Rape in the Media

This short piece was written for posting on Womankind’s website, and is written for a general audience. Womankind is a British non-profit organization that runs education projects for women around the world, specifically providing what they call “body literacy”.



In the broad area of violence against women (or gender-based violence), I work in the field of rape, partly because it seemed that in South Africa and elsewhere, stories about sexual violence are disturbingly focused on race (or ethnic/religious “otherness”) and not gender; and also because little or no discourse analysis has been done on public representations of rape, particularly in the media.

The topic of rape is so hedged about with an uneasy mix of rhetoric, rage and pain that we ignore the facts about it. It is one of the most continually and frantically rewritten narratives there is. Yet the language we use to talk and write about it is full of gaps and awkward absences, the stories we try to tell are still overlaid by public narratives that are both privately and publicly endorsed, and circulated by the media and other communicative bodies. Only certain voices may speak about rape, only certain stories may be told.
In South Africa, the phenomenon by which women may actually use the media as a platform to describe their experiences of sexual violence is relatively new. However, a disturbing pattern has arisen: such stories are “permitted” only when they fit into the accepted narratives — when the women concerned are white, middle-class and educated, and when they are attacked by black strangers or homicidal maniacs. When women are sexually attacked by their peers, friends, colleagues and family members, the silence generally remains unbroken.

This brief paper is part of a much larger project in which I attempt to re-read rape narratives in the post-apartheid context, using tools from my background in literary studies to try to disentangle the stories, especially those believed and broadcast by men, that either overtly or covertly endorse sexual violence against women. I look at the stories that circulate in both domestic and public spheres — in the media, in homes, churches, schools and government — that propel the tide of violence along, that collude, deny, explain, and mitigate. For now, rather than providing analysis or argument , I simply summarise some of the most common (and disturbing) trends seen in public discussions of rape and endorsed by the media. I comment briefly on the practical implications of these findings, including proposing counter-measures and educational strategies.

Although my research is confined mostly to the South African arena, preliminary investigations and comparable work being done elsewhere in the world suggest that sexual violence is both complicated and exacerbated in societies that are experiencing, or have a history of, racial, cultural, ethic or religious tensions. There also seems to be a connection between sexual violence and nationalism. My work therefore may well have practical value not only for my own country and region, but for other developing nations and indeed all countries that are confronting social division, prejudice and xenophobia. I believe that for purposes of education (the key part of any long-term solution to the problem of sexual violence), the current narratives have to be scrutinised and unravelled before men’s co-operation can be engaged in solving what is, after all, a problem of their doing.

I am influenced by the work of the radical linguist, Noam Chomsky – like him, I believe in “the redemptive power of logical thinking” , and this project has been shaped by his well-known premise that the way we think shapes the way we speak, which in turn shapes the way we act. By looking at how we write and speak about rape, particularly in the public and popular realm, I am hoping not so much to break the silence, as to fill in the gaps that might help to reconstruct our private understanding and public reframing of this urgent and difficult issue.

Myths in public/media representations of rape

Denial is central to the way we speak, write and even think about rape, and it operates in complex ways. Very briefly, the effect of this denial leads to the following myths and distortions in public discussion of rape, particularly in the media.

First comes the scenario in which the rapist himself is erased from the equation, with rape becoming not so much a crime, as an act of fate. This is the most common form of media representation of rape, which becomes a perpetrator-less crime, squarely categorised as part of the “burden of womanhood”, one of the nastier but inevitable risks inherent in having a female body. I call this the “breast cancer” model of rape and use it as a metaphor for the way public narratives speak about rape as if it is something bad that happens to women’s bodies either through their own risk-taking behaviour, lack of vigilance, or sheer bad luck. The way that women are exhorted to avoid certain kinds of behaviour (in which, interestingly, no other party is ever mentioned), such as travelling after dark, walking in deserted spots, or wearing revealing clothes, is very similar to the tone and style in which women are urged not to smoke, to avoid eating saturated fats, and to check their breasts for lumps once a month. The underlying message is that we are somehow responsible for the bad things that happen to our bodies, and that even if we are extremely careful, bad things could still happen to us out of the blue. This metaphor is also useful in showing how the pathology of the issue has been switched; instead of a reflection of the sickness of the perpetrators or even society, rape becomes an unmentionable and embarrassing women’s health problem.

