Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Hate the Sinner, Love the Sin

Recently, a Kenyan friend of mine posted a question on Facebook the jist of which was 'if a promiscuous woman is called a whore, what is a promiscuous man called'? She got some facetious replies but it is a very important question. Why do we vilify women who sleep with men? There are many words for women seen as promiscuous but I can't think of any for men. There must be a lot of men who love sex but there must also be a lot who hate women. Could it really be common for men who love sex to also hate women? It seems likely.

A workshop in South Africa recently argued that "society's expectations and presentation of women makes them more vulnerable to catching sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and HIV". There appears to be a deficit of respect built into societies, languages and behaviours and it seems so self defeating. The workshop pointed to "the need for woman and girls to be empowered for them to make informed decisions when negotiating safe sex".

We (humanity) are facing a dangerous situation and it seems that several decades of HIV/AIDS has done little to change attitudes. Men are very often in a position to do things and talk about things that women are not able to do and talk about without censure. Men often say that there are things they find it difficult to talk about and they would never talk about them in front of women. Women, too, are expected to remain silent about certain things and to only discuss others with other women.

I have talked to people who run HIV prevention programmes and they often mention how the content needs to be different when the audience is young or female. It's true that the content needs to be produced with a particular audience in mind. But maybe there is also a place for discussion between males and females. Perhaps it would be enlightening if men were to get to know what women think and if women were to get to know what men think, especially what men think about women and sex, for example.

Why is it more shocking to hear a woman swear or to see a woman drinking or spending time in a bar or, god forbid, time in a bar with men? Men go to bars to hang out with their friends, to drink and to meet women. If they think the women they meet in bars are 'whores', why don't they stop going to the bars and go to church halls instead? Or perhaps they could persuade their 'nice' female friends to go to the bar with them. But that would take us back to square one because women who go to bars are just not nice, apparently.

The workshops also argued that “[i]n the rural set up mostly, women who [negotiate] for safe sex are viewed as promiscuous and wayward”. It's sensible for anyone to insist on safe sex, whether they are male or female. There is something wrong already if the woman has to negotiate. The fact that she is considered promiscuous or wayward is almost laughable, especially considering the reasons why she might feel the need to negotiate; perhaps she knows that a lot of men are happy to have sex without a condom.

People here, male and female, often tell me that women are not supposed to be forward, they are not supposed to make the first move. Men see women who ignore this code of conduct as objects of suspicion and even as in some way evil. Is there something inherently about men that makes them better at making decisions that relate to friendship and sexual relationships? I don’t think so, but perhaps I’m just lacking in some way.

When it comes to negotiating about or even discussing sex, there is a need for greater levels of mutual respect and equality. People are people, gender is not a species. This needs to start in classrooms and among young people. So, if people object to teaching children about sex and safe sex, the least they could do is teach about equality and respect.

A person who has sex with other people is just a person. A person who has sex with lots of other people is also just a person, though they need to exercise a lot of care, as do the people they sleep with. But a sizeable majority of women who have sex, do so with men. It’s not as if there is a small group (or large group) of people who, in some way, are responsible for all the illicit sex in the world.

Quite frankly, if I was a woman, I would be called a whore. I go to bars, I meet women, I’ve even had the temerity to sleep with some women. But as a man, calling me a whore just doesn’t have the same import. And I don’t think the solution is to find an equivalent term for men to right the balance. I think it would be preferable to see sex as something that occurs between people, male and female.


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