When Men Touch Women Without License

Interrogating the Reasons for Women’s Entry into Consensual Unions in Urban Accra, Ghana

Rosemary Obeng-Hinneh


The last few decades have seen a significant increase in the incidences of consensual unions, particularly in the urban spaces of African societies. The trend has heightened scholars’ interest in the circumstances responsible for the practice. Several studies have discussed consensual unions at the macro level and pointed to structural factors like modernization, urbanization, and changes in marriage payments. Drawing on Randall Collins’s (2004) Theory of Situations, this paper employs a micro-level analysis of the causes of consensual unions. Data is from in-depth interviews conducted with persons in consensual unions in Accra, Ghana. The paper focuses on the experiences of women and argues that aside from the more structural issues, the factors that influence entry into what I describe as consensual unions can be understood from the immediate circumstances that confront an individual at a specific point in time. For the purposes of this paper I define a consensual union as one in which a man and woman, living together or not, conduct themselves as a married couple when they have either not begun or completed the customary marriage rites and ceremonies required to be recognized as a married couple.



In the refrain of his song titled “You Can’t Touch Me,” the late Ghanaian highlife musician Daasebre Gyamenah (2001) sang, “Kɔ fie na kɔ yԑ me ho adeԑ darling, ԑnte saa dea, you can’t touch me.” This translates into English as “Go home and perform the customary marriage rites, darling; otherwise, you can’t touch me.” In this song, the singer seeks to espouse a Ghanaian traditional value and ideal where a man who wishes to take a woman for his wife is required by tradition to go to the home of the woman and completely perform the customary marriage rites as required by her family. Therefore, he uses the phrase “you can’t touch me” figuratively to represent a woman telling a man that he cannot have sex with her or do with her what a man does with his wife.

Obrafour (2015), another Ghanaian hiplife artist, conveys a similar message in his song “Pimpinaa,” where he projects marriage as more ideal than a consensual union. Singing of his lover Abena, Obrafour describes her as a “brand-new car with a trial number,” which he must license before driving. While the car refers to this unmarried woman, most likely a virgin, “licensing it” also means fulfilling the appropriate marriage processes and requirements. According to Obrafour, any relationship devoid of prescribed customary marriage rites does not bring “glory” to the partners involved. These excerpts from the two songs carry a clear message, which is that marriage, rather than a consensual union, is the socially preferred basis for family formation in Ghana. In reality, however, this ideal is not always upheld.

Over the last few decades, specifically since the 1970s, nuptiality trends in Africa have been characterized by marked changes. Factors of social change, such as urbanization, modernization, individualization, Christianity, and Islam, have over these years resulted in tremendous alterations to the structure and function of marriage and consequently the family. Some aspects that have been particularly transformed are mate selection processes as well as marriage payments and ceremonies (Ardayfio-Schandorf, 2007; Boateng, 1995; Meekers, 1992; Nukunya, 2003; Parkin & Nyamwaya, 1987). Other aspects of change are the increase in age at first marriage, for women especially, and increasing numbers of never-married adults (Calvès, 2016; Mokomane, 2005). As is the case in most other parts of the world, African societies have socially and culturally sanctioned rules and procedures for marriage and family formation. These rules prescribe or suggest who can get married and to whom. The recent nuptiality trends, however, are pointing to the violation of these culturally approved procedures in that marriage processes are either not completed or started at all and yet lovers go ahead and conduct themselves as if married. The practice is notably commonplace in urban spaces in Africa where these consensual unions are emerging as an alternative to marriage (Calvès, 2016; LeGrand & Younoussi, 2009; Oheneba-Sakyi & Takyi, 2007; Russell, 2003).

Modernization, with its associated urbanization, is essentially the most cited contributing factor to the incidence of consensual unions in African societies. Proponents of this perspective argue that traditional norms and practices, including those governing marriage processes, have become increasingly weakened (Anderson, 2007; Bishai & Grossbard, 2007; Smith, 2010; Takyi, 2001). Though modernization and urbanization have increased autonomy in mate selection, through exposure to particularly Western cultures, many young people feel the need for long years of courtship before marriage (Nukunya, 2016). Additionally, monetization or commercialization of marriage payments, attributed to general economic changes, has made it more and more difficult for young men to afford marriage (Hertrich, 2013; Horne, Dodoo, & Dodoo, 2013; Nagashima, 1987; Onyango, 2016; Rudwick & Posel, 2014). In his study of the law and constitution of the Ashanti of Ghana, for instance, Rattray (1929) observed at the time that the most significant item of the marriage payments among the Asante was the aseda, literally translated as “thanking drink.” The purpose of this “thanking drink,” which could even be a pot of palm wine, was basically to be distributed among the people who came to witness the marriage ceremony. Over the years, however, new developments have emerged. Many African societies, Ghana included, are witnessing more and more sophisticated and expensive items being listed as items for marriage payments.

