Colonial Impacts: Yorùbá Gender and Sexuality

Colonial Impacts: Yorùbá Gender and Sexuality



In 2014, the Nigerian government passed the “Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act,” which not only bans marriage and civil unions between same-sex couples, but also criminalizes public displays of affection and limits the work of gay rights organizations. The 2010s was a pivotal time for LGBTQ+ rights globally. At the same time as this act was being developed in Nigeria, the U.S. supreme court ruled in favor of Obergefell v. Hodges; this case legalized gay marriage in America. Writing in 2016 for the Washington Blade, a news source for LGBTQ+ information, Adebisi Alimi states of the law’s passage, “[Nigeria] became the first country in the modern world to constitutionally criminalize same-sex relationships with 14-years imprisonment.” In a 2021 scholarly article, Samson Adeoluwa Adewumi gives cultural context specific to the Yorùbá people: “Same-sex marriage in the African context is generally conceived as moral decadence that can infect the fabrics of the society with immorality.” Nigeria tops the LGBTQ+ Danger Index and several countries in Africa especially within West Africa are known for being disturbingly homophobic and transphobic, but that was not always the case. 

In West Africa, specifically within the Yorùbá society, the constructs of gender and sexuality as understood in the West did not exist there before European encounters. As Marc Epprecht (2013) puts it in Sexuality and Social Justice in Africa: Rethinking Homophobia and Forging Resistance, “Homosexuality, in crude terms, is an obsession of white folks rather than an indigenous or organically felt agenda.” This is consequential to address because countries that are now perceived as inherently homophobic did not create homosexuality or homophobia as unique distinctions. Gender and sexuality are distinctions that are prevalent in the West, rather than a universal phenomenon. While there has been progress in terms of LGBTQ+ rights in many Western countries, there is still a fixation on these identities and labels, often gendering fetuses in the womb. As Michel Foucault explains in The History of Sexuality, these ideas have roots in a Western tradition of medicalizing sex and seeking to discover objective truths about sexuality. He explains that this scientific approach is not truly secular but comes from Christianity: “Paradoxically, the scientia sexualis that emerged in the nineteenth century kept as its nucleus the singular ritual of obligatory and exhaustive confession, which in the Christian West was the first technique for producing the truth of sex.” Now, through a mix of colonization and economic and cultural hegemony, the Western creations of gender and sexuality have been exported worldwide. These categories, therefore, need to be analyzed more thoroughly to grasp the way contemporary Yorùbá —a culture that once did not conceptualize and categorize themselves according to gender and sexuality labels— now have become profoundly anti-LGBTQ+, in the modern-day states of Nigeria, Benin, and Ghana, where Yorùbáland was located. 

In this paper, I argue that West African cultures perceived today as innately homophobic had expansive definitions and practices in terms of gender and sexuality before British encounters and colonization in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This is not the first or only cross-cultural influence in the history of Yorùbáland or the Yorùbá people; in particular, it is necessary to note from the outset the impact of Islamic colonization and encounters with the Yorùbá people before British colonization, which also likely had an impact on gender and sexuality. However, the influence of Islam in Yorùbáland is a history outside the scope of this paper. It’s also important to note that, due to the erasure colonialism caused, it’s impossible to fully recover or examine Yorùbá culture untouched by the legacy of colonialism. This erasure has impacted my research; the sources are a mix of modern ideas and ideas passed down through generations before colonialism. I begin by providing background information on Yorùbá systems of classification and European knowledge production, then I explain the different components of my research, including, in order, an examination of the absence of a binary gender ideology; the difference in labor roles across gender; the importance of reproduction; the various marriage styles and norms; and the views of sexuality and evidence backing instances of freedom within Yorùbá society. 


Yorùbá civilization is usually defined from the period of 500 BCE to the early 1800s. Many people in Yorùbáland practiced the Yorùbá religion, also known as Lsese. It is considered an animist religion, and Olódùmarè is the Supreme Creator God and omnipotent. While the religious beliefs and practices in Yorùbáland are more complicated and nuanced that I can cover in this paper, the region’s deeply entrenched religious customs is a significant issue to raise, as it ties into the larger conversation of British colonialism, which destroyed and reshaped cultures and traditions.

