When trying to think of a topic for this months column, I found myself skimming through accounts of women’s travels to dig up some themes. Something that comes up again and again is outrage or at least incomprehension at how acceptable it is for men to be unfaithful to their partners in some countries. I haven’t done any kind of study, but from what I’ve seen and read, it seems like it’s fairly common in Africa and Latin America.
Now, I’m not talking about the usual double standard; that a guy that gets around is a player whereas a woman that does the same is a slutty ho. That still is fairly alive and well in the U.S.A. I’m talking about an attitude that is so pervasive that, as a married man with children, your masculinity will be questioned if you do not have a few mistresses on the side.
Before I get rolling, let me be clear about what I am NOT saying. I’m not commenting one way or the other on open relationships where all partners are in the know and agree to be open. Purely from a public health standpoint, I will just say that great care must be taken (especially in southern Africa) because having concurrent sexual partners seems to spread HIV faster than serial monogamy (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/11/20/AR2007112001676_2.html). I’m also not in any way trying to excuse infidelity in a committed relationship.
What I am going to do in this column and the next, is to try to paint a picture of what this all looks like from a guys perspective.
Part I: Cherry Picking
As Beth points out in “Sexism and Candy” http://letsgogirl.wordpress.com/2009/12/15/sexism-and-candy/, there is sometimes a machismo that dominates male culture. Sometimes it’s strange how much resolve it takes simply to do the “right” thing when everyone around you says you aren’t a man.
One day after school, Mr. Tshabang and I decided to go to the local clinic to try to build a partnership in the HIV/AIDS awareness campaign we were trying to start. The clinic was located about 7 km from the school. Fortunately we were able to get a ride from two other teachers, Mr. Ndlovu and Mr. Manchusi. At the clinic, Tshabang and I brainstormed ideas with the nurses on topics such as condom distribution, testing drives, and educational talks. After making a few plans for cooperation, we got back in the car and headed back towards the school. After a few kilometers, we diverted off the main road and pulled up to a house. Ndlovu got out and with a big grin said he’d be back soon. Manchusi joined him as they went inside.
Tshabang and I sat for a few minutes of awkward silence before I finally asked what exactly was going on.
“Ndlovu is visiting his ‘cherry’ in there.”
It took me a few seconds to make the connection and then it dawned on me. ‘Cherry’ is a slang term for a mistress. I knew all of these men were married and had children, but were now far from their families because of work. Such is the nature of the South African migrant worker-based economy. Mr. Tshabang waited for a bit before speaking again.
“You know, I really don’t agree with that type of behavior.”
“I’m glad, Mr. Tshabang, because neither do I.”
In that moment of solidarity, Tshabang opened up. Almost all the male teachers had several “cherries”, some of whom were students. When he’d joined the school a few months ago, they had tried to pressure him into taking a few of his own. He’d resisted and as a result had been ostracized. He was here, in the desert, earning money to support his wife and children, over 700 km away, and the colleagues who should have been his support had pushed him away.
Mr. Tshabang is a thin guy. He is even skinnier than me. But as I would learn over the years, his slight frame contained an incredible character. He had a powerful voice, and would MC school events of hundreds of people without a microphone. His legs may have been wires, but he could run like the wind. And he had unshakable moral fiber and resolve. He became one of my closest allies and trusted friends.
Unfortunately, he seemed to be the exception rather than the rule among the male teachers. Even I got some of the pressure. Every month or so, somehow my conversations with Ndlovu would get to the topic of my love life. Having a girlfriend at home had not been enough to satisfy him. I had to have something going on locally. One day I finally got him off my back.
“So tell me KB, how are you taking care of yourself?”
“Well, I exercise every day. I eat well and make sure I get a good night’s sleep…”
“No no, I mean, how are you taking care of yourself?”
“I’m sorry Ndlovu, I don’t follow you.” (The standard, play dumb strategy)
“You know KB. A man has needs.”
“Oh, you mean masturbation?” (The standard, make him really uncomfortable strategy)
“No! No more talk of masturbation. You know it’s only natural that a man has a woman somewhere. It’s how nature works. All the animals do it. When the lion is hungry, it must eat.”
“You know what the difference is between an animal and a man? An animal is driven by its desires, its hungers. A real man can make choices and be driven by principles rather than desires.” (I do realize that this statement is not entirely accurate for animals, but it served to make a point)
“Is that so?”
“Yes it is. So which one are you?”
With a laugh, Ndlovu quickly left the room and never brought up the topic again.
As I mentored the young men in my camps and classes, I could see some of them torn between what they thought was right and what the popular culture was telling them was right. Tshabang and I tried our best to provide an example, but we were vastly outnumbered by the Ndlovu’s.
I sometimes think that there needs to be a “men”ist movement. Feminism has done a tremendous amount to raise consciousness in our society, and in particular to empower the women of today. (There is still much to do on this front, as I’ll discuss next time.)
For true equality, there must be more than feminism. There must be a substantial change in the culture of manhood that pervades most of the world today. I’m not talking about an emasculation as my male opponents might cry out. On the contrary, I’m talking about being a real man.
[Note: The incidents listed above are as accurate as I can recall. Only the names have been changed, not because I want to protect guys like Ndlovu, but because I don’t want to compromise the ability of future volunteers working at my site.]