Singer Seal, caused a stir a few days ago when he criticised his soon-to-be ex-wife, former supermodel Heidi Klum, for showing a lack of class by sleeping with “the help”, i.e. her bodyguard of four years, Martin Kristen.
“I guess the only thing I would have preferred is that…Heidi show a little bit more class and at least wait until we separated first before deciding to fornicate with the help, as it were,” Seal told the popular entertainment website TMZ.
It was a terrible thing to say and, not surprisingly, shortly afterwords Seal walked back the comments and apologised to Klum, with whom he has four children.
However, by trying to put down his estranged wife by alleging she was sleeping with the help who was beneath, Seal served up the most common and emotional item of snobbery, grievance and debate on the gossip and relationship pages, and call-in programmes on FM stations in Africa. On the day the subject is about the Big Man of the house who is found curled up in the “housegirl’s” bed, or “Madam” (if I may adopt that peculiarly East African use of the word) sleeping with the gardener, the guard, or driver, the switchboards go crazy with callers.
In the case of Seal, a black man, I think he was stupid to say something like that in the US. In America today, some conservative churches still refuse to wed mixed race couples. Barely 50 years ago, Seal would have been lynched for dating (let alone marrying) a white woman. The reason black men were murdered for sleeping with white women is because conservative opinion held that people of colour were inferior to whites. That by touching white women, black men made them “impure”.
Seal’s view that Klum showed a lack of “class” by dating Kristen is a prejudice in the same class. Kirsten, presumably, is inferior to Klum in social rank, and therefore he doesn’t deserve her.
Make no mistake about it, it is hurtful and destructive if your husband sleeps with the househelp (“housegirl” to use the more politically incorrect rendition), or if your wife shacks up with the muscular gardener or security guard.
The real problem with all this for me is not that a man or woman who holds a high position has climbed into the dungeons for a bit of working class sex. The biggest problem is that THEY COMMITTED ADULTERY, or more benignly, cheated. They violated their marriage contract.
However, what seems to pain a minister’s wife when her hubby cheats with the housegirl is that by doing so he “lowered her to the level of the housemaid”. A big man whose wife has an affair with the driver, likewise feels that he has “brought down to the driver’s level”. In other words, what hurts the most is the Big Men and Women’s egos, not their sense of morality.
There are many problems associated with this, one of them being abuse of power. The housegirl is usually vulnerable, so in order to preserve her income, she will have sex with the boss just to keep her job. And the gardener too pretty much can’t say no to “madam” for the same reason.
I am a sort of prudish and abstemious chap, and will say that if my wife finds me fondling the housegirl, she is perfectly entitled to shoot me. It is wrong. But I am also scientific about stuff, and I think that if we look at the bigger picture, shagging across the class line might actually be a socio-political and evolutionary necessity.
First, the rich and powerful in Africa (and indeed most of the world) often treat their domestic workers like crap. They starve, beat, insult them, arbitrarily dock their pay, and sometimes refuse to pay them. A housegirl so abused by madam, can get some justice by sleeping with the man of the house as a form of noble revenge.
If you are a Big Man, and your driver takes you all over town as you drop in one your many mistresses, as he waits in the car all day without even taking a break for a meal, he probably feels that he has evened out the score when he sleeps with your wife.
Since housegirls and gardeners are too powerless and penniless to fight injustice against them by their employers in the courts or media, these little acts of revenge reduce their anger. In that sense, they have a social stabilising value. Consider the babysitter, for example. Is it better if she murders the child and stuffs it in the refrigerator because the woman of the home was cruel to her, or if she sleeps with the husband in revenge?
Beyond the palliative effect of the Revenge of the Downtrodden that a gardener gets from a frolic with his “master’s” wife, there are bigger stakes.
A critical factor in the survival of human society is the diversification of our genes. It is why incest remains one of the most horrible things in most societies in the world. By and large, societies that marry broadly and permit relationships across wider racial, religious, and class divides tend to be more successful. In the Middle East, for example, I have this suspicion that with all its terrible ways towards the Palestinians, Israel has still been able to hold their enemies at bay in the region and be technologically and scientifically more advanced – because it is a very diverse society. Over the years, it has drawn in Jews from all sorts of strange corners of the world. Arab societies, especially the oil rich ones, are socially conservative and some still deny their women the freedom to choose their partners, let alone simple pleasures like driving (their fear of their women straying led to extensive castration of men and the world’s largest population of eunuchs in that part of the world centuries ago).
Sex, you might say, gives Israel its military and technology edge in the Middle East. The US has also done well through immigration. For many decades it renewed its intellectual and cultural resources through immigration.
By the same token, if people from the same background continue intermarrying, the quality of their offspring declines over time. For that reason, the “upper” classes need to periodically renew their ranks by drawing from the working class virility of the housemaid, and the purity of the gardener’s peasant stock.
Traditional African societies understood this well. If a couple kept bearing dimwits for children, infidelity was the way in which women gambled on improving the quality of their offspring. A roll in the banana plantations with the neighbour would, hopefully, do it. Among the Baganda of central Uganda, once one of the greatest kingdoms in Africa, this insurance policy has been codified in family succession.
While after a man dies the male elders are the ones who install his heir, a scholar of Buganda’s ways tells me that the elders actually merely announce the decision that a council of the wise women of the clan will have made. The women caucus secretly at night, because they are the ones who know which child was fathered by the now dead man, and which one by the herdsman. Having made the choice, they whisper the name to the male elders who announce the heir. This is one reason why, in many African societies where heirs are installed this way rather than by a will, the choices made can be very bewildering.
So the idea that people cannot sleep up or down, is actually dangerous to the survival of the human race.
Finally, marrying across the class line is one of the most efficient redistributors of wealth. If a semi-literate woman born into a poor family could never marry or have a child with a rich man, generations of her family would be trapped in poverty forever. And if humble horsemen could never marry the princess, the fortunes of their poor families would never improve.
This is the moral of all those children’s fairy tales, where the princess meets the frog that turns into a handsome sporting lad; they marry; and live happily ever after, is all about.
A good friend back in Kampala likes to say that there are only two sure ways to become wealthy. One, you marry into wealth. Second, you inherit it. There many other paths to riches of course, except that they are littered with too much heartbreak, inhumanly long hours of work, and uncertainty.
Now that he knows better, perhaps Seal can sing about that.
• firstname.lastname@example.org / twitter@cobbo3