 The distorted views of religion and culture in colonial and postcolonial contexts can be understood through orientalism. As originally defined by Edward Said in his 1978 text of the same name, orientalism is the depiction of the Eastern world through the Western Gaze. Subsequent scholars, like Molefi Kete Asante, have observed a similar dynamic at play in Africa and formulated the idea of Black orientalism. Black orientalism, as described by Sherman A. Jackson in Islam and the Black American: Looking toward the Third Resurrection (2005), is the view that the Arab/Islamic world utilize aspects of colonialism such as cultural degradation and forced labor against Africans; the Western world would later enact formal colonization of Africa at the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885. For example, during the Arab Slave Trade (also known as the Indian Ocean Slave Trade) Western and Eastern Africans primarily, were sent to the Middle East where they were enslaved often until they converted to Islam and possibly completed other steps that varied. During the 800s to 1870s, the Middle East was able to exert, to an extent, cultural domination of the African people in the places they were getting enslaved peoples from, especially in Eastern African. Orientalism can be applied to many aspects of the way life in the Global South is viewed in the West. However, in this context, it is particularly important to look at the over-sexualization of non-Western bodies and practices. In regard to West Africans, the transatlantic slave trade cultivated an environment that thrived on the over-sexualization and exploitation of Black people for work and reproduction, as enslaved people’s children were also born into slavery.

Within the Western world, which is patriarchal, gender is a key component of how society is socially organized. Before exploring constructions of gender and sexuality in pre- and post-encounter West Africa, it is essential to understand the history of Western knowledge production that was imposed through the process of colonization. The main forms of Western knowledge production that contribute to misrepresentations of African people are biology, philosophy, anthropology, sociology, history, and law. Africans have a long history of being classified as the “other” by Europeans. Africans have continually been viewed as “savages,” “burnt,” “primitive,” “uneducated,” “sinful,” “dirty,” and “uncivilized,” along with many other offensive stereotypes. Racist ideologies have long been perpetuated through scientific justifications like biological determinism, which is the belief that characteristics and actions can be solely explained or determined by biological factors. Biological determinism and many other scientific theories have been negatively used to perpetuate white supremacy. Beyond racial classifications alone, this observation also extends to a European commitment to biological sex as a starting point for understanding gender, a form of biological determinism, while disregarding that this is not the starting point in all societies, including that of the Yorùbá people.

In addition to this deployment of the so-called natural sciences to justify an ideology of colonial superiority, there is also a central part played by the social sciences and humanities, where written history is viewed as far more legitimate than the abundant oral histories lost during the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism. These disciplines constructed early distinctions of whiteness versus blackness. Whiteness was not always a salient identity category and as stated by Tom Meisenhelder in African Bodies: ‘Othering’ the African in Precolonial Europe: “it was only around the 1680s, after contact with peoples of color, that Europeans begin to identify themselves as ‘white.’”1 The idea that whiteness correlates to more intelligence, cleanliness, respect, and superiority intrinsically ties the colonial destruction of indigenous gender orders and relations to white supremacy. In sum, the social sciences are key contributors to what Elena Ruíz has termed “colonial gaslighting,” that is, the imposition of gendered and sexualized categories has violent origins, and then the adoption of strict gender binaries and sexuality rules and standards is condemned in a truly ethnocentric manner today. As seen in the West, it is common to condemn countries in Africa for their homophobia and transphobia, yet the adoption of strict gender and sexualities were forced upon these countries during European colonization. Alongside strict rules like sodomy laws and many of these African laws are remnants of those colonial European laws. 

Potentially more consequential than the creation of the natural and social sciences was when these problematic notions about race and gender were codified and solidified during the era of formal colonization in the nineteenth and twentieth century. In Nigeria –the colonial borders did not keep groups like Yorùbáland intact within one nation-state– this began in the early 20th century, when the British took control of the local government following decades of influence through trade, missionaries, and charter. Formal colonization completely altered the way the colonized societies and groups functioned, as every part of their life was controlled by Europeans and many of their practices and key components to their lifestyle were stripped away from them through initial encounter, formal colonization, and through settler-colonialism as it persists today. 


The West chooses to not productively engage with the history of the Yorùbá people who had immensely different views, priorities, and ways of living before interactions with Europeans, from language to gender and sexuality, to family structure. The remainder of this essay details the little-known history of notions of “gender” and “sexuality” during this society’s long and vibrant history. 

