In January, I wrote about attending a SERC group for newcomer parents who were largely from the Central Lakes area of Africa. I called the blog, Where Does This Love Come From? based on a comment I heard in the group that stuck with me. In that group, the parents were talking about adapting to Canadian culture, norms and laws, in particular LGBT2SQIA issues and rights, and how they relate to their own adolescent children.
Last week I had the opportunity to revisit this group for a second series that they are participating in, focused on their own adult relationships. SERC began offering this series of workshops about 10 years ago as a response to questions that were coming out of our parenting workshop series.
In this group there are 15 or so participants, more men than women, which I am told is not necessarily typical. I am sitting in on week 7 of an 8-week series, and today the focus is on sexual relationships. The facilitator has shared that last week there was an animated conversation about kissing, which is not common in the villages some of the participants come from, particularly what we may call French or open mouth kissing. However one of the participants also clarified that there is a difference between the rural areas and big cities – a good reminder not to make assumptions when it comes to people’s sexual practices.
The session today is being taught by one of our longest serving SERC employees, Linda, who has been with SERC for 24 years, and has worked in this area for least 15 of those. As Linda is planning to retire in the spring, Martha is also in attendance as part of preparing to take over these groups.
We start with wrapping up a discussion about anger, a topic that was initiated in the last session. Linda asks the group what happens when a person gets angry. One participant, to the amusement of many group members, is quite insistent that it go on record that the woman is what causes the man to feel angry. He also goes on to note that he is aware that in Canada they cannot do “bad things” or act out their anger. It is also suggested that this was not necessarily the situation in their former country. I am already aware that it is not uncommon for us to get disclosures of domestic violence in or after these sessions, so I am interested to see how the group handles the topic. There is lots of cross talk and disagreement about what was and was not acceptable in their home countries.
Linda asks what methods the group members may use to calm down when they get angry. The answers include: have sex, take a nap, and take a time out. Through the interpreter Linda asks about ensuring consent if sex is a stress reliever. This leads to a fascinating discussion that frankly had me enthralled the rest of the session. It continues with the discussion of a case study where a husband (John) and wife (Ruth) have differing sex drives. One participant suggests it might be easier easier to just go have sex with another woman. But then another man suggests that the woman should do the same, which sparks a debate about the differing norms. Is it ok for the man but not the woman? Why?
It is apparently a big issue if the women “go out” – this is culturally unacceptable. It made me consider again that these are not just issues for newcomers: differing standards, handling infidelity, discontent. The reality is that most relationships struggle with issues, like managing anger and disappointment, intimacy, varying levels of need and expectation. The other reality is that though I am grateful to live in a country where I am equal under the law to my male partner, I am not at all confident that the differing societal norms as discussed above do not still exist in Canada, regardless of the legal landscape.
In the case study I referenced, the wife continues to give in to the requests for nightly intercourse, though she is finding it difficult, and so the group discusses: Why does she do this? Maybe she does it so he does not leave or have sex with another woman. Though it is agreed that Ruth has the right to say no, it is also clear that the group does not feel she can; it is her duty. There is some discussion about whether she is afraid of her husband.
These are some of the responses from the women in the group:
• It is the role of woman to have sex with the man to bring peace to him and the home
• Sometimes having sex brings good feelings and then you can talk about the problem
• When we are in a bad situation we do the best we can
I cannot help but think these are not social norms of just a handful of cultures. These are feelings and thoughts that happen inside many women everywhere. Linda and I later talk about the idea of the culture of power imbalances between genders. Though it may vary from culture to culture, the idea of inequitable power, more often than not favouring men, is fairly universal. What also seems to be universal, according to Linda, are some of the ways women manage their sexual relationships without challenging their partner directly.
One of the ways that SERC assists newcomers in working through these issues is to acknowledge this power imbalance, and that it may look different in their new country. For some participants this may create feelings of loss, frustration, or grief. This is what cultural brokering is about – helping to build a bridge from what was to what is now, and what can be.
The group talks about what John could do. John could approach Ruth with affection, he could help around the house so she has more time and energy, and he could talk to Ruth about her feelings. It is clear that both John and Ruth have some work to do if they are going to resolve this important issue. Hopefully, like our participants today, someone is giving them some tools to work on this together and keep their relationship strong.