By: Gcobani Qambela*
“Stop singing your heart out to strange men whose lips can kiss love in multiple tongues but tremble, every time you ask them to spell loyalty” – Neha Ray, Letters to my Sisters
I recently watched an old episode of ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show’ where she was discussing with a panel of people “The Secret”. I was touched by something Lisa Nichols said on the show. She talked about growing up in a community where there were gangs, poverty and violence. In the 5th grade she got an opportunity as one of the first class of students to bus to one of the better schools in ‘The Valley’. She says she wasn’t well received at the new school and was called “Blackie”, “nigga” amongst other hurtful names.
As a result of this abuse from peers and people around her, she says that she suffered a massive blow to her self-esteem. It was at this point that she began to gain weight, became “obese and embarrassed”. She says: “I was told God left me in the toaster too long… I was told ‘you’re not pretty so you won’t get love’…” and so she confesses to having “a lot of sex, looking for a little love”. “I looked for my own validation, and my love in the arms of men… I thought if I was saying no to sex, I was saying no to potential love” she continued.
I watched this episode in the midst of the controversy around Sibongiseni Dhlomo, the MEC for Health in the KZN in South Africa suggesting that young girls who are going to India on government scholarship be given a contraceptive implant. It got me thinking about the events particularly at school that help facilitate our actions especially when it comes to sexual behaviour. School remains one of the major points of socialisation, and the place where for many sexual experimentation takes place. Thus education should never be the means through which youth are punished for the erotic. Audre Lorde reminds us:
“The erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings. It is an internal sense of satisfaction to which, once we have experienced it, we know we can aspire. For having experienced the fullness of this depth of feeling and recognising its power, in honour and self-respect we can require no less of ourselves”.
According to the report by Sihle Mlambo, 12 female students who are going to India were “to be given a contraceptive implant that will prevent them from falling pregnant for up to three years”. The MEC later clarified this was not a compulsory contraceptive plant, but was given to them as advice. This was because the government has previously sent a number of girls to Cuba to study and four came back pregnant consequently ending their career training. The majority of these students come from poor class backgrounds.
In her excellent response “A sterile way to stifle women”, Dr Catherine Burns commented that it is troubling that the KZN seems “to be embarking on a return to paternalistic, class-based, and racist interventions around women’s fertility and sexuality. It is most disturbing to see that women who do not have the family resources to study abroad are being targeted for this coercive, invasive procedure.” This is because historically there is, according to Burns, a long list of the subordination of women’s autonomies in the South African context. Yet Burns notes that “even during the darkest days of apartheid no such efforts were made to control the fertility of heterosexual white or black men.”
Burns concludes that “reductions in youth pregnancies are tied to effective peer education and guidance about sexual maturity; to women’s sense of purpose and equality; to men’s shared sense of dignity and worth with women and to more equitable cultures of romantic love.” Dr Burns does a great job at showing the problematic nature of interventions by the KZN Health MEC which I will not repeat here for I want to focus on the latter part of her piece particularly around “cultures of love” amongst young people.
In the editorial, Adolescent Sexuality: beyond controversy, CP Szabo notes that “the veil of secrecy [when it comes to teenage pregnancy] as a consequence of shame has been highlighted as a failing of both family and health services to provide a secure and trusting environment that promotes open communication”. In the paper, Age at sexual debut: a determinant of multiple partnership among South African youth, the authors note in their pool of 2 875 respondents who are sexually active that 39% of these respondents debuted sexually early at 16 years or younger. Out of this pool males (at 44.6%) were significantly higher than female respondents (the percentage of those reporting early sexual debut being at 35.1%). What this means is that many young people are having sex, not only earlier, but without much knowledge and support to understand the responsibilities and consequences that can come with being sexually active which can include unplanned pregnancies.
But the issue goes beyond just pregnancy, and also often involves also contraction of sexually transmitted infections, sexual coercion and associated traumas. This is one of the reasons why I was troubled by the KZN approach, particularly also the four girls, who now find themselves pregnant (and probably unemployed) without scholarships to study further to support themselves and their coming babies. Young parents, in the words of Toni Morrison, need support not to be shamed and excluded from society and education (which is still tied to economic opportunity). Morrison says that nobody “cares about unwed mothers unless they are black – or poor. The question is not morality, the question is money” for we don’t want to pay for human life produced by black women.
When I was growing up, I saw sex and love as intractably linked, in all the books and television programmes that I watched – people would always talk about “making love” to denote sex. It was only in my university years I think that I realised, many people can promise love to get sex and then dispose of you after. In the same way in which many offer sex, to try get love and find that unreturned. I thought about my experiences, which as a male probably cannot stand or even equate to those of women. Yet still I thought about them, their young selves, and wondered what love probably means to them now – as disposed of, poor, pregnant, in debt and likely unemployed people?
This is why Lisa Nichols story on The Oprah Show resonated because so many of us as young people come into our sexual selves already carrying so much baggage from the years we have already accumulated. We enter into sexual relations hungry for affection (or affirmation from peers as is often the case men). This is something that comes across constantly in one form or another in my sexual biographies research with both men and women. We offer our bodies as a sacrifice of sorts for love that is not always reciprocated.
How do we help young people be more whole? How do we intervene in situations like the KZN Department of Health one where sexuality is still being used to restrict education opportunities for young girls? How do we conceptualise sex particularly for men when we divorce it from love? What does loving mean in contexts where ‘lovemaking’ can end life opportunities?
Gcobani Qambela is a regular Bokamoso contributor. Read his short biography and previous articles here.