Before initial encounters with Europeans in approximately the seventeenth century, Yorùbá society had distinct notions of gender definitions and relations. The construct of gender, especially the binary construct of male/men and female/women did not exist in Yorùbá societies. As Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí details in The Invention of Women: Making African Sense of Western Gender Discourse which offers a background of pre-colonial Yorùbá practices and modern examinations and implications of the erasure, “the differences between males and female are to be located in social practices, not in biological facts.”2 And while “the prefixes obìn and okùn specify which variety of anatomy [someone has],” the Yorùbá had no word for gender or any references to such a concept before colonialism. These distinct linguistic differences support this notion that gender as an integral social category was exported from the West. While this may be misconstrued as them having references to biology, that is not the case because the forms of biology prominent in the West did not exist for the Yorùbá before European encounter. The context of anatomy was typically used in reference to what role and impact the person had on the reproduction of children more than it made assumptions about genital or chromosomal configurations, as is common in Western society.

The lack of gender extends to naming practices, as most Yorùbá names were genderless or gender neutral. The most valuable component of a person’s personal name or pronouns was their position in society and their age. For example, instead of attributing masculinity or femininity, pronouns could change depending on whether someone was referring to a child or an elder. The impression that one must know, understand, or see someone else’s gender identity was not a primary focus of Yorùbá people. It is very common in today’s world to know someone’s gender identity and sexual orientation and for it to figure prominently in their public identity, but that was not a pressing factor for the Yorùbá people if reproduction and care labor roles were being fulfilled. In order to adequately represent the Yorùbá people, it is vital to abolish this notion of gender that was imposed upon a people who already had their own systems of social organization. 

Next, this leads to the issue of labor. In Yorùbá society, males were typically farmers and females were usually traders, a tradition that persists. This is reasserted by John Caldwell, I. O. Orubulove, and Pat Caldwell in Destabilization of The Yoruba Sexual System, who meticulously discuss sexual difference in the Yorùbá people and how colonialism altered their way of living. The article includes pre-colonial evidence and modern interpretations, as they explain in the abstract, “This investigation employs surveys, anthropological study, and historical reports to describe the traditional sexual system and to show when and why it changed”. 

At the time of their research, in 1989 and 1990, they observed that “most women devote much of their time to trading, which explains their at least partial absence from farming and also incomes that often compare with those of their husbands.”3 It is essential to use Yorùbá words, Obrìnrin and Okùnrin to describe the people in this society, because they are not exactly the same as female/women or male/men, respectively, and without their use it perpetuates erasure of the Yorùbá language as well as their systems of social classification. While it was necessary for Obrìnrin to care for and mother the children, they were not forced to cook or clean every night as is often seen as a key issue in feminist studies of gendered devisions of labor. In his 2004 article, Understanding Sexuality in the Yoruba Culture, Olugboyea Alaba examines sexuality in Yorùbá culture through a modern lenses while including examples and context throughout the Yorùbá peoples history and asserts that “household chores were divided between the man and his women accordingly.”4 Many household tasks were completed by Okùnrin or communally, whereby other families helped supply food to each other or Obrìnrin made one big meal a few times a week and ate it throughout the week. 

In addition to the primacy of reproduction and care labor roles, seniority, rather than gender and sexuality as understood in colonizing countries, was used to classify standing in society. As Oyěwùmí puts it, “Seniority is highly relational and situational in that no one is permanently in a senior or junior position.” Scholar John Thabiti Willis expands on Oyěwùmí ’s points in Bridging the Archival-Ethnographic Divide: Gender, Kinship, and Seniority in the Study of Yoruba Masquerade. Egungun is a masked figure or costume in Yorùbá culture and can be used to represent expressions that were not necessarily categorized by gender as typical in Western masquerade but categorized more so by seniority. Throughout its usage it has been used for various religious practices such as ancestral reverence. However it is important to state that men typically do the masking, but the article highlights women who are now taking on the practice and displaying gender fluidity within Yorùbá society. In practices involving Egungun, Willis states, “ gender, kinship, and seniority form a constellation of relationships that together shape how individuals have historically mobilized Egungun to harness power.” This illuminates the point that seniority is very key in the way the Yorùbá people organized themselves yet not the only factor. 

 As one can discern from these examples, key to deconstructing many of the strict identities put in place is to acknowledge that binary gender identities, sexual orientation, patriarchy, gendered divisions of labor, and male superiority are Western creations not universal. Western societies, not the Yorùbá, treat biological sex as a concrete fact and the basis for categorizing people, as demonstrated by these examples, exhibits the value of reproductive obligations and notions of seniority. 

