Growing up, I had a very strict aunt. When she saw me crying, she would snap, “Real men don’t cry!” Over time, others explained to me that crying sissies brought bullying on themselves.
In school, the male world had a pecking order and that if you were not the toughest you were lunch. To cope with bullies and other harassers, I learned to use my temper. Whenever I felt threatened, humiliated or powerless, I gave myself permission to do the most destructive thing I could just to assert myself in a belittling and hostile world. I didn’t know how to fight back but I wasn’t afraid to push back. Fighting is a skill; destruction needs no skill, just the rage of powerlessness and the ability not to feel sorry.
Had I continued on the path I was being socialized along, I would be some kind of woman-abuser. “But Siya, you’re gay,” some would say. “But Siya, you’re such a gentle person,” others point out. Being a violent person or rapist isn’t about sexual orientation or temperament; it’s about how deep society’s messages about power and masculinity have sunk in. It took a damned good psychologist to get me to embrace a compassionate, more authentic version of myself – one that happens to be gay as an aspect of its healthiest emotional state – but without such intervention, society teaches boys that forcing their will on others is manly and that women are the appropriate default recipients of men’s aggression. I see it in the body language of male taxi conduits who think it’s okay to corner girls and women into taking their taxis but seldom try the same thing with men. It’s the same toxin as every other toxic masculinity, just diluted and overlooked by a society that calls it normal.
Women have been taught to expect this as a validation of their femininity and to put themselves at men’s mercy. They’re socialized to think that men are subjects and women are objects; in other words, that the essence of masculinity is being the actor, where the essence of femininity is being the acted-upon. There are issues touching tribalism, religion and apartheid tied into these social demands, but each of those social demands is a death-wish.
To counter all of this, we create campaigns saying “Real Men don’t rape”. Who gets to define what “real men” are? I was listening to a radio station when I heard of an email written by a listener who said that whenever he heard Scissor Sister’s Don’t Feel Like Dancing and caught himself singing along to it, he questioned his heterosexuality. The radio DJ laughed and remarked that liking that particular song could cause any man to question his masculinity. See how neatly heterosexuality is equated to masculinity. Like any other test of manhood, the slogan “real men don’t rape” still frames this elusive, undefined masculinity an achievement, but the achievement is also undefined because “real men” are not defined to begin with – at least, not defined out loud. Like the Mafia’s secret handshake, masculinity is a tacit contract that society has with its men; its vocalization ends with, “Real men don’t cry” while boys are toddlers. And like the Mafia, masculinity terrorizes society but nobody speaks about it.
The demand to “perform” masculinity is powerful. When we say, “Real men don’t rape”, failure, shame and weakness are still posited as possibilities to the men receiving this message. There is still a potential difference between “real men” and unreal men; the recipients still have to navigate these two polarities accurately, or suffer emasculation. Masculinity is performed constantly because men are actors. It gets more confusing: though we are told what men don’t do (“rape”) we are not told what “real” men do do. Anyone listening to this radio station, whether attentively or not, had brainwashed into them that “real men” don’t sing along to Don’t Feel Like Dancing because if they do, they lose both their precious masculinity and heterosexuality in one go. Because masculinity is being heterosexual when confronted with women and being stoic and inactive when faced with a piece of music that could have one seen as being like a woman or a gay man. Masculinity is, in part, a performance. I shudder to think what else goes through various people’s minds when they hear the words, “Real Men”.
The imperative to achieve masculinity still menaces the male hearer who is told that “Real men don’t rape”. When I threw my toys and my female relatives told me that real men don’t lose their tempers, it was the last straw for me as a child (can’t cry, can’t get angry, can’t lose control, can’t be afraid – I was a puppet, it appeared, my whole being under the judgment of the world.). It is precisely in this attempt to speak in the language of “men” that the campaign reinforces the frame of thought that produces rapists. I criticize what I do not know – no doubt the campaign has stopped some rapes – but I can’t help sensing that the slogan keeps playing to the same gender dichotomy that says men have the option of acting upon women. It merely tells men not to act upon women in just this particular way. The words thus confront the symptom by strengthening the source of the disease, namely, our insistence of looking at men and women as actors and the acted-upon respectively.
You may wonder why I use quotation marks on the word “rape”. I am of the belief that “rape” is a concept that is only “obvious” to those who already understand many of the nuances surrounding gender, sex, sexuality, bodily integrity, human rights and interpersonal power. We assume that rapists know that they are raping but that is a dangerous assumption. I suspect that some rapists think they are reminding women that they can be acted upon, as in the corrective rape of lesbians whose lesbianism is seen as a persistent refusal to be acted upon by men.
Corrective rape is instructive. Some men are threatened by the idea that there are some women who could refuse to be acted upon; those women unwittingly say that the masculinity of the men is plastic and optional. “Corrective” rapists don’t see corrective rape as rape; they see it as a reminder to lesbians that the power to choose lies, not with women, but with “real men”. As a token to society’s request that everyone “soften” the actor-acted upon relationship, “real men” benevolently refrain from raping women. This is how some men reason. They think that men could rape women as an expression of their masculinity, but society has asked that while they go about being manly men, they restrain just this one manly impulse. Notice how nobody discusses whether the rape impulse is intrinsic to masculinity; if the impulse to rape is intrinsic to the masculinity we have subscribed to, then “real” men still have a vested interest in being seen as potential rapists – just potential rapists who are manly enough to control their manly rapist impulses.
