Our divide and rule rape culture
Turning a blind eye to what happens behind bars does us no favours in the battle to end sexual violence in SA
WE LIVE in a society that simultaneously condones and rejects rape. Our collective consciousness is aware of the staggeringly high statistics of rape in the country and while at certain times of the year a significant portion of society engages with the issue, most times it is, at best, swept under the rug, and at worst, defended and justified by many.
Rape and gender-based violence (GBV) is by no means a new phenomenon. Despite extensive work over the years by passionate, dedicated and accomplished activists, scholars and institutions, the violence enacted by men against women, children and even other men remains high, not only in South Africa but globally.
In the context of continued patriarchy, it is no surprise that sexual violence is tacitly accepted by society, especially when it is exerted upon certain bodies and groups of people.
African-American feminist scholar Gloria Jean Watkins, better known by her pen name “bell hooks”, described patriarchy as a system that “insists that males are inherently dominating, superior to everything and everyone deemed weak, especially females, and endowed with the right to dominate and rule over the weak and to maintain that dominance through various forms of psychological terrorism and violence”.
One group of people whose abuse is ignored is those who are incarcerated. The paradox of the plight of this group, in particular those classified as male, is that while they might inhabit bodies that we may incorrectly assume award them protection from sexual violence, their identity and positioning as “offenders” leads many to see their sexual violation as not only acceptable, but also justifiable. Pervasive violent crime, high levels of unaddressed trauma, racial and socio-economic inequality as well as the “tough-on-crime” stance by policing leadership fuel such views.
Such apathy towards prisoner rape, and discrimination against its survivors severely violates their human rights, the constitution, laws and policies. It also undermines the broader fight against GBV and patriarchy. No matter what crime someone has committed, or is accused of committing, rape is not, and should never be, part of the penalty. Sexual violence against inmates only serves to reinforce the oppression and violence that affects us all. It also constitutes a public health crisis that has devastating consequences for survivors and for the communities from which inmates originate and to which they usually return.
What happens in prison has a profound impact on all of us. Yet too often, the lives of prisoners and the ways that these institutions incubate violence, are invisible to us. Close to 160 000 people are incarcerated in the country’s 243 correctional facilities, and about 60 000 people are released annually.
It is therefore vital that sexual violence in prisons is included in broader conversations about GBV. Indeed, even that occurring in “all-male” facilities is underpinned by the same patriarchal principles that inform rape in broader society, making rehabilitation of inmates and transformation of our society next to impossible.
While masculinity is understood to be the axis of patriarchy, it is important to realise that much like with femininity, there isn’t only one type of masculinity but rather, multiple masculinities. These masculinities are organised hierarchically with a dominant/hegemonic mascu- linity at its apex. Further, even within this paradigm, there are what Unisa’s Kopano Ratele has called “marginal hegemonies or hegemonies with marginality”. This effectively complicates even further understandings of how patriarchy reproduces and preserves itself thereby manifesting in various contexts, even those devoid of women, its “traditional” targets, and exclusively comprising of men , those perceived to be its beneficiaries.
Structures, systems and cultures that organise people form in prisons like in any other community. In male prisons, these divide inmates into categories of “men” and “women”, mimicking communities outside.
The inmates classified as “women” are regularly forced into this position specifically to make them the sexual property of “men”. They are also often referred to as “wives” or “wyfies” in the context of forced partnerships known as prison “marriages”. Additionally, those most likely to fall prey to prison rape and imposed gender identity reassignment have vulnerabilities that are perceived to have qualities that approximate femininity, such as younger inmates; those considered good looking, LGBTIQ inmates, those convicted of non-violent or weaponless crimes; first-timers, those who’ve been raped in the past or are unwilling or afraid to use violence.
The toxic notions of masculinity that facilitate rape in prisons such as the subordination of women, children and marginalised masculinities not only reproduce those that exist outside of prison but also help sustain them. Addressing prisoner rape is therefore a vital component in the fight to dismantle misogynist and homophobic views and misconceptions so pervasive in prisons and society. The same rape culture that exists in our communities that acts as a barrier to survivors reporting abuse and seeking help, also exists in prisons.
It is only by acknowledging all of this that the broader fight against GBV can be advanced.
We can increase the chances of rehabilitating prisoners and transforming society by lowering rates of sexual abuse behind bars and shifting attitudes that condone prisoner rape and reinforce a pervasive rape culture and misogyny.
MASCULINITY RULES: Inmates in male prisons classified as ‘women’ are regularly made the property of ‘men’, and are also referred to as ‘wyfies’, writes the author.