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“The truth is, I’m shit scared” – Rape and Traumatic Recall


Homophobic Injustice and Corrective Rape in Post-Apartheid South Africaby Kylie Thomas – a joint report by the University of Western Cape and the Center for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.

The report offers a critique of the terms ‘corrective rape’ and ‘curative rape’ and examines the concept of ‘hate crimes’ which is increasingly being used to describe a specific form of violence directed at LGBTI people in South Africa.

This form of violation is perpetrated with the explicit intention of ‘curing’ the lesbian of her
love for other women. Although many heterosexual survivors of rape attest to the stated intentions of their assailants as punitive (they have done something wrong, and thus ‘deserve’ rape), survivors of ‘curative rape’ make it clear that their attackers were interested in humiliating and punishing them for their choice of sexual identity and lifestyle and in ‘transforming’ them — by coercion — into heterosexual women. (2010:26)

Section one “Rape: Corrective, curative, hate crime” provides background into rape as a form of punishment and the naming of a specific kind of rape of lesbians as ‘curative rape and corrective rape’ and the push towards adopting the concept of ‘hate crimes’. Section two “Traumatic Recall” Rape and recovery” is drawn from an interview with ‘Sibongile‘, a woman who was raped by a man who lived close to her home. Her story is complicated because not only did she know the rapist but he was someone she considered a friend. Sibongile’s experience of rape and the social setting in which the rape took place, his constant presence and continued threat of violence from him as well as the failure of the justice system, are evidence of the ever present violence through which she and many other lesbians are forced to live.

The crimes committed against Sibongile, like that of Thapelo Makhutle, murdered in Kuraman in June 2012, and other survivors and victims of homophobic and transphobic crimes, are ‘communal crimes’. Arbitrary notions on citizenship and who is fully human or deserves to be seen as human, are demonstrated through the repeated failures in the criminal justice system as well as failures of community which speak to a dangerous judicial and communal complicity in crimes of hate.

It seems to me that these murders have their own particular meaning in relation to other crimes in that they are communal crimes — in most cases the murderers and rapists are known to the victims and survivors and possibly others in the neighbourhood. This is an important point when thinking about how to speak of these things. In order to kill so intimately surely one must find a way to disconnect. One possible way to do this is to disassociate yourself with the victim, to render them as other — we know enough about killing to know it ‘s always easier to kill ‘them’ rather than kill ‘ourselves’. If this is the case, then there are neighbourhoods of people who are disconnected from each other. Places where people look at others but do not see themselves…….

The full report can be read here.

Rape: Corrective, curative, hate crime

There are no precise figures for the number of women who have been raped because they identify themselves as lesbians. Rape, like other forms of sexual violence, is perhaps the most under‐reported form of crime. There are clearer figures for the number of women who have been raped and murdered because their attackers sought to punish them for being openly lesbian.3 What is clear, however, is that lesbians in South Africa, and black lesbians in particular, experience public space as a space of violence.

Since the release of Harris’ report, the term ‘hate crime’ has been increasingly used to describe forms of violence directed against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered South Africans. The terms ‘curative rape’ and ‘corrective rape’ have also been used to describe sexual violence directed against lesbians and to mark the distinction between rape experienced by homosexual women and the rape of heterosexual women or men or the rape of children.

In their study,  ‘The country we want to live in: Hate crimes and homophobia in the lives of black lesbian South Africans’, Nonhlanhla Mkhize, Jane Bennett, Vasu Reddy and Relebohile Moletsane draw attention to how these terms began to circulate as a result of the activism of “radical feminist and black lesbian led organisations”. These activists “attested to a very specific form of sexual attack “curative rape’” (2010:26). Drawing on the work of scholars and activists Zanele Muholi, Helen Moffett and Vasu Reddy, the authors write,

This form of violation is perpetrated with the explicit intention of ‘curing’ the lesbian of her love for other women. Although many heterosexual survivors of rape attest to the stated intentions of their assailants as punitive (they have done something wrong, and thus ‘deserve’ rape), survivors of ‘curative rape’ make it clear that their attackers were interested in humiliating and punishing them for their choice of sexual identity and lifestyle and in ‘transforming’ them — by coercion — into heterosexual women. (2010:26)

South Africa has extremely high rates of sexual violence, and rape has been used in the country as a way to “punish” women who do not conform to normative ideals of femininity in different ways over time.5 In her study on what she terms ‘group rape’ in South Africa, Katherine Wood cites Steve Mokwena’s Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) paper on ‘jackrolling’, a practice defined as “a form of group abduction and rape of young women in Soweto in the eighties originally associated with a gang called The Jackrollers”, which “was designed to put out of reach or snobbish women in their place” (2005:306). In the post apartheid present, lesbian women have been made subject to what has been termed ‘corrective rape’ or ‘curative rape’, which, like jackrolling, can be understood as a violent form of policing of the social order. In an article about hate crimes, activist Wendy Isaack defines ‘curative rape’ as “a term used to describe the sexual violence perpetrated for the purpose of supposedly ‘curing’ a person of their real or perceived sexual orientation and/or gender identity” (2007:2).