Although scholars have made a case for modernization as a major contributing factor to consensual unions, several historical and anthropological works across Africa have also shown that so-called traditional marriages were characterized by significant levels of fluidity and complexity. In the case of Ghana, and among the Asante in particular, what constituted a complete marriage was subject to interpretation, thereby making the marriage contract one that was open to constant renegotiation. Consequently, rather than a strict definition of marriage, there existed a range of marital arrangements (Allman & Tashjian, 2000; Fortes, 1950; Grier, 1992; Kyei, 1992; Rattray, 1929). According to Allman and Tashjian (2000), some men in colonial Asante avoided participating in complete marriage rites with their partners as a way of avoiding divorce, which was occurring at a very high rate in that era. Indeed, Kyei (1992) explained that an Asante wife could decide to leave her marriage without warning simply because she was tired of the marriage. This possibility, coupled with the fact that bridewealth could be as expensive as the cost of two bottles of gin, was a reason for “incomplete” marriages.

In another breath, there were also instances where fathers did not require their sons-in-law to pay marriage items in full but still considered their daughters as wives. This explains the work of Vellenga (1983), who tried to answer the question “Who is a wife?” in colonial Ghana. Her conclusion was that a woman was a wife insofar as her family consented to her taking up that role in her “husband’s” house, whether marriage payments had been made in full or not. These works reveal very clearly that modernization does not adequately explain why consensual unions would occur, since the practice had existed even in colonial times. This paper argues that beyond the macro-level factors, there are also situational issues that account for people’s decisions to opt for consensual unions. A total of 31 persons in consensual unions in urban Accra were interviewed for this study. This sample comprised 17 females and 14 males. With educational levels ranging from primary to tertiary levels, the study participants were engaged in employment activities in both the formal and the informal sectors.

Theoretical Framework

This paper draws on Randall Collins’s (2004) micro-sociological Theory of Situations, which he also calls the Interaction Ritual Chains. What he attempts to do with this theory is to go beyond the structure-agency and the macro-micro dichotomies in sociological studies by connecting the two opposites. Micro-sociological analysis is not unique to Randall Collins. Both Emile Durkheim (1972) and Erving Goffman (2008) also emphasized the understanding of social phenomenon at the micro rather than the structural level in their works. Durkheim and Goffman pointed to the individual as the starting point of analysis. The point of divergence between these two and Collins, therefore, lies in the fact that Collins’s Theory of Situations (Interaction Ritual Chains) is a micro-sociological theory that emphasizes social situations rather than the individual as the starting point for understanding patterns of human behavior. He illustrates his position when he argues that instead of saying, “Every dog will have its day, it should rather be said that every day will have its dog” (Collins, 2004, p. 5). This, according to the Theory of Situations, explains the fact that the kind of social situation in which a person finds herself or himself will determine the person’s social behavior. As a result, although an individual may appear to be acting on rational choice, Collins argues that the focus should not be the person per se but the situation in which the person finds himself or herself that influences the person’s behavior. The relevance of the Theory of Situations to this paper lies, therefore, in the fact that the occurrence of consensual unions can be understood from the actor’s specific and immediate circumstances. Again, the Interactive Ritual Chains is a theory that addresses the subject of human emotions. According to Collins, situations also influence what he describes as emotional energies. Emotional energies, which can range from bland normalcy to high enthusiasm, influence the ways in which people respond to a particular interactive situation.

Other works aimed at explaining issues of love, marriage, and sex in contemporary Africa have often fallen on the modernization and globalization theory. The focus has thus been on the structural issues of political, economic, and cultural changes, which are believed to be the causes of the transformations in the expression of love and intimacies in African societies (Cole & Thomas, 2004). Collins, on the other hand, moves away from the more structural factors and emphasizes “situated-ness.” His approach is thus very relevant in an analysis of individual situational factors that influence entry into an emotive phenomenon such as a consensual union.


Data for this study was analyzed manually, and the analysis process revealed key themes that shape the lines of discussion in this paper. All study participants are represented by pseudonyms to conceal their real identities.

