In January this year, a video of a young Zimbabwean woman having sex with her male partner in front of her four-year old son went viral on Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube, and other social media. Described as “sickening” and “disgusting”, the video prompted commentators across the Internet to claim that this woman was “unfit as a mother”, “shameless” and a range of other derogatory insults.
Unsurprisingly, the face of the man was not visible at any time in the video; he therefore was accorded little responsibility for the incident, while the woman had to offer a public apology after a wave of criticism from all corners of the blogosphere after her name was released.
But is this just a case of a “bad”, “irresponsible” mother who deserves to be blamed and censured for her behavior?* The story is far more complicated than that because this incident is just one of many that demonstrate the vulnerability of women in a world where social media has become so prevalent.
Sexual commodification in the digital era
Late last year, another young woman was made to pay a fine of USD 5 000 in Zambia when a sex video of her went viral. The young woman was found guilty of engaging in pornography and the case received a lot of media attention. Since her sexual partner’s face was not very clear on the video, and as there was no way of ascertaining whether it was really him, he was found not guilty.
Women’s groups in Zambia refused to support the young woman, stating that her actions went against their moral values. The failure of the women’s movement in Zambia to stand up for the young woman and the fact that her sexual partner was allowed to go free says a lot about how we, as women, all exist in a system that compromises our right to choose and yet we are also in conflict with each other. It also illustrates that justice looks very different for men and for women.
Droves of women come to the Katswe Sistahood offices in Harare reporting that their ex-partners have put up nude photos of them and disclosed private information on Facebook and other platforms. In many cases, women give their consent to have photos or video taken during intimate acts inside of relationships – but rarely do they anticipate that their privacy and personhood will be disrespected to the extent that what was once a private, mutually-consented act between two people will become a public commodity.
All of these cases have got me thinking about security in a digital age where technology is at our fingertips. What does that mean especially for young women? What kinds of decisions do women have to make in relationships?
I once found myself in a position where my partner wanted to take photos of us (by us, I mean me, really, there is no way this dude was going to expose himself on camera). He told me that seeing ourselves (seeing me) on camera would add some spice to our sex lives. I chose, in that situation, not to give my consent because I knew once the photos were taken, I would have very little control over their use. Since then, I’ve made it a personal policy to refuse to send erotic material, where my face is exposed, to my boyfriends. But the choice is not always so easy for women in relationships.
Who’s got the power?
There are a lot of conflicting and contradictory pressures placed on women within the family, workplace, school, church and particularly in intimate relationships. In the same breath, we are told to be modest, to wear conservative clothes …and to pose naked in front of a camera during sex.
We live in a patriarchal society where culture, tradition and socioeconomic standing often mean women are not allowed a great deal of power in their relationships with men. Sometimes, going along with demands we don’t agree with is the only way to keep those relationships intact.
Talk to any woman on the street today, and eight times out of ten, the story will be similar if not the same. The lack of bodily autonomy goes beyond the issue of pornographic photos and sex tapes and right into deeply intimate and everyday decisions in our lives – negotiating condom use in relationships, the use of contraceptives, when and how to have sex, what clothes to wear and more. To be a “good woman”, you have to live up to all kinds of expectations and if you don’t – if you, like the woman in the video, have your trust and privacy violated against your will, or even if you just try to challenge the boundaries and rules, you deserve to be punished.
I am not against the idea of people taking videos during sex, or nude photos, but a major concern for me and for all women is whether we make coerced choices or informed personal choices, and how we protect ourselves from abuse in situations like this.
We cannot have discourse on young women, sex and technology without engaging in the full range of choices that women have to make and the factors that define them. How do unequal power relations between men and women and the socioeconomic environment impact women’s ability to make independent and informed choices so as to positively navigate their sexuality in the 21st century?
Being in control means knowing what you want from a relationship, asserting it and if there is need for compromise, being able to do so without losing oneself. Being in control starts with acknowledging ourselves as young women, loving ourselves, embracing our shortcomings and understanding that we are the captains of our lives; we steer this ship and we should be able to make decisions that sit well with us.
The essence, for me, is that we need to exercise authority over all aspects of our lives. We should, as young women, be in a position to demand safe and satisfying sex, be able to choose the contraceptives we want to use and who we want to have sex with, how and when, and to be able to assert these rights in our relationships. We should also be able to say no to our partners if they ask for nude photos or sex videos of us, if we are uncomfortable about this.
Technology has brought added complications and complexities that young women need to grapple with in relation to sexuality, choice and control. A new wave of technological gadgets and applications is redirecting the discourse on how young women can navigate their sexuality and make informed choices. Furthermore, the importance of engaging with the legality of the choices we make is highlighted by examples such as those of the young Zambian woman I previously spoke of.
Social media is developing at a frantic pace and while it brings many reasons to be concerned, it also gives a lot of opportunity if women are equipped with the tools to first, protect themselves, and second, use platforms like Facebook, Twitter or Word Press to speak out and stand up, learn, empower themselves and others, and have fun.
We definitely need to think about practical tools and lessons to help women navigate their sexuality with 21st century technology.
* Note: I was concerned that a sexual act was performed in front of a four year-old child, but that would require a whole other article.
The main photograph is taken from www.criminalattorney.com