Constructions of masculinity, sexuality and risky sexual practices of male soldiers
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The spread of HIV/AIDS in South Africa has continued in spite of initiatives by government and numerous concerned community-based and non-governmental organisations to contain the pandemic. Hegemonic masculinity and traditional male sexual practices associated with such identities have only recently been identified as a key area of challenge in the HIV/AIDS pandemic and more broadly in addressing issues of gender inequality. Practices such as non-negotiation in heterosexual relationships as well as other manifestations of gender inequality remain rife. Not surprisingly, this has led to a proliferation of research on men and boys in South Africa. Yet, while critical men’s studies foreground the centrality of context in the construction of masculinities, the role of particular institutions long associated with the construction of hegemonic masculinity has not been well documented in the light of the HIV/AIDS challenge. Given that HIV infection ratios are higher among soldiers than civilians, and the masculinist culture that prevails in military settings, it is clear that soldiers are particularly vulnerable to HIV infection. This study seeks to understand how men in the military draw on notions of masculinity and heterosexuality in constructing their identity and heterosexual practices. I conducted in-depth interviews with a diverse group of 14 male soldiers aged 23 to 33. All participants were officers pursuing a career in the military who were enrolled in a tertiary institution. The interviews were audio-taped and then transcribed. All the interviews were analysed using discourse analysis, with interpretation being informed by a social constructionist theoretical framework in order to address the intersecting issues of gender, sexuality and masculinity. The discourse analysis carried out on the transcripts highlights the centrality of dominant constructions of (hetero)sexual masculinity. Key here is the ‘male sexual drive discourse’ which has been identified elsewhere in South Africa and internationally, usually coupled with traditional expectations of women’s sexuality as submissive and responsive to that of men. There is, furthermore, a prevailing notion of ‘double standards’ which reward men for risky sexual practices while condemning women for the same practices and for resisting their traditional feminine and sexual roles. The study also found that the military as a macho/masculinist institution plays a key role in exaggerating traditional identities and sexual practices for men, in particular notions of masculinity as equated with physical strength and prowess and traditional constructs of male sexuality as urgent and aggressive. These are exacerbated by the military context in which soldiers, due to the nature of their task, have socio-economic and political power over (female) members of local communities. Long periods of isolation from partners during deployment and courses could also facilitate unsafe sexual practices. The study further points to the salience of social identities such as race and class intersecting with gender in the subjective representations of masculinity and sexuality, with neither of these representations manifested as fixed or unitary. The study foregrounds how male sexual risk-taking facilitates the reproduction of hegemonic discourses on male and female sexuality that continue to repress women’s rights to sexual desire and pleasure, while legitimating hegemonic male sexual practices. The study concludes that tackling HIV in the military demands critical examination of multiple constructions of masculinity: those common to broader groups of men and those peculiar to the context of the military. It is thus argued that the development of effective intervention programmes on the one hand requires an unpacking of broader discourses on masculinity and male sexuality and on the other a specific targeting within the context of military imperatives and conditions.