DA sex scandal: On power, women and choice

2015-05-04 06:42

On Saturday screenshots of an email purporting to be from Democratic Alliance (DA) insider emerged on the Internet. While the source of the email remains unverified, and the allegations untested, the contents should spark an important conversation about the state of gender (in)equality in South Africa.

The supposedly female author alleges that a few women are running for DA leadership positions because male leaders “choose women to be their playthings.”

She claims to be such a women and to have voiced concerns but “brushed aside by a system that protects men who use their power to get away with the worst misogyny against women.” The author names high-profile DA leaders that, apparently, have been involved in sexual relationships with junior female staff.

Mmusi Maimane, who is contesting the position of DA leader, is quoted by The Citizen appealing to DA members to “reject” the claims because they are “false and destructive”.

Leaving aside whether the allegations are true, the email traces a serious problem in South Africa, specifically in politics and business, where vulnerable women are viewed as “playthings” of powerful men.

Of course, a number of people have responded that the claim is problematic because it portrays all women as victims who lack agency and are therefore unaccountable for the consequences of their actions. This argument ignores the sociocultural realities facing women in South Africa.

First, let me clarify what I mean by treating women as “playthings”. I mean men who use their positions of relative power to make sexual advances on vulnerable women over whom they have institutional authority. This is neither rape (unlawful non-consensual penetration) nor sexual harassment (unwanted and persistent sexual advances). It is misogyny and abuse of power.

One popular response is that an uninterested woman should refuse sexual advances—in other words, she must exercise her free will. If she does not, then the relationship is consensual. This response ignores an important element: power!

It is true that women have agency, which includes the ability to give consent to participating in or declining a sexual activity with (powerful) men. However, power dilutes agency. When a woman is faced with saying “yes” or facing harmful consequences, free will is impeded by duress. Duress will not always be in the form physical violence (as in the case of rape).

We must understand power as a relational concept that can only be understood in terms of interactions between individuals (or groups).

I am not proposing a generalized claim that it is impossible for a vulnerable woman to have a relationship with a powerful man. Instead, I am arguing that in the context of a misogynistic and chauvinistic society, there is a high likelihood of duress.

Assume for an example that a male corporate executive makes sexual advances on a junior-level employee. There is a possibility that the employee will be fired/victimized if she rejects the advances. (While stylized, this is not a far-fetched scenario.)

The employee has two options: either to acquiesce to the advances or to face terrible consequences. Her choice will be influenced by a calculus that includes her socio-economic status. A poor single-mother who does not have an unemployment cushion is most likely to say yes. Saying “yes” in such a scenario is hardly an exercise of “free will”.

Of course, it is true that many employers will have rules to protect junior staff from this type of abuse. However, these rules come with traumatic charades of disciplinary hearings and post-process victimization. So, even in a space when vulnerable women are protected, the protection comes at a prize.

How much worse is a situation in testosterone-charged environments like politics? Few political parties have rules to protect women from lecherous men. The reason is simple: rules have, to date, been written by men. A woman has to choose between saying “no” and loosing a job or a political career. Again, that is a non-choice.

This highlights an important intersectionality of multiple forms of power; in this case gender, class and public power.

The takeaway is that consent is non-binary and agency is meaningless in cases of duress. Women will often say “yes” when they want to avoid the adverse consequences say “no”. More importantly, we must act to protect women, at least until our society is equal.

The final point is that our society is hostile to victims of abuse. Even though the author of the email is anonymous, she has been dubbed a “troublemaker” and an “attention seeker” who is acting for political gain. Yet, she provided sufficient information for a preliminary investigation.

Those in power are ignoring the evidence and attacking the source. Such is our “progressive” society.

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