Reflections on Pierre de Vos

That’s A Black Woman’s Job

In February 2013, eminent Constitutional Law scholar Professor Pierre De Vos wrote a thought-provoking article explaining why he won’t join the chorus of voices protesting against rape. Now, it’s a dated article so I’m not sure whether de Vos still stands behind what he wrote in it. But I have seen similar ideas restated in many of his articles posted both in Constitutionally Speaking and in Daily Maverick, so I will treat this article as a representation of what I have read by him.

The thrust of his article can be outlined in three ideas:

1. Men benefit from patriarchy and women are the victims. Hetero-patriarchy, in particular, which empowers straight men to the detriment of everyone who is not a straight man, severely victimizes (black) lesbian women and LGBTI persons. (I will proceed under the assumption that this point is correct.)

2. Men who merely tweet and post Facebook statuses against rape are distancing themselves from the role they’ve passively played in perpetuating a culture of hetero-patriarchy by benefiting from the privileges it affords them

3. Men, therefore, have to do more than merely “speak up” against rape: they actually have to sacrifice the benefits they’ve derived from hetero-patriarchy, and more robustly discuss what does and what does not constitute masculinity in order that the abuse of women, children and LGBTI persons may come to an end. Until a matching effort to interrogate hetero-patriarchy is evidenced in the public, de Vos will no longer join the hollow chorus of voices protesting against rape, because all these voices are is self-vindicating noise; a choir of self-righteous men crying “I’m not a rapist like that man there” while not growing the balls to castrate themselves off of the underlying structure that perpetuates rape. Professor de Vos thinks that by publicly announcing his intention to withdraw from the hypocrisy of crying out against a system that very few people challenge in real life, he will dare men to get real about the fight against sex- and gender-based crime. It’s a noble gesture, and, having read many of his articles, I do not doubt that he is sincere.

The accuracy of what he’s saying depends on the amount and type of power women have to change the situation. I respectfully disagree with the alarmingly neat picture de Vos has painted of women being helpless victims and in fact think they, and not men, have the power to end hetero-patriarchy.

In writing this, I mean no disrespect to “the women I’ve observed” nor to any other women – then again, observations are void of judgment. I’m just calling it as I see it. There is no point in group blame, or in making statements like, “All men are bad.” But sometimes, in teasing out the nuances of an insight, one may have to use words that brush with thick strokes. Brace yourself.

Some of the (black) women I’ve observed perpetuate hetero-patriarchy by voting it into place and supporting it
I was not a fly on the inside of every voting booth when a certain man (who has made homophobic remarks) became elected as the president of South Africa. But his election would have been impossible without the active say-so of the women that voted for him, however few or many they were.

It therefore stands that this nation, whose predominant culture is based on hetero-patriarchy – which demands the hyper-masculine impenetrability of its men – is, ironically, impaled again and again on phallic greed of the very hetero-patriarchal father-figure it currently has in its highest office. Yet if the rapist in power is dethroned, then someone else can rape us on a national scale, right? There is an absurd familiarity and warmth in cuddling up to the rapist you know as he tenderly caresses you, whispering assurances of protection from the rapist you don’t know. This doesn’t happen overtly, of course; victims of domestic abuse don’t wake up and think, “It’s a perfect day to go out and marry my abusive father reincarnate.” It’s subliminal, facilitated by the small, every-day choices that nobody has the time to think through because they’re too busy Keeping Up With The Kardashians. But those choices are real, they’re there, and they count as say-so.

The red flags were there all along; the suspicions of rape and corruption loomed simultaneously over the polygamist in what must have been a triptych omen of things to come, that is, the coalescing of rape, corruption and greed into the leadership style we have enjoyed the last few years. They say God whispers before He shouts. Still, enough of the women used their say-so to say “Yes” to it all. So any demand that the men need to act first as a group against hetero-patriarchy, ignores the role that some women as a group have played.

