Sex, lies and reality TV

2009-12-05 12:53

AFTER being bombarded with the reality of

Aids all day on Wednesday, all I wanted was to find solace in some mindless

reality TV. Momma’s Boys, the new SABC3 reality TV show, seemed like just the

thing – or so I thought.

In Momma’s Boys, 18 women vie for the attention of and potential

marriage to one of three men. But first they have to win the approval of their


It’s one of a never-ending stream of reality shows that pit women

against one another for male attention, such as Girls of the Playboy Mansion,

The Bachelor, and For the Love of Ray Jay.

Invariably set in a glamorous mansion, the women are usually highly

educated over-achievers who are also often beautiful, usually have fake boobs,

and have natural hair that moves or wear weaves.

The girls are all willing competitors and their involvement is

consensual. There are no victims here. These shows glamorise the social

messaging girls endure from cradle to grave: that women are competition and that

men are a prize. They normalise female competitiveness and make men’s rights to

sample many women en route to picking The One perfectly okay.

We have now started producing our own versions of these innocuous

pop-culture products. DStv channel Vuzu has its own variation on the theme,

Vixens, where 12 women compete to successfully lure a committed man to stray.

Again, weaves and wiles prevail as the girls try to seduce the man while his

girlfriend watches it all on tape.

Khanyi Mbau is the glamorous tip of a very ugly iceberg of the

sugar-daddy syndrome. Mbau has been ­elevated to celebrity status for parlaying

her sugar daddy into a husband; for turning her venality into a virtue. She is

no victim. Boobs, weave and Lamborghini, she got them all. And she got the


If girls are socialised to believe that men are the ultimate prize,

then a girl’s got to do what a girl’s got to do to get a man.

The awful reality of Aids points to a society that it is deeply

conflicted on the issue of sex.

We hold girls in contempt for their greed and acquisitiveness, for

dishing out sexual favours to sugar daddies in exchange for airtime and

expensive weaves. But we turn a blind eye when older men, who should know

better, pitch up with girlfriends or wives young enough to be their daughters.

We’re so obviously failing to protect young girls from sexual

assault and yet expect them to be virgins.

Last Sunday a newspaper reported that “the scourge of Aids has so

ravaged the area around Qunu that primary schools have introduced compulsory

virginity testing to ­ensure children between the ages of 10 and 15 abstain from

sexual activity”. For “children” read “girls”.

Virginity testing is a knee-jerk response to an epic crisis that

places responsibility onto the most vulnerable members of our society: girls.

The very expectation of virginity?– in a county where girls are raped with

impunity?– is absurd. Expecting girls to hang onto their virginity when every

other message is telling them “get a man, find a man, women without men are less

valuable” is absurd. And who benefits from this? Who gets to claim the


Five years ago on World Aids Day I interviewed a young woman, who

had lived with HIV for many years, but whose CD count had finally buckled and

catapulted her into the reality of full-blown Aids.

She was a virgin when her husband paid lobola. A faithful wife,

she’d never questioned her husband’s right to exercise his conjugal rights skin

to skin. She thought her chastity would guarantee his troth. It didn’t.

As she reached the tipping point between being HIV-positive and

full-blown Aids – at the tender age of 25 – he’d already had his date with the

grim reaper. She was a virgin when she married him and he was the only lover

she’d ever had.

We expect chastity and abstinence and virginity from girls ­already

rendered vulnerable by the scourge of poverty and HIV and thus susceptible to

transactual sex with predators. That many young women and girls enter into

transactual sexual relationships consensually with much older men is often read

as evidence of their liberation. We treat the sugar-daddy syndrome as a

victimless crime.

Instead of indulging in some mindless reality TV I found far too

many parallels between the girls who trade sex and company for weaves, lifts,

and rent in Mzansi and the girls in Momma’s Boy, the Girls of the Playboy

Mansion and For the Love of Ray Jay.

Reality shows are not simply fabulous feasts of post-feminist pop

culture for empowered women. They glamorise men’s rights to multiple partners.

And before we self-righteously point our fingers at American

cultural imperialism let’s examine the myriad ways in which men’s rights to

multiple partners are entrenched and defended as a cultural right. At how we

violate girls’ rights to bodily integrity by imposing ridiculous virginity

testing in a society that fails to protect the most vulnerable citizens from

sexual assault. And which often turns a blind eye to the sugar-daddy syndrome –

one of the biggest drivers of HIV infection.

We demonise girls and women who exchange commodities for ­sexual

favours, yet rarely do we see any social messaging or culture that encourages

girls to go it alone; that tells girls it’s okay to be solitary; that it’s

possible to own 40 acres and a mule through hard work. ­Marriage or an alliance

with a man is almost invariably sold to girls as the sole path to social


Aids is about sex. Sex is about power. We need to rethink sex and

sexuality and power. We need to face up to the ugly reality of the ways girls

are socialised and ultimately rendered vulnerable to predatory men and Aids


We need to own up to how our pop culture – and much of our hotly

­defended cultural practices – reinforces the notion that men are a prize. And

how this works to entrench girls’ preoccupation with getting a man. And how this

renders them ­vulnerable to exploitation, how it sometimes denies them their

­precious virginity. And how, if they fall ­pregnant or sign on for social

grants in the absence of a supportive dad, they become the targets of our


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