Jen Thorpe
Jen Thorpe

Rape — sex or power?

Rape happens every day in South Africa. It is estimated that each year about half a million rapes occur, but only 1 in 9 of these is reported. With roughly 24 million women in South Africa this presents women with a scary picture. It means that if you are a woman and you live to the age of 50, you have a damn high chance of being raped in South Africa. You can debate with these statistics, but that’s not the place of this blog. Even if only 1 occurs, there is something going on. And I’m interested in what that something is. Is rape about sex, or is it about power?

For a long time many women’s groups have advocated for the idea that rape is about power. They have argued that it is about the relationships between men and women, and the “expected” relationships between men and women in a patriarchal political system. To explain, the “expected” relationships say that men should have more power than women, and historically this has largely come from their physical size and economic power. Men have been the breadwinners, businessmen and success stories whilst women have played a background role. This has been intimately tied with masculinity, and in fact being dominant has been one of the central historical traits that have been labelled as “masculine”. Similarly, being sexually powerful, having a good libido and the ability to be sexy to women is part of the script of masculinity that appears cross-culturally throughout history. In summary, men are supposed to be strong, rich and virile.

However, the times they are a-changing and increasing numbers of women are gaining their economic independence. In South Africa especially, they have been given constitutionally entrenched equal legal status. Women have also been granted sexual freedom. They are legally empowered to have sex with whom and when they want to. Women are no longer legally required to have sex with their husbands, boyfriends or partners. They are sexually liberated (in theory). So women too are legally enabled to be rich, and sexually free post 1994. For all intents and purposes, they are equal to men for the first time in the history of the country.

How is rape related? The explanation goes that these changes can make men feel emasculated and powerless. This can result in feelings of anger, and sometimes these feelings can be directed at women. Women represent the unwanted changes in their power status and are thus the perfect object of their anger. Men who do not find some other way to renegotiate their masculinity will take their anger out in a physical way, and the most invasive way to teach women their place is to rape them. The level of invasiveness is unlike any other because during a rape, a man is physically inside of a woman. It takes away women’s sexual freedom, and it is an insult to her dignity.

I have been a firm believer in this explanation for a very long time. In my understanding the way that masculinity and femininity are constructed, renegotiated and formed are essentially political and are not without their links to power. The fact that rape is so invasive, whether it is of a man or a woman, with a penis or an object is linked to this power relationship — it is a demarcation of that most intimate space as someone else’s property. It is a taking-away of the survivor’s power. A re-assertion of the rapist’s power.

Sexual relations are necessarily based around power and as rape is the most unfortunate and damaging of sexual relations, rape is about power. It is about putting women back in their places. It is about taking sexual freedom and showing women that it is not theirs to have.

But there is a second stream of thought that says that this is not the point of rape. If it were about power, men could just beat up a woman (and some do). They could simply kick a woman out, or kick her to show how powerful they are. So what is it, that makes a man choose to use his sexual organs? Could rape be about sex?

If we think that rape is about sex, then we explain that rape is about men’s (socially constructed or physical) needs to have sex with women when they want to. Rape involves the sexual organs because it is the part of the body that is associated with their sexuality, their sexual pleasure and their reproductive power. This explanation also links to biological drives like reproduction and the reproduction of the species.

I have an extremely close friend who has been part of the women’s rights struggle for the 37 years of her life, and she suggested that in her experience of dealing with survivors she has begun to change her mind about what the “cause” or “explanation” for rape is. Through hearing the narratives of rape survivors and alleged rapists, she has come to believe that rape is very much about sex. It is about men wanting sex and women being forced into sex. It is about the inability of women to negotiate the sex that they have, and thus being forced into situations where sex happens to them without their consent. Rape then, for many women and for some men, is about sex.

These distinctions are not about light matters. They define the solution. If rape is about power we must renegotiate power relations, masculinity and femininity, and ensure that equality is something that does not become a situation of equal disempowerment. In order to stop a rapist you have to understand why he is raping, and not understanding this will leave many organisations with the simple task of picking up the pieces. If rape is about sex, new strategies and solutions will need to be devised and enacted to create a better way of living for men and women.

The most disheartening thing about both explanations is that neither provides us with an explanation of why one man chooses to rape and another does not.