of people believe that it is because of money
that young girls or young women marry old men.
What is your idea about that?
Yes, that is true. When the young girls see that
somebody is rich, they may go to him with the
intention to collect money.
Nana Amponsaa is honest: she is no longer interested
in sex, but she is also pragmatic and tolerant. She would
willingly undergo sex out of love for her husband, if she
had one. She would even allow him to have sex with
another woman, if he wanted. But sex, she emphasises, is
not something we really need like we do food. A few
times Monica spontaneously joined in, projecting her
own feelings: women lose their interest in sex when they
The culture of sex
Sex is not a common topic for discussion. What you
feel and how you do it, is a secret you share with a close
friend, not just with anyone. Nana Kwaku Nyame (N)
was asked if people could speak freely about sex. The
following conversation ensued:
N. Yes. When old people who are friends meet, they
talk about it. When friends meet, they are able to
talk about what may be termed as ‘nonsense’ on
sex (S" e ay" onkofo" o hyia a, y" etumi di ns" em hunu ho
nk" omm" o).
Can an old person talk about sex to his own
No. No one can. Impossible.
What about if the child asks him about it?
Even the child can’t ask such a thing.
Nana Amponsaa also denied that sex was a topic for
discussion. Monica asked her if in the olden days
S. van der Geest / Social Science & Medicine 53 (2001) 1383–13961389
parents or elders instructed the young about sex before
A. No. Once the man has called you to the room, the
two of you know that it is a custom that you meet
in sleep (wo ne no hyia nna). The proverb goes:
Obi nkyer" e akwadaa Nyame (‘‘Nobody teaches a
child who God is.’’Fi.e., there are certain things
which do not need to be taught).
Monica agreed with Yaa Amponsaa saying that no
mother tells her daughter that when she meets a man to
have sex, she should act this way or that way. What
mothers instruct their children on are the ways to keep
the sex organs and other parts of the body clean:
M. Is there a rule that after a man and woman have
had sex, the woman should clean the man or the
man should clean the woman?
We were not taught, but it is common sense that
when you go to a man you should take with you a
handkerchief. The man too may have hisy.
Which means one couple may do it this way and
another couple may do it that way. No one knows
what the other one does.
Yes, because that is not taught.
Moreover, there is the idea that one should not be too
interested in sex. Foreplay, ‘‘romantic play’’ as some call
it, is probably not practised very much. It is ‘bad’
because it shows that one ‘‘likes the thing too much.’’ A
man or woman who is fond of it will be called
" odwamanfo" o (a ‘loose’ person). A woman should not
make sounds during sex nor indulge in unconventional
sexual acts. The secrecy surrounding sex is part of a
more general culture of modesty.
One person suggested that the paucity of sexual
techniques and the absence of romantic foreplay could
lead to an early loss of interest in sex among women: ‘‘If
the man inserts his penis before the woman is sexually
aroused, the intercourse may be unpleasant and even
painful to her. She may not reach her orgasm before the
man has ‘finished’ his and gradually becomes frustrated
and starts to dislike sex.’’8Sex becomes a tiresome thing,
equated to ‘‘work’’ she has to do in the night while she
had hoped that her day’s work was finished. Moreover,
some women complain of pain in the vagina, a sickness
they refer to as pintay" e.
Sexual problems can be the reason for divorce, but
this is rarely disclosed. Here again, the taboo on sex
prevents people from mentioning their problems to
others. The woman may just say that the love has ended
(" od" o asa). Speaking about it openly could lead to others
talking about it, a shame which is very much feared.
Opoku, the " okyeame, however, stressed that if a man
looked after his wife well, she would love him and take
care that no one would ever hear about his impotence.
Impotence is something a man will try to hide at all
costs. When this secret gets into the open, he will be
publicly mocked and called names such as Aban agye ne
tuo (The government has collected his gun) or
Benada (He sleeps on Tuesday).9
impotence is revealed may be so ashamed that he
commits suicide. The ‘‘impotence’’ of a woman is not
ridiculed and talked about as that of a man. People may
just say: she fears man (" osuro " obarima).
