Between 2009 and 2011, journalism fellows of the HIV & AIDS Media Project undertook in-depth research looking to write about men, masculinity, and HIV in a new way, and the result is this compendium of articles, blogs, and photo essays. It showcases a diversity of men, each facing a unique context and dealing with sexual health and relationships differently. The book is structured around four central themes—men as lovers, men as partners and fathers, men who have sex with men, and men’s relationship to traditional and medical male circumcision—and brings men’s varied roles in the HIV epidemic to the fore.
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About the Author
Melissa Meyer is the coordinator of the HIV & AIDS Media Project and the coauthor of The Politics of AIDS Denialism: South Africa’s Failure to Respond. Helen Struthers is a director and cofounder of the Anova Health Institute. She is a former program director for a large multidisciplinary research program funded by the United States Agency for International Development and a former member of the executive management team at the Perinatal HIV Research Unit.
Read an Excerpt
Rewriting Masculinity & Health in South Africa
By Melissa Meyer, Helen Struthers
Jacana Media (Pty) LtdCopyright © 2012 Anova Health Institute, Wits Journalism Programme and individual contributors
All rights reserved.
"I wanted to know: 'Why don't you just leave me, rather than abuse me like this?' He said: 'I don't abuse you. My forefathers had many women.' That hurt, but I got used to it."
"I asked her: 'How could you go for the test without asking me?' I pushed her away, got in the taxi and left her. She kept phoning me, but I switched off my phone and got a new sim card. If she has the virus, it means she slept around."
Lovers / Introduction
Willemien Brümmer rewrites the script on men in the journalism featured in this chapter. For her HIV & AIDS Media Project fellowship in 2010, Brümmer returned to the sea of single HIV-positive moms in clinics and hospitals who had piqued her interest during a previous assignment. With the scope and resources the fellowship afforded her, Brümmer set out to investigate why men leave "when HIV comes to stay". What she discovered was an exceedingly complex issue, exacerbated by denial, sexual infidelity, violence and the asphyxiating poverty that creeps through the cracks of already fragile relationships.
True to the realities she uncovered, Brümmer's series features men who go and men who stay. With a set of four heartrending and sometimes hopeful vignettes, she shares the experiences of a number of lovers. But her stories do not only probe the "what" – by peeling back the personal narratives, the journalism throws bare the social issues that underpin these men's actions, offering a rare moment of insight into the intricacies that are at play in relationships when men attempt to live up to certain masculine ideals.
This is achieved skilfully by telling Sizwe's story in "Hush, brother, there goes a real man". Blending Sizwe's experiences with research and expert commentary, Brümmer sketches a detailed account of how masculine ideals around sexual virility, strength and dominance feed into risky sexual behaviours and foster an overall unwillingness to seek medical care. For Sizwe, and many other young men, sexual prowess or being "a stud" is considered a key trait of being a real man. In Sizwe's own words: "Men should always have two or three women". When Brümmer asks Sizwe about safe sex, it becomes clear how this adherence to dominant masculine ideals is endangering his health: "Real men don't use condoms," he responds.
The stranglehold of these narrowly defined ideas around what makes a man, a man, not only takes its toll on men's use of HIV-prevention methods but also negatively affects their readiness to access HIV treatment. Thus Sizwe remains adamant that HIV does not exist and he, like many other men, repeatedly refuses to go for an HIV test. Trapped by his own notion that a real man must at all times have the upper hand, he refuses to connect the dots between his girlfriend's HIV diagnosis and his own status. Instead, he lashes out, scorning her for infidelity and disobedience, despite his own inability to remain faithful.
But the story of Sizwe also investigates the potential for men to change by offering a protagonist in the form of Mbulelo Zuba, who is living openly with HIV. Mbulelo is encouraging his friend Sizwe to face up to the reality of HIV and get tested. In the end, it is Mbulelo who is ultimately framed as the "real" man, one who faces up to his choices and takes care of his sexual health.
Following Sizwe's story is that of Vusumzi. Like Sizwe, Vusumzi is indoda ebalekileyo, the man who ran away, and like Sizwe, Vusumzi also grew up during a period in South Africa's history made infamous for AIDS denialism among the top echelons of government. Although both men have a history of multiple and concurrent partnerships, Vusumzi's trail of women and children is so extensive that a chronological account of his many relationships and the four children he has with four different women forms the backbone of his story.
This timeline reveals overlapping relationships and, in so doing, illustrates the full scale of the HIV risk inherent in multiple and concurrent partnerships like these. But Vusumzi's various partners were as unaware of this overlap as they were of his HIV status. Though Vusumzi first learned he was HIV positive in his final year at school, it would take decades, numerous partnerships and four children later before his journey became one of acceptance, treatment and disclosure.
Despite the many lies that held Vusumzi's relationships together, he is not devoid of conscience. Through detailed narrative accounts, Brümmer reveals a man tormented by guilt, to whom running away often seemed the only option. "Every time I saw her she was in pain. I couldn't handle it," is his justification for leaving Sindiswa after she discovered that she had contracted HIV (most likely from him) and was pregnant with his child.
