EUSEBIUS MCKAISER | Let’s be frank, we hate women

That we don’t flinch when the bodies of six women are found decomposing in Johannesburg says everything about South Africa’s attitude towards women

11 October 2022 - 15:56
By Eusebius McKaiser
It is shameful to allow a moral conviction about someone’s work or career choices to determine your willingness to stand up for and empathise with them. 
Image: Ziphozonke Lushaba IT'S A SIN It is shameful to allow a moral conviction about someone’s work or career choices to determine your willingness to stand up for and empathise with them. 

We hate women so much that there is no national outcry when six bodies, in various stages of decomposition, are discovered in central Johannesburg. It is outrageous that our collective response is to note the news (if we do so at all) and move on to the next item. What is going on? How do we recover our humanity? And, most importantly, what will it take for South Africa to stop waging war on women?

There are at least two reasons we hardly respond to news of their slaughter. The first is that violence is so voluminous and gratuitous in our society that our moral compasses no longer function when brutality occurs. The threshold requirements for us to be moved and emote are higher than they should be in a decent society in which the right to life is sacrosanct. Our society is indecent. A dead body isn’t enough to trigger anger, empathy, sadness, introspection and collective action. The body of a murder victim does not move us. That is how much our humanity has been diminished during South Africa’s history of violence becoming systemic and naturalised. 

A murder victim’s body needs to be brutalised in certain ways before it might — and there are no guarantees — receive some attention. Anene Booysen was disembowelled at a construction site after she was gang-raped. Her death sparked outrage only because of this heinous fact. Uyinene Mrwetyana was raped and murdered at a post office. It was the unusual location of the crimes that gripped South Africans. It’s a difficult truth to face, but we are now so immune to the horrors of rape and femicide that only “novel” or “particularly gruesome” features make us stop in our tracks. Otherwise we simply continue with our day.

There is a second reason we often respond with inappropriate silence and indifference to such stories. Some people are regarded as less worthy of our empathy. Sex Workers Education & Advocacy Taskforce (Sweat) noted speculation that the six women found dead in central Johannesburg might have been sex workers. It concurs with this in light of recent attacks on sex workers in the area and reports of some going missing. Sweat also argues that “criminalisation kills, it feeds the violence and stigmatisation sex workers are facing. It provides a legal foundation to the discrimination and violence targeting sex workers who are simply trying to support themselves and feed their families.” 

Two issues should be disentangled. It is morally vicious to regard someone as less deserving of fundamental rights, such as those to dignity and life, if they engage in activities you disapprove of. Some people regard sex work as wrong or a moral hazard. This view often structures responses to stories about sex workers. We may know and agree, intellectually as it were, that violence against sex workers is wrong, but a story about a woman who isn’t a sex worker and is violated in the same manner is more likely to make our blood boil. It is shameful to allow a moral conviction about someone’s work or career choices to determine your willingness to stand up for and empathise with them. 

At any rate, sex work is work. It should have been fully decriminalised years ago. The moral police must shut up. It is not your place to tell another person what to do with their body. If a person wishes to earn a living from sex work, then so be it.

What has always struck me is the audacity of opponents to their work to make assumptions about sex workers without engaging them

I have interviewed many sex workers and organisations working with them. What has always struck me is the audacity of opponents to their work to make assumptions about sex workers without engaging them. They condescend to them, treating them as toddlers who do not know what is in their best interests. Alternatively, they peddle old, fallacious arguments, such as deliberately conflating sex work and human trafficking, or extrapolating hastily from one or two women regretting sex work they engaged in, to a wild general conclusion that all sex workers work under extreme duress and at cost to their mental health. Most of the time this is moral conservatism bathing in confirmation bias. 

All these anti-sex work arguments are balderdash, even though I predict the usual child-minding responses this analysis will solicit from people who do not respect the autonomy of adult women. The bottom line is, as Sweat points out, sex workers are less safe in a society in which their existence is subject to criminal sanction. Our illiberal maternalistic instincts must be nipped in the bud. But the larger point is that a women’s right to life and dignity should not be earned. It is derived from her being human. That is the point and meaning of human rights.

So what are the prospects of South Africa being a safer space for women in the near future? Dim. Sadly. Because the first step towards change is to recognise that men want dominion over women’s bodies. We are in denial about this violent desire. Unsurprisingly. Who would admit to such an immoral and unlawful desire? But our denial, in turn, means we aren't facing up to the ways in which patriarchy plays out daily. Rape and murder are the worst acts of violence, but they aren’t the beginning and end of patriarchal violence. Yet because we insist most of us are “good men”, the prospects of talking about the problem, let alone how to solve it, will remain dim. 

Violence against women is also structured and perpetrated institutionally. This is in addition to interpersonal violence. The legal system, to take one example, reinscribes the trauma of rape survivors with processes that are anti-women and not victim-centric, even when it professes to be such. This is why convictions for gender-based violence (GBV) remain low. State-sponsored violence is real and worsens the struggle for gender justice.

There is a lot that can and should be done. We need, for example, to raise boys differently, so they do not reproduce the toxic masculinity of the men around them. They should be taught to be decent people, not even “good men”, because the focus on an ideal male perpetuates patriarchy. We need to learn to be decent human beings, not decent gender tokens. 

Our likelihood of getting there depends on our willingness to be vulnerable, to unlearn unhealthy habits and to habituate new ways of being. This preparedness to let go of harmful values and systems is itself an obstacle because it will make us feel vulnerable, and men are wrongly told that vulnerability is a weakness. We have so much work to do to recover our humanity. Meanwhile, South Africa remains a country brutally hostile to women.