The question as to who enjoyed sex most and who
kept their interest longest, men or women, always
engendered a lively discussion. Taking into account that
the question is impossible to answer, it is not surprising
that the opinions differed. However, it is striking that
men often thought that women enjoy sex more than men
and that women often held the opposite view.
Love and sex are very much a matter of money and
gifts. If a man does not give his wife money and does not
provide her with a cloth every year, with sandals, head-
gear (duku), she will not stay with him. The same applies
to lovers. Gifts (money is also considered a gift) prove
and measure a man’s love. ‘‘No self-respecting woman
would remainin a ‘friendship’
recompense’’, Pellow (1977, p. 208) writes. Nana Dedaa
described the good quality of her first marriage thus:
‘‘He loved me as I loved him. He used to give me a cloth
every six months at Christmas and in the middle of the
Two basic views of old age, a positive and a negative
one, prevailed during discussions. They are contrasting
but do not necessarily exclude one another. In both
views the idea prevails that sex and old age do not go
well together, though for very different reasons.
A man whose
The " opanyin: beautiful old age
The " opanyin (elder) represents the beautiful image of
old age. He (or she) receives what is most highly
regarded in Akan culture: respect.
honorific term. It is the title which elderly people like
"Opanyin is an
8Pellow (1977, p. 162), who studied the lives of women in
Adabraka, a suburb of Accra with a high concentration of
Kwahu, suggests that many women derive little pleasure from
sex in their marriage. She then refers to an article by a
Ghanaian woman journalist, a ‘been-to’ [i.e. someone who has
lived in Europe or North America]: ‘‘In a 1970 article entitled
‘Woman, do you lie about ‘it’?,’ Ms Addo alludes to the past
when the woman’s role on a marital bed was a simple one. She
was expected to be submissive and unresponsive. Her place was
not to receive pleasure but to provide it (The Daily Graphic, 19
October). Now, she writes, there is a more liberal attitude
towards the woman’s role in general and sex in particular, yet
many women still find the sex act a disappointment.’’
9I have in vain tried to trace the origins of these mockeries.
S. van der Geest / Social Science & Medicine 53 (2001) 1383–1396 1390
most for themselves. An " opanyin can be a man or a
woman, though most will think of a man when the word
is used. Usually, an " opanyin is someone of advanced age:
‘‘He has lived in the house much longer than you. You
came to meet him. ‘"Opanyin’ is a big word. He is a
person who knows what is going on. He must receive
respect and obedience,’’ according to one of the elders.
The " opanyin gains this respect by possessing three
virtues: wisdom, self-restraint, and dedication to his10
The fact that one has lived for a long time means that
one has seen many things and has begun to understand
how they are connected. Life experience, in other words,
teaches how events follow one anoth0er. On the basis of
that understanding, the " opanyin is able to predict the
future and advise people on how to act in order to
prevent trouble. The second virtue refers to the good
manners of the " opanyin and his overall self-restraint. The
" opanyin controls his emotions, does not get angry, and
does not shout at people. The ability to keep one’s self in
check is revealed foremost in the way he deals with
information that has been given to him and in his ascetic
attitude. The " opanyin’s careful dealing with rumours is
expressed in many proverbs. Nothing shows so well that
one is still a child as when one cannot hold one’s tongue.
The " opanyin is indeed the opposite of a child. The
" opanyin’s self-restraint reveals itself also in the attitude
toward food and other material pleasures. Greediness
does not befit him. One proverb says: "Opanyin mene
nsono (‘‘the elder eats his own intestines’’), i.e., that he
can forego food. If there is not enough food in the
house, the " opanyin will give his part to the children. He
has eaten enough in his life. The third virtue is love for
the family. The " opanyin’s gentleness and wisdom are
directed first of all to the abusua. It is the abusua that
benefits from the " opanyin’s life experience and civilised
manners. He may have travelled a lot, but in his old age,
when he reaches the stage of " opanyin, he will come home
and spend his days with the members of the family. He
will give them good advice on all kinds of problems and
promote peace and unity among them. He will mediate
in conflicts. ‘‘There is nothing left for him to do than
guarding the people in the house’’, according to one
elder. That is why they say"Opanyin ntu kwan (‘‘the elder
does not travel’’).
