Sex Or Rape? Something Is Terribly Wrong!

Schooling gender-based violence rape
Wednesday, 1 December, 2010 - 11:13

The much reported rape incident at Jules High School in Johannesburg tells a story of a society in which gender-based violence (GBV) is rife. The Sexual Offences Act does not empower women to report GBV because it makes it a crime to have sex with a girl below the age of 16, but makes her equally guilty if she consents

When the story about a Jules High School girl being allegedly raped on the school grounds hit the headlines, I had a flash back to my worst moment as a mother of two daughters, then aged seven and ten.

One afternoon about 16 years ago my two princesses came rushing back from a Johannesburg school in a tizz because two men had been seen prowling around the girls ablution block. My girls, with whom I had not yet discussed sex, wanted to know the meaning of rape. I found myself unusually stumped for words. It still pains me that my moment to lead my daughters through the rites of passage should have been stolen from me in this cruel way.

On the eve of the Sixteen Days of Activism 2010, the news is awash with the Jules High School incident, that some call ‘sex’, others ‘rape’, others ‘alleged rape’. The confusion and conflation of sex and rape - apparent also in the famous rape trial of President Jacob Zuma - is a glaring reminder that something in our society is terribly wrong.

In the Jules High School case, we are told that boys drugged a 15 year old girl, but in the same breath that she consented to sex. In the course of a fortnight, one newspaper ran these three contradictory headlines: “Girl in video was willing”; then (after an exclusive interview with the girl) "I was not in control after taking drink"; but a week later, "Girl admits to consensual sex."

The girl laid a charge of rape, only to find herself charged with rape through some bizarre twist of the Sexual Offences Act that makes it a crime to have sex with a girl below the age of 16, but makes her equally guilty if she consents.

She stands before a magistrate and says she did in fact consent. What would be the consequences if she did not say this? What are the choices? To go to jail (for raping herself?) or to face an agonising trial in which the cards are stacked against her? Even the president of the country got away with saying he did not force a young woman who regarded him as her father to have sex with him when she remains adamant that she said no!

The president's accuser now lives in exile. The young woman at Jules High School is the subject of a cellphone video being pawned on the Internet. If she is not in physical exile, her soul must be somewhere close to hell. Where the two boys involved (whom the police did not want to charge so as not to disturb their exams) will be macho heroes, her reputation will be one of a cheap, low down ‘slut’.

I am not condoning women who have sex and then cry rape. Nor am I condoning under age children having sex, under whatever pretext, on school grounds. What I am saying is that when the line between sex and rape has become so blurred that we use these words interchangeably, something is seriously amiss. At the heart of this are the unequal power relations between boys and girls, men and women that result in us not even being able to distinguish what is and is not appropriate behaviour.

The Internet does not help. Try googling the word ‘girls’ on Google images. You might expect to see pictures of young women going to school, planning their careers, at sports or at play. Instead you will find young women in bikinis, painting their finger nails, or being available for boys (like in the image adjacent). Images of ‘boys’ on the other hand are cool, hunting in packs, playing sport, being successful, and (proudly) ‘bad’!

Ahead of 25 November - International Day of No Violence Against Women - Gender Links and the Medical Research Council released preliminary findings of a gender violence prevalence survey for Gauteng showing that 51.1 percent of women in the province have experienced some form of gender violence, and that 78.3 percent of men admit to having perpetrated some form of emotional, physical, sexual or economic abuse over their lifetimes.

One in four women in the province has experienced sexual violence in their lifetime. An even greater proportion of men (37.4 percent) disclosed perpetrating sexual violence. What is chilling about the research is that in almost every case men corroborate what women say even more so than what the women claim. And, giving numbers to a well-known fact, the research shows that overall only one in 25 rapes had been reported to the police.

Following the public outcry over the decision by the National Prosecution Authority to charge the two boys and girl involved in the Jules High School incident, the three are now likely to be sent on a ‘diversion’ programme. It would be interesting to know what this will consist of. How not to drug a young woman? Why not to have sex on school grounds? Or how to treat each other with the respect that a Constitution anchored in equal rights demands?

If girls and boys understood what is meant by mutual respect, perhaps we would be able to identify right away what is sex and what is rape just like we know right from wrong. The obvious battles for gender equality - like getting a Sexual Offences Act passed - have been won. What the Jules High School case suggests is that the battle to change attitudes and mindsets has just begun.

- Colleen Lowe Morna is executive director of Gender Links. This article is part of a special series on the 16 Days of Activism for the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service that offers fresh views on everyday news. It is republished here with the permission of Gender Links. For the research quoted in this article and more information on the Sixteen Day campaign go to www.genderlinks.org.za.

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