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Needed: A new model of masculinity

Sarah Bracking
By Sarah Bracking

Professor Sarah Bracking is the current holder of the South African Research Chair in Applied Poverty Reduction Assessment at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and Research Director of the Leverhulme Centre for the Study of Value, University of Manchester. She is editor of Corruption and Development (Palgrave, 2007), author of Money and Power (Pluto, 2009) and The Financialisation of Power in Africa (Routledge, 2012).

Posted on Monday, 21 October 2013 15:00

My son and his friend are learning quickly. My six year old son informs me that he wants ‘loads of beautiful women’ when he gets older. My counselling on the virtues of one good one, and the idea that one’s soul is important and looks are not fall on nearly deaf ears. And his boyness already expresses itself in competitiveness, and a shockingly well developed brand consciousness in relation to cars. He tells me that he and his best friend at school are ‘crushing’ on the same girl. They recognise that this is a problem and decide to sort out who will ‘get the girl’ through a series of competitions involving strength, physical ability, dexterity and cunning.

Sinead O’Connor’s chastisement of Miley Cyrus for ‘going naked’ is rarely expressed toward black women

For two whole days they have running races, monkey bar races, keep-it-uppie competitions, penalty shoot outs, scooter races but in each they are equal. They are flummoxed and make up more and more competitions as no clear winner emerges. But to no avail! They negotiate again and decide that since there is no clear winner for the girl’s favour they will simultaneously approach the girl and plant a small kiss on each of her cheeks to see what she says. This they do.

The girl, who has known nothing of their earlier endeavours or intention is suitably annoyed at this unrequested physical contact, and she tells them both to get lost and stomps off in a huff. I wonder how much will change in adulthood.

But there is a deeper issue here that runs to the historical schism in the Anglophone and Francophone traditions of academic feminism. The liberal Anglophones always wanted to struggle for equality, a levelling and a stress on the essential sameness of men and women. But of course in everyday life this clashes with reality, whether innate or socially produced.

Men and women live different lives and experience the world differently, and it is this essential differentness that runs in the Francophone tradition. Here, feminists fought for a greater value to be placed on the essential and intrinsic nature of women, counter posed to men. The stress on equality is useful when you are struggling for equal pay. The stress on differentness allows for mothering to actually be valued.

The Francophone tradition also seems to correspond better with actual life, where differentness is still reflected in all the statistics around the lives of women. The world Economic Forum monitors the gap between men and women in a number of areas including economic equality, political participation, access to health and education.

In Africa, Lesotho (at 14) and South Africa (at 16) are the only African countries ranked in the global top twenty for low gaps between men and women, while Mali (128), Côte d’Ivoire (130) and Chad (133) are the lowest with countries at the bottom of the index having gender gaps of close to 50 per cent for economic wealth. Women are more likely to be poor than men and make up the majority of those classified as poor globally. Women are more likely to suffer physical harm at the hands of another human being, probably a man, with some organisations claiming that one in four women in South African is currently in an abusive relationship. There is certainly little equality that has been achieved.

Behind the statistics there is also a life of responsibility and labour, often while the men are at leisure. For example, a women recently summarised this for me, seemingly emotionless, in one simple line “My daughter passed matric, had a baby a week later and then died a week after that, and that was last week”. I was sitting next to her in the queue in the Department of Home Affairs, where she was taking the opportunity to bottle-feed a tiny baby while waiting to pay for its birth certificate. I had admired the baby thinking it hers, only to learn she was the gogo.

Apart from wondering how and why her daughter’s life could end so young, and I didn’t ask, I was struck by the older women’s matter of fact disclosure, her complete lack of anger or demand for pity, and her automatic love for the newborn. The machinery of reproductive life is constantly oiled, maintained and made wondrous by women.

Now where are the men?

The way men behave is a choice, but in many spheres of life the argument that their intrinsic nature means they can’t help it, allows them to ride roughshod over the rights of women and children. And this column is a plea for many men to do masculinity differently. Some are pretty cool already. The type of masculinity that must go is the one in which men need sex and can’t help themselves in the taking of it; where men get angry and hit because they ‘can’t help it’; and where they put their feet up while the women labour, because that is ‘just the way things should be’.

Some women and some men go along with this way of ‘being a man’, admiring the man who ‘gets the girls’ (no matter what), the man with the expensive car, the marble pool, the younger mistress and the gold credit card, the mabenzies.

Indeed, the allowability of rape and women’s oppression, and also the allowability of corruption (which my next column will talk about), are linked to this framing of masculinity. It is all about The Dude who gets what he wants, and the shocking admiration he often gets from others. For example, there was an advert on the TV in Zimbabwe in the mid-2000s where a rich Dude in a huge car – apologies for not remembering the brand, although my son probably would – sat in the driving seat while a young girl in a negligible skirt and even less of a top learnt through the window to a backdrop of hardcore rap music.

some women in South Africa think that men who don’t get jealous, angry, or hit them are not emotionally invested

My Shona is weak, so I was amazed to hear from my friends that this was a government sexual health intervention and not an advert for a sex workers’ club. The visual and lyrical messages clashed profoundly. Here was an older Dude who could attract beautiful young women with money and cars, and indeed was in the process of visually doing so, but the girl was apparently being told to say no. The problem is the context and culture is the problem.