The ways in which the rapist as an active agent is rhetorically and grammatically erased from the way we speak and write about rape in the media and on the street are multiple. The following very simple but useful exercise shows that the very way we use language shifts the responsibility for violence from the perpetrator to the victim.
Look at these sentences:

  • The Nazis imprisoned the Jews in concentration camps. [active voice, Nazis are the subject acting upon the object]
  • The Jews were imprisoned in concentration camps by the Nazis. [passive voice]
  • The Jews were imprisoned in concentration camps. [passive voice, subject of the sentence has fallen away.]

If we look at the progression above, agency appears to have shifted from the Nazis to the Jews. They have become grammatically “responsible” for their own incarceration.
Now look at the following sentences:

  • A woman was raped this weekend. [passive voice, subject has fallen away]
  • A woman was raped by a man this weekend. [passive voice]
  • A man raped a woman this weekend. [active voice]
  • A woman was gang-raped this weekend. [passive voice, subject has fallen away]
  • A gang of men raped a woman this weekend. [active voice]
  • A woman is raped every 86 seconds. [passive voice, no subject]
  • A woman is raped by a man every 86 seconds. [passive voice]
  • A man rapes a woman every 86 seconds. [active voice]
  • A rape takes place every 86 seconds. [what I term the “act of fate” construction]
  • One in three South African women will be raped in her lifetime.
  • One in three South African women will be raped by a man in her lifetime.
  • One in three South African men will rape a woman in their lifetime.
  • One in three South African men is a rapist.

It’s easy to see which forms are used in media reporting and popular discourse.
Using the active voice and naming the subject/perpetrator are radical acts, and can have dramatic repercussions. In South Africa, the first educational ads (flighted on television and in cinemas) on sexual violence against women that used the active voice and were addressed to men rather than women were banned on the grounds that they were “offensive to men”.

Media professionals and academics I have consulted have pointed out that passive constructions are ingrained in the discourse of criminal reporting, for reasons that have to do with even-handed and truthful reporting and the legal premise that one is innocent until proven guilty. This has been discussed at length elsewhere, and it is widely acknowledged that the legally responsible construction of media reports, like most public forms of narrative, is gendered. Although many journalists attempt to practice ethical and sensitive reporting on gender-based violence, the use of passive constructions in these discourses remains pernicious. While there can be no objection to the use of the phrase “the alleged rapist”, if he is eliminated from the narrative through the grammar of erasure discussed above, then we have the far more problematic construction “the woman who was allegedly raped.” And while I regularly see headlines announcing “Hijackers/ thieves/poachers/fraudsters strike again”, I am still waiting to read “Rapists strike again” or even “Rapists terrorise the community of X.”

There is much more to say about the grammar of rape; for example, the verb “rape” is never used intransitively, even though it is syntactically correct to do so: “A man rapes/raped.” To get around this usage, most written forms either convert the verb into a noun (i.e., instead of “A number of men raped over the weekend”, we read “A number of rapes were committed over the weekend”), or (more usually), we only use the verb form in its passive construction. This is so ingrained that if we read the grammatically correct sentence just used (“A number of men raped over the weekend”), we automatically start slotting in past or present tense verb forms to turn this into a passive construction (“A number of men were raped …”). The verb generally only ever appears in tandem with verb modifiers that indicate that rape is something done TO someone, not BY someone: “was raped”, “is raped”, etc. Just about the only time the verb appears in the active construction is in the words of a victim (“He raped me”), and this form is then read not as a statement, but as an accusation that always requires proof. So using the active construction of the verb generally means that such a sentence is not permitted to stand alone; it has to be substantiated and explained.