Many of the black women I’ve observed perpetuate hetero-patriarchy by supporting its culture
I’ve asked women why they’ve never questioned much of what we call African culture. Many of these women I spoke to were happy with its set-up because up until that point it had worked for them though it had not worked for women and LGBTI who don’t fit into it, nor, obviously, for rape survivors and abused children. This is not to say that the culture itself is abusive; it is to say that de Vos has identified aspects of it as potentially abusive to women. So my argument proceeds as though the culture needs to be interrogated. Who, then, ought to do the interrogating? Who is supposed to get this bell on the cat?

de Vos identifies women as the primary victims of hetero-patriarchy because they lose their autonomy. Fair enough, but he’s just looking at one end of this animal. I argue that in a calculated exchange for their autonomy and for the autonomy of women as a group, vast numbers of fellow women trade independence off for protection, provision, social status and respectability from men who have been trained by society to respond to certain Pavlovian cues that signal robust heterosexuality.

What are those Pavlovian cues, and where do they come from?

Many influences increasingly define masculinity as the desire and ability to please and possess the fairer sex. Men are praised for playing along and shamed for not playing along. Who does the shaming and the praising? Women themselves, for they themselves are the prizes and the rewards that men are “given” for playing the hetero-patriarchal game well. And the women are not given as rewards in captivity, kicking and screaming, but often quite happily because it validates them as beautiful and worthy. Women are marrying polygamists, but wouldn’t discuss turning the tables and starting polyandrous homes. This situation can’t just be the men’s responsibility.

Patriarchy gives women the power to emasculate men, but use of that power presupposes the preference of hetero-patriarchy to any other socio-cultural paradigm, doesn’t it? So the hetero-patriarchy that rapes and objectifies some women, gives some others a sick and neurotic power – which a significant number use without second thought.

Now, how do the women benefit from or perpetuate hetero-patriarchy? As I’ve often written, women arguably spend more time raising little boys than anyone else: by reinforcing the idea that masculinity is the desire to please and therefore “own” women, some of the women who were meant to be owned can actually create a reverse-niche within the system that was supposed to own them, wherein they can predict and prescribe masculine behavior for the next generation. The Victim can neurotically guilt-trip The Powerful around her into making life just a tad easier, no? The say-so of who they date, marry or have kids with, is women’s way of saying what the next generation of men should be like. If you want to know a woman’s idea of ideal masculinity, look at the man she’s dated or the man who’s fathered her kids. That is significant if not decisive say-so and de Vos does not seem to mention it.

Patriarchy may abuse women, but it serves just enough of them enough perks for them not to reject it – those women are thus using their say-so, collectively, to say, “Hetero-patriarchy is a fair deal.” Cosmetically, it’s pretty and almost effortless, and not to mention risk-free. It’s how their mothers lived, and it’s how they want to live. Fetal position promises The Victim an unquestioned power wherein nobody is measuring your performance because everything is someone else’s fault and you’re so helpless. If someone begins to question what you could possibly be getting out of being helpless, just helplessly cry, no? No chance of failure should you strike out by yourself.

Is this the situation with every victim of every form of abuse? No it’s not. But there’s always a percentage, some even taking it to the extreme of crying “Rape” not because they’ve been raped but because they’ve learned how to piggy-back on the pain of real victims.

Many of the women I’ve observed fall back on hetero-patriarchy
Even if the trophy women who consent to being objectified should become pregnant and unemployed, as well as unable to fend for themselves and their babies, the System offers them grant money. And before you ask where the baby-daddies are, I have a juicer one for you – exactly how much of that grant money goes where it’s supposed to go? Ask the penniless Gogos at home with the children.

