Masculinity/ies and sexuality
Masculinity (and femininity)—just like gender and sexuality—does not simply reflect a biological ‘given’—but is largely a product of cultural and social processes (Ortner and Whitehead 1981; Connell 1995; Gagnon and Parker 1995, Bourdieu 1998 and many more). Thus, neither masculinity nor sexuality are constant factors but change along with different historical and social structures, the complexity of contemporary life—and not the least when confronted with the effects of poverty—as underpinned by my research findings.
Drawing on the masculinity literature, masculinity, however, impinges on a number of different elements, identities and behaviours that are not always coherent. They may be competing, contradictory and mutually undermining. Moreover, masculinity is always liable to internal contradiction and historical disruption (Cornell 1995; Bourdieu 1998).
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With the media celebrating violence to an extent where masculinity has almost become synonymous with toughness and aggression, boys/men in East Africa are socialised into a masculinity with the aura of violent and aggressive behaviour. As my research reveals, such behaviour has been reinforced by poverty, and by lack of access to education and employment. Men are, therefore, expected to perform certain roles, including being sexually aggressive, and they may not see anything wrong in sexual violence. They feel entirely justified—they are just exercising their right. They are authorised by an ideology of supremacy (Connell 1995; Lindsey 1994 and many more). As also observed by Morrell (2001) having several girlfriends establishes a young man’s masculinity.
On the other hand, while masculinity is power, masculinity is also terrifyingly fragile because it does not really exist in the sense we are led to think it exists, that is, as a biological reality… it exists as ideology; it exists as scripted behaviour; it exists within ‘gendered relationships’ (Kaufmann 1993:13). This is because the male gender is constructed around at least two conflicting characterisations of the essence of manhood. First, being a man is natural, healthy and innate. But second, a man must stay masculine. He should never let his masculinity falter. Masculinity is so valued, so valorised, so prized, and its loss such a terrible thing that one must always guard against losing it (Connell 1995). As a result, men should always be on guard and defend and demonstrate their masculinity. It is worth noting, though, that male honour is dependent on women’s appropriate behaviour (Ort – ner and Whitehead 1981). Therefore, women and female sexuality represent an active and threatening power to male identity and masculinity (Silberschmidt
While, on the one hand, masculinity—almost world-wide—has increasingly become constructed from men’s wage-earning powers, on the other—and more fundamentally—notions of masculinity are also closely associated with male virility, sexuality and sexual performance (Connell 1995; Bourdieu 1998; Morrell 2001). Men (and also women) in both Kisii and Dar es Salaam would certainly agree. The same observations are made in many other parts of the world (Lindis – farne 1994).
However, as has also been widely observed, whereas for men there is a strong correspondence between masculinity, sexual activity and status, this is the inverse for the female system (Ortner and Whitehead 1981; Connell 1995; Bourdieu 1998). In fact, research findings from both Kisii and Dar es Salaam clearly indicate that while sexual potency gives social potency, value and self-esteem to men, sexual modesty gives social value to women—but certainly not to men (Silberschmidt 1999, 2001a, b).
While masculinities and femininities are historically and socially constructed they are also relational constructs; the definition of one depends on the definition of the other. This is in line with my research findings as well as those of Bourdieu (1998) based on his studies among the Kabyles in North Africa. His categorisations of basic gender constructs and gender differences are useful in order to understand the persistence of such constructs and differences as well as present
Masculinities, Sexuality and Socio-Economic Change in Rural and Urban East Africa
contradictions and confusion that East African masculinities (and femininities) are faced with.
According to Bourdieu, the basic notions of femininity and masculinity as well as female and male sexuality reflect a number of fundamental and competing oppositions and differences. Even if there is no set of characteristics that universally defines notions of femininity and masculinity, according to Bourdieu there are nevertheless some enduring and pervasive features that continue to persist. Bourdieu claims that ideas about femininity are associated with the private sphere and with traits that suggest passivity and subordination; ideas about masculinity, on the contrary, are associated with the public sphere, and with authority and dominance. With female sexuality being linked to modesty, restraint and secrecy and male sexuality to the opposite, there are different norms, values and expectations that are associated with being a woman and being a man. Moreover, and in particular in relation to sexuality, what gives social value to a man does not give social value to a woman.
