Defend Truth


#MenAreTrash and the #SexStrike Challenge: About the War on lesbians’ bodies

Siya Khumalo writes about religion, politics and sex. He is the author of ‘You Have To Be Gay To Know God’ (Kwela Books, 2018), which won the Desmond Tutu-Gerrit Brand Literary Prize. Follow him on @SKhumalo1987 (Insta and Twitter), or like his Facebook page With Siya Khumalo.

When a lesbian is murdered, or raped, or burned, or mutilated, the #MenAreTrash brigade is nowhere to be found. Patriarchy is being negotiated on its own terms instead of being altogether negated.

In response to Karabo Mokoena’s murder, many took to social media to say #MenAreTrash. Meanwhile, activist Busisiwe Cathrine Seabe has suggested women go on a #SexStrike “until we stop having to share pictures of us going missing or even #RIPs of our sisters and children”.

Even if no one literally wears ashes and sackcloth to fast from carnal relations, every individual’s sexual choices affect everyone. This insight must be at the heart of our sexual justice crusades and the fight against gender-based violence.

I sometimes share about an incident that happened when I was in school. A group of older boys were whispering behind my back. Spurred by an ominous feeling, I tried to get away from them and melt into a crowd of fellow schoolgoers, thinking there’d be safety in numbers. This betrayed my sense of vulnerability, but I bit the bullet.

To my surprise, one of those boys broke away from his friends and followed me into the crowd. He then groped me, rather indecently, with just about everyone watching. His friends laughed as he flounced back to them with an exaggerated “swish” in his movements.

Despite blood rushing to my ears, I could pick up what everyone was saying about me:

But he isn’t gay… is he?”

I’m sure he is. Why else would that guy have done that to him…?”

A girl turned to look at me and asked, “But you are gay, aren’t you…?”

The implicit message was one I’d been immersed in forever – that it’s okay to humiliate boys who don’t fit the heteronormative script.

It’s not just patriarchy, but the system it operates behind, through and within – heterosexism – that must be interrogated if we are to end the war against women’s bodies.

While everyone is more familiar with its bigger cousin homophobia, heterosexism is the marginalisation of non-heterosexual (or at a broader stroke, gender non-conforming) people. It’s based on the assumption that heterosexuality is normal and normative. Few people ever “see” heterosexism because its MO is to make everything else invisible, weird or “other”. It’s as with racism: we see it when Penny Sparrow calls black people monkeys, but we don’t “see” it when it works more subtly and insidiously than that.

This heterosexism’s implicit promise to women is that if they give little bits of themselves to patriarchy, they’ll get all patriarchy’s benefits but be shielded from its violence. Patriarchy becomes like the Mafia, offering them (and gender-conforming boys) protection from the punishment it inflicts on those who won’t buy that protection.

Heterosexism’s implicit promise to men, on the other hand, is that since their masculinity is (falsely) tied up to dominance, women’s bodies is where they can perform their roles as “providers” and “protectors”, but also where they demonstrate their power should those women not buy into this arrangement.

The oppression of “disobedient” women who don’t have the currency to buy into this plan is seen in the vulnerability of women who don’t fit respectably into society’s idea of what women should be – and this includes, but is not limited to, sex workers, lesbians, the mentally and physically disabled, as well as older women who speak of becoming “invisible” past a certain age.

But if marriageability is the currency, then these ostracised women’s struggles are part of the continuum of “punishments” inflicted by Mafia patriarchy on even “good” women when they “rebel”. The key problem may be that society’s definition of “woman” is so narrow, it ends up exposing all women to danger.

I’ve been hearing not horrified remarks on Sandile Mantsoe’s alleged brutality towards Mokoena, but that a “polite” and “decent” man would kill such a beautiful woman — “i-yellow bone!” Again, we place a higher premium on “marriage material” and “light-skinned” women than we do on others.

Likewise, after Oscar Pistorius shot Reeva Steenkamp, a number of men were surprised that “Udubule i-cherry e-blind kangaka — eyakhe, nokwenza!” He shot a chick that hot —his own girlfriend, no less!

The implication is that any woman who’s had the decency to be that beautiful, and has agreed to be the guy’s girlfriend, has more than “paid” for any possible future “disobedience”. At the very least, the guy she’s with should protect her, or keep his temper in check, or let her move on to a guy who can do both. But he’s killed her (because he’s trash, no?) so that opportunity is wasted for every guy.

Whether they’re said by straight women about gay men or straight men about beautiful slain women, the words, “What a waste!” cut to the heart of how heterosexism grades lives. For when a lesbian like Nonkie Smous is murdered, or raped, or burned, or mutilated, the #MenAreTrash brigade is nowhere, NOWHERE, to be found. Patriarchy is being negotiated on its own terms instead of being altogether negated.

If lesbianism is the “disease” that “corrective rapists” seek to “cure”, how we respond to homophobic sexual violence is an overlooked but crucial touchstone for how we’re dealing with rape culture.

No society that fails to give any of its women room to say no to sex with all of its men has any business defending the right of all its women to say no to sex with any of its men. And that’s why Seabe’s #SexStrike idea deserves to be taken, if not literally, then quite seriously. DM


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