LoveLife is one of the reasons I went through my teenage years and reached this point without an STI. But it was touch-and go for a while. There was a phase when I never listened to sexual safety awareness messages. Those messages were useful for “normal” people. But as a repressed gay kid, I never thought they applied to me.
It’s that easy for “straight” communication to slip straight past non-straight people. But it’s just as easy for an attempt to focus on non-straight people to end up “othering” them even further.
When I did engage LoveLife’s message, I realized that the pervasive, repeated assumption of heteronormality not only is a blind spot to gay kids, but causes everyone to overlook the social issues tied into hetero-expectation and hetero-respectability. This silence about other forms of sexuality (punctuated by acknowledgements that “others” exist) is problematic. Everyone knows that communication is 9/10ths repetition. But isn’t this assumption that being straight is the human default, or “the way things are”, part of what influences young men to want to “prove” their hetero-masculinity by sleeping with and objectifying women while shunning anything that could put a question mark over their hetero-masculinity?
When alternate sexualities aren’t given as much normative airtime, the remaining assumption of universal heterosexuality worsens the very problems that HIV-awareness organizations exist to resolve. It creates a “box” for kids to fit their sexual lives into. The very word “straight” tells us that heterosexuality is the unexamined (and unexaminable) default, the norm; the measure of social, cultural and sexual success. Nobody thinks to step back and sort the myths from the truths about sex, nor the constructions from the essences of gender. They’re too desperate earning their social stripes and affirmation through sex.
This “others” those that don’t fit into the hetero-expectant box or its associated behavior. Seeing no representations of people like themselves, not-straight people feel as marginalized, invisible and non-existent as I thought I was when I was a teenager and could not “see” the posters made by people that could not “see” me; when I could not “hear” the messages spoken by those that could not “hear” me.
To preserve “existence” and be “seen”, one must then be straight. Whatever homoerotic tendencies there may be must be sublimated into socially acceptable “straight” activities – even if those activities are violent or anti-social. Parents who want their children to be successful (as a hetero-expectant society measures success) will subliminally tell their sons that they’d rather have them exercise power over others than power with them.
By their relative silence about gay people, the LoveLife posters neglect to launch a real conversation around these dangerous default settings for masculinity; at least, that’s how they were when I last studied them years ago. As I experienced it, their watered-down messages only brought about a watered-down paradigm shift. I had to pay attention in order to be impacted meaningfully by their good work.
This is the catch-22 faced by such NGOs: the moment that the assumption of hetero-masculinity is questioned, society goes to greater lengths to silence the conversation around taboo topics. Society has thus issued an unreasonable brief to LoveLife: transform masculinity enough so that it stops hurting the community, but not so much that the community itself is forced to face its unawareness concerning gender, sex and sexuality. Within these constraints, LoveLife has done a commendable job.
But like I said: it was touch-and-go for a while.
The presupposition of heterosexuality masks some truths about society. Studies have shown that, left to their own devices, children grow up to be mostly bisexual*. Many coloured men in Wentworth love “ball-pressing” (slang for male-on-male sex, normally practiced amongst straight-identified males) and black people in Umlazi use television terms like “after 9” “Senzo and Jason” to simultaneously say and leave unsaid everything pertaining to homosexuality. Many Indian marriages are a pretty front for the sexual ambivalence of the men in them who have male lovers on the side. And it’s been said that as many as 70% of all men have had one orgasm that was due to the direct sexual intervention of another man; that 68% experience significant same-sex attraction at some point in their lives*. 90% of Rome’s Emprerors had male lovers*. It is also known anecdotally that such homoerotic activity will never be discussed with women or gay-identified men (nor discussed at all with the “real” men amongst and with whom it happens; men do not discuss issues because society has seen to it that don’t have the emotional intelligence or social vocabulary to do so); it’s a “guy thing”, shrouded in absolute secrecy and cognitive dissonance.
Hetero-expectation tacitly demands the concealment of “other” impulses while pushing men to defend their masculinity*.
When the assumption of heterosexuality is not questioned, other questions fail to enter our imaginations:
“Does sex have to be penetrative in order to ‘count’ as sex?”
“Is my masculinity better demonstrated if I compete against another man, or if I express affection for him?”
“Why is it considered awkward when a man is called ‘beautiful’ but not a woman? Why can’t men be looked at as beautiful the way women can? Why is the visual objectification of women okay, but that of men, not*?” Hetero-expectation allows society to hide its misogyny, that is, its contempt towards and objectification of women.
If we want to transform masculinity and raise men who are thoughtful, we need to throw out our assumptions about what it means to be a man and start discussions about masculinities.
But that’s just the opinion of a not-straight boy who’s spent years trying to make head or tails of LoveLife’s campaigns.
*Every link added leads to an article, paper or report that I’ve read and think highlights the general principle mentioned on this article; I do not always fully endorse the ideas in those papers. SKhumalo1987@gmail.com