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What is a 'man'? A study on masculinity and adolescence.

What makes a "man"?

From an early age, children are taught what is expected of them based on their gender. "While little boys are climbing trees, little girls are expected to sit quietly and behave as young ladies," said one man I interviewed for my research on adolescent sexuality and reproductive behaviour in Namibia. While society expects women to be passive, nurturing and caring, it expects men to have power and to exert that power, whether it be physically, economically or politically. Today, adolescent boys view becoming a man much like they view playing a game. A man must be a tough, competitive "player", a protector, and a virile heterosexual. The "player" who can get the most girls, and who can use his power to keep other men from taking "his woman", wins the game and wins acceptance from his peers. Adolescent young men are taught to play this game without thinking about the privileges society grants them, or about the consequences of their behaviour.

The double standard

According to the standards set by society, a "good girl" knows nothing about sex and remains a virgin until she is married. Women should be passive in any sexual exchange. Men, on the other hand, are expected to be the initiating partners, the sexually experienced and also the protectors of their female family members' sexuality. Thus, men are given absolute power over women in the realm of sexuality.

A woman's sexuality does not belong to her. Her failure to remain a virgin is seen as a humiliation to the entire family, especially to her male relatives. At the same time, society expects young boys to be sexually experienced before they marry virgin brides.

To manage this ambiguity, many male adolescents have developed two different types of relationships with girls. One relationship is 'serious' with the girl they want to save for marriage. The other relationships are purely sexual. The so-called 'spare wheel' is a girl who has been labeled a 'slut' and who is perceived as cheap and available. It is with these 'spare wheels' that boys gain the sexual experience that they are expected to have before they marry. Of course, the 'spare wheel' is some man's daughter or sister, so having sex with (or impregnating) her also affects her male relatives. This creates a cycle of revenge. If a man impregnates a girl from another clan, the men in that clan will attempt to impregnate a girl from his clan or from somewhere else.


Throughout these experiences, the young men are never judged, as a man will never be denigrated for a heterosexual act. Even as the marriage is celebrated and the virginity of the young woman is praised, the boy's behaviour is never called into question. The ideas of having a 'spare wheel' and that 'a man cannot become a slut' stem from the belief that it is male privilege to have sexual needs met. It reinforces the concept of male dominance, in which male sexual behaviour goes unchallenged. Male adolescents internalise these social practices without any feelings of vulnerability or responsibility for the consequences of their sexual acts. It is with this type of freedom and abandon that boys engage in high risk behaviors.

Affects on girls

While society permits boys to be overtly sexual, without fear of consequence, girls are assigned all of the responsibility and none of the freedom. They are the ones who should worry about pregnancy, or being labeled a 'slut'. Unfortunately, girls and women often internalise this subordinate position. They may not like the way they are treated or the way males act, but learn to accept this behaviour as a part of life, without questioning it. "Sometimes," said one young woman, "you are so crazy for this person and you want to give this person 'everything', and guys are always waiting for this 'everything'. When you give them that 'everything' (meaning sex), they hit the highway, and hit and run for another 'everything' somewhere else."

A woman is taught that she is complete if she has a man, keeps him happy and produces his children. Adolescent girls learn early on in life to sacrifice their own needs and limit their control over their own sexuality, giving men permission to dictate their sexual behaviour. Relinquishing this control inevitably puts young women in high risk situations.

Sports and the media

Sports figures are seen as the epitome of masculinity. From economic power, to physical strength, they embody the typical characteristics associated with manhood. Aware of their power and privileged status, male sports personalities feed into the notion that it is their 'right' to have a number of girlfriends and to change them as often as possible. Because girls are taught to be interested in 'masculine' men, many adolescent girls in Namibia want to be associated with sports figures. That association usually manifests itself in a sexual relationship. Some girls do not even mind having a child outside marriage with a sports personality. Because masculinity equals power, the girls see this connection as a way of achieving status.

Even movies and soap operas feed into this idea of dominant masculinity, exposing adolescents to fantasies which they begin to accept as reality. "The man in the movie was about to get married and suddenly things changed and he got himself another girl. The way the guy is depicted on television, he is the cool boy, all eyes on him. Because of that, we want to try it out," said one adolescent boy. The depictions of masculinity portrayed in movies further reinforce the idea that a true man has relationships with many women, without any thought to the consequences of those relationships. Adolescents perceive what they see in the media as normal. They define that reality as their own and adopt those behaviours.

Following the crowd

The beliefs of friends have the most profound influence over the majority of adolescents. Because they fear being marginalised, adolescents will often mimic the behaviour of their peers. Peer friendships such as these can encourage problem behaviour, such as unprotected sex, and foster the ideas of dominant masculinity. Males who do not conform to the dominant view risk social isolation. They often have their sexuality questioned or are labeled a 'sissy', a label that not only denigrates women, but which boys are taught to reject from an early age.

Despite this pressure from peers, not all adolescent males share the normative definition of masculinity. Influenced by their religious beliefs and their friendships with females, a small number of boys suggest that they feel equal to women and that they have been disillusioned by the behaviours of other boys. They reject a definition of masculinity that takes power over girls' sexuality for granted.

When adolescents accept the discourse of dominant masculi-nity, they inevitably engage in high risk behaviors, but when they are able to decide for themselves what is right, they have the opportunity to grow up with more respect for the opposite sex, greater self esteem and a better chance at a healthy life.

A school in Katima Mulilo made headlines recently by suspending 19 pregnant girls from grades 8 to 12, together with a boy who had apparently impregnated five of them. Thus, while the Namibian government and NGOs have made efforts to combat the high number of adolescent pregnancies and HIV infections, these problems stubbornly remain. Despite programmes, policies and legislation, Namibian teenagers still continue to engage in behaviours that put them at risk. Many of these behaviours are directly linked to the way adolescents are taught to view men and women.

The above is based on a chapter of Pandu Hailonga's doctoral thesis, which seeks to analyse the socio-historical aspects of adolescent sexuality and reproductive behaviour in Namibia. The study primarily used qualitative research, interviewing more than 40 people between the ages of 12 and 82 years, in both urban and rural areas.
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Author:Hailonga, Pandu
Publication:Sister Namibia
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2006
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