Last month, I focused on the parts of male culture that I saw in South Africa that promoted infidelity and having multiple girlfriends, or cherries (http://letsgogirl.wordpress.com/2009/12/27/get-yourself-a-girlfriend-or-two/). There is more to the story though. The pressure doesn’t just come from other guys, but from some girls too.
Now most women who have traveled abroad will probably have experienced some of the unwanted attention that is a result of a healthy patriarchy. If you are unfamiliar with this, see: (http://letsgogirl.wordpress.com/2009/11/15/shes-with-me/). One of the reasons this kind of behavior is so alive and well is because a lot of women play into it. The few that don’t are mavericks like Mpho (http://letsgogirl.wordpress.com/2009/10/11/starting-the-conversation/). But there is a story you may not often hear, and that is of the unexpected attention that men sometimes get when traveling abroad.
I’d been at my site for almost two months and I was finally beginning to put names to faces. I had almost all the teachers down but was lost with the 500+ kids at the high school. Only a few stood out, like Mofokeng, who taught me to herd goats after school, Thabiso, who spoke great English and was teaching me seTswana, and Patience, whose powerful voice led the entire school in song at each morning assembly. She was a senior and a pretty girl. Each day after school as I walked home, I’d pass her and her group of friends as they chatted. Patience would always greet me with a big smile. One day, she called me over to chat.
“KB, when are you going to make us dinner.” (KB was my nickname)
“I think there’s a misunderstanding. I’m not making any dinner.”
“Can we come over to visit you then?”
“Umm, I guess so, everyone here knows where I live.”
“Can I spend the night?”
“No no no no…and in fact, maybe you shouldn’t come over…”
I hastily beat a retreat down the dusty road. This was not the first nor the last time I’d turn down such propositions and flirtations.
One instance was more subtle, but far more troubling. Lerato was a relative of my host family and often came over to help with errands and take care of the babies. She was one of my early allies as I struggled to master seTswana. She’d often help translate what people were saying in broken English. One day as we were baby-sitting the two year old Tlotlo, I tried to teach her “Rock, Paper, Scissors.” After a few minutes she gave up and insisted on showing me a game. She held out her right hand in a fist. She wiggled her thumb, and told me to raise it. Then she wiggled her index finger. Then her thumb again, this time indicating to put it down. And finally she wiggled her index finger again. As I looked to ask what was next in this game, she gave me a big smile and I looked down again at her hand. “Oh shit…” I thought to myself. The hand gesture, which some of you may know as sign language for “t”, in South Africa is one of many ways to subtly say, “I want to have sex with you.” I looked at Lerato with terror in my eyes and shook my head to try to erase any mixed signals I may have unintentionally sent. It’s not that I’m terrified of girls, just that Lerato was 14 at the time.
From what I’ve seen, in the world of guys, unless you happen to be a Brad Pitt look alike or the star quarterback, it’s unlikely that you’ll find girls aggressively hitting on you. Flirting is an entirely different matter, but most of us are not used to having a girl directly communicate that they want us. The onus is on the guy to make the first move in general. When an American guy is then placed into this unfamiliar circumstance where he might have to actually bat away girls, there are many problems that can arise. Quite honestly, it feels kind of nice for a change and it can be very tempting for a guy alone in a foreign place. Some lucky ones find meaningful relationships but unfortunately, in most cases, I think the American guy is viewed as an economic rather than an emotional investment.
In places where male promiscuity is boasted about, it’s often the case that female virginity and fidelity are highly prized. This asymmetry shouldn’t be mistaken for practice. If every guy has multiple sexual partners, it’s highly unlikely that all the women are sticking to one guy. When I started my service I was in a long distance relationship. I thought that the answer that I had a girlfriend would be enough to end the discussion. I was taken aback when some girls responded with, “But she is so far away. You need a girlfriend here.” Another volunteer working in the health sector was told by people in his organization that he should knock up some local girls in order to “leave a remembrance” of himself for them. Perhaps, as I discussed previously, there should be some kind of menist movement, but the feminist movement still has plenty of work out there globally and more men we get behind it rather than obstructing it, the better.
Shades of Grey
Like so many other issues, the issue of male promiscuity can’t be pinned down to one thing alone. Sometimes there is pressure from both men AND women for guys to be promiscuous. It’s not an excuse. But it’s something to think about before demonizing men. Lots of the married male teachers I knew and worked with had stuff going on with women in the village, some even with students. In some cases, I already didn’t get along with them for other reasons and this just added fuel to the fire. In some cases though, it was a tortuous relationship because I knew some of these guys were good people and good teachers but that under a very heavy societal and physical pressure they had made a few choices that were not the best.
When traveling or working abroad, you will occasionally find the guys that are true free thinkers that swim against the patriarchy like the friend I described in my last column. More often, you will find guys that are doing some things that clash with your sensibilities. Some may be jerks that you want nothing to do with. Others though, may actually be decent people that could be quite helpful. It’s not easy to tell sometimes but it’s worth the effort to find out.