Dear DRUM Editor: Let’s stop slut-shaming Bonang and women’s sexual histories

By Pakama Ngceni

After the popular weekly magazine published a spread featuring the ‘interesting intersexions” of Bonang Matheba, Pakama Ngceni pens a letter to the editor of DRUM saying, “The constant gate-keeping around black women’s sexual lives in mainstream media such as your magazine, reveals the deeply entrenched anti-black racism and sexism against black women that pervades in our society.”

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Dear Drum Editor,

We need to have a chat about this unruly beast we call misogyny, its relation to race and sexuality, which, once again, seem to have pervaded every sphere of our being, personal and political. This plays out in your decision to feature Bonang Matheba’s sexual history as a photo spread filled with tit bits of juicy gossip on each partner.

I would like to assume that you mean well, that you do not want to go around reproducing a hatred for women, which we both should know often turns violent in this country. Drum though, as an ideological apparatus, has been messing up with their coverage of black women for quite some time now and nobody seems to care about the amount of shaming happening inside the pages of your magazine. This, I believe, is no mere accident.

According to your feature, Bonang has been a bad girl for years now and you took it upon yourselves to trace the outlines of her sexual history and to ‘out’ her on said history using the context of a popular television show, Intersexions, whose thematic framework is sexual responsibility and, in particular, cautioning young people against certain forms of sexual behaviour, which, in not very subtle ways, prohibits some forms of sexual behaviors as depraved and undesirable. You do this in a society that constantly promotes the narrative that black women are AIDS carriers? You should recognize the fact that this stigma exists, is unjust and unwarranted. Yet you have instead used it to frame her ‘intersexions’. It might be tempting to dismiss this implication, saying your reference to Intersexions had nothing to do with HIV/Aids and is just the stuff of pubescent drama. However, in reality the Drum feature reproduces fantasies of female purity and a failure of women such as Bonang to uphold these exacting expectations.

What informed your decision to publicly give us a sketch of Bonang’s sexual history?

Bonang is an adult woman whose body is her own, and what she chooses to do with it or how she chooses to exercise and experience her sexuality is up to her apparently except that if you’re a black woman, these freedoms are thrown into perpetual relief. This is evidenced by the horrific trend of the labelling certain women, due to their alleged sexual preferences and proclivities, even something as seemingly quotidian as taste in clothes, as degenerate sluts. This same trend seems to inform both your choice of story and narrative procedures. It encourages this obscene voyeurism, porno-troping and regulation of black female bodies.

In a nutshell, the idea of Drum shaming a woman for, firstly, being sexually active, secondly, having more than one sexual partner, and , thirdly, acknowledging and acting on sexual feelings doesn’t come as a surprise.

This to me feels a lot more like a general indictment of women, and in particular, black women, for the ways in which they choose to express their sexuality. Such prohibitions and repressions pander to a patriarchal porno-troping, framing every instance of a woman’s sexuality from the perspective and for the enjoyment of the male gaze, stripping women of their humanity and throwing into oblivion hundreds of years of oppression that operated on repression and control of women’s sexuality. The constant gate-keeping around black women’s sexual lives in mainstream media such as your magazine, reveals the deeply entrenched anti-black racism and sexism against black women that pervades in our society.

In this age of slut shaming it seems that we might even lose the meagre and precarious gains we made and, simultaneously, hinder our current efforts as feminist activists and intellectuals from all walks of life and geographical configurations, in quelling the scourge of anti-black women practices that patriarchy disperses. The black female body, once again, is under trial and attack, either as a commodity or an objectified centerpiece for fetish or victim to the structural adjustment of capital. Bonang becomes a victim of this anti-black woman sexism in which her personhood and self-identity gets wrenched from her and she becomes a piece of property vulnerable to the abuses of the reactionary mob.

I will be the first to admit that the idea of Bonang as a victim of the media mill might seem contradictory.  After all, this is a woman whose image and brand identity relies on valorising a glamorous lifestyle and conspicuous consumption in our highly unequal post-apartheid South Africa wherein millions of black women are tottering as the poorest of the poor. Notwithstanding the non-progressive strand of popular culture, of which Bonang’s image is emblematic, when has it become acceptable to call this young woman, regardless of her class, ‘Bonang Mafeba’ or go through her past relationships as a measure of her value? Patriarchy and its attendant function of slut-shaming cuts across class and other differences between women.

