Friday, March 13, 2009

"Corrective" Rape: Where Misogyny and Homophobia Collide

While listening to BBC radio this morning, I learned a new term: "corrective" rape. I was driving at the time, and I nearly had to pull over. (Consider this your obligatory trigger warning; I'm so upset about this topic that I almost can't write about it, and yet I feel like I have to.)

"Corrective" rape refers to raping lesbians with the ostensible purpose of "curing" them of same-sex attractions. In "Hate Crimes: The Rise of 'Corrective' Rape in South Africa," the NGO ActionAid documents a sharp rise in the incidence of this crime (pdf available here). The BBC report stated that about ten "corrective" rapes are occuring each week in Cape Town alone. (See also this article in the Guardian.)

It's ironic that these crimes are on the rise in South Africa, because as the BBC report stated, the South African constitution is one of the most progressive in the world, guaranteeing equal rights regardless of sexual orientation. In practice, however, homophobia and misogyny combine in everyday life and the justice system, making lesbians' lives very dangerous, especially if they're women of color. Young boys are growing up with the idea that raping lesbians is acceptable - that they are actually doing women a favor by teaching them to appreciate a real man.

ActionAid reports that the targeting of lesbians represents an intensification of the risks that all women face:
In South Africa, no woman is safe from violence. There are an estimated 500,000 rapes, hundreds of murders and countless beatings carried out every year. Shockingly, it is estimated that almost half of all South African women will be raped during their lifetime. And for every 25 men bought to trial for rape in South Africa, 24 walk free. ...

As part of this oppression, the country is now witnessing a backlash of crimes targeted specifically at lesbian women, who are perceived as representing a direct and specific threat to the status quo. This violence often takes the form of ‘corrective’ rape – a way of punishing and ‘curing’ women of their sexual orientation. (p. 3) ...

‘Corrective’ rape survivors interviewed by ActionAid say that verbal abuse before and during the rape focused on being “taught a lesson” and being “shown how to be real women and what a real man tasted like." (p. 12)
So the hallmark of this crime is the assailant telling the woman that his attack will make her a proper woman - and yet, according to ActionAid reports, judges have balked at punishing such rapes as hate crimes. (Of course, one might argue that every rape is a hate crime since it's an expression of misogyny.) It remains a mystery how women are supposed to learn their lesson in the numerous instances where "corrective" rape culminates in murder.

The BBC report was followed up by a discussion of whether Western media show a negative bias in their reporting on Africa. I'm not qualified to judge whether that's so, although I agree that Americans almost never hear good news about Africa in the media. But I definitely see a danger in othering this phenomenon of "corrective" rape. We know lesbians are at risk of violence in the U.S., too, and I'm sure this crime occurs here as well, even if with (much?) less frequency than in South Africa, where violence of all kinds is so prevalent. We just haven't had a name for it.

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