chapter  6
22 Pages


Male idioms of distress
WithHans Reihling

This chapter is about the moral breakdowns that occurred when young men were unable to feel belonging in urban South Africa. Actual or imagined suicide, intimate partner violence, domestic violence, and homicide could be tied to men’s failure to provide money and resources in relationships, a practice that actualized masculinity. On the basis of qualitative ethnographic research, I observed that young men found themselves in a double bind when this male provider role was challenged and, at the same time, their performance of tasks typically associated with femininity was not valued in their urban environments. Their intensities of feeling were expressed through gendered ‘idioms of distress.’ There were, however, limits to what could be captured through cultural meaning and ethnopsychiatry. In urban South Africa, the expression jo! and the idiom hectic! referred to affect and intensities of feeling, respectively, that went beyond a language of emotion. Sometimes, they marked a point at which extreme distress was temporarily resolved through acts of aggression and social withdrawal in relation to a person to whom the men felt emotionally bonded. In the life course, a moral breakdown could be a tipping or turning point that inadvertently elicited social change and help-seeking behavior.