All three virtues, and the second in particular, point
toward a declining interest in sex at old age. The " opanyin
sees himself primarily as someone who has left behind
the tempestuousness of his youthful days. Sex too is
regarded as something from the past. It is a passion
that may cause people to act without thinking. Sex
often implies loss of self-control, it is selfish and may
harm the interests of the abusua or the children. As one
of the Abetifi elders said, ‘‘Whatever I am doing, I
reserve it for my children. So, I am not going to take a
The idea that the " opanyin has left behind his youthful
turbulence was vividly expressed by Nana Frempong (F)
when I (S) asked him how he felt, being an old man. He
F. When you grow old, you loose interest in a lot of
things which are of interest to the young.
At this age, do the activities of the young remind
you of your own youth?
Yes, but they also set my mind on the saying
of Saint Paul in the Bible, which goes: ‘‘When
I was a child, I spoke like a child and did things
like a child.’’ Because of this age you realise
that most of the activities of the young are useless
and at times I laugh when I see them indulging in
Wouldn’t you like it, if you were a young man
No, because when you are young, you make a lot
of mistakes. Now that I have grown old, I have
realised it, and I don’t want to become young
A few minutes later he added:
F. When you are an " opanyin, money does not have
much value to you. You always remember that
money is the root of all evil (b" one nyinaa ti ne
S.Do you value the presence of your children and
grandchildren around you more than money in
F.Yes, when they are around and they provide me
with my food, it is enough for me, because now I
have no plans to put up a building or buy a car, so
I don’t need money for anything.
S. Nana, you mentioned women just now and I
know your wife died a long time ago. Don’t you
feel the desire to be with her?
F. Yes, because there are some things I need which
she could do for me, for example providing me
with hot water in the morning to have my bath. In
fact providing me with such services is the main
reason why I wish she were with me. Apart from
that I don’t need her for any other purpose.
S.Nana, I know very well that your wife also would
have been an old lady if she were still alive, but
would you still sleep with her?
F.No, because at this age it will not do me any good
to sleep with a woman. It will reduce my strength
and my life span.
Nana Frempong pointed out an important nuance. If
it does not befit the " opanyin to be interested in sex, it
10For the sake of style, the masculine pronoun will be used to
refer to the " opanyin throughout.
S. van der Geest / Social Science & Medicine 53 (2001) 1383–13961391
does not mean he should not be married. On the
contrary, a true " opanyin should have a wife to serve him
(not to have sex with). As one elder remarked: ‘‘People
don’t respect an " opanyin who does not have a wife. Even
if he were impotent, he could still have a wife.’’ At that
age, marriage is first of all an institution that brings
social esteem. Sex would rather harm the " opanyin. It
makes him (her) sick and weak and accelerates old age.
It is better to abstain from it. ‘‘If you desist from too
much sexual activity, you will stay longer,’’ according to
another elder. Having no interest in sex is a sign of
wisdom, discipline, moderation, and gentleness. It
enhances the status of the " opanyin and the beauty of
‘‘No strength’’: miserable old age
Losing interest in sex was seen a sign of maturity and
wisdom, but others saw it as one of the unfortunate
consequences of old age. I asked two elderly men, Agya
Kwaku Martin (M) and Mr. Asare (A), who were
friends, whether it was true that sexual desire diminishes
when people grow older.
M. Yes it is true, but not for everyone. Some will be
old yet their organs will be strong and effective,
while there are also young men whose organs are
weak and ineffective. We are all human. Our
organs become weak and unable to operate. When
you are young, you can go two or three times per
night but as it is now, if God doesn’t help, you
cannot go even one round.
Because of what?