The Quest to Survive

When I first came to Accra, things were very difficult for me. I was selling pure water with some other girls at Dome and we were sleeping in a kiosk there. … So when I met this man and he said he was interested in me, I thought it was a good idea and I agreed to his proposal because he was working and had even rented a place where he lived. (Maabena, 33-year-old petty trader)

Maabena’s account is very representative of the stories shared by six other female participants. The quest for livelihood improvement was a key reason that women would consent to starting a premarital relationship. These women sought to take advantage of the union to improve their standards of living. No male participant gave this reason. However, it was not the mere fact of their being women that put them in such a position but a multiplicity of other factors that worked together with their gender. Women whose narratives were similar to Maabena’s had some common features. They were mostly migrants, one of whom (Maabena) was a first-generation migrant, had low levels of education, and were not gainfully employed. The highest level of education attained by a member of this cohort was junior high school (JHS), and at the time of entering their relationships they were engaged in economic activities such as stone cracking, street hawking, and doing people’s laundry. In their attempt to find better economic opportunities, often these women had migrated from their various hometowns and villages in other parts of Ghana to Accra. Migration to Accra for many of them was necessitated by the search for economic prospects, especially where there seemed to be no assistance from their families or other external sources.

Although rural-urban migration does not always deliver economic opportunities, it is sought after by a lot of young people in many African countries, including Ghana (Awumbila & Ardayfio-Schandorf, 2008), as a remedy for poverty. In Ghana, the differences between rural and urban centers in terms of amenities and even job opportunities are obvious and make places like Accra quite attractive to young people in search of jobs. In their work exploring the linkages among gender, poverty, and migration, Awumbila and Ardayfio-Schandorf (2008) point out that the traditional nature of migration in Ghana, which was among other things male-dominated, is becoming increasingly feminized. This trend, they argue, has come about as a result of “changing economic conditions, population expansion, urbanisation and improved mobility” (p. 174). Adepoju (2004) posits that women may leave their rural homes for urban spaces as independent persons to pursue their own economic agendas and not to join husbands or family members, as was the case in the preceding decades.

Having moved to Accra, Maabena narrated how her current situation in life turned out to be. She described it as “very difficult.” This “difficulty” she expressed was in terms of finding a job that would earn enough for her upkeep. Being a migrant who had no family members with whom she could lodge, accommodation was also a challenge. While high levels of education may not always guarantee that one will be gainfully employed, it is all the more difficult for the person who has a low level of education and little or no employable skills to be employed, particularly in the formal sector. Employment avenues for unskilled persons in formal organizations would usually be low-paying jobs. “Young women lack the organisational and support networks that enable older married women to survive in the urban environment and may also lack the support of their own families” (Ankomah, 1996, p. 40). Ankomah’s assertion seems to resonate in the experiences shared by Maabena and other female participants who identified with her. According to them, the reality of the economic conditions of urban living was the main drive for entering a consensual relationship.

Dede (a 38-year-old unemployed woman) was not a migrant. She had grown up with her parents in Accra. According to her, however, she considered entering a consensual union because of the economic hardships her family faced. The relationship, therefore, was intended to serve as a relief from the economic challenges, a line of action encouraged by her mother. Dede’s account bears semblance with what Duncan (2010) found in some cocoa-growing areas in Ghana when she studied the relationship between conjugal unions and cocoa production. The study found that, although it is not explicitly encouraged, consensual unions for some families are indeed a way of reducing poverty.

A significant body of literature discusses sexual relations in general and premarital sexual relationships in both developed and developing societies, sub-Saharan Africa included. This available literature on premarital sexual unions among young people in the modern African context suggests such unions could be transactional, exploitative, or just because of mutual attraction (Kuate-Defo, 2004). A range of factors that might be responsible for the practice, which is viewed as widespread among contemporary youth, has also been identified. Smith (2010) found that for young men and women in southeastern Nigeria, premarital sexual relationships are a marker of individuality, independence from tradition, and even show a person’s level of exposure to the wider world. Sexual experience, according to Smith (2010), has, therefore, become for the Nigerian youth an indicator of maturity, enlightenment, and modernity.

In Ghana, Ankomah (1996) has indicated that contemporary premarital relationships could be understood as a transaction whereby sexual services are exchanged for material gains. “Transaction,” in this sense, does not strictly imply a contractual agreement between the two parties involved. The expression of interest in entering an intimate relationship almost automatically carries with it the embedded implications of an exchange relationship. Neither the provision of sexual services nor that of material gains is unidirectional in terms of which gender provides it. The phenomenon of “sugar mummies” and “sugar daddies,” for example, proves this assertion. While in some cases women are the providers of financial and material gains, the reverse also holds true in other situations (Dinan, 1983; Kuate-Defo, 2004). However, a number of studies (Akuffo, 1987; Bleek, 1976; Dinan, 1983; Orubuloye, Caldwell, & Caldwell, 1991) on premarital sexual unions have concluded that there are gender differences in the nature, motives, and objectives of such unions, and, in most cases, women are influenced by the economic factor, in which case they provide sexual services in exchange for economic benefits. Such women intend for their partners to provide for at least their basic needs.