This cultural context of sex was studied by a research group in a European Union funded project on HIV treatment access across eight countries in SADC called Community Based Systems of Treatment (CoBaSys) for HIV affected persons. African based researchers held focus groups from 2010 to 2012 and there were two very difficult messages that still haunt me, among many others: 1) women often identified forced sex in marriage as a primary risk to their health status, including rape without a condom while their partner is non-monogamous; and 2) men identified their wives unwillingness to have sex with them as a primary risk to their health status, since it gave them the right or need to attend with transactional sex workers, even though this risked their HIV status.

Now it is as historic as time itself that there are tensions over how much sex people want in marriages, and when, which include tensions when women are feeding newborns and suffering from sleep deprivation in the process. The lactation period is a key risk period for new HIV infections. But what shocked me was how little time men were prepared to wait and ‘go without’. The sex itself seemed to be viewed as a commodity that couldn’t be forgone for even a day or so. And it was the women’s responsibility to provide it, indeed her fault if it wasn’t there for the consumption of the man, and her fault therefore, if he ‘had’ to go elsewhere.

The conclusion? Behavioural approaches to preventing new infections of HIV are not working very well, and let’s just rapidly hurry up with the prospect of immunising women with a barrier drug which prevents infection at the cellular level, because let’s face it, there are many men who are not prepared to ‘behave’ in abstinence and fidelity.

A shocking research

Now I know at this point many of you are screaming but women can be bad too! Some women mess around with multiple partners, are irresponsible, drunk, and mess with us men to get their rent and electricity paid! And yes that would be right.

But the point is that the pattern of behaviour here is relational, and the relationship between women and men is being produced as if sex, and/or love, is a commodity to be bought and sold. Marx explained why we do this when he wrote that under capitalism we suffer alienation from intrinsic values, producing ‘commodity fetishism’ where we turn our own feelings and bodies into goods for the marketplace, because commodity transaction is all we come to know. Our friendships become transactional in the sense that we constantly count what we get from them in relation to what we put in.

Thus alienated from emotion, the modern man is admired as a kind of 1980s pacman, going through life consuming women as commodities, as if they were lunch, a burger or an ice-cream. In 2 Chainz video, it is not even the whole women who is consumed but just the ‘big booty’ (ho) that he wants for his birthday.

In this marketplace of women’s bodies they are fundamentally adversely incorporated, as the men do the buying and the women do the selling, on the buyer’s terms. This is the context for women’s oppression, and when ‘woman as commodity’ is taken to an uncomfortably logical extreme, the context also for rape.

In a shocking piece of research this week from Sky news, albeit more ad hoc than the CoBaSys research, reporters asked men in South Africa about their attitudes to rape and whether they had raped women. The majority had, and many respondents said that women who had enjoyed resources that the man had provided had a duty to ‘repay’ with sex. Indeed, they didn’t even call forced sex rape. One had raped his girlfriend’s sister, but explained that he had provided for her in his house, so this was his right. Another that he had bought drinks for a woman in a bar, but when the evening was ending she wouldn’t go with him, so he had taken what was rightfully his. Another said that since he was unemployed and had no money he had no means to get sex any other way.

Brontes, sex, money and ‘good marriage’

The issue of whether the payment for sex was framed in the traditional money form – that is, man pays sex worker with cash – or in non-pecuniary form – man pays women in resources, accommodation, food, drink, ride in his benzies – was so blurred that it is clear: all women are transactional sex workers in the eyes of some men, and for a smaller number rape is explained as a compensation for resources provided. The only exclusions to this pattern of commodity exchange were when the men thought sex should be totally free, where a women being drunk or wearing a short skirt was enough reason to rape.

The idea of sex, love and marriage being an exchangeable thing is of course not new. In white English culture we got the Brontes literature that equated traditional romantic love with a ‘good marriage’, which is defined by, guess what, someone with money. You still exchanged sex for money, but politely so. So the biggest problem for women and their male friends may be that just short of actually selling each other we none the less negotiate with price in mind, even over our most intimate emotions.

The obsession with money has thrown back women’s liberation as in peoples’ minds we too are all commodities. Some of the extremes of this are found in the men who expect to rape as they pay to ‘keep’ a women; but more subtler versions are in the everyday ‘she must do what I want as a I am the man who provides’. Women are not passive in this, but choose their commodity, their man, with ideas of financial security for themselves and their children in mind.