Bourdieu’s ‘model’ reflects static/universal features. As such it does not allow for a multiplicity of masculinities (and femininities). But it does show why men and women may constitute two groups with different interests. It almost legitimises the existence of gender stereotypes—which is however not Bourdieu’s purpose. Nevertheless, relating Bourdieu’s categorisations to my research findings is enlightening. It reveals that men and women in Kisii and Dar es Salaam both fit and do not fit into these categorisations. Or rather: they fit ideologically—hut not in practice. As my research findings show, women and femininity in today’s rural and urban East Africa cannot be limited to the private sphere, to passivity and subordination. Moreover, while men and masculinity/ies may be associated with the public sphere, male authority and dominance are being severely threatened. While present ideas about female sexuality are certainly linked to modesty, restraint and secrecy (as they were in the past), female sexuality is also a threat to a man. Thus female sexuality is intrinsically dangerous for men. However, at the same time, it is in women’s sexual relationships with men that many women are most subordinated and exposed to male dominance (Silberschmidt 1999, 2001a, b).
As observed by Morrell (2001) men have multiple ways of performing masculinity. Performing masculinity is both about men making and remaking masculinity, and it is also about challenging hegemonic masculinity and reconstituting it. In a situation, where men are faced with disempowerment, declining self-esteem and social value, it no doubt requires some courage to liberate oneself from prevailing notions of what it means to be a real man.
Men in Kisii as well as Dar es Salaam are clearly aware of their squeezed position. While they might perhaps admit this to the researcher during in-depth dis-
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cussions—as was often the case—this was certainly not what they were prepared to admit or even discuss with their wives/partners. For men it was important to insist on their privileges, their position as head of household and to demonstrate their control over women. Many did so by using violence.
However, to exercise domination is not inscribed in men’s nature (Kimmel 1987; Kaufmann 1993; Connell 1995; Bourdieu 1998). It requires long socialisation work. The same thing goes for the notion ‘noblesse oblige’—men are obliged to play their prescribed roles where honour is central (Bourdieu 1998). Thus, the male privilege is also a trap, and men have ended up in a straitjacket (Kimmel 1987; Kaufmann 1993; Connell 1995). Contrary to women, who can only lose their honour (through infidelity), a ‘real’ man must constantly fight for it—he must use violence to achieve glory and public recognition. Pursuing masculinity is therefore an exposure to vulnerability. Most importantly, masculinity is constructed in front of and for other men and against femininity because, what men fear most is being feminine (Bourdieu 1998).
Connell, like Bourdieu, discusses masculinity in universalist terms. According to him (Connell 1995:232), it is not an easy task to reconstitute existing and normative types of masculinity. This is because attacks on men in Lacanian terms means attacking the Phallus, in more orthodox Freudian terms it means reviving the terror of castration—this suggests a depth of resistance likely to be met. With male identity deeply rooted in a man’s ability to control women, and with male honour intimately bound up with the behaviour of women, men have to find new ways (which now seem to be a return to—or intensification of old ways) to manifest themselves as men. As many role expectations and psychological traits (such as aggressiveness and violence) attached to masculinity are closely linked to attempts to exercise control over (many) women, male (aggressive) sexual behaviour seems to have become male strategies in pursuit of control, social value and self-esteem. Such behaviour seems to strengthen male gender identity. It also seems to be a legitimate and accepted way of demonstrating masculinity.
Consequently, with masculinity and the phallus being at stake, and with men benefiting from inherited definitions of femininity and masculinity the questions raised at the beginning of this chapter become relevant: To what extent are men willing to let go of ‘hegemonic’ masculinities? To what extent are disempowered men in East Africa motivated for responsible sexual behaviour and HIV/AIDS prevention?
Masculinities, Sexuality and Socio-Economic Change in Rural and Urban East Africa