Opinionista Osiame Molefe 23 February 2012

Sex and sexuality in a time of societal malaise

Let’s take a step back for a minute and imagine a scenario where South Africa approached sex with the mindset the country takes with drinking water – everyone has the right to a clean source, delivered direct to their homes. I don’t think this is a valueless flight of fantasy. It may add some much-needed nuance to a subject that’s otherwise been dealt with brusquely.

I don’t give much credence to these periodic surveys that claim to identify the nations that are the world’s best lovers. To judge whether any one nation is the best lover in the world, you’d need to have had them all as lovers. That’s an awful lot of lovin’, given that there are disputably 194 nations on this planet. How many notches the bedpost would it take to get a representative sample of each? And anyway I doubt that you, survey respondent, are qualified to say what constitutes a good lover. I’d like to think it takes more than an FHM subscription.  

But let’s say for a second there was something to these surveys and that the French, with their unaffected take on sexuality, and the Germans’ penchant for kink made these nations worthy of the title of world’s best lovers. I would then struggle to understand why these surveys consistently rank South Africans highly, because if public discourse is anything to go by, we only want to do it strictly between married man and woman (married to each other, obviously). And it’s only ever for procreation, in missionary position, with the lights off and in our own beds. Absolutely no photography, spectators, third or fourth parties, or slings, toys and things – because, well, it’s obviously a short and slippery slope from there to bestiality and paedophilia.

I’m working under the quite possibly mistaken assumption that a good lover is one that is comfortable and unconflicted over their sexual being. Another one of these convenient surveys suggests this assumption might not be too far off. The authors claim the survey results suggest that atheists, unburdened by the shame-laden and utilitarian views most religions have on sex, enjoy guilt-free, hedonistic and thus satisfying sex. The survey is convenient because the authors are atheists. This doesn’t automatically discredit the findings, but there are other issues with it, too. But nevermind that.

If at its core, sex is as good, natural and pleasurable a thing as, say, eating, and the advent of religion has shrouded it in shame, then in South Africa, two other influences have shrouded it in further and perhaps more impenetrable shame.

As citizens of the former rape capital of the world (eastern DR Congo has taken that dubious and contested title), South Africans have been separated into two groups. On one side are the men, who either commit or condone rape, and on the other, women, who either have been or are soon to be raped. In the midst of this still ongoing crisis of national proportions, there has been no room for nuance or grading. Our sexual psyches be damned, the primary goal has been to end this scourge by shaming it out of our society.

Of course in shaming rape, part of our sexual selves has been left marked too. Women, living in a stealthy, perpetual terror, have to suppress sexuality lest a man take that as an invitation to have his way with her. Men, too, have had to suppress sexuality for fear of being mistaken for a rapist. All this suppression surely must do nothing to bridge the social divide between genders. That divide, arguably, keeps men from understanding rape as they should and women from letting go of the terror and embracing the full ambit of their sexuality.

The other influence is the HIV/Aids epidemic. As much as activists tried to avoid stigma attaching, HIV has become that third, oft silent, partner in the sex lives of South Africans, regardless of status. It slips unbeknown between the covers, burdening sex with “socio-sexual anxiety”, as feminist researcher Patricia McFadden called it. Because you are either infected or affected, your sexual practices are never truly yours alone. Your sex has been nationalised.

If you are sports minister Fikile Mbalula, it is a matter of national interest that you had unprotected sex with your “honey pot”, who is now blackmailing you. If you are President Jacob Zuma, your cultural practice of polygamy gets labelled an “Aids superhighway”, never mind that what really should be up for scrutiny is the cultural power imbalance, which holds that a man may have multiple wives but a woman only one husband.

This socio-sexual anxiety affects, in perplexing ways, how our society deals with issues peripheral. Metro FM’s morning show, The First Avenue, on Tuesday took calls from “side chicks’, women who have either intentionally or inadvertently become involved with married men. Because of the fog caused by the national anxiety over sex, many of the callers and the show’s hosts did not see that the side chicks phenomenon like rape and some of the modes of transmission of HIV stem from an unequal power balance between genders, so that issue went unaddressed. Instead, the side chicks – the loose, amoral man-stealers they are – took the brunt of the blame. Strangely, the wives, accused of turning a blind eye to the husband’s side chicks, also got a fair share of the blame. The husbands were of course blameless vestals, thus reinforcing the power dynamic that has allowed the phenomenon to occur in the first place.

“The potential for meaningful resolution of socio-cultural crises such as those generated by the HIV/Aids pandemic rests squarely on our ability to confront the intersection of the power and sexuality of human existence,” says McFadden.

So for example, what often gets lopped off the primary mode of transmission of HIV in this country, multiple concurrent sex partners, is “with low consistent condom use”. Allowing that caveat could seem like vacillation and would send the wrong message. We are in the throes of a national crisis, for Pete’s sake. Button down all hatches; abstain, be faithful, condomise.

But I seriously doubt that multiple concurrent sex partnerships could ever be eliminated. And it takes only one since all our sexual lives intersect. Besides, if done openly, honestly and responsibly, I see no reason why multiple concurrent sex partnerships cannot be fulfilling and pleasurable for all involved. What if instead of the ABC of the HIV prevention, it was capital “C”, little “a” and “b”? Then we could focus on the causes of inconsistent and infrequent condom use. I suspect it will again lead us back to power – who wields it and who is cowed by it – and how it intersects with sexuality. Only then will the national response to these crises become meaningful. DM


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