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Projekskets: AFRIKA AFRIKAAN vrywilligersprojek


16 Junie - Jeugdag


Rape: crime or culture?

Carien du Plessis

At a junction at the side of a quiet road in a sparsely populated part of South Africa we talked about our rape fantasies. All three of us are from what can broadly be defined as the middle class and living in Cape Town. We are all women in our twenties or early thirties, but our backgrounds are different - one a black Zimbabwean, the other grew up in a coloured community on the fringe of the Cape Flats, while I grew up in the white suburbs of two university towns.

Rape means different things to different women, and although these meanings may vary according to race, class and religion, many women living in South Africa have one thing in common: they carry a contingency plan in the back of their heads for if they should ever get raped.

"I will scream and try to get him off me in whatever way I could," said the Zimbabwean. The coloured woman said she has this fantasy that she would be able to convince her rapist to wear a condom. "But in reality I think I will have a freeze response and just lie there."

We all agree the condom is a good idea. "I would like to think that I can convince him not to rape me," I said. In less charitable moments I have flashes of kicking a potential rapist hard in the balls, or of ridiculing him. But I've never had a knife to my throat or a gun to my head, and I might be a complete sissy in such a situation.

My strongest thought is that I would make myself unrapeable by not being afraid, by not struggling, by giving in without consenting. If rapists get hard-ons because of his victim’s fear, I would disarm him by being fearless. This would involve at least not being a virgin anymore, to put it euphemistically. (Sometimes I even wonder if this determination of being unafraid does not in part fuel my permissiveness.)

If experts in sexual violence are to be believed, women are more likely to be raped by someone they know. And if the statistics are reliable, South Africa is one of the countries with the highest incidence of reported rape. Since the start of the proper recording of crime statistics after 1994, there has not really been a decrease.

But in between the campaigning and statistics, do we really have a clue what rape is and what causes it? And do our value systems and ideologies provide clarity, or do they have the opposite effect?

Rape is a crime. Under our current law a man penetrating a woman's vagina with his penis and without her consent is raping her. Once the Sexual Offences Bill becomes law, the definition of rape will be broadened to include, amongst others, penetration with objects and anal penetration.

But rape is not that simple. Some people have a strangely Victorian notion that rape is a violation of a woman's "honour", but this is outmoded and does not explain how prostitutes or promiscuous women are raped.

Feminists, in turn, have explained rape as an act of power - men are considered to be physically stronger than women, or they are in positions of power as employers or breadwinners. They are therefore in a position where they can force a woman to have sex with them. (The American feminist Andrea Dworkin even went so far as to describe all penetrative sexual intercourse as an expression of men's power over women.)

But while men are often in powerful positions where they can solicit sex, they can be driven to rape women precisely because they feel disempowered. South African men might feel there are certain macho expectations that they should live up to, but can't. Perhaps it is largely a result of our violent past, where a lot of our men have been involved in some form of direct conflict which they couldn't talk about then, and which they can't talk about now, but somehow they feel obliged to be strong and go on as if nothing had happened. Their inability to do so manifests itself as violent crime or domestic violence and rape against easily accessible targets like women and children.

While rape can be an expression of violence, it can also be an act of violence in itself - think about how often rape is used by soldiers as an act of war or by gangs as an act of terror.

But it's still not that simple. A professor of psychiatry once scolded me when I asked him how men’s and women's understanding of sex and consent differ. Men and women are individuals, he said. Their actions can't always be predicted or explained on the basis of their gender. I forced myself to consider his viewpoint, and he did have a point: not all men have the same view about sex, just as women's views of sex differ. Generalising would be over-simplifying.

For instance, a supporter of Zuma made the remark that Zuma has no difficulties in finding women, and therefore does not have to rape. While according to a feminist analysis this man was speaking from a position of power in a traditional, patriarchal society, perhaps he considers rape to be an act of desire (his victim will certainly differ with him on that).

Or consider a situation where a woman does not consent to sex, but the man feels she needs a bit of coaxing. He might interpret her "no" to mean that she actually wants sex but does not want to appear sluttish by consenting outright. Based on previous experiences with women where this might have been the case, he might think he's doing her a favour, while she ends up feeling raped.

If there are so many different shades of rape, is our law really adequate? It does not always force judges to consider the power relations and nuances of idiosyncrasy in a rape case. Even though feminists have fought hard to have all rape treated equally and as a serious crime, should we not perhaps consider degrees of rape in the same way that we have degrees of murder? Perhaps that could lead the courts – and society – to consider rape more carefully and to pass appropriate sentences, instead of acquitting an accused when contradictions in a rape case cannot be explained by broad models. Or would this be premature in a system where some judges still accept the "gentle" raping of a young girl as enough reason for mitigation of a sentence?

There are more questions around this topic than can be answered in a limited space. In the end, perhaps it boils down to learning to talk to each other, and learning to listen. Perhaps we need a truth and reconciliation commission of sexes so that we don't have to live out our rape fantasies in the first place.

LitNet: 19 Julie 2006

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