The next major myth seen in the media in reports on sexual violence flows from this anxiety about acknowledging the perpetrator, and is perhaps even more damaging than masking him. When we are faced with scenarios in which we cannot ignore the rapist, we resort to classifying him as a “monster”, some psychopath “out there”. We are deeply invested in the notion that the rapist is not like us — someone, some thing that is beyond the bounds of humanity, a howling, drooling, perverted maniac. (It is immediately clear that one of the many serious problems with this narrative is it that it intersects with the worst kinds of racial and colonial stereotypes of savagery and barbarism.) The rapist is someone who doesn’t have a home, family or job — he lives literally beyond the pale, under a stone or in a cave – certainly never tucked up in front of the telly with his family.
So when we are forced to confront the reality of a real live rapist, the discourses of both bestiality (“these people are animals!”) and madness are both summoned up, establishing a trend of constantly pushing the rapist to the bounds of society, in order not to have to recognise the one in our workplace, our home, our bed.

This has enormously problematic consequences for society. If we only accept a certain picture of a rapist, then we are greatly constrained as to which rape scenarios we can establish as valid. It’s a revealing exercise asking in what circumstances rape is actually reported to the police and media (and by implication, considered a “real” rape) in South Africa.

  • if the rape leads to homicide or extremely serious injury requiring hospitalisation (however, rape that leads to HIV-infection most emphatically does not fall into this category)
  • if a man is raped
  • if a very young child is raped (and even then there is tremendous under-reporting, especially if the attacker is a family member)
  • if the victim is white, middle-class, and “virtuous”, and her attacker is black, a stranger, or a menial employee (a gardener or house-painter, for example)
  • if a very young girl is gang-raped (although this is rapidly becoming normative, and is no longer necessarily reported unless the victim’s injuries are particularly severe, or she is subsequently murdered)
  • if there is some “tabloid” or voyeuristic element to the rape
  • if the rape accompanies other crimes, such as housebreaking or hijacking.

It’s clear that each of these rape scenarios features a perpetrator who can easily be classified as a monster, freak or hardened criminal. The message therefore is that “normal men can’t rape”. Even worse, when a woman is raped by a “regular” guy, perhaps someone she knows or even likes, who does not use a weapon, and who does not also steal her car or her hi-fi, she often cannot believe her experience constitutes “real” rape.
In South Africa, where race remains such a burning issue, it is clear that by using monster narratives that literally “paint it black”, the standard stories of rape confirm everybody’s worst fears. White women fear every man that does not belong within their community (perhaps more bearable than the more honest alternative of fearing all men per se); white men buy guns to protect their families from the threat of the heart of darkness beyond the garden gate. Black men are outraged and humiliated at being categorised as violent, sex-crazed maniacs preying on white woman; black women are kept from reporting the violence they experience for fear of being disloyal. As a result, the great majority of rapes (between peer members of the same community) can never be addressed or discussed, and so the real problem of sexual violence flourishes in the dark. Meanwhile, the worst kind of racial stereotyping is kept alive. These findings will resonate for hundreds of embattled and divided communities around the globe. What is more, by focusing on “sex monster” stories that have an implicit racial or “outsider” content, the media can actually harden sectarian divides.

The monster narrative has particularly serious consequences for the reporting of rape of children. If there is one thing that might garner general consensus, it is the notion that anyone who rapes a child is by definition a monster. This is starkly at odds with possibly the only hard truth we know about those who rape children – that they are almost always known to their victims, and are very often close to them. The rape of children is therefore by definition intra-communal – and therefore a narrative about “insiders”, not “outsiders.” This presents us with an impasse: if a child or baby is raped, how do we call for the death penalty or resort to other available rhetorical strategies (“let them rot in jail, throw away the key) if we know that the victim’s step-father or older brother was responsible? What do we say when the perpetrator is another child? A much-loved teacher or priest?
It’s clear that one of the many problems of allowing ourselves only a few rigidly scripted rape scenarios is that they make it very difficult to discuss the aetiology of rape, especially when children are the victims.

The monster narrative has a sinister corollary: the media will recycle rape narratives when they are also stories about “otherness” – “us” versus “them” . These stories (rape as a weapon of genocide or civil war) must indeed be told, but the increasing predominance and reproduction of these scripts once again smothers the story of the most common form of rape – that which takes place within communities. It is the latter stories that immediately make us uncomfortable. They raise the terrifying possibility for women that they might unwittingly be eating lunch, co-teaching a course, sharing a work-shift, or even a bed, with a rapist. And for countless men, these stories must stir up profound discomfort as they remember the terrified girl dragged into the gang’s initiation circle, that evening with a girlfriend when they wouldn’t take no for an answer, the peasant woman in the field they and their buddies took turns with on their way back to their unit.
These three myths are possibly the most widespread in public and private discourse about rape:

  • There is no rapist; rape is just something bad that happens to women’s bodies out of the blue
  • If there is a rapist, he is a monster, a stranger, a brute savage or a hardened criminal
  • Rape is a story about warring communities (“us” versus “them”), or about far-away countries in chaos.