The Yorùbá people had very disparate norms and notions of marriage. Unlike the Anglo-American heteronormative, monogamous marriage, marriage could be monogamous or polygamous and either relationship style could be advantageous for both Obrìnrin and Okùnrin. As discussed in depth by Caldwell, Orubulove, and Caldwell in a study from the Ondo State Demographic and Health Survey in 1986, “upwards of 50% of the Ekiti Yorùbá population were in polygynous marriages” and “advantages of polygyny to Yoruba wives are, because of their trading activities.”As discussed in depth by Caldwell, Orubulove, and Caldwell, in 1975 Orubulove found that, more than half of the Ekiti wives Yorùbá surveyed were in marriages where there husband had more than one wife. Through these statistics they concluded that that such polygynous relationships supported the trade networks of Yoruba wives. It is evident that the Yorùbá people were looking at marriage as a system of social mobility and economic stability which is why polygyny was allowed and even encouraged if it increased the number of children or financial instability. In Islam and Its Impact on Yorubaland, Ahamad Faoisy Ogunbado asserts that “Yoruba society is polygamous in nature” and “the nature of polygamy amongst the Yorubas usually has no limit.” While monogamy for both marriage and sexual activity is a predominant family formation in Western societies, historically in Yorùbá communities, people had romantic and sexual relations outside of their marriage with their spouse’s knowledge and permission. This arrangement expands on the significant cultural value of having enough hands and people to get the tasks done and sustain the community rather than a focus on monogamy.

Yorùbá marriage traditionally centered around bride-wealth, which is an exchange of goods from the groom’s lineage to the bride’s lineage. Bride-wealth was a very valuable financial help for families; marriage was seen as an investment and an arrangement centered on having children. As Oyewumi explains, “[bridewealth] services were rendered lifelong. The payment of the bride-wealth by the groom’s family conferred sexual access and paternity.” Bride-wealth signaled that the bond happening was approved by both the groom and bride’s families and that they were now free to have children and build a family. This displays the significance of reproduction and the Yorùbá belief that children are the center and primary purpose of marriage. This differs from the stereotypical model of marriage and the nuclear family as seen in the West, especially the model seen in America of living in the suburbs with a “white picket fence,” a stay-at-home wife, a husband who is the breadwinner, and two children, even better if there is one boy and one girl. It can also be added that the way the Yorùbá perform bride-wealth does not fit into the Western model where the wife’s family gives the groom’s family money as dowry or in the American tradition that the bride’s family typically pays for weddings. These conceptions of the nuclear family, monogamy, and dowry being the only legitimate forms of solidifying relationships is why the British ravaged pre-colonial Yorùbá forms of sexual and romantic expression.

In regard to sexuality, Yorùbá society viewed sexual behaviors dissimilarly from the Western perspective. While in the West, there are identity labels for different genders and sexual orientations that come with corresponding prejudice and discrimination, the Yorùbá focused on sexual experiences as behaviors that did not have an impact on identity, per se, nor were same-sex sexual encounters stigmatized. Polyamory was very common and accepted in Yorùbá culture. Among the most common manifestation of these social norms was monogamously married men having sexual relations with people other than their wife during her postpartum sexual abstinence. Postpartum sexual abstinence was practiced by the Yorùbá people, in which new mothers most often did not have sexual intercourse for twenty-two to thirty months after giving birth, specifically during the breastfeeding period that typically lasted approximately this duration. During this time, when men sought sexual relationships with other women, it was accepted by both their wife and the broader community.

This freedom was not exclusive to men, despite the prevalence of a double standard in this regard in many patriarchal societies, in which men are the only ones who have unlimited access to sexual pleasure. Among the Yorùbá women Caldwell, Orubulove, and Caldwell surveyed , “one-third gave as their reason for sexual relations outside marriage fun or enjoyment.”5 This is noteworthy given the common misconception that African societies prioritized sexual intercourse for the sole purpose of reproduction over pleasure. The authors clarify that the cultural traditions started to shift when Europeans arrived as, “The Catholic Church preached against both polygyny and the severe punishments [of the practice]”. Although it makes sense that they would offer refuge to girls and women fleeing possibly dangerous and harmful situations. However, this also further reinforces the indispensable observation that colonial violence that has led to rampant discrimination in Africa against sexual and romantic practices considered out of the norm.

