Monday, November 22, 2010

The Importance of Rhetoric

In an article from a few days ago in the Guardian, the current issues of rape in South Africa is being described. Rape is widespread in South Africa, and no woman, regardless of age is safe from it.

From the article:
"When will it end?" asked Phumla Matjila, a columnist in the Times of South Africa. "How can it end when our children hear adults say: 'Some women enjoy being raped' or 'They asked for it'? Why do we shudder when they repeat the words they have heard us say?"

The Sonke Gender Justice Network, a campaign group, attempts to tackle the crisis at root by working with men and boys. Bafana Khumalo, its international programmes manager, says: "We certainly have a major problem in South Africa. There is a culture permissive of sexual violence. In a society where people can get away with it with impunity, they are encouraged to feel there is nothing wrong with it.

"Apartheid was predicated on violence – the army, the security establishment, the state apparatus used it to dominate for decades. That became a culture in our society. Violence was seen as a normal part of life."

The criminal justice system is seen by many as ill-equipped to meet women's needs. Khumalo says: "Sometimes a raped woman who goes to the police is not believed . . . Sometimes they are raped by the police."
It is clear here that there is little respite for women from sexual violence. The worrying part is that it seems to have become more of a culturally acceptable thing. There is the assumption that can be found in other cultures that when a woman says 'no', she really means 'yes', an assumption that is being fed to us through mainstream media. When you watch television for instance, start thinking about how many sexual violence (both men's and women's) include some kind of implication to sexual violence. Someone slamming the other against the door, forcefully holding their hands down; or why not the old she turns his advances down, but he doesn't take no for an answer and he repeats his advances. In both scenarios the woman usually submits and she is quite clearly enjoying it, feeding into this assumption that in the bedroom women are naturally timid and need to be told how they like it.

This problem is not isolated to South Africa, it is found wherever women's virginal status is being held as something next to sacred, where the sexual liberalisation has not yet been fully completed (and as I have written before, I don't believe it is anywhere). Because women have to guard their innocence, they are required to refuse sexual advances as first in order not to be seen as sexually promiscuous, or in fear of being branded as a whore, as many people today mislabel sexually promiscuous women. This is where the myths of "she says no, but means yes" and "if you try hard enough, she will come to her senses" come from.

A continued rhetoric along the same lines is dangerous. It erodes barriers of self-determination and reproductive rights. If courting a woman becomes connected with violence or an expectancy of having to repeatedly come on to her for her to 'give it up', the line between sexual assault and persistence become increasingly blurred. And blurred lines make for easier crossing.

If a woman declines your advance, whether romantic or sexual, she declines it. There is no hidden yes in the 'no', and it is under no circumstances acceptable to take the decision for the woman. This is essentially what happens when a man (or in the reverse, a woman) continues to adamantly pursue someone who has said no. The implication of this continued pursuit is that she (or he) doesn't know her (or his) own good, so suitor will make the decision for her (or him). In what other aspects of society would this be acceptable for a mentally capable adult? Surely people would be reluctant to go up to other people and tell them what to eat, how to dress, where to go and what to do? What is it, then, that makes it all right to determine what lovers other adults should have or how and when they like to have sex?

Once again, I would like to make the point that the responsibility of sexual assault, in all forms, should be laid on the perpetrators, not the victims. A no is always a no, regardless of what situation, and regardless of how innocent one's advances are.

The rhetoric needs to be changed in order not to reproduce false assumptions about women's agency or lack thereof. There is no such truth as "women like it rough" or "they are all the same; they say no, but mean yes." This does not extend beyond the individual. So let's do it a bit different this time, shall we? Let the woman tell you how she likes it instead of deciding it for her.


This article, published at the Guardian website 25/11/2010, tells of some very disturbing statistics, to say the least.
One in five men in South Africa believe that sometimes women want to be raped and nearly one in three has raped someone. Barely half of the people asked in the survey thought that it is possible for a husband to rape his wife, probably reflected by the nearly 40% of men and 30% of women who thought that women cannot refuse their husband sex. Sexual violence and patriarchy being reproduced in society is showing in the statistics.