The implicit corollaries are:

  • Rape is a women’s problem (it has nothing to do with men)
  • You can’t be raped by someone “respectable” or someone you know or like
  • Rape can’t happen within a safe and secure community.

However, there are other extremely damaging myths alive in media and other public representations of rape. Very briefly, here are some:

  • Rape is easy to perform, and there is some physiological pleasure or gratification involved for the rapist

The reality is that both anecdotal and scientific evidence suggests that a significant proportion of rapists have difficulty getting an erection, maintaining it, achieving penetration or experiencing ejaculation. Research undertaken in the US in the 1980s showed that over ten per cent of those serving prison sentences for rape were permanently impotent. Current South African research suggests that the majority of rapists do not ejaculate. And another South African health survey had its male respondents reporting that “dry sex” (i.e. with no feminine arousal present) was extremely painful, not only for their partners, but themselves.

For men, rape cannot be the illicit pleasure, the stolen fruit that we see presented again and again in popular culture. Physiologically, this is an act that is usually at best extremely uncomfortable, at worst, painful and difficult for the perpetrator. Why then the myth of male gratification? Why would anyone perform an act that causes them discomfort, even pain?

  • The rapist may be aberrant, but rape itself is a biologically normal act, which is made criminal only by the victim’s lack of consent

This follows from the above argument. It is vital that we “denormalise” the act of rape, which is often portrayed as a kind of sexual kleptomania – a natural impulse poorly controlled or inappropriately directed. The feminist arguments of the 1970s (that rape was an act of rage or power, not lust) did not go far enough in dispelling the notion that rape still fell within the bounds of normal masculine behaviour. The simplest educative strategy to counter this is to ask why women (who surely also feel rage and desire for power) don’t rape. I ask people to imagine a gang of women (or a single armed woman) “raping” a man either by repeatedly beating him between the legs or sodomising him with a blunt instrument. My appalled audiences usually react very strongly, insisting that such a scenario is “sick” or “truly transgressive”. I then ask why, if it boggles our minds to imagine women roaming around in packs or lying in wait with guns to attack vulnerable men and assault their private parts, the identical behaviour on the part of men arouses so little outrage and so much resignation.

  • The female body is “rapable” – which can even lead to claims that while shocking and degrading, rape is not necessarily always violent

This ignores the basic facts of female anatomy and female physiological sexual response – I blame all those cross-section diagrams of the female reproductive tract that hang on doctors’ walls and are found in biology books, which portray the vagina as an empty space — rather like an incomplete jigsaw puzzle, with a penis-shaped piece missing. More research needs to be done on popular notions of the vagina in rape narratives, but what does emerge is a persistent understanding of the vagina as a vacuum (of course, abhorred by nature). There seems little or no recognition that the vagina in its normal, non-aroused state is an aperture whose walls lie adjacent to one another. Many assume that male sexual arousal is necessary for rape to take place (whereas this is easy to simulate – any blunt instrument will do), but few consider the complex physiological mechanisms that make sexual intercourse possible for women (lubrication, engorgement, retraction of the cervix, etc.)


A brief anecdote: at a panel on gender-based violence at a conference, I listened while a young woman present stated that she had been raped, and asked what “we as women” were going to do about this problem, pointing out that as we sat in this conference, women outside were being raped, and what steps were we actually taking that would stop this? Not once in her diatribe did she use the active voice, or name a subject. Her entire understanding of both her personal tragedy and the larger social problem were shaped by a discourse from which the perpetrator was utterly erased. As a result, rape was a “women’s problem” (and by implication, her problem), and it was somehow our responsibility as women to stop it.