All this historical and cultural context dispels the notion that Africans and African societies are inherently homophobic. However, while Yoruba society had more flexible rules and ideas regarding gender, that does not mean pre-colonial Yorùbá society was a haven for LGBTQ+ people. Rather, it was seen indifferently as a behavior that could occur. George Olusola Ajibade’s 2013 article, Same-Sex Relationships in Yorùbá Culture and Orature, supports the idea that homosexuality was commonplace and accepted in the Yorùbá society. He states, “The story has it that Òfurufú-ko- se- feyinti and Láárúfín were both females who slept together and that Láárúfín subsequently gave birth to Òrùnmìlà.” Òrùnmìlà is a priest and controls Ifá in the Yorùbá religion. This is just one example of many. There are other same-sex love stories sprinkled through the Yorùbá myths, as it was simply seen as a somewhat common behavior and not an identity. Also, as Epprecht points out , “Some of the oldest known depictions of or references to same-sex sexuality in the world come from Africa.” In sum, while in the West this example would be presented as an encounter between “lesbians” with corresponding discrimination, the Yorùbá honored the full spectrum of sexual practices, including homosexual ones.

While the topic of sexuality is difficult to dissect among Yorùbá people because much of their sexual history was oral and so much of it got lost over time, it is clear that Yorùbá society was not homophobic before colonial encounter. Ajibade reminds, “there is a serious conflict between fundamental human rights and homophobia.” The accurate representation of Yorùbá cultural norms around gender and sexuality must be understood when dissecting modern-day Nigeria’s actions. Human rights laws and protections have been left in an abysmal state due to years of colonial violence and terror, rather than, because of Africans being innately homophobic.

Other African Societies

The Yorùbá people are the primary focus of this paper, but there are also other examples of non-Western notions about gender and sexuality across the African continent. For instance, the Ga people who lived in what is now modern-day Ghana, which was also colonized by the British in 1874. As explained by Pernille Ipsen in Daughters of the Trade: Atlantic Slavers and Interracial Marriage on the Gold Coast, the concept of bride-wealth is prevalent throughout West Africa and not unique to the Yorùbá. Ipsen states that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, “children were the primary connection between husband and wife.”6 This book pushes the point further by showing examples of martial practices that were ruined by European influence and colonialism, showing how colonial violence contributed to most contemporary violence that ensues today in West Africa. 

Another intriguing example is presented by Ifi Amadiume in Male Daughters, Female Husbands. Amadiume, focusing on the Nnobi people of modern-day Nigeria, has many compelling findings that, while distinct from the Yorùbá people, still demonstrate non-Western approaches to gender and sexuality. For example, “Daughters could become sons and consequently male. Daughters and women in general could be husbands to wives and consequently males in relation to their wives, etc.”7 While this example illustrates the diversity of West African gender and sexual relations, a common trait between the Yorùbá and the Nnobi people is the mystification of feminine energy, giving women and female reproductivity a sacred and core position within their societies. Both groups also used the practice of bride-wealth, nearly universal throughout West Africa. These studies of the Ga and Nnobi people can further depict African conceptions of gender and sexuality, as they were practiced at the same time as the Western conceptions that are more well-known.


In conclusion, the Yorùbá, as well as other pre-colonial African societies, had diverse and complex notions of gender and sexuality, that in the modern-day are viewed as LGBTQ+. Anti-LGBTQ+ policies, laws, and rhetoric, therefore, are not intrinsically African but rather a remnant of colonialism and Western models of thinking. This discussion is intended to expand and reformulate our lenses for the roots of homophobia and transphobia in Nigeria, that are usually described in the West as inherent to the various peoples of modern-day Nigeria. It cannot be overstated that colonial and imperial power is the driving force in a much of the modern and unnecessary control over people’s gender expression and sexual behavior. This is just the beginning of unpacking layers of history hidden in pervasive colonial violence and it should not end here.

  1. Tom Meisenhelder, “African Bodies: ‘Othering’ the African in Precolonial Europe,” Race, Gender & Class 10, No. 3, Interdisciplinary Topics in Race, Gender, and Class (2003), 111.
  2. Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí, The Invention of Women: Making African Sense of Western Gender Discourse (University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 8.
  3. John Caldwell, I. O. Orubulove, and Pat Caldwell in “Destabilization of The Yoruba Sexual System,” _Population and Development Review_17, No. 2 (Jun., 1991), 231.
  4. Olugboyea Alaba, “Understanding Sexuality in the Yoruba Culture,” Africa Regional Sexuality Resource Centre, 2003.
  5. Caldwell, Orubulove, and Caldwell, “Destabilization of The Yoruba Sexual System,” 232.
  6. Pernille Ipsen, Daughters of the Trade: Atlantic Slavers and Interracial Marriage on the Gold Coast (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), 31.
  7. Ifi Amadiume, Male Daughters, Female Husbands (Zed Books, 1987), 15.
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