  1. This time I agree almost completely, with the exception that sexual liberalisation always brings about a society less prone to violence against women. I think the normalisation of phenomena such as hardcore pornography or first-date sex have in fact been counterproductive and create the expectation of a certain sexualised behaviour from modern women. And often this false expectation can lead to violence.

    And although I find your idea of the negative effects that prizing a women's virginity might have, I believe that in South Africa a much bigger problem is that large parts of the Zulu population are still convinced that having sex with a virgin can cure AIDS.

  2. Glad we're on the same page ;)

    Well, essentially, what I mean with female sexual liberalisation is a form of respectful sexual liberalisation. As I have argued in the post I linked to, I don't believe this is the case in today's society, and I agree with you that the sexualisation of culture is very counterproductive for women.

    However, I think there is a distinction between sexual liberalisation and the sexualisation of culture. The first involves women being able to have sex when they like with whom they want without being judged on it. This is not the case today, as the widespread use of "slut" and synonyms to prostitute about women testify to.

    Sexualisation of culture, however, is different. This is what pornography, the glorification of sexual violence and the "sex sells" theory come under. This is separate from female sexual liberalisation, actually the opposite, because this is what solidifies the restriction of female sexuality - the need to act and look in certain ways, lose your virginity at a certain age, and the expectation to perform certain sexual acts whether she wants it or not.
    So while I get your point and I agree with you, I don't think a reversal to the control of female sexuality is the solution, but rather distinguishing between respectful sex and disrespectful sex; and sexual liberalisation and sexualisation.

    Yes, I agree with you. It is not only this simple, and as the article states, as well, there are other factors playing in. I chose to focus on the section about the language used in the South African society to illustrate how this type of rhetoric can reproduce a violent culture, and how it is still very much present i our own society.

    Thanks for your comment! I appreciate it :)

  3. "One in five men in South Africa believe that sometimes women want to be raped and nearly one in three has raped someone"

    I have to say crazy stuff; would not want to be a woman in SA.

    More on about "respectful sexual liberalisation". I don't fully understand what that means. Women in Western society generally have "negative liberty" when it comes to their sexuality; that is, they are (hopefully) not coerced into doing stuff they don't want to.

    If in order to get sex (with the partners they want) they have to dress and behave in certain ways which they ordinarily would not, are they then "respectfully sexually liberated" ? Or vice versa a woman wanting to fulfill her sexual needs and keeping to a fully authentic self but is unable to find the partner she wants, is she fully "respectfully sexually liberated" ?

    The restraints on sexuality have mostly been lifted: homosexuality is no longer illegal and people can choose who they sleep with and what they do.

    The point I'm trying to make is that you'll always have to make compromises between yourself and external culture.
    People are individuals, and there always aspects of your people's sexuality (e.g. having sex dressed as an animal) that are seen as 'wierd' or 'wrong'. But as long no one is stopping you from fulfilling it, things are fine.

  4. The problem is not so much the sexualisation as the lack of respect and the reproduction of violence. It is not about dressing in a certain way, but being reduced to a sexual object. In a culture where sex and violence (or force, or coercion, or lack of respect) are as closely linked this can be dangerous.
    Being reduced to a sexual object means that the woman's (or man's) value is in her (his) sex. A woman (or man) is then only as much worth as her (his) sexual value. In a society where there is a historic history of ownership over women's bodies by men, this is further problematic.
    Sexualisation of culture brings with it problems. It brings with it boundary issues (men joking about how women need to "loosen up, she'd feel better if she got a dirty big cock up her" - this is not uncommon), as well as a body image hype that leads to plastic surgery, self-starvation and other forms of eating (training) disorders.
    The problem is not sex, or sexual liberalisation, or not even necessarily a culture with a lot of sex in it. It is the lack of respect (with regards to self-ownership over one's body) as well as the expectancy to conform sexually or physically.

    An interesting example on sexualisation is the sexualisation on breast cancer which is now focused more on saving boobs than the women behind them and completely ignores women who have undergone masectomies. Read here