As fate would have it: I was lying in a hospital bed when, for the first time, I saw one of the Department of Health-sponsored ‘Brothers for Life’ medical male circumcision (MMC) campaign adverts. It could have been an ordinary public health message about the benefits of medical circumcision (albeit one which is subject to much debate), in a bid to reduce the number of HIV transmissions.
But it wasn’t.
Instead, there was a nauseating injection of ‘cool’ and marketing swag into this campaign. And all of a sudden circumcision had become the ‘love-cut’, and men had to get theirs before the summer was over. In promoting a possibly healthier South Africa, this campaign has managed to further disempower women in the sexual contract, and stigmatise individuals who exercise their right to be ‘evil boys’ – men who refuse to bow to cultural views on masculinity.
The campaign (which has run for over a year but which only recently features the ‘love-cut’ tagline) is obviously problematic: it promotes a proxy for safe sex that isn’t all that safe. MMC only reduces the possibility of HIV transmission to 40% and doesn’t prevent STDs or unplanned pregnancies.
The sexism embedded in the campaign is just as worrying. Despite ‘Brothers for Life’ seeking to raise awareness about the negative implications of numerous sexual partners and gender-based violence; its legitimacy is ironically jeopardised because it simultaneously promotes a sexualised, cool message about why you need your ‘love-cut’. This is made worse when it is promoted within the stereotypical traditional gendered constructs of a so-called ‘real man’.
There is no mention of women’s rights or equality; we only see that a brother for life must ‘respect his woman’. There is no introspection about the sexism that is so deeply embedded in South African masculinity and culture. The reality that men in this country are the world’s greatest perpetrators of sexual violence, and that women were effectively and legally placed under men until the advent of constitutional democracy seems to be ignored by this campaign.
‘Brothers for Life’, which is ironically endorsed by the Sonke Gender Justice Project, cannot ignore the fact that MMC may lead to men to abandoning their condoms. This creates the risk of locking female partners into an unplanned pregnancy which could rob them of their right to education, life, and trade. Not to mention there’s that slight 40% risk of HIV transmission which still poses a threat. The campaign doesn’t change the reality that men almost always determine the terms of a sexual relationship; this campaign entrenches the man’s right to do so.
The need to collectivise and stigmatise other men to gain ground is employed as another sexist tactic. Here men are guilted into MMC because it is promoted as a means to protect one’s self and one’s partner from HIV. The campaign constructs the false notion of an ideal man (‘brother for life’) who ascribes to certain values – the collectivisation of men for the campaign’s sake. It is this focus on a collective masculinity which takes place at the expense of the individual and his freedom to choose. Essentially, the marketing technique uses misogyny to mobilise men into action. The message that a circumcised penis is a better one, one which feels better and which is healthier can lead to stigmatisation of those ‘evil boys’ who are brave enough to define their own masculinity, or those who simply don’t want to be circumcised. And who may practice safer sex than all the circumcised men they know.
This type of generalisation smacks of the same kind of deplorable moralising which allows heterosexuals to donate blood, irrespective of their sexual practices, but denies homosexuals, irrespective of how safe they are, from doing so. Collectivised ideals of sexual health are detrimental to any effort to balance individual and communal needs.
Men shouldn’t have to define their identities in accordance with the status quo. Neither should they have to fall prey to bureaucratic bullying which reinforces the prescriptions about identity and gender that further underpin gender violence and inequality. In the context of a diverse South Africa, this campaign fails to look beyond the heterosexual norm, by creating a brotherhood in which only relationships between men and woman are legitimate. Unfortunately, this campaign is too deeply rooted in the values of yesterday to be able to influence any kind of radical or positive change.
This summer I’ll pass on getting one of those ‘love-cuts’. Even if it means I miss out on being a brother for life – whatever that is.