By granting airtime to the man who left, Brümmer does something rarely achieved in coverage of men – she elicits empathy through insight. Through sharing Vusumzi's side of the story, she takes the stereotypical absconding lover and renders him not a villain, but rather another causality claimed when HIV enters relationships.
In keeping with Brümmer's judicious and comprehensive approach, one of the stories of men who leave is told from a woman's perspective. In "Not a dog's sickness", we meet Sarie Sineli, who has been abandoned by her husband because, according to him, she "brought HIV into the house". Sarie's story has all the hallmarks of the others but is important as a counterpoint to the men's narratives.
Sarie's struggle to single-handedly fend for her family brings the desperation of poverty to the fore, which exists as a quiet undercurrent in the other narratives as well. Though Sarie's continuing love for, and loyalty to, her husband are heartbreaking, her battle with substance abuse and depression remind the reader that when lovers part, clear lines between victims and perpetrators are not easily drawn.
The last and most redemptive story in Brümmer's collection is that of Lester: an HIV-negative man standing by his desperately ill HIV-positive wife, Katy, and their two children, who both are positive. Lester's willingness to assume the caregiver role, which men usually shy away from, is proof that men can and do adopt emancipatory forms of masculinity. Though, as our analysis will show, these images of men as caregivers are exceptionally rare.
Like Sarie, it is now Lester who battles to be the breadwinner and the caregiver, offering a view of how HIV and poverty intersect in South Africa. Through Lester's animated character, Brümmer is able to convey his resilience and patience with his ailing wife and sickly children. While Lester says he is now "mommy and daddy" to the children, he does not consider his role as caregiver emasculating. Much of this is probably informed by the example set by Lester's father, who himself took on a lot of the housework after Lester's mother had a stroke. Unlike the other men in Brümmer's stories, Lester's father was also a man who stayed after illness and hardship descended.
The true tragedy of Lester's story, however, is one of a great love lost. While Lester's devotion to his wife lives on through his caregiving, very little remains of the boisterous woman he once adored. But Lester has chosen to "man up" to his fate and, in the bravest declaration of manliness made in Brümmer's work, he asserts: "This is the cross I have to bear – and it's a cast-iron cross, you know".
Current coverage: Hard-and-fast media images of men as lovers
In the year-long period spanned by our analysis, media coverage of men as lovers in the context of HIV was considerably less nuanced and detailed than the journalism showcased here. As a result, news reports were highly likely to pigeonhole men as Lotharios and vectors of disease in the context of HIV. On the other hand, coverage of women and HIV does not appear to ameliorate the situation either, often enforcing this man-woman, vector-victim dichotomy.
A total of 47 articles was sourced through searches of the HIV & AIDS Media Project's database, using keywords relating to the topics men, sex, love, relationships and men's sexual health. Following a close reading, the articles in this sample were divided into five organising themes: multiple concurrent partnerships (MCP); intergenerational sex or "sugar daddies"; alleged intentional or reckless transmission of HIV; Zulu and Swati reed dances; and HIV testing.
He loves to get around: Men in multiple and concurrent partnerships, sugar daddies and "dogs"
In our analysis, where the media covered men as lovers in the context of HIV, there was a marked tendency to appropriate blame. Four of the five organising themes engaged with some form of vector-victim dichotomy and, of those, three clearly blamed men. Most prominent among these was the coverage of men in MCP. Notably, the bulk of this category was made up of coverage on local sports minister Fikile Mbalula's reportedly unprotected trysts with a model in October 2011, which accounted for 9 of 12 reports. Mbalula's standing as a high-profile political figure who, ironically, supported the government's ABC (abstain, be faithful, condomise) campaign, most likely contributed to the news value of this story.
The rest of the MCP coverage consisted of an equal mix of personal true-life accounts and news reports. Both of the personal narratives in the sample emphasised risky sexual behaviour in the context of manliness, but while one took a cautionary stance, the other seemed to promote MCP as a prized quality among "real" men. In the first article, Bona magazine profiles Khumo Khumo as a "zero convert" who has not contracted HIV despite having multiple HIV-positive partners. The aptly titled "Dicing with death" is a laundry list of unprotected sexual encounters, revealing complex webs of sexual activity. The article ends on a cautionary note, with Khumo's acknowledgement of the dangers in which he has put himself and his partners. On the other side of the coin is a Daily Sun article on local personality Sithembele Maswana. In awe-inspired tones, Maswana is made out to be a hyper-masculine hunter with a voracious sexual appetite and the ability to have "long, hard sessions" with an infinite number of sexual partners.
The remaining two articles in the MCP category were news reports both featuring health minister Aaron Motsoaledi's rebuking of "immoral men" and husbands, blaming them for the high rate of HIV among older women. Interestingly, these two articles did not draw from one event or one statement but were published months apart in June 2011 and November 2011.