Because of the pains and lack of interest too. We
have done this thing all our life. We become fed
Can the old man who finds it difficult to have sex
with an old woman have sex with a young one?
Yes, a beautiful person can generate the machine
to erect and do a small job.
The topic of ageing was intensely discussed in the
group of Christian mothers mentioned earlier. Monica
first asked the women if they would have liked to remain
young. During the discussion that followed, one woman
At first, when we were young, we were able to do a
lot of things that we can’t do now. At first I could
chase my child, catch him and punish him but now I
can’t do it anymore. You may start having grey hair
and when you dress it does not fit you as when you
were young. The strength also decreases. When you
see these signs, you know you are ageing and there is
nothing you can do about it.
Monica then asked what was more painful in growing
old, the loss of strength or the loss of beauty. They all
agreed that strength was more important to them. When
she asked them what they needed beauty for, three of
I am now growing old, my face has changed, what do
I need beauty for, whom am I going to show beauty
to? I don’t need it. I need only strength.
When you are ageing the time of beauty is gone, you
don’t need it. Your husband and you got married
when you were both young. When you are ageing he
is too, so both of you don’t need beauty for anything.
Both of you saw the beauty you had when you were
young. So we need only strength.
If you have strength, you have beauty because you
can work and get money to buy clothes, which will
make you beautiful. So we pray for strength. When
there is strength there is beauty all the time.
At that moment the discussion turned to sex. Monica
asked: ‘‘Is it true that when men and women grow old,
they lose interest in sex?’’
W1. When you are ageing and you see a man, you
don’t regard him as a person you can sleep with.
The strength I need is not for marriage. You are
not happy about sex and you don’t have any
feelings for it. That is what I think about it.
As for me when I see a man, it does not come to
my mind that you can do something with him. I
am not interested in it. I just don’t get any feeling
when I see a man. Even now I don’t notice that a
man is handsome (S" e mehu obarima a ne ho y" e f" e
Must we conclude that ageing people and the old are
anti-sex? What we want to know is if they still have a
desire for men or not. For example some of you are
widows. Do you think that you would be sleeping
with your husband in case he were still alive?
As for me, sex does not interest me. I just don’t
have a feeling for it.
As for men they never grow old but women grow
old. No matter how old a man may be, he has the
feeling for sex. In case I were to have a husband, I
could sleep on the same bed for over one month
without inviting him to do anything but a man
can’t do that. So to me when you are old, you
don’t have the feeling for it.
The idea that men have more strength and, therefore,
more interest in sex is generally accepted among women
as well as among men. The following statements were
made during a discussion with some ‘‘station boys’’,
young men who hang around in the lorry park and help
S. van der Geest / Social Science & Medicine 53 (2001) 1383–1396 1392
drivers and passengers with odd jobs. Three of their
remarks are quoted below:
There is a stage when an old man or woman won’t
have the desire for sex. There are cases when old
women do not let their husbands sleep with them. It
usually happens among the women.
It is so among the women. The women usually don’t
have the strength for it when they become old, so
they will refuse, especially those who brought forth
many children. But as for a man, the desire is always
there unless he becomes impotent.
To me, it is only impotence that can make the desire
for sex in a man vanish, nothing else. Because no
matter how old you are, when your man gets it up
(wo barima s" ore a), you will by all means have the
desire for it.
There is a difference between the ‘‘strength’’ a woman
needs and the ‘‘strength’’ men refer to when discussing
sex. The women complain about lack of strength in a
general sense. They are tired at the end of the day and
want to sleep. As for sex itself, the Abetifi elders insisted,
women don’t need any strength. They don’t have to
‘‘perform’’. They can lie down, ‘‘as a path; a bicycle can
ride over it’’. They can continue doing so in their old
age. Nana Posuo, a blind man who used to be a mason,
held the same opinion:
The desire leaves a man earlier and stays longer in a
woman. Even in their old age women have the desire
for it and demand it. A man may become weak. At
times a man’s penis can become weak and without
medicines to revive it, it becomes useless.