Such forms of naming provide useful short‐hand terms for forms of violence, and sexual violence in particular, directed against lesbians in South Africa. But the terms also carry with them a series of assumptions that may not hold in all cases. The use of the terms by feminist scholars can work inadvertently to reinforce essentialist conceptions of gender and sexuality. Perhaps the clearest way to understand what is at stake in the ways in which we name forms of violence would be to defamiliarise the terms used to describe violence directed towards lesbians through applying the descriptor ‘corrective’ or ‘curative’ to a different category of hate crime — racism. A racist ‘curative beating’ or ‘corrective racially motivated shooting’ makes no sense precisely because of the widely held view that a person’s race cannot be altered — it is taken as a given. A similar, and similarly mistaken, biologism is at work in the notion of ‘corrective rape’, which ‘makes sense’ because of widely held ideas about essential womanhood and femininity.

By this logic, a black or white person cannot be ‘cured’ of being black or white because blackness or whiteness is taken to be a biological given and a lesbian can be ‘cured’ of being lesbian because her underlying essential femininity is taken to be a biological given. ‘Curative’ racially motivated violence would be genocide or the Nazi ‘final solution’, just as the inner logic of ‘curative rape’ of lesbian women contains the desire not for some form of social restoration but for elimination. In other words, if the ‘corrective rape of lesbians is intended to ‘turn’ them into heterosexual women, it is intended to negate, symbolically and often physically, what constitutes their identities and their being.

The term ‘corrective rape’ also implies that if lesbians performed their sexuality ‘correctly’, within the appropriate bounds defined by patriarchy, they would not be subject to sexual violence. This, as the argument made by Mkhize et al. about the way in which black lesbians are ‘doubly vulnerable to gender‐based violence’ makes clear, is not the case:

As women, they [black lesbians] inhabit a South African reality in which all women are vulnerable to diverse forms of sexual attack, and black women who are poor are surrounded by more opportunities for men to attack them than women who are better resourced (and thus, often, white). As lesbians in homophobic contexts and cultures in which sexual violence is a popular weapon, they are at the knife‐edge of community rejection and vulnerable to local ‘policing’ through physical and sexual assault. (2010:26)

Hate crimes against lesbians have also been read as ‘message crimes’ and as corrective not of the individual but of the social order. While men who rape lesbians in South Africa may intend to convey a message through the act of rape, this is not necessarily directed as a ‘warning’ to other lesbian women. The message may be to other men, asserting patriarchal power over women and affirming aggressive masculinity. Interpreting hate crimes against lesbians as ‘message crimes’ requires a careful interrogation of motive, intent and effect without which we may think we understand more than we do about histories and forms of violence post‐apartheid. Reading the ‘messages’ conveyed by violence too literally may mean that we fail to analyse what appears self evident and unchanging but is in fact complex and contingent. Focusing on the ‘message’ may also divert attention from an analysis of the conditions under which the transmission of violent messages is made possible.

In a section of her report on hate crimes in South Africa headed “Hate crimes are ‘message crimes’”, Harris draws on the definition of hate crimes provided by the American Psychological Association to argue that

hate crimes impact not only on the individual victim, but on the whole ‘hated group’. … They are different from other crimes in that the offender is sending a message to members of a certain group that they are unwelcome in a particular neighbourhood, community, school or workplace. (2004:22).

Reading hate crimes as messages works on Reading hate crimes as messages works on the assumption that the person/people to whom the message is directed does not already know and understand the message. Hate crimes, in this frame, work to remind those who have transgressed social norms of their place. The effect of this is to render hate crimes into exceptional events. In the context of South Africa, these forms of sexual violence operate less as message and more as normative practice. These acts do not take place in a wider social and political context of safety, tolerance and freedom, in which rape occasionally occurs as a form of punishment. These conditions necessitate a more careful reading of the ‘message’ of what has been termed ‘curative rape’. Why would such violent messages be necessary in a context where the unequal relations of power between men and women are perfectly and painfully clear?

I do not dispute the need to describe and define the ways in which South African lesbians are subject to particular, and sometimes intensified, forms of violence. However, given the prevalence of extremely conservative ideas about gender and sexuality in the country, I would argue that the terms ‘corrective’ and ‘curative’ rape should always be carefully qualified, if they are to be used at all.6 .. Continue reading