I remember very well the first “sex talk” I had with my mother. We were in the rural areas for the holidays when my cousin pulled me aside to tell me that there were red spots on my trousers. What was to follow was a confusing day where I felt my body had betrayed me as I could not predict when the strange bleeding would stop. I remember my mother saying “you know that now you can get pregnant?” I nodded. And then she said “uziphathe kakuhle ke ntombi” (you must look after yourself, girl). That was the end of it.
I have never inquired what sex advice my mother or father had given my brothers. Both of them are younger than me but one of them fathered two children before he completed high school. I often observe with a hint of jealousy at the carefree nature of my brother’s life. Very little of his daily routine tells me this is someone who has dependants except for the random profile pictures of his daughter and son on his cellphone. I think very often of the very different ways in which young men and women are socialised about desire, sex and intimacy and their consequences.
I was reminded of this following the reports last week that 12 female students in KwaZulu-Natal where being sent to India for pharmaceutical and ultrasonography training and were to be injected with contraceptive implants “that will prevent them from falling pregnant for up to three years”. Dr Sibongiseni Dhlomo, the health MEC in KwaZulu-Natal, was quoted declaring to the young women at a parent’s farewell dinner that “even if you are in or not in a relationship, we will inject you with Implanon before you leave”.
The image of the young women with their arms in the air evoked disturbing images of forced sterilisation during apartheid. But Dhlomo clarified to Eusebius McKaiser on Power FM that the contraceptive was not compulsory as most reports suggested, but rather an option given as advice to the girls to “delay pregnancy” until they finished their studies. Dhlomo pointed out that of the 12 women on the scholarship; three declined the suggestion to take the contraceptive. Throughout the interview Dhlomo reminded the listening public that he spoke to the students not as a politician but as a father who was aware that many of them come from poor backgrounds and could not afford to waste this opportunity.
It was therefore very startling to hear Dhlomo pause and chuckle when Eusebius asked him what fatherly advice he had given the young men who were also going to India. It was as if the question had not entered his mind. His response that “boys do not have the problem of falling pregnant” is very telling of our gendered assumptions about the responsibilities that follow certain sexual choices.
As Catherine Burns reminded us “from the 1930s to 1960s black South African nurses were expected to stand in their underwear and undergo weekly examination by white male medical superintendents to ensure they were not pregnant”, while white women who worked for public institutions were either fired or given part-time jobs if they married or became pregnant. All this while “even during the darkest days of apartheid no such efforts were made to control the fertility of heterosexual white or black men”.
In “Sex in a Time of Exile: An Examination of Sexual Health, Aids, Gender, and the ANC, 1980 – 1990”, Carla Tsampiras reminds us that the ANC in exile was concerned about the spread of HIV and unplanned pregnancies. Yet, “while the physical results of womyn’s sexual practices in terms of pregnancy often required the ANC to address the consequences of those sexual practices directly, there is little evidence to suggest that men’s sexual practices were similarly addressed”.
Fast-forward to South Africa after 1994, it is women who are the biggest participants in the country’s Aids treatment programme while many men simply refuse to test. From a young age women learn that sexual desire is dangerous because if sex does not give you HIV, sex is likely to take away your life chances if you dare become pregnant. This is while it took me an entire year to convince my brother to get tested for HIV. I had to find strategic means of getting him to think about HIV differently. This included making him read Jonny Steinberg’s Three Letter Plague whose main protagonist is a young man from Lusikisiki named Sizwe Magadla. I knew that the vanity of reading one’s surname in a book would intrigue him to read the book.
I, who am childless, was more concerned than my sibling with two children about his status.
This is why it would be a mistake to see the events of the past week as isolated because there is more at stake. Generations of women in South Africa are robbed of the opportunity to explore sex-positive lives. Instead, our introduction to desire and play is not from a place of love but from a place of fear. For most men, sex is all about desire and play, reckless or not. Men from a young age are not made to think about questions of consent, safe sex and genuine non-dominant intimacy. We are made to believe that “delaying pregnancy” solves the problem. And when one is poor, there is even a greater need to be vigilant about pregnancy and infections.
A friend challenged me that at least these young women were given a “choice” in this matter. I then thought of when I was 21 years old and had been awarded a scholarship to pursue a master’s degree in the US. I wonder what my “choice” would have been had my scholarship funders “advised” me to consider taking contraception, which would eliminate the chances of pregnancy for those two years. As a young working-class black girl, I’m sure I would have been so grateful for the opportunity and so fearful of “wasting” it that I would have been first in line to sign up. Even though as a daughter of a nurse, I am fully aware of the real and harmful side-effects some of these contraceptives have.
So in the end we have sent a group of some of our brightest young minds to pursue a chance of a lifetime, half of them shoulder the daunting task of policing their bodies from their male peers and the strangers they will encounter. And when I think of the young men, I think of Basimane in Kagiso Molope’s novel, This book betrays my brother, talking to his sister Naledi he declares desperately: “You’re not taught to read women’s minds. You’re taught that they want whatever you want.”