In late September a scandal rocked the press and social media. Pamela “Gonyeti” Zulu, a backing vocalist and dancer, accused musician and former employer, Jah Prayzah of sexual abuse.
She alleged that she had been his “sex slave” for three years. She had been forced into it to “safeguard” her job. She revealed that this was in addition to not been paid for her services as a member of his band.
Jah Prayzah is one of the most acclaimed musicians in Zimbabwe. With so many fans, it was easy for many to rush to his defence and brutally scrutinise Pamela’s story.
I am also tempted to rush to Pamela’s defence and discredit all the questions that were raised as cruel “victim shaming”. But her confession sparked a heated argument touching on many sensitive issues. Traditionally the African society shuns any blunt discussion of sex but her story started a much needed discussion on sexual abuse and rape, consent, stigmatisation, women’s economic agency.
So many questions were asked.
“From the report, she wanted to safeguard her job and also payment for her “services”. Does that not imply consent?”
“Why did she stay for three years in the abusive work relationship? She could have walked away if she wanted.”
As a society, we need to be sensitised towards the intricacies of sexual rights. Whether Jah Prayzah is guilty or not of sexual abuse, our response to Pamela’s ordeal is an indicator of what we still need to learn.
What really is sexual abuse?
Sexual abuse can be defined as “repeated and unwanted sex-oriented behaviours that attack an individual’s dignity, security and their physical and psychological integrity. In the workplace, sexual abuse may be accompanied by blackmail and abuse of power that could compromise employment”.Therefore if Jah Prayzah abused his power to demand sexual favours, if he threatened to compromise Pamela’s employment, if there was no sexual consent that does constitute sexual abuse by this definition. That leads us to the fundamental question;
What is sexual consent?
“If a woman stays for three years in an abusive work relationship and does not walk away…
If she expects payment for “services” and resolves to “please” her “paymaster”… ”
Does it mean there was consent?
No. Sexual consent should never be implied.
In fact it shouldn’t even be a matter of discussion. It should be a simple yes or no. But unfortunately the lines of sexual consent are so blurred that it is often difficult to tell where it has or has not been granted. Look at it this way: A person might not say the word “no” to sex but it does not mean consent has been granted.
A person might also say “yes” to sex but it could be because they are under duress. They might be coerced through threats and emotional pressure can make someone agree to sex. Under such coercion, surely we cannot say there is sexual consent. Denying Pamela her salary could have been a means of sexual coercion.
There are many reasons why she might also not have left the abusive work relationship that Jah Praizer’s apologists chose to overlook. Pamela has two children to support; quitting could not have been an option. She may have had limited work experience; she might have feared that she would not get another job and I do not need to overemphasise the local unemployment rate to make a point.
So in no way does her staying mean consent to the sexual activity that took place may have been granted. But because consent unfortunately remains a grey area, her abuser might have decided to interpret the situation to his advantage. The detail that she expected payment leads us to the next question.
Why women, quite often, sexually extorted in exchange for employment or money?
This is deeply rooted in patriarchy. Traditionally women had no economic agency of their own and key positions of power were occupied by men. To gain some form of agency, often women were either forced or compelled into providing sexual favours to those in power.
In Pamela’s narration, she was forced to be a “sex slave” to keep her job.
This should bring a problem to something we as a society should fix which even her critics are aware of. Why are there so many instances of women providing sexual services to their employers?
This problem is still prevalent in so many of our workplaces and not just the arts and entertainment industry. Especially in this current Zimbabwean context where jobs are scarce, sexual harassment is still a means of oppression and exploitation. Some labour union representatives even confirm it.
We need to progress to a stage where no woman should have to feel like they need to give up their sexual autonomy to be successful or to keep a job. No man should be allowed to even consider demanding sexual favours in exchange of employment or a promotion. It should simply not be acceptable.
The workplace culture needs to change to a point where sexual harassment and misconduct are taken seriously and strongly condemned. Sexual harassment should not be the norm for arts and entertainment or any other industry, be it formal or informal.
Should an accuser’s sexual history be brought into discussion?
No. Stigmatisation and shaming of women’s sexual decisions should just end.
Pamela has faced an onslaught of judgement ranging from the identity of her children’s fathers to even style of dancing on the stage. These are all matters that provide no indicator of whether sexual abuse did or did not take place.
Pamela rightfully commented that “many women do not disclose issues related to sexual abuse because they are afraid of stigmatisation”. The experience is “embarrassing”. This should not be so. By shaming those who speak out against sexual abuse, as a society we discourage others from doing so and therefore we play a role in the subjugation of their rights.
Above all, the conversations must continue
We need more than just knowledge about what sex and sexual abuse are. We need consciousness. As a society we should be able to speak about sex more freely. We still need to clarify what sexual consent means, not that this discussion is new, but society decides to ignore it. The stigma associated with reporting sexual abuse should end so that victims do not fear reprisal. The hypocrisy and double standards applied to women should change.
We should encourage the culture of speaking out so that this does not happen to more and more women. In the same way victims of theft report the crime promptly to the police, as a society we need to come to a level where survivors of sexual abuse are also quick to report it with confidence that the perpetrator will be stopped before they abuse another person. Every individual needs to reach a level of consciousness where we all fully embrace our sexual autonomy.