The terms ‘‘desire’’, ‘‘interest’’, and ‘‘strength’’ tend to
merge."Okyeame Opoku (O), in a conversation with my
co-researcher Patrick Atuobi (P), described the fusing of
interest and strength. In his view, ‘no strength’ had
become a euphemism for ‘no desire’.
O. No matter how old a woman may be, she can sleep
with a man. As for their thing, it does not spoil, it
only grows old [laughter]. But with a man it can
spoil ("Obaa de" e n’ayi no ns" ee da. Dada na " ey" o na
nso " ens" ee da. Nanso " obarima de" e " ebetumi as" ee.).
But why do the women complain that they don’t
That is what I always attribute to individual
differences. Some people don’t like doing it from
their youth, so when they grow older, they lose
every interest in it. But some like it and will do it
to the end. I know a woman who was about one
hundred years old and was still interested in sex.
So when a woman says she has no strength it can
mean she does not have the desire for it but not
that she can’t do it?
Yes. It is exactly so.
What is strange to me is that the women always
say: ‘‘I have no strength.’’ (Minni aho" oden). Why
don’t they say: ‘‘I don’t enjoy it.’’ (M’ani nye ho.)?
They feel shy to speak the truth.
Some women give the excuse that they do a lot of
work. They usually say, I went too far, I weeded
and I prepared the food so I am tired, when I sleep
I don’t want a man to disturb me. What do you
think about that?
All those excuses mean that she has no interest in
it. A woman with interest in it, will agree to do it
as soon as she has taken her bath after returning
from the farm.
In contrast to women, men need that special type of
strength to get ‘‘the machine erect and do a small job’’,
as"Opanyin Asare called it. Men would like to do it, but
may not have that particular type of strength. When
women speak about lack of strength, they complain
about life in general; about their poverty, about having
too many children, about their hard work, and about the
way their husbands treat them:11Below are three
statements of women to illustrate this:
W1. What I have realised in married life is that if your
husband does not shift all the burden on you but
helps in caring for the family, this helps you, the
woman to have a healthy or peaceful mind. This
will go a long way to make you look beautiful,
healthy and young.
What my sister said is true. Before it can be said of
a person that she is beautiful, she is strong or
healthy, she must be a bit well off. If you have
these qualities but you have no money to maintain
them, you will soon be like an old lady. But it is
different if your husband does his work, if he helps
you look after the children and yourself so that
the children grow up and are well-off. They will be
remitting you money and sending you delicious
food, clothes, etc. Then you may never grow old
and even if you become old, you can still maintain
your beauty, and stay young and healthy because
of your high standard of living.
If you are married and your husband is someone
who likes to have sex with you every day, it may
weaken your body and make you lose your beauty.
Because having sex is hard work. If a day’s work
on the farm and at home is followed by sex every
night, it will not be good for the body. I advise my
fellow women to have sex fortnightly. This helps
11Studies on the heavy workload of women in Ghana, and
among the Akan in particular, never discuss the ‘‘tiresome work
of sex’’ (Klingshirn, 1971; Bukh, 1979; Fogelberg, 1982;
Oppong & Abu, 1987; Dei, 1994; Avotri & Walters, 1999).
S. van der Geest / Social Science & Medicine 53 (2001) 1383–1396 1393
them to maintain their beauty as well as to make
them strong and healthy.
The women almost seemed to be competing in
denying their interest in sex, even those who were
middle-aged. No doubt the situationFwe were sitting in
the back of a churchFand the strong views of some of
their leaders set the tone for this discussion and for the
women’s laments about their loss of strength and the
uselessness of beauty. However, even if we accept their
statements some reserve and take into account the
possibly more positive views of those who kept silent,
they remain remarkable. Obviously, these women
complained about the hard work they had to do and
the lack of solidarity they felt with men, a partner or
otherwise. Under those conditions, sex had become
something of a low priority. That view was succinctly
expressed by one of them who remarked that what they
really needed was proper food to eat. No doctor had
ever told her that she should have sex. On the other
hand, many concluded that sex made you more tired and
grow old quickly. They not only lacked the strength for
sex, they also avoided sex in order to retain the little
strength they still possessed.
