I just read a very troubling article by Mail & Guardian columnist Khaya Dlanga titled “Why do side-chicks happen?” In this article Dlanga claims to investigate in the South African context the reasons why (American-focused) research suggests that multiple lovers have come to “become even more popular in the modern age”. He cites a study by Cornell University’s Christin Munsch, which finds that “men who earn less than their partners are more likely to cheat” and that those men who are completely dependent “on their wives’ salaries are five times more likely to cheat than a man who isn’t dependent on his wife”.
He continues to make some of his own findings from what he’s “heard” and contends that “people believe themselves to be faithful to their partners even when they are not” and does indeed provide some crude examples from men with “side-chicks” and women with “side-guy[s]” that appear to support his contention. The ultimate premise of the article by Dlanga (supported further by American research) is that “there are fewer good quality men for women to choose from” because as women surpass men in income “men with a good education, up bringing [sic] and great job are in demand still because there are fewer of them”.
There are many fallacious and problematic aspects with this article by Dlanga that are worth tearing into, especially since he is dangerously applying this article in the South African context. Through-out the article the author, who happens to be a man, uses the term “side-chicks” uncritically as if it is an acceptable term to refer to women, when that term is loaded with sexism, misogyny and misogynoir [B1] in the South African context. While Dlanga does sneak in the word “side-guy[s]” to seemingly balance his article, the term does not carry the same social potency as “side-chicks”. “Side-chick/s” is a term often appropriated by young, largely urban and peri-urban young men (and some women) to sexually shame women who are found to be in multiple concurrent partnerships.
There is a long history in South Africa of slut-shaming women, while not applying equal critique to the men involved in these multiple concurrent partnerships. The Second National HIV Communication Survey, 2009 (published in 2010) clearly found that in South Africa young men between the ages of 20-29 and older were the most likely to be involved in multiple sexual partnerships than women. In the paper “Cultural Politics and Masculinities: Multiple Partners in Historical Perspective in KwaZulu-Natal” Mark Hunter traces the concept of isoka historically among Zulu men in KwaZulu-Natal and notes this concept is “a powerful, though fluid concept in isiZulu [broadly meaning] a man with multiple-sexual partners”. Next to this concept of isoka is the juxtaposition of isifebe, meaning “a loose woman engaging in plural relations”. Hunter notes that while isoka is celebrated for having numerous sexual conquests, the women are still for the most part seen as isifebe [loose women] and promiscuous and causing the spread of Aids.
Dlanga clearly does not understand the factors that often drive to persistence of multiple concurrent partnerships in South Africa. The problem is not that “people believe themselves to be faithful to their partners even when they are not” as he argues, but rather as Hunter argues, we need to understand the (historical) factors that make multiple concurrent partnerships persist in post-apartheid South Africa. In their report on “Concurrent Sexual Partnerships Amongst Young Adults in South Africa: Challenges for HIV prevention communication”, Warren Parker, Benjamin Makhubele, Pumla Ntlabati and Cathy Connolly note that it is well-established in scientific literature that having concurrent multiple partners “is an important factor underpinning rapid growth of the HIV epidemic — particularly in Southern Africa”. Multiple concurrent partnerships drive HIV because the HIV viral load (amount of the HI virus in the blood) is at its highest level of infectiousness in the first few months after sexual contact. This means it is easy for a person who is recently infected to pass on the virus because the person’s viral load is very high at this point, and thus when there is more than one partner — everyone in the sexual network of that person is at high risk of infection.
So why do these relationships persist? It is a bit more complicated than people taking a chance with multiple concurrent relationships “because they know they are in demand” as Dlanga would have us believe. As Parker, Makhubele, Ntlabati and Connolly note, multiple concurrent relationships persist in South Africa out of a confluence of socioeconomic and cultural contexts that “are intertwined with individual psychological factors related to self-esteem and fatalism”. This means that these relationships often persist because there are “distinct benefits” that go beyond sexual pleasure that can be accrued, which can include sex in exchange for money or other material goods. In a deeply patriarchal and unequal society like South Africa, it is important to also see women’s sexual decisions in this context.
In his book Love in the Time of Aids: Inequality, Gender and Rights in South Africa, Hunter argues convincingly that “without addressing the structural reasons why men and women have more than one sexual partner, any behavioural intervention campaign is unlikely to provide a major breakthrough … ”. Hunters approach allows us to move beyond seeing women with more than one sexual partner as simply promiscuous or “side-chicks”, but to also start asking the real questions such as: What factors are driving her to choose a second partner? What material benefits does having more than one partner accrue to her? What structural limitations prevent her from getting these on her own? And so on.
It is unacceptable for Dlanga to uncritically partake in the perpetuation of toxic misogynistic euphemisms against South African women like “side-chicks”, without engaging the deeper power dynamics and nuances that shape the decisions of these women to ultimately partake in multiple concurrent partnerships.
[B1] This is not a spelling mistake. This is a word that refers to a particular type of misogyny. You can Google the definition.