Battle of the sexes needs a climax

Perhaps we should view the recent volley of insults about self-confessed womanising and wild whore libidos as a lancing of a national boil.

And now that we have let out the noxious vapours we could attempt to examine more closely and treat the wound that has festered for so long between men and women in this country.

President Jacob Zuma and Helen Zille, the leader of the official opposition, are metaphors for highly problematic and contested notions of heterosexual masculinity and femininity in this country.

In the one corner we have, as author Jonny Steinberg recently suggested, Jacob Zuma, who has come to represent for young black men—particularly those in impoverished districts—a sort of restoration of shattered male identity.

Here, says Steinberg, is the vital and virile older man. A man who has at least three wives, 18 children and who can perform sexually for 34 minutes (as the president himself suggested during his rape trial). Here also, remarkably, is a man who even uses baby oil during foreplay.

In the absence of the usual markers of manhood, a job, a homestead and cattle, Steinberg argues that he has noted that young men have come to regard the sexual gratification of a woman as a new measure of masculinity. It has become, he argues, “a veritable cult”.

In the other corner, we have the self-made, white woman. A wife, a mother of two sons, who although she might not be viewed as liberated in the traditional feminist understanding of the idea, has risen as leader in a decidedly male-dominated party. Here is a woman whose husband shops for groceries, helps to clean the house and irons her clothes.

The ANC Youth League and MK veteran’s atavistic response that Zille herself possesses an insatiable “wild whore” sexual appetite and that she has taken men as “concubines”, gives us an insight into one of the most significant reasons for the tensions between men and women when it comes to sex.

And it is a particularly male habit that may also help to explain Steinberg’s romantic assessment of young men’s new-found enthusiasm and eagerness to satisfy sexually their female partners.

The mistake made by the ANC Youth League, the MK Veteran’s Association and Steinberg’s young men, who climax six times during sex but who are anxious because they seem to leave their women sexually unfulfilled, is that often when men think of female sexuality they transpose their own experience of sex on to women.

That’s why, as Steinberg says, Dr Hermann Reuter of Médecins Sans Frontières provides these young men with a lesson in “the female orgasm”.

For men there is no such thing as “bad sex”, while women the world over complain about not being able to achieve an orgasm through penetrative sex. Whoever designed the two sexes, it is clear, has played a cruel joke. Men are indeed from Mars and women from Venus or is it rather Nkandla and Cape Town in our case?

It is this inability to understand and respect the complexity of female sexuality that lies at the heart of all heterosexual dysfunction, not only in South Africa but also across the globe. The reasons for this are multiple and can be located in cultural, social, religious and political understandings of male and female sexuality.

But apart from this sexual incompatibility, which practically requires from men considerably more effort than many are often prepared to invest, there are much more serious consequences for women who live in phallocentric sexual cultures.

The inevitable inequality that this leads to places women at much greater risk when it comes to negotiating sex.

In South Africa, between the metaphors that Zuma and Zille might represent, exists an entirely different landscape and reality. It is a horrifying one, strewn with bloody victims: the 60 000-odd women who are raped annually in this country, the countless number of children who are abused as well as the shameful statistic that South Africa has the highest rate of HIV infection in the world.

In fact, even Zuma’s family has not been spared. In 1999 his first wife, our First Lady, Sizakele Khumalo, was gang raped by four young men at the president’s homestead in Nkandla. The men were all subsequently sentenced to between life and four years.

This is a battlefield deadlocked in competing understandings of freedom and equality of the sexes. It is evidenced in this country in numerous studies that have found that many women do not understand the notion of “consensual sex”. This lack of decision-making power among women when it comes to negotiating sex is at the root of many of the challenges.

While I have no doubt that there are men, young and old, who delight in pleasuring women, the horrifying reality for women in this county—that one out of three of us will be raped in our lifetime—is the cold, hard truth.

Let’s hope, then, for a deeper, more committed debate, and not just among the chattering classes but also in the villages and outposts.

I suspect the idea of pleasing us in bed is not going to help much. A good start would be the undoing of dangerous patriarchal attitudes to women, a visible official commitment to eradicating gender violence and, most importantly, a better arrest and conviction rate for the abhorrent crime of rape, which remains an utterly shameful national scar.



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