Your editorial itself vaccilates between rightly pointing out that AKA is no victim in this situation to going right ahead and negating any possibility that Bonang, or DJ Zinhle, for that matter can take pleasure in exploring and embracing sexuality publicly without it playing out as detrimental to some sort of national consciousness, values and norms. So what if she does not take time out after “South Africans were pitying Bonang for being embarrassed by D’Banj” as you say in your editorial?  You dare tell her that she needs to take a serious break before “moving on to another man”. Have you ever given President Zuma that kind of advice? When it comes to how and to whom sexuality must be controlled for moral regeneration, there has been and continues to be a clear double standard. There is one set of sexual rules for men and boys, and another, unequal one for women and girls.

As with many other sexist phenomena, women are not only targets for this shaming, they are often the perpetrators too. As many have argued, infighting among oppressed groups is necessary in keeping those groups oppressed. One of the methods available to women in an attempt to compete with each other for male approval is to shame any woman who dare embrace and explore sex with different men. This male approval translates into a form of power, regardless of how limited this power is. I hope this is not what is happening in this case with your editorial choices because it certainly is a cheap and easy way to feel powerful.

Putting out sexual histories may seem harmless and perhaps even useful as a kind of cautionary tale for other women. You know, helping “good” girls from making sexual “mistakes”. However, a reputation built on how a women chooses to express her sexuality can quickly make her a target for other forms of harassment, violations and even rape, since she is portrayed as easy on the eye but also plain easy. How many times do we have to witness a rape been discounted because the woman in question was deemed to have slept around? Remember the Zuma trial in which details where not spared to give the plaintiff’s sexual history. How many times are women called all sorts of sexual slurs while their partners beat them up? How often are women’s sexual histories used against women to discount their characters in communities, religious groups and in the workplace? How about teenage girls who commit suicide after being taunted?

What was shocking was how people on social networks shared your “interesting intersexions” with high levels of vitriol and over-the-top outrage. After the heated criticism on social networks about your Bonang feature being ‘distasteful’ we perhaps need to delve further into the queasiness over black women who appear to control their sexuality. What certain quarters of society clearly want is to regulate the bodies of black women in order to eradicate any traits of a sexual being. Though the causes of sexual harassment, suicide, and murder cannot be reduced solely to public shaming a woman as a uni-causal variable, it is unmistakably a component of a misogynistic culture.

On some level, it is understandable to claim that Drum’s interest is misdirected, your methods are questionable and the unintended consequences are serious.  We become distracted from imminent concerns regarding sexual politics and sexual safety. This is a daily micro-aggression for some of us. For others, it is an overt precision attack.

It seems your magazine needs a not-so-subtle reminder that our bodies are our own through struggle. If our sexualities are yet another space for the regulation of our bodies, rather than an embrace of our sexuality, then, like a basketball we gotta bounce and take our magazine buying power with.

Yours,

Pakama Ngceni

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Pakama Ngceni is a Black Feminist writer, mother of three and activist with SAYF (South African Young Feminist Activists).

47 Comments
  1. That article is on point! I hope Drum’s editor reads it and that Phakama emailed it to her. It is more annoying that there are misogynist females nxa!

  2. Thank you Pakama for articulating this so well for those of us who either lack the vocabulary, or are not in a social or economic position to say this.

  3. Honestly I see no racism, sexism or misogyny in talking about the sex lives of celebrities some of whom appear nude in the media for whatever reason. And sometimes for the heck of it.

    The HIV statistics in South Africa have no stigma or stereotypes around them. They are just what they are and can be analysed by gender, age, geography and so many other variables. Making some unscientific links and conclusions benefits no one.

    If a public figure appears to be promiscuous or seems to change sexual partners willy nilly, that is news worthy and the story will sell magazines. After all, these same celebrities are responsible for developing a sex symbol cult around themselves. It makes them money as their personal brand gets to be sexy and in demand.

    Pakama please engage in feminism that truly benefits us women of South Africa.

  4. wise words phakama!! someone had to intervene vele ths is so unacceptable i mean the women has been very good for herself buh Drum never even wrote something good about her and her hardworking now that there has been rumours about something that u aint even sure of u jus couldnt wait to print “bonang’s intersexion’ as if you are the Mother Theresa yourself comeon!!! Bonang Matheba is a very Hardworking lovely woman who is just a celebrity but she’s a Human being like you and i bet u have many “Ex” than her but its not a big deal to you..why dont you just embrace her work for once?!! One day ya’ll post such and it will backfire very hard mark my words!!

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