In Ankomah’s (1996) study, for example, which sampled about 400 young women, ages 18 to 25, from Cape Coast in premarital sexual unions, he found that the expectations of the women included “chopmoney” and rent, as well as money for hairdressing, shoes, and dresses. From this perspective, other studies (Dinan, 1983; Karanja, 1994) have also argued that it is the economic motivation that fuels the phenomenon of sugar daddies, also sometimes referred to as “sponsors,” who are older wealthy men with the resources to provide for their girls (Meekers & Calvès, 1997). This perhaps explains why no male participant mentioned the financial factor as a motivation for entering a sexual relationship.

When female research participants cited financial constraints as the reason for their decision to start relationships, they were asked whether they had considered going for the sugar daddies. Awuradwoa (a 35-year-old toll collector) had this to say in response:

Eeii, as for those men [sugar daddies], no. Most of the time they have wives, which means that they will not marry you. I hear some of them even use girls for money rituals. And you know that sleeping with somebody’s husband too is a sin. If you do that, in future when you get married another woman might do the same thing to you. Me, I think the dabi dabi ԑbԑyԑ yie is better than the aben wͻ ha ooo (laughs).

“Dabi dabi ԑbԑyԑ yie” and “Aben wͻ ha” are both Akan phrases from two popular Ghanaian highlife songs by Amakye Dede (1990) and Daddy Lumba (1998), respectively. “Dabi dabi ԑbԑyԑ yie” roughly translates as “Things will be well in the future,” while “Aben wͻ ha” would translate into “It’s already cooked here.” The phrase as used by Amakye Dede in his song is to convey the message that life may not start off as all rosy, but since the future remains unknown, it is important to strive on and work hard, which will result in things improving in the future. “Aben wͻ ha,” on the other hand, refers to the situation where a person, usually a woman, goes into a relationship where the man is already established and well-to-do. What Awuradwoa was trying to say, then, was that she preferred struggling through life with a young man who was not necessarily rich, hoping that things would get better for them in the future, rather than going for the sugar daddy, who, as the name sugar implies, had already worked for his money and wealth, making it more likely to have a sweet experience with him.

While the conclusion by Meekers and Calvès (1997) stated earlier holds true, Awuradwoa’s quote gives the indication that although sugar daddies may be more financially sound, they are not ideal for marriage since they often are already married men. For this reason, a woman who also thinks of marriage as one of the benefits to derive in the long term from a premarital sexual union may not pursue a sugar daddy. For a younger unmarried man, there is the possibility of marriage in the long run, whereas the option of marrying a sugar daddy is almost an impossibility. Since the chance of becoming a second wife is neither viable nor desirable, the only option is of their becoming perpetual “outside wives” (Obbo, 1987), which many of them are not prepared to be. “An outside wife is a woman with whom a man, usually married, has regular sexual relations and children, and though is not publicly shown by the man as his wife, is financially maintained by him. Outside wives, therefore, have limited social and legal recognition because no marriage rites are performed on them” (Karanja, 1987, pp. 252–253).

The prospects of marriage were, therefore, found to be significant in the choice of partners for the women. From the foregoing discussion, it is evident that there was some level of calculating benefits by the women before they entered into their unions. These benefits were livelihood support and potential marriage. However, with reference to the information they provided, it is also evident that their rational decisions were influenced by the situation of harsh economic conditions. Opting for a consensual union can thus be described as one of the results of economic hardships for women in particular.

Awuradwoa’s description of “sinful” regarding the act of a woman having a sexual relationship with a married sugar daddy is quite an interesting dimension. The majority of participants professed that they were Christians. Christianity is one of the world’s religions that take a stand against premarital and extramarital sexual relationships, which are referred to as fornication and adultery, respectively. In the song “Pimpinaa,” for example, Obrafour (2015) mentions that the Holy Bible is emphatic on the wrongfulness of premarital sexual relationships. The fact that one of these two practices, extramarital sexual relations, was considered as sinful but not necessarily the other, premarital sexual relations, was therefore quite interesting. When asked whether there was any difference between a sexual relationship with a married man and a sexual relationship with an unmarried man in terms of being “sinful,” responses from the female participants suggested that the former was a “greater sin” than the latter. They were often quick to compare the marriage prospects in the two scenarios and how that influenced their choice of unmarried men who were not necessarily well-to-do. Their point was that the possibility of marriage with unmarried young men in the future made sexual relationships with them less sinful since sex was an integral part of marriage anyway.