The disapproval or disbelief on the part of younger
people that older people do not engage in sexual activity
appears to be a near-universal phenomenon. In the
Freudian paradigm mentioned earlier, there seems to be
some primordial anxiety among children to look upon
their parents as sexual beings. I do not know of any
research that has explored the inter-cultural variations
in the tolerance of children towards their parents’ sexual
activity.12Earlier on I called the Kwahu sexual culture
modest, even ‘‘prudish’’Fpartners should not make any
sound during sex, ‘‘romantic play’’ seems limited. One
wonders if that muted style of sexual activity and the
accompanying secrecy have anything to do with parents’
attempts to hide their sexual activity from children who
may be sleeping in the same room. Even younger
couples, without children, may be handicapped in their
love-making because they are worrying about how to
keep their love-making hidden from their parents and
older relatives. They too cannot afford to make much
‘‘noise.’’ Here the elderly have an advantage, according
The elders say, love has reached its sweetest point.
When there were children they used to disturb you a
lot. After you have stopped having children, there is
the time for joy. Whenever you meet you can enjoy
freely [laughter] (Bere biara mohyia a, s" e moagye mo
Opoku emphasised the respectfulness of older peo-
ple’s behaviour. As we have seen, an " opanyin should be
married, otherwise he is not respected, but he should not
lower himself to ‘‘chasing women’’. Opoku further
strongly denounced the attempts of children to prevent
their father from marrying again:
Children preventing their father whose wife is dead
from marrying again. It is a mistake. You will try to
give him food and provide many services but can you
sleep with him? When you do that to a father it is
great mistake. It means you are disturbing him. I
have seen exactly such a thing and because of that the
children did not like their father’s wife. Whenever
such a thing happens the man should be bold enough
to talk to the children as a man. You should be bold
and tell them not to deprive you from eating ("Es" e s" e
wo kyer" e w" on s" e w" onsi wo adidie" e ho kwan). If you are
not able to stand up in front of them you will be
The women’s statements quoted earlier suggest that
most believe that they had better stop engaging in sexual
activity now that their energy is diminishing. Their views
were not directed, however, at elderly people in general
but were self-reflections of middle-aged women. They
did not so much express societal norms but emphasised
the uselessness and energy-absorbing nature of sex for
themselves. Talking about men too, the discussion did
not include moral pronouncements. The women seemed
to accept the ongoing interest in sex among elderly men,
after their potency had gone, as a fact of nature. ‘‘That’s
how they are.’’
In the discussion with ‘‘station boys’’, I asked what
they thought of older people having sex. One of them
At times when a man and a woman grow to a certain
age and have many children, they think that they
have achieved what they want so their interest in sex
goes away because they see no reason why they
should do it.
12Some indirect conclusions on the sensitivity of sex between
different generations in Africa may be drawn from ethnogra-
phies which describe the inappropriateness of a mother getting
pregnant after her own daughter has brought forth. The
competition between fathers and sons over marriage payment
points in the same direction (e.g., Fernandez, 1982, p. 196;
Parkin, 1972). This intergenerational conflict seems to imply
that the sons expect their fathers to stop being interested in sex
and marrying and to make room for them. Fortes (1949) who
devoted a whole chapter on ‘‘Tensions in the parent-child
relationship’’ among the Tallensi in Northern Ghana, speaks of
a ‘‘latent antagonism behind their [father and son] mutual
identity and comradeship.’’ He continues: ‘‘A psychoanalyst
might say that the Oedipus complex is built into their social
S. van der Geest / Social Science & Medicine 53 (2001) 1383–1396 1394
I (S) asked them if it was good for old women and old
men to have sex. One answered:
A. It is good especially for the men because, they
have to expel something out of their bodies (" es" e s" e
woyi biribi fi w" on mu).
