Social media unintentionally furthers the commodification of young, powerless women
Do you agree that sex was less casual before social media became as popular as it is now? SMS us on 35697 using the keyword HIV and tell us what you think. Please include your name and province. SMSes cost R1.50 Social media is used by older men (and paedophiles) to lure vulnerable girls into sexual relations. The phenomenon of sugar daddies is well known and its contribution to the Aids epidemic cannot be underestimated since most adolescent girls and young women are infected by older men.
The popular meeting point for these relationships is now social media, not some village river in Nongoma or public a square as was the case decades past. Another extreme of this phenomenon is the emergence of mavuso stokvels (sex parties where strangers have casual sex in exchange for money) and blessers (casual sexual relationships with rich men in exchange for money, expensive gifts and holidays).
At the receiving end of these viral subcultures are adolescent girls and young women who are often powerless and cannot negotiate safe sex. They risk being physically abused or bullied into unprotected sex.
Social media is used to promote trends such as sex orgies and group sex. This is linked to the point made above regarding the normalisation of pornography and mavuso stokvels. It is not unusual to hear and read stories about women having orgies and group sex with men who have the “resources” (money and power).
For my part, I experimented a few times by organising threesomes with younger women I knew as well as with strangers I met on social media.
Although these never materialised, I never doubted the willingness of my liaisons.
Again, in the social-media groups I used to observe social trends, most young women and men expressed liberal views towards orgies, group sex and unprotected sex. Some unconsciously regarded these as rites of passage to adulthood.
The main conclusion is that social media unintentionally furthers the casualisation of sex, sex across disparate age groups, multiple concurrent sexual relationships and the commodification of women who can be “bought” with money and gifts.
In the final analysis, the agency of women notwithstanding, the reality is this is a manifestation of patriarchy and persisting inequality in South Africa. Conspicuous consumption does not empower women. It leaves them open to manipulation and abuse in an HIV hyperendemic country.
The crass materialism that is flaunted on social networks and reality TV shows such as the local Diski Divas and the American Keeping Up with the Kardashians cultivates the notion that “beauty pays” more than hard work. The real beneficiaries of this political economy are macho mobile men with money and the propensity to objectify and abuse young women.
This is a public policy conundrum, the unintended consequences of opening wide the doors of culture and communication so that Bongi from Nongoma arguably coexists with Beyoncé from New York, albeit in a precarious social-media bubble which eventually bursts, as Bongi is more likely to have a near encounter with HIV owing to her socioeconomic status and prevalence of gender-based violence in her society. Ngcaweni is editor of Sizonqoba! Outliving Aids in Southern Africa, available at the Human Sciences Research Council