While the young women suggested that they chose not to look for sugar daddies because it was more sinful, scholars such as Nielsen and Svarer (2009) offer a different explanation. Their line of explaining these women’s choice of partners concerns the question of their pool of eligible men. Kuate-Defo (2004) has argued that because the sugar daddy and sugar mama practice can be described as an urban African phenomenon that young women and men use as a livelihood strategy, it is common to find sugar daddies with all classes of women. In Ghana, however, such men often fall within the category of those referred to as “big men,” who are usually of relatively high socioeconomic standing. Given their social statuses and backgrounds, they may also want to enter homogamous unions. Nielsen and Svarer (2009) explain homogamy as marrying close in status. Sugar daddies in Ghana may, therefore, prefer women with some appreciable level of education and class with whom they can go places. Following this logic, sugar daddies become more available to some categories of women, which supports what has been posited by other scholars (Ardayfio-Schandorf, 2007; Karanja, 1994), that the sugar daddy relationships tend to be with female university students and young female professionals. The chances of the junior high school graduate selling “pure water” around the Dome market meeting that “big man” is, therefore, very significantly reduced. It may well be the case that Maabena and the six other participants were not actively avoiding sugar daddies per se, but simply had not encountered them. This goes to reinforce the argument that although these female participants were seen to have made the decision to settle for unmarried men, the situation of their available marriage market also had a role to play in their choices. An understanding of their decisions is, therefore, better appreciated when the focus is moved from these women to their social situations, as Collins (2004) argues.

Upon settling on the kind of men they ultimately accepted as partners in consensual unions, these women participants mentioned that on their part they also provided certain services apart from sexual relations like cooking, washing, and cleaning. These activities, they advised, were done as a form of appreciation for the support they received from their partners and also as a way of enticing the men to be consistent in their provision for them. In many instances, the lovers did not live together at the beginning of the relationship. Over time, however, most women gradually relocated and joined their partners in their places of residence where practicable. The decision to move in with men was not pursued only where women had accommodation challenges. They also did so as a way of securing their position in the lives of their partners. There was the general perception that men have the tendency to keep multiple partners, in which case the men would have to share their resources among the women. Moving in with one’s partner was therefore a way of ensuring a stable place in the relationship and possibly marriage in the future.

In Search of a Safe Haven

Ruth (a 38-year-old shopkeeper) and Korkor (a 44-year-old shopkeeper) shared two somewhat similar stories of how they ended up with their partners as a way of escaping sexual harassment from men who lived within the same households in which the women were employed. In Ruth’s case, the man in question was the husband of her “madam,” the woman in whose shop she had been enrolled as an apprentice in dressmaking. The madam’s husband had been a friend of Ruth’s parents back in their hometown. During one of his visits from Accra to the village, he found that after completing junior high school, Ruth’s parents could neither afford to see her through further education nor pay for her to learn a trade. He offered to take her to Accra to live with his family and learn dressmaking in his wife’s shop. As part of the apprenticeship arrangement, Ruth was also required to work as a house help in her new home in lieu of paying an apprenticeship fee. According to Ruth, she and her parents were excited about this offer because it came as a relief to the family’s financial burdens and was also an assurance of a better future for her. A few months into her stay with her new family in Accra, however, she realized she was expected to be doing more than just learning dressmaking and helping with household chores. She narrated her side of the story as such:

My madam traveled to Begoro to visit her mother and it was left with me, her husband, and the two children in the house. That very night she left, I was sleeping in my room when her husband came in and started fondling my breasts. I was very scared and was just begging him. The children were sleeping in the same room and I was afraid they would see us and tell my madam. Since that day anytime I was alone with him at home, he would try something like that, I knew he wanted to sleep with me. … But [at] that time too, I had met James, who was living in the same compound with some relatives of mine and had said he wanted to be in a relationship with me. I had not given in to his proposal because I didn’t like him. But from the way things were going in my madam’s house, I decided to move in with him because I knew if my madam ever caught her husband and I doing anything, I would be the one to be blamed and it would bring a whole lot of issues. I lied to them that I wanted to go and visit my relatives and I didn’t return to the house.

