Guest Column

The high cost of likes

2017-07-09 06:24
Busani Ngcaweni

Busani Ngcaweni

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Busani Ngcaweni

With smart phones and broadband becoming increasingly available and affordable across class and geographical divides, we now see the rural and urban poor occupying the same virtual space as the middle class and the rich.

This social cloud, as I call it in the research report from which this article is derived, lowers barriers to communication, instant messaging, sharing of photos, videos and other forms of iconography.

Social media and reality TV aid the development of common trends and subcultures across class and space. As a result, what might previously have been regarded as middle class or urban trends are universalised across class and geography.

And it is the largely Euro-American cultures and rituals of conspicuous consumption and narcissism that are propagated. Through social media and reality television, young people follow the same trends and idolise the same celebrities, irrespective of where the followers find themselves. Often, these trends are materialistic and staged.

The notion is that if one can virtually associate with “trending” personalities, one can also become talk-worthy; trending being a proxy for popularity on social networks as measured by the number of “likes”, “shares” and “followers”.

In the digital realm, these subcultures of narcissism and conspicuous consumption replicate themselves a million times over because of the virtual dissolution of sociocultural and spatial barriers.

Social media and HIV

Knowledge of and aspiration to global trends now transcends sociohistorical barriers. For example, when celebrities post sexually suggestive or nude photos on social media, these quickly spread and are “liked” and sometimes mimicked.

The recently trending #AmberRoseChallenge comes to mind. Young women and adolescent girls from villages in South Africa are sharing nudes inspired by US model Amber Rose who posed naked to highlight her anti-women abuse cause.

The following conclusions on the changing political economy of the Aids epidemic in the context of the spread and influence of social media and reality TV are based on the research I conducted in 2016 and 2017 by scouring Facebook, Badoo, Twitter, Instagram, Tinder, WhatsApp, WeChat, YouTube, Snapchat and Viber, and from attending blesser and mavuso parties in Gauteng.

Lowering the costs of dating: It has become cheaper to initiate and maintain multiple sexual relationships. As smartphone coverage continues to surge and data costs decline, boundaries are reduced and people can initiate sexual relations quicker and easier without much care for the status and health profiles of those they meet in the virtual space.

Increasing the casualisation of sex and speed dating: Sex can quickly be arranged anywhere, anytime and, in some instances, without protection, negating any consciousness about or messaging on responsible sexual health. Studies have shown these casual sexual relations tend to spread the risk of HIV infections as protection tends to be a secondary consideration.

Making it more convenient to maintain multiple concurrent sexual partners: With social media, people can get sexual partners anywhere, anytime as instant messages reduce the distance between individuals. Again, research is clear on the risk of infections posed by multiple concurrent partnering. In fact, this accounts for the majority of the causes of the spread of HIV.

In the social-media experiment I conducted, sexual offers were routinely made irrespective of whether I projected myself as in committed relationship or single.

Reducing barriers to the sharing of pornography: It is a matter of public record that in South Africa, school authorities and security agencies have had to deal with complex cases of young people recording sexual activity – consensual or abusive – and sharing these on social-media platforms. This is partly because pornography is normalised by its availability through social networks.

Although one cannot give an accurate scientific number (I was unable to collate all the entries), in the half a dozen social-media groups I actively used for the experiment, one in four posts were porn-related or suggestive of explicit unprotected sex.

Sharing nudes increases the vulnerability to abuse of young women by older and richer men as well as syndicates. Social media facilitates intergenerational sex. Social media is used by older men (and paedophiles) to lure vulnerable girls into sexual relations.

The phenomenon of sugar daddies is well known and its contribution to the Aids epidemic cannot be underestimated since most adolescent girls and young women are infected by older men.

The popular meeting point for these relationships is now social media, not some village river in Nongoma or public a square as was the case decades past.

Another extreme of this phenomenon is the emergence of mavuso stokvels (sex parties where strangers have casual sex in exchange for money) and blessers (casual sexual relationships with rich men in exchange for money, expensive gifts and holidays).

At the receiving end of these viral subcultures are adolescent girls and young women who are often powerless and cannot negotiate safe sex. They risk being physically abused or bullied into unprotected sex.

Social media is used to promote trends such as sex orgies and group sex. This is linked to the point made above regarding the normalisation of pornography and mavuso stokvels. It is not unusual to hear and read stories about women having orgies and group sex with men who have the “resources” (money and power).

For my part, I experimented a few times by organising threesomes with younger women I knew as well as with strangers I met on social media.

Although these never materialised, I never doubted the willingness of my liaisons.

Manipulation and abuse

Again, in the social-media groups I used to observe social trends, most young women and men expressed liberal views towards orgies, group sex and unprotected sex. Some unconsciously regarded these as rites of passage to adulthood.

The main conclusion is that social media unintentionally furthers the casualisation of sex, sex across disparate age groups, multiple concurrent sexual relationships and the commodification of women who can be “bought” with money and gifts.

In the final analysis, the agency of women notwithstanding, the reality is this is a manifestation of patriarchy and persisting inequality in South Africa.

Conspicuous consumption does not empower women. It leaves them open to manipulation and abuse in an HIV hyperendemic country.

The crass materialism that is flaunted on social networks and reality TV shows such as the local Diski Divas and the American Keeping Up with the Kardashians cultivates the notion that “beauty pays” more than hard work.

The real beneficiaries of this political economy are macho mobile men with money and the propensity to objectify and abuse young women.

This is a public policy conundrum, the unintended consequences of opening wide the doors of culture and communication so that Bongi from Nongoma arguably co-exists with Beyoncé from New York, albeit in a precarious social-media bubble which eventually bursts, as Bongi is more likely to have a near encounter with HIV owing to her socioeconomic status and prevalence of gender-based violence in her society.

Ngcaweni is editor of Sizonqoba! Outliving Aids in Southern Africa, available at the Human Sciences Research Council bookstore


Do you agree that sex was less casual before social media became as popular as it is now?

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Read more on:    sex  |  aids  |  social media


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