Societal myths about forced sex feed into the rape culture prevalent in South Africa

Cheryl Zondi's testimony at pastor Timothy Omotoso's rape trial has given South Africans a glimpse into what victims are subjected to during a trial, says the writer.
Cheryl Zondi's testimony at pastor Timothy Omotoso's rape trial has given South Africans a glimpse into what victims are subjected to during a trial, says the writer.
Image: Eugene Coetzee

The live broadcast of Timothy Omotoso's rape trial gave ordinary South Africans a glimpse of the kind of treatment rape victims are subjected to as witnesses during a trial.

But more than anything, Omotoso's trial has sparked debate about the complexities of rape, and the justice system was rightfully scorned for failing women.

However, when the broader problem of sexual offences is contextualised, the reality is that people remain clueless about the true nature of this calamity.

For instance, there has been continuous efforts to safeguard women from sexual violation which came in the form of reformed provisions to the Sexual Offences and Related Matters Act. But the lack of awareness regarding the rights contained in the legislative provisions remains a massive problem.

Furthermore, the lack of knowledge about the different types of rape that may take place should also not be discounted. These two issues are interlinked. One of the most significant reforms to the Sexual Offences Act was the re-definition of consent.

Yet, most women do not understand the definition of sexual coercion and consent. Previously, there was a more construed interpretation of rape. According to researcher Shereen Mills, "rape was confined to situations where the women's resistance was overcome by physical force or violence and non-consent was proved by her physical resistance".

Such confinement was too narrow and there was a need to broaden and appreciate "coercive circumstances that reflect the systemic context of rape, poverty and unequal gender power relations post-apartheid, given the extremely high incidence of sexual violence", Mills said.

Accordingly, the statute was reformed and now lists coercive circumstances and that there is no consent when there is a "threat of harm" against the complainant, or when there is an "abuse of power or authority" by the accused.

There should also be no intimidation and there is no consent when the complainant is inhibited from indicating his unwillingness or resistance to the sexual act or participation to such a sexual act.

Importantly, there can never be consent in situations in which the complainant is "incapable in law of appreciating the nature of the sexual act" as a result of being "asleep, unconscious, or in an altered state of consciousness" as a result of "influence of any medicine, drug, alcohol or other substance".

Also, a man who offers a woman a job in exchange for sex and should the "sex" take place, there would have been no consent, because it would have been coerced. The abuse of power in this manner is unacceptable.

It should be considered that a woman seeking a job is most probably desperate for the job, but would not have in different circumstances engaged in sexual relations with the man offering her the job.

Therefore, in terms of the provisions, a rape may have taken place. Uncoerced consent is void of "physical force, deceit, prior agreement or any other manipulations," as defined by the Helen Suzman Foundation.

Fundamentally, there is a yawning gap between the law and coercion and re-definition of consent. This is mainly due to society's rejection of other forms of rape. Society's view is dictated by rape myths which "allow us to believe that a 'real rape' is one in which a victim is raped by a stranger who jumps out of the bushes with a weapon, and in which she fought back, was beaten and bruised, reported the event to the police, and had medical evidence collected immediately," according to researchers, Bonnie Fisher, Francis Cullen and Michael Turner.

This is not true, societal myths maintain a rape culture.

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