Sexual ABCs in Africa, Part 2: Be Faithful
In Africa, many sex educators use what has become known as the ABC strategy to talk about HIV/AIDS prevention. There are three components to the strategy: Abstinence, Be Faithful, and Condoms. In this series, Clarisse Thorn, an American sex educator now working in Southern Africa, writes about each component in turn, talking about its significance in her work and her own sexuality. In part one, she discussed Abstinence.
South African President Jacob Zuma currently has three wives; in a recent headline-making ceremony, a South African businessman married four women at once. King Mswati of Swaziland has thirteen wives, and his father King Sobhuza had 70. Here in southern Africa, even the rich men who don't take multiple wives almost always support mistresses. Naturally, local women don't get multiple spouses—and the social penalties for infidelity are much worse for women: in America, feminists often point out that "slut" is an insult while "stud" is a compliment; there's a similar linguistic trend in siZulu, but the English words are mild compared to their siZulu equivalents.
I rarely practice consensual non-monogamy myself, but I don't hesitate to advocate destigmatizing polyamory and swing in America. True, my primary interest is BDSM, but there's so much to learn from every form of consensual sexuality. Plus, we're basically on the same side—it'd be great if different sex subcultures had more consciousness of a sex-positive "agenda" or "movement"! Although our communities have different emphases and, sometimes, profoundly different values, I see swingers and polyfolk as my brothers- and sisters-in-arms.
But enough of the soapbox! The point is that I've often defended poly—and I've gotten into interesting arguments doing so. One friend noted just how hard it is for poly people to negotiate their relationships. "It's so complicated," he complained. "So much communication is required. Doesn't that seem like an argument against it? If polyamory were really a good relationship model, then people wouldn't have to put so much effort into accomplishing it."
"It's only complicated because polyamory isn't our societal default," I replied. "People have to put extra effort into negotiating relationships that fall outside the norm. The same thing happens with BDSM. Kinksters must spend a lot more time discussing our sexual relationships, because it's more dangerous for us to make assumptions about where our partners want to go. That doesn't mean there's anything wrong with kink.
"And," I added, "that extra effort can be a feature, not a bug! The fact that kinksters spend so much time isolating different aspects of our sexuality has given us an uniquely fine-grained sexual vocabulary, and we tend to make fewer assumptions about our partners' boundaries than vanilla people do. Plus, circumstances have forced us to develop some brilliant strategies for bedroom communication. When I run sexual communication workshops, half the tactics I share—like checklists—are filched from the BDSM subculture; I just rename them for a general audience. Many poly folk have similar insights about relationship communication."
Being in southern Africa, seeing all these men partnered with multiple women, has brought that conversation to mind more than once. Because the majority of men can't afford multiple wives and some churches frown on the practice, polygamy isn't exactly the default—but it's certainly a well-respected, highly desirable relationship formation. And men who can't go the open route very frequently do the same thing discreetly. In the July 2009 issue of New African, Akua Djanie—who moved to England at age 10 and grew up there—observes: "I know very few African men, especially those living on the continent, who keep only one partner. The majority of men I come across are in multiple relationships, sometimes open, but most times on the quiet." She also notes that "in some instances, a man's manhood is judged by the number of women he can keep."
So monogamy is not the default; and negotiating monogamy is difficult, here. But a new factor makes it a matter of life and death: HIV.
The basic centerpiece of HIV prevention is ABC—Abstinence, Being faithful, and using Condoms—but the three strategies haven't always received equal airtime. "The Fidelity Fix," a 2004 New York Times Magazine article by Helen Epstein, quoted one analyst who believed "partner reduction has been the neglected middle child of the ABC approach." Epstein wrote, "Perhaps the topic seems weighted with moral judgment; perhaps Western advisors in particular feel it would be insensitive to raise it; perhaps they also feel it would be futile to try to change deeply rooted patterns of behavior." She outlined those patterns and concluded, "A fidelity campaign does seem worth a try, even if it might seem overly simplistic and preachy." Another expert, quoted in a 2007 Washington Post piece on multiple partners in Botswana, agreed: "There has never been equal emphasis on 'Don't have many partners' .... If you just say, 'Use the condom' ... we will never see the daylight of the virus leaving us."
Living in southern Africa now, it seems clear that this recommendation has been taken to heart. I regularly spot posters, stickers and billboards for fidelity campaigns that apparently didn't exist a few years ago, such as the one by Brothers For Life that attempts to redefine masculinity such that a man’s “self-worth is not determined by the number of women can have." Although cultural pride is a big deal here, locals routinely disparage risky marriage-related cultural practices: for instance, many speak harshly against wife inheritance, whereby a woman whose husband has died is traditionally expected to marry his brother. Many such practices are becoming unusual, but the larger phenomenon of polygamy seems harder to budge.
I recently sat in on a dialogue about partner reduction for one town's church leaders; it was attended by representatives both from churches that allow polygamous marriages, and those that don't. The discussion was quite civil (though one anti-polygamy preacher did make snide comments towards the polygamists). Issues covered included lack of marriage counseling, preachers' failure to act as positive role models, and churches' failure to be transparent about HIV. (The all-male group also noted "women's selfish impatience with erectile dysfunction," "women preferring men who last longer," "women preferring men with a lot of money," and "women not loving their husbands enough" as contributing factors to fidelity failure.) The group seemed pleased to work together and eager to address the problem. The question of members being pro- or anti-polygamy was, apparently, only a side note. In a similar trend, a recent poll shows that a majority of South Africans oppose polygamy, and yet I saw no evidence of outcry over Zuma’s multiple wives.