Unsurprisingly, language, for Adichie, is a feminist issue, at its most insidious when it comes to pregnancy and parenting, a verb she dislikes. She rages against terms such as “baby bump” as “diminishing”, preventing proper discussion of serious issues such as the gender pay gap and maternity leave. “There are so many women for whom pregnancy is the thing that pushed them down, and we need to account for that. We need to have a clause in every job that a woman who gets pregnant gets her job back in exactly the same way. It’s wrong!” For her, gender is a social construction: “I don’t think I’m more inherently likely to do domestic work, or childcare … It doesn’t come pre-programmed in your vagina, right?”
Although she put on “the feminist hat” quite happily, she never intended to become a voice for feminism, “then it happened”. She expected a degree of hostility – “Feminist is a bad word, everywhere in the world, let’s not kid ourselves, but particularly where I come from.” But she was not prepared for the furore that followed an interview on Channel 4 last year when she sparked controversy by arguing that the experiences of trans women are distinct from those of women born female, which was interpreted by some as “creating a hierarchy” and implying that “trans women were ‘less than’, which I was not … I don’t think that way.”
She was “genuinely surprised” by the outcry, “because I thought I was saying something that was obvious”, she says and remains defiant on the importance of acknowledging difference (the final, heartfelt message of Dear Ijeawele): “The vileness that trans women face is because they are trans women – there are things trans women go through that women who are born female will never have to go through … If we are going pretend that everything is the same, how do we address that?” She compares this well meaning wish to be inclusive with claims of colour blindness: blackness and whiteness are different, she told the audience to huge cheers at the event with Eddo-Lodge. “Yes, we are all of the human race but there are differences and those differences affect our experiences, our opportunities,” she says now. “There’s something about it that I find inherently dishonest.”
She was accused of “killing trans women with her words” and, she says, there were calls to burn her books; she was particularly hurt by the online response from some of her former students on her creative writing workshop in Lagos, where trying to break down taboos about gay rights and women is as important to her as the teaching. “I was told, ‘you’re being shamed’,” she gestures the inverted commas of internet shaming. “When somebody is shaming you, you also have to feel ashamed. I just didn’t. I was upset. I was disappointed.” She feels her “tribe”, those “generally of the left, who believe in equal rights for everyone”, let her down: “I thought surely they know me and what I stand for.”
Looking back, she thinks her “major sin” was that she “didn’t abide by the language orthodoxy”. At the Southbank event the author, who is not on Twitter (“there’s an ugliness about it”), expressed her reservations about “a certain kind of youthful, social-media savvy feminism that is not my home”. She is wary of the term “intersectionality”, but is clear as to what it does not mean, recalling an interview with a white actor who, in her anxiety to acknowledge the sometimes racist history of western feminism, claimed it was not about her, but about black women who had been oppressed. “Of course feminism is about her,” Adichie says with exasperation. “I wish she’d said: ‘Here is all the shit I get because I’m a woman, but I think about all those other women who don’t have the white privilege I have, I can’t imagine what that must be like.’ That for me would be perfect.”
While she is frustrated with what she identifies as a “quickness to outrage” among young people – “it’s boring” – her real anger is reserved for the progressive left, especially in America, which she believes is fostering this unforgiving atmosphere, closing in on itself and closing down essential conversations (“Shut up, you are wrong” ) in its haste to assume ill will. Displaying a “fundamental lack of compassion”, it goes against her credo as a storyteller, in which all human beings are flawed: “There’s no room to be righteous.”
My husband and I have been together for six years. I married him when he was 18 and I was 24. I discovered, after we got married, that he had had sexual intercourse only with me; he’d had sexual encounters with other women, but hadn’t felt ready for intercourse. At first this wasn’t a problem, but now his younger brothers are sexually active and have had multiple sexual partners, he has started to feel jealous.
I felt that this jealousy was only going to grow, and I didn’t want him to develop feelings of resentment towards me and cheat on me. I also didn’t want him to think he had missed out, and get into his 30s or 40s and leave me so he could experience what it feels like to sleep with other people, as his stepdad did to his mum.
So I booked a holiday to Amsterdam with the intention of paying for a prostitute for him. I felt this would be a safe option as it is a job and no feelings could develop. Plus he would know he had slept with someone other than me.
I didn’t know exactly how we would feel afterwards, but I was willing to take the risk to save the future of our marriage. But now it has happened and he wasn’t happy or fulfilled. He said he felt nothing at all and it was very different and strange. He was deflated afterwards and now he won’t talk to me about it because he says it hurts him. I am scared it has upset him, and worried I shouldn’t have done this.
There were a few things which struck me about your letter. First: how few times it said “we”; even when you talk about marriage, a union, you say I: “I married him”. You seem to have a very immature attitude to love. People who have had multiple sexual partners can still be unfaithful: you can’t vaccinate your husband against infidelity by making him have sex with someone else.
I would like you to read your letter back to yourself with the roles reversed, as if you were reading about a man booking a prostitute for his wife, seemingly without her knowledge or consent: it seems altogether more controlling, doesn’t it?
This was one of the first things couples psychotherapist Damian McCann asked: “Was this something you shared? Organised, booked, talked about together?”
Because if you had, this would take on a different flavour. But if you went ahead and booked a prostitute for your husband without asking him (and if so, at what point did you tell him? As you were shoving him through the door?) then I see this as a violation. Presumably him saying no was an option?
McCann wondered, “What’s going on with you two as a couple? Perhaps there is a shared sense of insecurity, although you seem to be trying to secure the relationship by means of control.”
I also wondered if the prostitute was for you or for him? Are you frustrated with your husband’s lack of experience? If he waited for the right person to have sex with (you) and for marriage, that hints at someone with a particular attitude to sex which may not be one you share, but it should be respected. If you were hoping to “add to” his repertoire or experience, you will have failed. “Sex with a prostitute,” McCann said, “seems very contrived.” It has none of the elements of a real relationship – or an affair, for that matter.
So to answer your question, have you done the right thing? Well, clearly, not. While I’m sure some will snigger and be facile and say things like “lucky husband”, I don’t see it like this. Your husband is hurt and upset; if you don’t talk about this now and resolve it, his hurt will change to anger, and anger is a fantastically fertile bed for infidelity to grow in. Sex isn’t the same as intimacy. It’s not unusual for couples who get together young and have only one sexual partner to wonder what sex might be like with someone else, but the only way to help prevent this is communication.
“You need,” McCann said, “to start thinking about how to be together. At the moment the relationship seems very driven by one of you.”
In other words, you need to learn how to be a couple, not your husband’s booker.