At the risk of stating the obvious, rape is a women’s problem only because men have made it so. When I first began work on this project, I noted that one of the most common questions asked during the recovery process by rape survivors was “Why did this happen to me?” However, after my first brief presentation, a respected anthropologist approached me to point out that my project was no different from the search for narratives of consolation and explication by any group of sufferers at the hands of fate. This annoyed me so much that I changed the question to “Why was this done to me?” But a still more accurate question would be “Why did he [or they] do this to me?” For those who act as counsellors or therapists, the implications of changing the question will be obvious – and profound.

It is my hope that by changing the way questions and stories about sexual violence are wired into our brains, we will be able to offer linguistic support to survivors that will eliminate some of the guilt and self-recrimination they so often experience, and even offer “absolution”. But to do this, we all need to change the way we speak, read and think about rape; to read newspapers and watch television with fresh eyes.
There are some practical steps that can be taken:

  • Educators and practitioners in the field should use the active voice and name a subject when discussing rape.
  • Counsellors should help patients who have survived sexual violence to put the rapist “back in the picture” (“he raped me”, not “I was raped”).
  • Those who undertake sex education should make it clear that female arousal is as essential a component to sexual intercourse as male arousal. Boys in particular need to be educated about the profound physiological changes that girls experience during arousal. It must be stressed that these changes are not “optional extras”, and that real physical damage can be done in their absence. (Ask boys to imagine being kicked repeatedly in the scrotum. Tell them that is what rape feels like.)
  • Diagrams of the female reproductive tract used in health centres, textbooks, etc. should not present the vagina as an “empty space”.
  • Media workers need to be particularly careful not to report rape only when it fits certain stereotyped narratives, especially when these fuel sectarian or racial hatred.
  • Rape education strategies should be primarily directed at perpetrators and potential perpetrators, rather than survivors and potential victims. The importance of targeting boys and young men cannot be stressed strongly enough.
  • Rape should not be framed as a “women’s problem”. It is men who rape, not women.
  • Men should actively engage in rape prevention education strategies (and be recruited to do this kind of work).
  • Educators and practitioners should consider using rhetorical inversion “shock” tactics (as briefly described above) where appropriate.
  • Policymakers should update legal definitions of rape where needed (for example, in South Africa, rape was until very recently only considered to have taken place if there had been an unlawful conjunction of a penis and a vagina – which meant that a woman who had been raped with a bottle or broomstick could only lay a charge of indecent assault). In countries with more comprehensive legal definitions, proactive efforts must be made to educate both law enforcement officers and citizens about the implications of these broader definitions.

Further reading

  • Abrahams, Naeemah, Rachel Jewkes and Ria Laubsher. 1999. “‘I do not believe in democracy in the home’: Men’s Relationships with and Abuse of Women.” Medical Research Council of South Africa, Tygerberg.
  • Denny, Lynn, et al. 2002. “Sexual violence against women: a significant health problem.” Findings of the Rape Protocol Project at Groote Schuur Hospital, Cape Town, presented at the South African Colleges of Medicine Annual Symposium on Violence, May 2002.
  • Green, December. Gender Violence in Africa. 1999. St Martin’s Press: New York.
  • Jayawardena, Kumari and Malathi de Alwis (eds.). 1996. Embodied Violence: Communalising Women’s Sexuality in South Asia. Zed Books: London and New Jersey.
  • Steinem, Gloria. 1983. Outrageous Acts and Everyday Revolutions. Flamingo: London.
  • Vogelman, Lloyd. The Sexual Face of Violence. 1990. Ravan: Johannesburg.
  • Wolff, Owen. “Here Be Monsters.” The Big Issue 55, Vol 2, Feburary 2002.
  • Women’s Health Project. 1996. The South African Women’s Health Book. Oxford University Press: Cape Town.
  • Wood, Katherine and Rachel Jewkes. 1998. “‘Love is a dangerous thing’: Micro-dynamics of Violence in Sexual Relationships of Young People in Umtata.” Medical Research Council of South Africa, Tygerberg.
  • Wood, Katherine, Fidelia Maforah and Rachel Jewkes. 1996. “Sex, Violence and Constructions of Love among Xhosa Adolescents: Putting Violence on the Sexuality Education Agenda.” Medical Research Council of South Africa, Tygerberg.

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