The second-most common theme to frame men as lovers comprised coverage of men engaging in intergenerational sex. All of the reports in this category examined the dangers of these relationships, although some focused on teen pregnancy to the detriment of the HIV issue. The majority of these directly and indirectly tackled the topic of "sugar daddies" – older men who have sex with younger women. One article touched on intergenerational sex in the context of ukuthwala, the practice of abducting young girls and coercing them into marrying older men.
Coverage of the sugar daddy issue was for the most part simplistic, making no attempt to probe the conditions and causes that give rise to sugar daddy relationships. The stories also tended to lay the blame for HIV and teen pregnancy entirely at the feet of men. Most articles conveyed the message that the young women involved were usually "coerced" into having relationships with older men.
But it was not all bad news. One article in The New Age took a more considered approach. Speaking to young girls, the report revealed that women often actively seek out sugar daddy relationships for many reasons, not limited to material gain. Another article in The Citizen included intergenerational sex in a story on getting basic feminine toiletries to underprivileged young girls, touching on the socio-economic context that informs these behaviours. But while theses reports provide some insight into the conditions of women and girls, they continue to frame men in a very one-dimensional manner.
In the third major theme, reed dances, coverage again exhibited an element of blame – in this case, that men alone were at fault for a rise in sex before marriage among maidens. However, rather than being castigated outright, men were more subtly referred in negative terms like "hormone driven". Stronger criticism was voiced by women and cultural groups quoted as saying men who "robbed" the women of their virginity were "dogs" and that the virgin maidens needed to be protected. In all these articles, the voices of men were glaringly absent. In so doing, not only did the articles fail to hold men accountable, they also failed in getting to the crux of the matter through balanced reporting.
The fourth theme in our analysis, of alleged intentional or reckless transmission of HIV, was the only one where the roles of victim and vector could be reversed and women were at times "blamed" for HIV transmission. Three of the five articles in this category covered the same case. These articles featured the vignette of a doctor whose wife had allegedly knowingly infected him with HIV. Another report told the story of a young woman who infected men as revenge for her contracting the virus through rape. The final piece in the category was the story of a group of women who had all been infected by a "deadly seducer".
Men's health and HIV
Only one category in our analysis could be considered to have broken away from the vector-victim trend. Unlike the four preceding themes, this fifth category did not contribute to the "men-as-vectors" argument but rather took a more positive approach, reporting on men's poor health-seeking behaviour in connection with HIV testing.
Regrettably, of the five reports in this category that focused on men's lack of interest in HIV testing, most articles simply regurgitated facts drawn from government reports and documents. This meant that they provided little added insight into why men are less likely than women to seek help. Only one article took a more insightful stance, with the male writer talking about his own personal struggles with HIV testing in an attempt to shed light on why it is that men generally avoid it.
Also included in this category were articles reporting on the death of Bafana Bafana soccer star Thabang Lebese, who died froman AIDS-related illness. Although Lebese's death from a chronic but manageable condition provided the media with the opportunity to address men's poor health-seeking behaviour, the issue was never broached.
* * *
Given the clamour around women's disproportionate HIV burden, men's roles as lovers of women are frequently overlooked in HIV programmes. Perhaps spurred on by this inequality, media images tend to be reductive, frequently positioning women as hapless victims and men as perpetrators. The journalism showcased in this section is evidence that it is possible to circumvent this vector-victim binary by writing about both men and women as stakeholders in relationships and providing insight and context.
Though what the journalism showcased here also points to is that many men still cling desperately to dominant masculine ideals that put both their and their partners' health at stake. This suggests that much work lies ahead in changing men's ideas around how "real" men behave in relationships and, particularly, in the context of HIV.
Lovers / Journalism
Where have all the fathers gone?
In Xhosa the women simply say le ndoda ibalekile – this man, he ran away.
In a time of HIV and AIDS, this story has virtually become a template – a cultural narrative etched into countless women's minds: She tests positive for HIV; her husband blames her for "bringing AIDS into the house"; he packs up and leaves.
In the paediatric AIDS Unit at Groote Schuur Hospital in Observatory, where I completed a research project in 2005, 9 out of 10 HIV-positive mothers I interviewed were single. When I returned to visit the unit again in 2010, the women told the same story: one of HIV and abandonment.
The up side? Some men eventually come back.
One woman, Nombeko (not her real name), was so angry when she found the father of her disabled son (at that time two years old) in bed with another woman that she shouted, "We're all HIV positive! Now you'll give it to her!"
"It's you and your baby, I'm not positive," he countered. "Stay with your AIDS baby," he said and left.
When the toddler turned four, his father fell ill and started bringing Nombeko money. As time passed, he asked sheepishly: "Nombeko, please can I go with you to Groote Schuur Hospital? I also want to see the doctor."
Nombeko frowns, rolls her eyes. "He still insisted that he was negative, but when he later moved in with us, he changed his story. He said 'sorry'."
Excerpted from (Un)covering Men by Melissa Meyer, Helen Struthers. Copyright © 2012 Anova Health Institute, Wits Journalism Programme and individual contributors. Excerpted by permission of Jacana Media (Pty) Ltd.
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Table of Contents
Fathers & partners,
Men who have sex with men,
Separating the boys from the men,