Theses Doctoral

Redefining What It Means to Be Free: The Social and Economic Context of Young-Adult Sexual Relationships in Post-Apartheid South Africa

Anderson, Althea Dellaura

The well-documented problem of gender-based violence in South Africa has emerged in a context in which human rights are championed, new economic opportunities are available to some, and structural inequalities persist. Scholars have argued that in modern times, high rates of gender-based violence are due to a ‘crisis in masculinity’. This study reframed the crisis in masculinity thesis by critically examining how South Africa’s current transformative moment has reinscribed ideas around gender, sexuality, race, rights, freedom, and equality into the post-apartheid era. The objective was to analyze how normative, material, and discursive dimensions of the South African context shape young adults’ lives and gender ideals for and experiences in sexual relationships.
The study innovates by applying an intersectional lens to explore the context of young-adult lives and sexual relationships in relation to race and class as well as gender. Data collection included 11 single-sex and 5 mixed-sex focus group discussions, and 21 interviews with a diverse – across the axes of race, class, and gender – group of young adults between 20 and 30 years old in Cape Town, South Africa. Focus group and interview data were analyzed in conjunction with field observation that took place during the two and half years that I lived in Cape Town.
The study strengthens research that moves beyond reductionist views of culture, rights, inequality, gender, and power. The findings suggest that discourses on human rights, neoliberalism, gendered sexual morality, post-racialism, and personal responsibility have purchase in South Africa’s post-apartheid context and contribute to a contested landscape of transformation. Sexual relationships are a terrain upon which the contested landscape of transformation plays out. Tensions between popular discourses, human rights laws, cultural scripts for gender and sexuality, and structural inequalities allow young adults to deploy them flexibly in organizing their lives and relationships. Young adults use rights and gender as languages of social critique in a context where the ideals of freedom, equality, and justice are contested.
I argue that in pluralist “modern” South Africa, cultural scripts that operate within and between a variety of social institutions offer conflicting messages about gender and sexuality that are expressed in young adults’ gender ideals for relationships. Young adults selectively pull from competing scripts and popular discourses to construct masculine and feminine ideals for sexual relationships and decide how power should be negotiated in idealized intimate partnerships. This project also contributes to research on gender and modernity by illustrating how social location shapes who and what is considered desirable in the young-adult relationship market as well as the relationship pathways available for young women and men to pursue. In sum, young adults’ discursive use of rights and their relationship ideals reveal that they are acutely aware of the discrepancies among the values to which they are exposed in South Africa’s contested landscape of transformation. The gendered sexualities they construct suggest that sexual relationships are a key location to articulate these tensions and redefine equality and freedom in their own lives.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Sociomedical Sciences
Thesis Advisors
Hirsch, Jennifer S.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 29, 2017