With Korkor, her maternal auntie had brought her from their hometown to assist with her trading business, basically because there was no possibility of her furthering her education after JHS. Her role in her auntie’s business was to be hawking food items. Korkor, however, had to find a way to prevent her auntie’s husband from sleeping with her. In her assessment of what she was faced with, the best way was to completely move out of the house, and since she, like Ruth, could not afford accommodation and fully fund her own upkeep, her best option was to agree to the proposal of this young man she had met through the hawking business. She told me:

My auntie’s husband, anytime he saw me coming out of the bathroom and [knew I was going to be getting dressed], he would barge into the room to see me naked. I didn’t like it at all and I knew he wanted to do something bad to me, but I was afraid to tell my auntie because I didn’t want to create any problems in the house since she was the one rather helping me by bringing me to her house. … So sometimes I go and sell and not come back home. I was spending those nights with John and I finally moved out.

According to Yeboah and Batse (2009), “Sexual harassment includes women being touched against their will, forcing a woman to touch the private parts of a man against her will, threats on refusal to yield to sexual advances in school, demanding sex before the offer of job, and threats of job loss if sex is not granted” (p. 79). Parkes, Heslop, Januario, Oando, and Sabaa (2016) also mention peeping as a form of harassment. What Ruth and Korkor both described in their narratives can, therefore, be termed sexual harassment. Sexual harassment of women by men is a global issue and is sustained by silence, mainly because an attempt to expose it can be risky in the sense that exposing one’s experience can also mean some negative consequences for the victim (Morley, 2011).

In a study of the way tradition and modernity influence how girls talk about sexual relationships and violence in Kenya, Ghana, and Mozambique, Parkes et al. (2016) found that victims of sexual harassment in Ghana were less likely to report their experiences to someone, a situation attributed to the strict norms and taboos around the topic of sex. These two participants indicated that one of the reasons they could not report what was happening to them was the fear of being blamed or being accused of lying, thus their silence. While I was the first person Korkor claimed to have mentioned her harassment to, Ruth said she had told a few friends about it, but that was only some years after she had left the house.

It is in view of this culture of silence around the phenomenon and other forms of abuse in Ghana that sexual harassment remains underreported, especially when it happens within the domestic setting. Studies in Ghana have, however, shown that sexual harassment occurs in domestic settings; in academic institutions (Britwum & Anokye, 2006; Coker-Appiah & Cusack, 1999; Morley, 2011; Norman, Aikins, & Binka, 2013b); within the police and military (Norman et al., 2010); and even within faith-based organizations (Norman et al., 2013a). In these studies, women of varying sociodemographic backgrounds—taking into account age, marital status, profession, and educational attainment—have been found to be victims of acts of sexual harassment.

Some lines of argument suggest that the portrayal of women as sex objects is a major issue contributing to the fact that targets and indeed victims of sexual harassment are mostly women. Others point to patriarchy, which prescribes submission of women to men on all fronts. Yet another explanation, which Adomako Ampofo (1993) describes as problematic, is the argument that male sexuality cannot be controlled and becomes even more uncontrollable when women dress in a provocative manner. Parkes et al. (2016) have also asserted that financial dependence is a major factor that makes women susceptible to sexual exploitation by men. Their reasoning seemed to apply to the case of the two women who were being maintained by the harassers and their wives. For both Ruth and Korkor, they were not ready to start premarital sexual relationships at the time they actually did. The circumstances in their homes became the driving force to do so. For them, a sexual relationship with an “outsider” was better than one with a benefactor like the men they mentioned in their narratives. Thus the decision to opt for consensual unions. Research remains quite low on this somewhat sensitive subject of sexual harassment, particularly with regard to people’s lived experiences and their coping mechanisms. This study adds to existing works and more specifically points to an escape route that some victims of sexual harassment may resort to in the face of this culture of silence.

Like female participants who opted for consensual unions primarily as a livelihood strategy, there is also a clear connection between the situations and the consequent actions of women who have been sexually harassed. The issue of sexual harassment and the circumstances surrounding it, as they have been explained, were an instrumental drive of the women’s opting for a consensual union. The situations of Ruth and Korkor also placed them in a position of unequal power relations. This was because leaving their respective homes to join their partners meant that they were dependent on them for their safety and costs of living.

