They raped because they could

This is the first of three edited excerpts from Rape: A South African Nightmare by Professor Pumla Gqola, published with the author’s permission in the lead-up to the Rhodes University hosted Silent Protest  in Grahamstown (Makhanda) on 3 August 2018.

Many years ago, I watched a television programme where a journalist talked to a group of young men who readily admitted on camera to having raped. It was a strange and unsettling encounter. It was also illuminating. The journalist’s questions probed motivations, the styles and the patterns of the young men she interviewed.

I (also) remember (a) similar conversation aired a few years later with young men who had raped Black lesbians specifically. It was a programme specifically devoted to survivors of rape, but at the end airplay was given to men who targeted Black lesbians, gender non-conforming people and women suspected of being lesbian. In both, the rapists were unrepentant and laughing uncomfortably, and in the first programme they were sharing anecdotes. The interviewers grew visibly more flustered at the absence of remorse. Some of the men admitted that they were no longer serial rapists but most admitted that they would probably rape again.

None of them wanted to admit that it (rape) was violence that had far reaching effects, that they could ruin women’s lives and that rape traumatises. They all insisted that while it was obviously unpleasant to be forced to do anything, the effects of rape were not long-term wounding. They also reported not suffering any real consequences themselves from a life of serially raping women. By real consequences, I refer to the fact that there had been no social cost to raping women directly. None of their relationships had suffered. They had not been ostracised or stigmatised.

Then something happened in the first interview. The journalist asked how they would feel if a woman they loved was raped. All of them were disturbed by this question, with one man swearing he would kill a man who dared hurt his sister. The interviewer’s point was made. If they genuinely did not find their behaviour harmful, then the consistency with which they wanted to keep the women and girls they loved safe from rape did not make sense. Clearly, the men were not ignorant of the effects of their actions. They raped because they could.

I start with this recollection because these shows offered rare public access to the mind of a rapist. In most public talk, people distance themselves from rape and express incomprehension about how rape continues to have such a firm grip on our society.

These men were not animals or monsters. They looked like anybody’s brother, boyfriend or son.

There is no way to tell who can choose to rape, even though women and girls are often told that they can protect themselves by staying away from certain places and kinds of men. Rapists can be anywhere and everywhere; rape culture and the manufacture of female fear (which I also call the female fear factory) are part of how we collectively get socialised to accept the ever-presence of rape most often by being invited to be vigilant.

To start with this anecdote does not mean that these men verbalised something we might want to think of as typical of rapist behaviour. This clearly is not the case. We do not have brazen admissions of having raped women by all men who have in fact done so.

Rather, what is important about these two programmes is the notion that women’s pain is negotiable, that while rapists know (because how can they not) that they inflict harm, they proceed to do so in any event. And they do so often, knowing that many will line up alongside them to defend them against accusations requiring evidence and legal reporting.

They also know of the high likelihood that they will be acquitted in legal courts and the court of public opinion.

A South African Nightmare

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