In many discussions about the infidelity of men, vitriol is often aimed at the women with whom they cheat.
A common theme in many of these attacks is that the woman with whom a married man cheats is responsible for the affair, almost as if her mere presence led to it, as opposed to the idea of the affair happening between two consenting adults. The ‘other woman’ becomes the ‘home wrecker‘ who ruins, or at least attempts to ruin, the cheating man’s marriage; the ‘Jezebel’, a scheming and shamelessly evil woman, who was solely to blame for the infidelity.
This woman is often presented as an ‘immoral’ woman, a woman who is disrespectful of her lover’s marriage, meaning the onus of being faithful to HIS wife is completely removed from the cheating spouse. This, despite the men involved usually being willing participants in the relationship as evidenced by affectionate gestures between the lovers. Yet time and time again, the man – who is the one who is married and thus has an obligation to his wife – somehow becomes the victim; a ‘helpless’ victim overpowered the deviousness of the ‘other woman’.
Kelly Khumalo and the burden of morality
Late last year Senzo Meyiwa, a 27-year-old South Africa soccer national team and Orlando Pirates goalkeeper and captain, was brutally gunned down at the Vosloorus home of his girlfriend, singer Kelly Khumalo.
Following the shooting, vitriol aimed at Khumalo was unleashed on various social media networks, leading to headlines like ‘Kelly Khumalo faces Twitter ire over Senzo Meyiwa’s death’ and ‘The fight over Senzo: #TeamKelly vs #TeamMandisa’. All of this because, suddenly, people felt what happened between two consenting adults was their business.
The common theme in some of these attacks was that Kelly Khumalo was responsible for his death, because had he been at home with his wife it would not have happened. As such, she became the ‘home wrecker‘ who had ruined Meyiwa’s marriage to wife Mandisa; the scheming and shamelessly evil Jezebel who was deserving of shouldering the sole blame for Meyiwa’s infidelity.
What we see is the burden of ‘morality’ being unfairly placed solely on the woman. The commentary around extramarital affairs affirms this. Women involved with married men are labelled ‘side chicks’, ‘side dishes’ and more. Memes are even created mocking them, but what do we call a man who has a ‘side chick‘, the person in the relationship who vowed to be faithful and true to another?
Furthermore, that women involved in extramarital affairs are dehumanised and treated like some form of ‘lesser’ women also means that these women’s value is gauged through their relationship to a man.
I personally believe that the responsibility for fidelity – in an extramarital relationship – should rest squarely on the party that is married. Someone who made no vows to anyone has no obligations to be ‘faithful and true’.
Positioning men as rational and sexually responsible
Beyond the issue of where the burden of morality is placed, another problem presented in the arguments against the ‘other woman’ is that it demeans masculinity. It presents men as lacking self-control and needing to be safeguarded against the ‘Jezebels’ of the world; thereby relinquishing individual responsibility for men’s behaviour, the same logic often used to victim-blame, a common form of rape and sexual violence apologia. Unlike in the case of married men claiming ‘victimhood’ as a result of an affair, the victims I speak of here are women whose bodily autonomy is violated in the most barbaric and inhumane manner.
Placing the burden of morality on women and rape apologia are two sides of the same patriarchal coin. They both entrench the dominant narrative that women are responsible for the actions of men, whether consensual, as in the case of woman involved with a married man; or violent and harmful, as in the case of a rape victim and her rapist.
So these attacks against women involved in affairs justify and reinforce rape, entrenching the tyranny of masculinity which takes place within the confines of patriarchy. Every time a ‘side chick’ is demonised and the blame for men’s actions is placed on ‘Jezebels’, it is both an affront to masculinity and to women at large because it is an action that pledges allegiance to patriarchy, a system that devalues women and attempts to control women’s bodies, behaviour and sexuality.
In her now famous ‘We should all be feminists’ TedxEuston talk, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says, “we teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are”. This is exactly what happens when women’s bodies and sexuality are policed at the expense of calling out men to take responsibility for their actions.
The narrative, which is not unique to South Africa, needs to change from one in which the misbehaviour of men is excused. To do this, it is crucial that women involved with married men are neither shamed, demonised nor policed. What needs to be done, instead, is accept that men are rational human beings fully capable of deciding to enter a consensual extramarital relationship without being ‘forced’ into it by another and in the same way, they should also be able to grasp the idea that sex should be entered into with enthusiastic consent.