S. Yesterday, I had discussion with some women and
they said it is not good, and now you men here are
telling me it is good. How do you explain that?
The explanation is that old women don’t have the
strength to do it. But as for a man, if you are not
impotent, you can always do it. Because of their
strength, it is not good for women but for me it is
In summary, this preliminary exploration suggests
that public opinion turns against ‘‘unorderly’’ sex, i.e.
sex that takes place outside of a marital relationship.
The sexual prowess and secret love affairs of the young
are condonedFeven admiredFbut are disapproved of
in the elderly. Yet there is nothing wrong with orderly
sex between elderly people as long as sexual desires and
practices remain unseen and unheardFas if they do not
Nothing has been written about older people’s
sexuality in Ghana. This article is a first albeit
impressionistic exploration of the topic. The ambiguity,
which has been reported in the Western literature on sex
at old age, is largely born out by my observations and
conversations in Kwahu-Tafo. The elderly peopleF-
women in particularFreported a decline in ‘‘strength’’,
which in most cases appeared to be a euphemism for loss
of sexual desire. Men, however, indicated that they still
had the desire but were not always able to perform the
sexual act. Based on both male and female conversa-
tions, it seems that sex was almost exclusively conceived
in terms of genital penetration. Erotic alternatives,
‘‘romantic play’’ as some called them, seemed little
By the same token, the conversations revealed that
some elderly people continued to be interested in sex
‘‘till they died’’. The younger generation generally
accepts that older married people continue to be sexually
active provided they do not express this publicly. A
public demonstration of love and sexual attraction, one
that would be considered acceptable in Western
societies, is considered bad taste in Kwahu. As one
older woman said: ‘‘You may have sex in the room and
during the course of it you may kiss one another, but not
in public. It is shameful. Your custom [referring to me] is
not good. Ours is very good.’’ If public signs of sexual
attraction are so strictly censored for everybody
they certainly are taboo for the elderly. An elder, an
" opanyin, shows restraint in all his emotions, he is
civilised and ‘‘cool’’. The ‘‘heat’’ of sexual excitement
and the wild ‘‘foolishness’’, which characterise the
young, do not befit the elder. The decline in sexual
interest is as much a social and cultural as a biological
The term ‘‘strength’’ (aho" oden) deserves a final
remark. It presented itself as the most frequently
mentioned word when people discussed old age and
sex. Sex is primarily seen as a physical achievement that
requires energy. A strenuous, ‘‘tiresome work’’, harder
than breaking stones, one woman assured us. Only once
was sex described in terms that referred to tenderness. It
is no wonder that sex at old age becomes problematic.
The term ‘‘strength’’ seemed to have different meanings
when used by men or by women. Men were mainly
concerned about their sexual potency. Women, accord-
ing to the men, had nothing to worry about this type of
energy–they simply had to lie down. Women used the
term ‘‘strength’’ in a more general way. Their strength
to work and to earn their living was decreasing and
they needed to rest at night. Sex interfered with that
need and made them even more tired. ‘‘No strength’’
was the most effective way for them to express their
rejection of sex.
livingin the cities),
I dedicate this article to Mr. George Adu Asare, a
gentle " opanyin, who died a few months before this article
The research was carried out with the help of many
people. Most prominent was the assistance given by my
Ghanaian co-researchers Kwame Fosu, Samuel Sarko-
die, Patrick Atuobi, Anthony Obeng Boamah and
Michael Buabeng. Benjamin Buadi and Yaw Darko
Ansah typed most of the research material. I am also
indebted to Monica Amoako, Martin Asamoah, Abena
Ansah, Abusuapanyin Daniel Osei Yeboah, Marek
Dabrowski, Grzegorz Kubowicz, Lisa Hayes, Kofi
Ron Lange, Geertje Amma van der Geest and Kendra
McKnight for various kinds of help. Financial help was
provided by the University of Amsterdam and the Royal
Netherlands Academy of Sciences (KNAW). Last but
not least, I should thank the old people for their
openness with me.
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