The State has an obligation to support those that need it. But you’ve got to admit that the system has been abused, and much of that abuse has come from a certain percentage of women. Putting aside that many girls have babies so that they can get grant money in the first place, let us note that this money is, in many cases, spent on hair, clothes and nails as the women work to make themselves valuable commodities for their next baby-daddy. Banking on the sympathy of the State and a patriarchal society, those women thus perpetuate hetero-patriarchy’s legitimacy as its spin-offs give is addicts a fix, month after month. No, hetero-patriarchy is not an unfair deal to all women; some enterprising ones see it for the opportunity that it is. If I as a [gay] man had to begin questioning every spin-off of hetero-patriarchy, I would have to face the wrath of maternal entrepreneurs who would resent an interruption in their cash flow. And why should I start the questioning of hetero-patriarchy? I wasn’t there to hold the candle when those particular women chose those particular men to father the next generation so I’d best keep my mouth shut and let people get on with it.

Where are the women?
Once, some of my friends and I were discussing violence against women. Without exception, they agreed that it is absolutely unacceptable for a man to hit a woman who is not his own girlfriend. The women in the conversation agreed with this, but notice that they did not question that women could be beaten by “good” boyfriends who had done for them all the things that good boyfriends ought to do. Now I don’t know what list of things men have to do in order to earn the right to hit women, but now I know that there exist women out there with those kinds of lists in their heads. I’ve overheard others at taxi queues saying, “I don’t date a man who doesn’t beat me; what use is he? He must show me that he loves me that passionately.” These women have mentally named their prices for possession of their bodies. Victim? Absolutely, and we should be very concerned. Helpless? Let’s be mature enough to put even that most sacred assumption under the microscope. If I started smoking a pack a day and got a lung problem, surely my doctor wouldn’t blame just the tobacco companies at large?

I read an on-line forum post from a woman who’d discovered that her boyfriend was homophobic. She’d spent years trying to change him. Many men who dislike gay men have no problem with lesbians, until those lesbians move in on their “territory”; this reveals that their particular brand of homophobia is rooted in misogyny and hetero-patriarchy. But those men aren’t dating themselves! They have girlfriends who stick around instead of running for the hills. If the women are victims of hetero-patriarchy, then why are they not being called to account for contributing to it?

Those women worship hetero-patriarchy – why should I take it away from them?
Black women also validate hetero-patriarchy when they make disparaging comments about how male homosexuality is “not African” or is “a white man’s invention.” They giggle at the thought of two men in love; on some level, they ridicule it. They affirm the superiority of men over women when they carelessly say things like, “Boys don’t cry” leaving unsaid the obvious, that girls do and that makes them weak and helpless. It takes two to tango. It must not be assumed that merely by being women, women have already acted out against rape and that by merely having penises, men owe it to women to do something against rape. It doesn’t work that way.

Where are the women reacting to hate crime and corrective rape?
I have a theory. The vast numbers of men and women who keep quiet when they hear about the rape of lesbians are, by their silence, saying that in turning aside from their “natural use” to other women, lesbians dis-empower and betray other women who are benefiting from hetero-patriarchy. By not singing for masculine hyper-heterosexuality, like any good fellow siren ought to, lesbians fail to actively dispense the Pavlovian cues needed to keep men in the game of being “real” men, valiantly busting a gut to help women get better and prettier at being objects viewed enviously by other women who likewise compete to glam up their plastic Barbie worlds. Men must be trained up to be “men” by all the women, no? Lesbians thusly strip this construction of black femininity of its power while threatening the power base of thusly constructed black masculinity as well. Nobody defends them when they are punished for not participating in what is, at many levels, a lie. Masculinity’s contribution to hetero-patriarchy is complemented beautifully by femininity’s veneration of it.

Perhaps de Vos only directs his request to men because he is a man himself. If that is the case, I wish he would say so on his articles because I feel very uncomfortable when I read his work and I sense him urging men to unplug from hetero-patriarchy, which I sincerely believe is mostly black women’s work at this point. Everything de Vos says is true, but the way he directs the call-to-action at just the men without saying why he does so, is confusing at best and a turn-off at worst.

I wish to engage him because I believe that he and I are essentially fighting for the same things, albeit in different spheres.

Twitter handle: @SKhumalo1987

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