The Influence of a Love Charm

The story of one female participant, Aku (a 26-year-old unemployed woman), revealed what can be described as a paranormal factor that led her into a consensual union. Unlike cases discussed earlier, her situation did not allow for a personal decision to enter a relationship. That notwithstanding, she presented yet another circumstance that can lead to the formation of a consensual union. She had this to say:

He used [a love potion] “for girls” on me. It was just recently that one of his relatives revealed it to me and since then I have come to my senses. What he did was that, he put the medicine in a drink for me one day when I was going for our day in school. Since that day, I started sleeping with him. … When I got pregnant, I finally came to live with him. I wasn’t listening to anybody’s advice. I didn’t even want to see my own mother. Now I’m just 26 and I have three children, sometimes I just stay in my room and cry.

Aku’s story depicts the place of the supernatural in intimate relationships. From her account, she believed the reason she consented to the relationship was because she was under the influence of a spell. One might argue that, in this particular case, the union would not be described as consensual. I reemphasize here that consensual union for this study is defined in terms of the completion or otherwise of traditional marriage rites and not necessarily in terms of whether or not the couple involved were fully conscious of and agreed to the relationship. This case, therefore, illustrates one of the ways in which consensual unions come to be.

“For girls” describes a love potion available from medicine men for the purposes of getting young women sexually attracted to men, who, for many reasons, are unable to propose love to them, and also in the case where these girls and young women are known to be “hard to get.” These potions are sold openly on the market, as is evident in Figure 1. The picture shows an array of substances being displayed on a table by a traditional medicine seller at the Madina Zongo Junction in Accra. An advertising board placed in front of the table captures the name of the seller as well as the various functions that the medicines perform. Among these products are those labeled as “for girls.” To have been under the influence of the love charm “for girls” meant that Aku was totally under the control of her partner, who became the dominant figure in the relationship.

Figure 1.

An advertisement of love potions “for girls.” (Photo from Myjoyonline, 2016.)

The fact that magic, charms, and spells used to facilitate love relationships exist and are actively employed has been well acknowledged by many scholars as an age-old practice in both European and African societies (Gausset, 2001). Borsje (2010, p. 172) uses the term “love magic” and defines it as “verbal and material instruments by which erotic and affectionate feelings are believed to be aroused or destroyed in a supernatural way.” In the African context, such manipulations could be categorized under the concept of “juju,” which is an umbrella term for “magic” (Appiah-Sekyere, 2013). The practice has been found to take different forms that include blood drinking, the wearing of amulets, and applying magical potions and some particular herbs to parts of the body such as the face to attract the opposite sex. Much of the work on the use of love magic in relationships has suggested that women, both married and otherwise, are often the ones who resort to the use of “magic” in their quest to win the love of men (Cassar, 2001; Tremearne, 2013). In the case of married women, its use is a way of ensuring the women’s security and control in their marriages, especially in situations where they are doubtful of the fidelity of their husbands.

The growing body of work on the sexual economy of Africa points to the fact that transactional sex, but not necessarily prostitution, is a major means by which young unmarried women make money and maintain some standard of living (Amo-Adjei, Kumi-Kyereme, & Anamaale Tuoyire, 2014; Cole, 2004; Cornwall, 2002; Haram, 2004; Hunter, 2002; Maganja, Maman, Groves, & Mbwambo, 2007; Newell, 2009). This was the argument of a Ghanaian woman, Moesha Buduong, who granted Christine Amanpour an interview on the CNN series Sex & Love around the World. Moesha, using her personal experience, suggested in the interview that the decision of a young Ghanaian woman to be the mistress of a rich married man is often a financial decision driven by difficult economic situations that are particularly unfavorable for women. According to her, for a young woman in Ghana, it is difficult to secure a job even after completing university, making it almost impossible to afford house rent and live a comfortable life. The solution for many such women, therefore, has been sexual relationships with older, well-to-do men (Abdulai, 2018). It is within this context that such young women, who often desire to live luxurious lives but are not in the position to afford them, would resort to charms and spells to attract men from whom they consequently extract money and other material things. Writing on the case of Mozambique, for example, Groes-Green (2013) explains that there are traditional healers who are skilled in preparing herbs and other potions for women to use in seducing men and “to put the men in a bottle,” that is, to literally bring them under the women’s control. He explains that the potency of these charms is such that men are also encouraged to fortify themselves against their effects.

On the other hand, there are only a few studies on how men also use love charms in African societies. Mommersteeg (1988, p. 52), writing on the fabrication of Islamic love-amulets in West Africa, has, however, revealed that in Islamic practice,

when a man sets his heart on a woman and wants to marry her, or sometimes just wants to make love to her, and the woman, despite all his advances, keeps rejecting him, he may call upon a marabout (Muslim religious specialist) for an amulet which will enable him to possess that particular woman. Once the man owns such an amulet certainly the woman will open up her heart to him, no longer able to refuse his wishes. She will be completely enchanted not so much by the man’s own charms but by the power of his amulet.

