Vixens, venality and viruses

2010-12-11 07:50

It was inevitable that the national debate on ­conspicuous consumption triggered by my colleague Mokgadi Seabi’s coverage of Kenny Kunene’s party a few weeks ago would come around to Khanyi Mbau.

The ex-­actress found herself on the ­receiving end of a grilling by ­3rd Degree’s ­Debora Patta about her proclivity for rich men and her seemingly insatiable appetite for bling.

In the interview with Patta, Mbau spun herself as an autonomous agent making a free choice.

A woman who likes the finer things in life and who gets paid R35 000 to pitch up and party.

A woman who eschews any ­notions of herself as a victim, who posits herself as a new South ­African “positively Modern Millie” with an unabashed disdain for the plight of the unwashed majority.

Brand Mbau fits snugly into the canon of popular culture – ­produced both locally and ­imported from the US – that ­endorses a ­hypersexual and materialistic culture in which young women are encouraged to believe that their success lies in being sexually ­attractive and acquisitive.

The plethora of local and ­American reality shows on our TV screens – Girls of the Playboy Mansion, Vixens, The Flavor of Love and For the Love of Ray J – in which a group of young ­women compete against one ­another to get chosen by a man, has normalised the chauvinist idea that ­women are naturally ­competitive and that men are a prize.

It ­encourages young girls and ­women to believe that ­flaunting their bodies is a way of gaining status and success.

Young women’s sense of self and sexuality is influenced by multiple sources.

But TV, tabloids and the music industry are primary purveyors of what it means to be young, black and sexy.

The music video industry in South Africa has followed the well-worn path of the hip-hop ­music video industry elsewhere in the world.

It has fed a hungry youth a steady diet of music ­videos in which young women are simply objects of adornment – bodies wearing very little but ­bikinis and killer weaves.

It has fuelled a hypersexual ­culture in which girls’ bodies are commodities, and where girls and women are bombarded with ­messages that their route to ­success lies in being sexually ­attractive and available.

That real power arises from using that ­attractiveness to snag a man to bankroll their lifestyles.

A woman’s right to decide what to do with her body is the bedrock of women’s liberation.

This is why a woman’s right to bodily ­autonomy is protected by the Constitution.

But Mbau’s brand of liberation is not evidence of how far we have come as women in South Africa, or how free we are.

Selling the idea to young women that the ­only way to get ahead is to sleep your way to the top, or solicit expensive ­trinkets from a rich man in ­exchange for being arm candy, is not liberation.

It is sexist, ­degrading and ­disempowering.

This version of empowerment masks the more sinister spectre at the feast.

Mbau may have walked away from her eventual marriage to an ­older, richer man with first-hand knowledge of the delights of a ­Maserati, the pleasures of True Religion jeans, or of the unfailing power of breast implants, but her less fortunate cohorts who engage in transactional sexual ­relationships with older men are more likely to walk away with  HIV.

Mbau is 25 years old. Girls aged between 15 and 24 are three to six times more likely to be infected with HIV than their male counterparts.

Between 2005 and 2008, there was a spike in the number of young women aged between 15 and 19 who had older ­partners.

Transactional sex – the ­exchange of goods or money for goods and services, usually ­between a girl in her teens or 20s and a man who is ­between five and 20 years older – is one of the drivers of the Aids ­epidemic.

This fact gets obscured persistently by being shrouded in the treacly euphemism of the “sugar daddy” phenomenon. There is nothing sweet about it.

Perpetuating the notion of free choice in relation to transactional sex in all its guises – from lap dancing and sex sold on Oxford Road, to Mbau’s version of ­liberation – conceals the ­desperation, and potentially ­deadly outcomes, that lurk behind this faux autonomy.

Mbau’s gleeful and unapologetic venality validates our compassion fatigue for the welfare queens who “get pregnant to get the childcare grant”.

The idea that these women are doing it to themselves, that they are not victims, makes a mockery of the profound inequality in our society that compels women and girls to make these choices.

It implies that they are complicit in their own degradation and are thus undeserving of our compassion, care or civic responsibility to vulnerable members of society.

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