Discourses of heterosexual subjectivity and negotiation
It is widely acknowledged that there are problems with the way in which heterosexual relationships are negotiated. A critical focus on heterosexuality has been particularly stimulated by feminist discourse on gender power relations and the global imperative to challenge HIV infection. In the South African context there has been a growing emphasis on researching and educating about (hetero)sexuality, particularly in the wake of the continued increase in HIV prevalence rates which are highest among young, black South Africans. A handful of South African studies point to the widespread nature of coercive sexuality characterised by male dominance and female submission and a lack of negotiation in respect of safe sex and sexual pleasure. This study addresses the realm of the negotiation of heterosexuality among black South African students at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), Cape Town. In the study, negotiation refers to two interrelated aspects: the negotiation of heterosexual subjectivity; and the negotiation of heterosexual sexuality (heterosex). The study is underpinned by a feminist poststructuralist conceptual framework and discourse analytic methodology which draws on qualitative methodologies, feminist approaches to research and discourse analysis. Three different methods were utilised to gather data: focus groups, a free-association questionnaire and written autobiographical essays. Participants of the study included psychology second and third year students at the UWC who were predominantly young (mean age of 23.3 years), black, of Christianity-related religious affiliation and non-English first language speakers. A discourse analysis together with an ethnographic analysis was carried out on the data which yielded a wide range of discursive themes on gender and heterosex. In looking at the negotiation of heterosexual subjectivities, there are vast differences in the experiences of'becoming' women and men: notably, puberty and menstruation are central in the construction of femininity and female sexuality, which are interwoven with each other in the construction of women as vulnerable, passive and restrained; on the other hand, boy's/men's subjectivities are centred about sexual agency and activity, competition and physical and mental 'hardness'. Nonetheless these rigidly divergent experiences of gendered heterosexualisation are also punctuated by resistance, ambivalence and contradiction, particularly in women's accounts. It is suggested that the difficulties involved in 'achieving' femininity for women may be implicated in their continued investment in these subjectivities in their contemporary contexts. In talk on negotiating heterosex, two central clusters of discourse emerge: discourses of difference, in which inevitable, essential (either biological or cultural) and incommensurable differences are assumed, Jr rationalised and reproduced by participants; discourses of power, resistance and change which draw on alternative discourses such as the feminist critique of male power, and also speak of and call for change. Central within all of these discourses is the virtual invisibility of a positive language to speak of women's sexuality and desires, which has as its underside a lack of alternative discourses on masculinity and male sexuality, in particular the absence of a positive discourse on men's vulnerability, non-sexual intimate desires, lack of sexual desire and resisting of power. The thesis suggests, on the basis of poststructuralist theories of change, that given the presence of challenging and contradictory discourses, subversive subjectivities and silences, there is potential for change. It is argued that educational and political interventions need to acknowledge and work with these spaces for change within the broader framework of challenging the underlying hierarchical binarism of sexual difference, upon which the problematic and unequal negotiation of heterosex is founded.