Aku’s case in this study, therefore, shows that love charms are practiced not only by women but by men alike. This goes to confirm speculations among sections of Ghanaians that the use of “for girls” as a love charm is gaining popularity among the Ghanaian youth. Some media sources, like Myjoyonline, have reported how young men are more likely to use this avenue mainly for the purpose of sleeping with a girl and later going about to brag on it. Aku’s situation, on the other hand, suggests that it may not be only for sexual pleasure that a man would employ supernatural means to win over a woman, but indeed also for the ultimate purpose of marriage.

Proving the truth or validity of spiritual matters is by no means the preoccupation of any social science discipline. However, the social scientist is also interested in the ways in which the spiritual matters that people believe in play out in their lives. From Aku’s story of her experience with the love potion “for girls,” the immediate conclusion is that once she was under the spell of the potion, there was no way out. The question this raises, however, is how and why her family did not intervene to move her out of her partner’s house. According to Aku, her mother made a few attempts at getting her to return home, but Aku was adamant about staying because of the influence of the charm. Upon her resistance, her mother allowed her to continue living with her partner. Describing her mother’s socioeconomic position as a single mother engaged in petty trading, it was obvious that Aku’s mother was going through some struggles in her efforts to care for herself and her four children. She explained:

My mother has been with two different men. I and the one after me have a different father and the other two also have theirs. Both of them [the men] were not good. The one with whom she had my little brother did not even take responsibility for the pregnancy when she told him she was pregnant, so my mother has gone through a lot. Do you think if she had money to provide us with all we need I would have gone to ask someone to buy me malt to take to our day [or] for him to also go and put “for girls” medicine in it? No.

In her study of conjugal forms in some cocoa-growing areas in Ghana, Duncan (2010) found that parents of girls who move out to cohabit with their lovers sometimes tend to overlook their daughters’ actions since they consider the relocation of their wards as financial relief for them. Given Aku’s family circumstances, her moving out could have been an advantage in disguise to her mother. If she had been the daughter of some middle- or upper-class couple who had the financial wherewithal or some reputation to protect, her story might have taken a different turn regardless of the supposed potency of the love potion. Therefore, although Aku’s case of finding herself in a consensual union she was not ready for can be directly linked to the influence of the love charm “for girls,” it can also be argued that her state of affairs was further maintained by her mother’s financial constraints, which made it difficult for her to adequately provide for her family. As a result, these two situations explained Aku’s decision to enter into the relationship.


The literature on consensual unions in Africa has largely attributed the incidence of such unions to, among other factors, modernization, urbanization, individualization, and constraints in marriage payment. Findings from this study, however, show that apart from these general causes, there are more specific situations that result in such unions. For instance, it would not be enough to argue that consensual unions in urban spaces come about because traditional norms concerning marriage are easily side-stepped without the notice of extended family members. While that is tenable, the more important issues would be the very specifics of why these norms are sidestepped, some of which have been revealed in this study, including the quest for a strategy to maintain a livelihood, the need for an escape route, and the effect of love magic. It was found that women were more likely to opt for consensual unions as a livelihood strategy. Such women were mostly migrants, with low levels of education as well as low income levels. Therefore, they thought of their partners as a support system for coping with the economic hardships they encountered in Accra. As a way of escaping acts of sexual harassment from men with whom they lived but were not in a relationship with, other women had also ended up with their current partners. The men, on the other hand, entered into their unions as way of showing male maturity and masculinity.

On the surface it appears that the decision to enter consensual unions is largely intentional and conscious. However, these decisions are explicable with reference to the situations in which individuals find themselves, which in turn influence their actions (Collins, 2004). Judging from these situations, it is obvious that the women were faced with limited options and, in some cases, the feeling that there was no choice at all because of the real or imagined psychological effects of being under the influence of love potions such as those available “for girls.” This study has shown that whereas women may not necessarily be forced into a so-called consensual union, sometimes such unions appear to be the only way out of desperate situations. Indeed, Obeng-Hinneh (2019) has observed that women do not always actually consent to consensual unions, but enter into them not only because of the limited options available to them but also because they often possess the hope that their relationships will evolve into marriage. The term consensual union, used in the literature as a convenient shorthand term, is, therefore, quite problematic and raises the need for the contextualization of the concept in any study.


I would like to acknowledge the Pan-African Doctoral Academy of the University of Ghana for awarding me a thesis completion grant in the final year of my doctoral studies.



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