Ghanaians Like Sex Too Much to Be Homophobic

Question: What was your experience like coming out of the closet in an evangelical family in Ghana?

Kwame Anthony Appiah: Well, I would say that, sexuality when I was growing up in Ghana wasn’t a form of identity—gay sexuality—because there just wasn’t a public discourse, there weren’t words for this.  I went to an English boarding school, a boys school, so I pretty quickly acquired the words.  And so I had a sort of language for talking to myself and maybe to some friends in England about my... the discovery that my sexual orientation was that my own sexual desires were directed toward my own sex and not towards women.  But that wasn’t something that—I mean, if I had sort of as it were worn a t-shirt saying I was gay when I was 15 in Ghana, people would have not idea what I was talking about.  That’s changed.  I mean, there is now, there are now gay organizations and the gay movements in Ghana and while the government hasn’t as a whole moved in a bad direction in response to that, I would say there isn’t a huge sort of social consensus on the badness of homosexuality.  There’s still just a lot of people who haven’t thought about it very much and so they will take a view if you give them a view.  If you give them the evangelical view they’ll take that but it’s not because they’re deeply committed to it.  

My father is famous in my family that when my father was asked about this, he said, “Well, I can see why you would have sex with a man because sex is pleasurable.  What I can’t see is why you wouldn’t want to have sex with women.”  So, again, this is a different way, this is a different sort of cultural contest for thinking about sexuality.  For many people in Ghana today, I think gay men are men who don’t want to have sex with women, it’s not what they do want to do that interests them, it’s what they don’t want to do.  Though there is a significant evangelical Christian influence from the United States in particular that’s pushing a more American style form of what I regard as homophobia.  

As far as my own sort of dealing with these things are concerned, I was raised in a Christian family.  We went to Sunday school, it wasn’t the kind of Sunday school that talked much about that.  I don’t think anyone ever mentioned homosexuality or gayness in church so far as I can recall the whole time during my childhood. This wasn’t one of the things that people were preoccupied with.  My mother was British and... I know one of my sister’s godparents was a gay man, so I assumed she, and it was obvious to me even when I was eight that he was gay, so even though I didn’t have a very well developed sense of what that was.  So I assumed that my parents didn’t think that that was an obstacle.  But my own dealing with it really came from the kind of Protestantism, evangelical—but in this case I would say progressive—evangelical Protestantism, which meant that you took the key thought of the gospels to be that God loved us.  And it seemed to me as I was looking as my sort of own relationship to my sexuality that if I was like this and God loved me, you now, the church might not think it was okay, but it couldn’t be the case that God didn’t.  

So I actually didn’t have too hard a time with this and I think I was reconciled with my sexuality as a Christian before I eventually stopped being a Christian.  But this is sort of lucky story turned out well, I think that for people of my generation in Ghana, men and women who discover as they grow up that they have sexual desires for their own sex, it would have been difficult.  And many of them would have left.  I mean, there’s I think a million Ghanaians outside of Ghana, in Amsterdam and New York and London and Manchester and cities like that around – Frankfurt, and cities around Europe and the United States.  And you know, I suspect that a good number of them are gay people who fled to those cities in the way rural gay American fly to cities because in cities you can find other gay people and also perhaps more tolerance of gay people.  

But I think Ghana will figure this out.  People in Ghana like sex too much to think that in the end it’s a bad thing.  So my hope is that things will move in the right direction.  

Was it difficult to reconcile the conflicting dimensions of your identity?

Kwame Anthony Appiah: I think reconciling different dimensions of identity is actually something that people are quite good at.  People know how to be gay Mormons.  I mean, the Mormon Church isn’t so happy that they know how to be gay Mormons, and maybe some gay people don’t like the fact that there are gay Mormons, but gay Mormons know how to be gay Mormons.  And they know how to be gay Mormon men.  They know how to reconcile their gender, their sexuality, and their religion.  

My father knew how to be a Methodist, a Ghanaian, a Pan-Africanist, a loyal son to the kingdom of Ashanti, a father... And you know, all of those are things were things that can pull you in certain moments in different directions.  Being a loyal Ghanaian meant that you had to go to Parliament and leave the family and not spend as much time with us when we were growing up as he might have, being a cosmopolitan supporter of the United Nations meant that sometime he had to support... he had to be on the side of governments that were opposed to our own government because there are international norms that our own government wasn’t respecting and so on.  

So, you know, people have complex identities but it’s one of the things human beings know how to handle.  It’s usually other people that make it difficult for you.  It’s the homophobes that make it difficult for the gay Mormons or the anti-Mormons who make it difficult for the gay Mormons.  And while I don’t want to underestimate the struggling that goes on in the process of dealing with one’s religious identity or one’s sexual orientation as one grows up, these can be – these are challenging difficulties for young people.  Usually the big problems are derived from either what other people do think or what they think other people will think.  Which brings up back to our main topic because at the heart of this is a concern to be respected and to be entitled to respect and to be respected as what one is.  To be respected in spite of being a gay person or in spite of being a Mormon or in spite of being a Catholic or a Jew, but as a Catholic or  a Jew or a Mormon or a gay person.  And one of the things we need to figure out in many of our honor codes is to make them more friendly to all kinds of people who are currently excluded by them and that’s the task I think, not abandoning the honor, but reshaping it to make it supportive of human flourishing, both by using collective honor to get people to engage in the moral revolutions that are necessary and by using individual honor to sustain excellence in human lives.

Recorded September 13, 2010

Interviewed by Max Miller

Philosopher Kwame Athony Appiah talks about the difficulty of growing up gay in Ghana and why he is optimistic about the future.

Are we really addicted to technology?

Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.

Credit: Rodion Kutsaev via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.

In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.

But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?

In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?

Popularizing medical language

What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?

To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.

If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.


"Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.

"We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.

"These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."

The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.

"If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.

Too much reading causes... heat rashes?

But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.

Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."

In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."

"That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.

"Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."

Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."

Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.

"It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."

Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?

People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.


There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.

For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.

"For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.

"Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."

In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.

"None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.

"I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."

Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.

"The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.

"And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."

This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.

"Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.

Learned helplessness

The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'

"The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."

So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?

"A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.

Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.

"If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.

But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.

For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.

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