Yet, even that tension in the relationship between the sexes requires that women still be “real women” who can potentially be acted upon by men (and from whom these men kindly refrain from actually acting). In this context, “corrective” rape is not seen as rape by the rapist, but as bringing the lesbian back into the sphere where real men still have the option of not raping her, in their exercise of the social chivalry by which men soften their expression of masculinity. The woman is still an object that they may act upon but choose not to because they are “real men” who don’t lose control of their ostensibly masculine rapist impulse.
And by its silence around corrective rape, society tacitly agrees with corrective rapists. Society agrees that women should be rapable, men should be rape-capable, and corrective rape is not really rape but a necessary evil to bring everyone back into the tension of potential, but never actual, rape. That is the constant threat of hetero-patriarchy.
Other rapists think it only counts as rape if one rapes a neighbor’s wife, but not one’s own wife; others think it counts as rape if it’s done to a woman within a certain age bracket, but not another. “Real men don’t rape” may mean to me that I now need to prove that I am a real man not by raping the neighborhood girl, as I did when I was a “foolish youth”, but by finding myself a wife whom I can demand sex of at any time to prove my masculine prerogatives – while having unprotected sex with women on the side, risking my wife’s health. Masculinity still has to be proven, just not through “rape” as it is (mis)understood by that particular reader. “Real men don’t rape”? Give me a break.
When I watch Oscar Pistorius’ court case, or read about Anene Booysen and Duduzile Zozo, I find myself thinking, “Well, what did we expect?” I don’t know whether Oscar murdered Reeva; I’m not privy to all the details of these cases. When the government doesn’t protest human rights violations against gays and lesbians in other countries it confirms that our society is getting precisely what it’s created. Society tacitly demands that men always be able to rape (heterosexual masculine actor), and women always be rapable (heterosexual feminine acted-upon); society believes that gay men can’t be rape and that the rape of lesbians doesn’t count because they’re not “real” women and are therefore not really rapable. Gays and lesbians are left to their own devices as they are “corrected” back into the hetero-patriarchal sphere where they can rape and be raped like “normal” people.
And then, when one rape of one presumably heterosexual woman gone awry, when one straight woman gets killed, this same society hypocritically turns around to say, “Real men don’t rape” and “Real men don’t kill”. I’m not saying that society is wrong for ever protecting straight people; I’m saying that its choice to protect just straight people will backfire. Hetero-patriarchy is bound to do so sooner or later. “Real men don’t rape”? Give me a break.
This Friday, it’s Human Rights’ Day. The holiday is now emblematic of how we sit back while human rights are violated. Hollow-days, paper rights, token walks, that demonstration, this celebration, that declaration and empty legislation turn even legitimate victories into mockeries of what ought to be. We’re all told to compromise, to give the world more time to “evolve” to a place of enlightenment and equality. When I protested my aunt’s “boys don’t cry”, other relatives told me that “this is just her way”; when children bully and tease, we’re told that “boys will be boys”. Men don’t dance along to Don’t Feel Like Dancing. When we hear of human rights’ violations on this continent, our government practices “silent diplomacy”. We holiday while people die.
Have we realized that if males committed the same types of crimes that women commit, at the same frequency, we would not spend as much as we do on managing crime? Real men do rape. A society that chooses to remain unaware of gender norms and their ripple effects in sex and sexuality cannot halve crime corruption. Tighter legislation will not save us.
The government should incentivize sensitivity education and training, much the same way it incentivizes BEE, because previous legislation turned post-apartheid South Africa into the sexual crimes’ capital of the world. BEE currently speaks to the racial aspect of apartheid; in terms of gender, it speaks only to the dichotomy of male and female. BEE thus ignores a plethora of damaging lies that apartheid told about human sexuality.
A culture of consent, empathy, and understanding can be fostered if the government incentivizes dialogues around those matters. People deny the connections between gender norms and crime levels, but the two have a much stronger relationship than can be articulated. Companies should get points on their BEE scorecard for taking their employees to gender, sex and sexuality training and sensitization workshops. Companies should get points taking the risk of putting the rainbow flag emblem onto their exterior and in their advertising to say that they welcome and support sexually diverse patrons. Hegemonic masculinities and outdated gender norms have to be broken up before we can move forward as a nation free of large-scale crime and corruption. Every other solution will be topical and short-term.
Those companies that fail to help their employees and the state in this manner should get less preferential treatment from the State to those that do. Customers should know precisely where their money is going, and what kind of South Africa their money is helping to create.
Worker’s unions should make sensitization a condition of association. We can agree to disagree with the Constitution (heaven knows why) but it must still be broadly known, understood and respected, because it is (supposed to be) the final arbiter of right and wrong in this country. The world knows that South Africa has the most progressive Constitution, but South Africans don’t know. And implicit in the rights about education, implicit in all the rights, is the demand that South Africans know and understand their constitutions. When I recommend the sensitization of South Africans, I am not making a suggestion but a categorical, constitutional demand.
Do not grovel in gratitude for paper rights any longer. We pay far too much in taxes to settle for token public holidays and an uneven status quo – for any of us. The Constitution exists as a unit. Neglect any aspect, and the rot will appear everywhere else.
Today is my birthday, and all I want is a country that looks like its Constitution because we all deserve better.
Edited 07:00 21 March