Now it is not wrong for women to think like this, and in fact particularly poor women are vulnerable to so many risks, it is quite logical for them to do so. The problem is more that these are the choices available: as a society we are giving women no other choice but to privilege money in their negotiations with love, particularly young women. This transactionalism suggests that a basic income grant for everyone who is unemployed, and a social protection grant for women who are looking after children and other dependents would assist women to find a way out of entrapment to the ‘man who provides’, particularly if he is subsequently violent.

Indeed in England in the early seventies a labour government introduced much easier ways to get divorced, blame-free, and a universal grant for women with children. This proved wonderful and as women had an independent source of money, they could divorce and move as a choice over being hit, and the rate of domestic violence dropped, as the divorce rate rose. But, it is not just the economics that matter here, although that is integral to assisting vulnerable women.

A colleague tells me from his gender research, that some women in South Africa think that men who don’t get jealous, angry, or hit them are not emotionally invested. This is nothing short of tragic.

A new model of masculinity is needed and can be found in initiatives that show a brave courageous man as one who doesn’t hit or rape. A good example of encouraging behaviour change was the Government of South Africa initiative against domestic violence and the ‘say no to rape’ campaign, where Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe encouraged South African men to break away from violence. A National Men’s rally was held in Johannesburg on 26th August 2013. Or on a smaller scale, the skate board association in Durban and the North Beach Skate Park, and its sibling Indigo Skate Park in 1000 Hills, provide spaces for boys to live as a new crew, looking out for each other and women in an atmosphere free of coercion.

Men are doing it for themselves and I would like to thank publically the volunteer older men here that make it possible, Bruce Callaghan and Dallas Oberholtzer in the Durban case, and also the countless other millions I don’t know who act similarly in volunteer roles in sports and cultural clubs. Modern masculinity can be much more flexible and less tough, but that means women must stop playing the old game too. Don’t be weak and vulnerable, and complicit in your own oppression. Do you need a sugar daddy when someone your own age could truly love you? Beyond some necessary need for money, do you transact with men or truly care for them? And if you have no effective means to choose the latter, what can we all do about it?

Women’s bodies in visual media

Put the French and English feminist traditions together and you have in common a respect of humanity where both men and women can be feminists in their respect of each other and our intrinsic value. In this we fight back against being just objects of exchange. But the culture of capitalism seems to be knocking this project back, partly because women’s bodies play a particular role in commoditising us, and they are constantly streaming through visual media. Now this is not just to do with nakedness, which is as old as the hills, but about nakedness signifying sexual availability.

Miley Cyrus naked on her wrecking ball and Lil Wayne ‘long as my bitches love me’ are examples of American music that is constantly stressing women’s nakedness and availability in the context of money and cars, and is now part of the new cultural Africa.

Now there is an interesting side here, that the shock and horror expressed in Sinead O’Connor’s chastisement of Miley Cyrus for ‘going naked’ is rarely expressed toward black women, at least in terms of American culture. I am guessing that, in the equation of all women being commoditised as sexually transactional, this has been expressed for longer in relation to black bodies through the terrible history of slavery and racism. The story of Saartjie Baartman (also known as Sara Baartman or the Hottentot Venus), removed from South Africa and made into a spectacle in Europe, whose body parts were only returned and laid to rest in the Eastern Cape on Women’s Day in 2002 is testimony to this.

Arguably new visual media content is making a spectacle of women that constitutes a modern body fascism, in this tradition of modernist supremacy. We must stay thin, if we are white at least, in order to be beautiful, and we must bemoan and try and prevent any sign of aging. Our everydays are full of the evaluation of our bodies by men, and as we get old, by denouncements and smirking. And this is not just by men, but by ourselves, other women, and culture more broadly.

Take Disney channel where nearly all the women characters over 40 are represented as either ugly (the Principal in ANT Farm), dysfunctional and desperate for a man (the teacher in Suite Life on Deck) or all three. Indeed, aged women are the butt of much of the canned laughter. And this cultural message of misogyny is learned quickly and profoundly by children.
Yet, but maybe not surprisingly given this cultural conservatism and misogyny, feminism remains a negative signifier, a dirty word, and a no-go language that few girls sign up for. I think this is for two reasons. The first, an uncomfortable one, is that the feminist movement has faltered in the face of a type of masculinity that builds from the idea that women and men are different, which seems obvious to everyone, but which is then projected to explain why men have and do what they like. Starting from the fact of men’s superior strength over (most) women all else follows into cultural, political and economic dominance.

Once the women have children it is game set and match for men, who consign them to the home, knowing where they are at all times, while starting the car to head for the bar – and a younger generation. And these are the men who think that the best of feminism is when it increases the supply of new commodities to the market in the ‘sexual freedom’ of their mistresses. And since they pay the bills beware the wife who fails to ‘put the dinner on the table’ when they eventually go home. While both women and men may join in the oppression of women by making this context of commodity exchange, the statistics show that men are the ones who remain the biggest winners.










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