Virgin Rape Myth, academic paper, Sex and Secrecy Conference 2003, Charlene Smith



The Virgin Rape Myth – a media creation or a clash between myth and a lack of HIV treatment?

Sexual disease carries shame and stigma.
Virginity or sexual abstinence on the other hand carries the illusion of purity. Cleanliness. This sense of purity has been emphasized by religion in particular, certain religions talk about women being unclean while pregnant, or when they menstruate, or for a period after the birth of a child. Many religions see vaginal fluids as unclean. Virginity is associated with purity and in many societies from Sri Lanka to Swaziland to Kwa Zulu Natal women are not only expected to remain virgins until marriage, but may be forced to undergo rites to test their virginity.
In Victorian England brothels were kept and stocked with mentally retarded “virgins” because it was believed that a syphilitic man could lose the infection by having sex with a virgin. In Africa the vaginal fluids of women are in many cultures seen as “dirty” and disease carrying. In many areas the African name for a sexually transmitted illness translates to “womens disease.”
Suzanne Leclerc Madlala, an anthropologist at the University of Natal notes that, "according to the virgin cleansing myth (in southern Africa), a man can 'cleanse' his blood of HIV/AIDS through intercourse with a virgin... sexual intercourse with a virgin is also thought to provide inoculation against future HIV infection.
"The vaginal passage is seen as being 'sealed off' by the intact hymen (which) was viewed as a barrier that prevented HIV from getting into the girls' womb and thus her 'blood'... But too, "the vagina of a pre-pubescent girl is not associated with the vaginal lubrications of the adult woman (which are considered dirty) and is conceptualised as 'clean', 'dry', 'uncontaminated'. Being a dry surface, it is believed that 'dirt' (HIV) cannot easily attach itself."
In some cultures it is believed that if bad luck befalls a person or a family this can be removed by the man of the house having sex with a very young girl, a virgin. Virginity destroys evil. For example, people should abstain from sex for three to seven days after a funeral, if this does not happen bad luck known as Tindzhaka in some communities or Quzula in others occurs. The way to get rid of this is by sex with a virgin. In many African communities sexual diseases or diseases of the kidneys are also believed to be curable by sex with a virgin.
Unicef notes that in Zimbabwe a man may be allowed intimate touching relationships with his wife’s sisters or nieces (chiramu).
Koketso Rantona, head of Botswana’s Department of Women Affairs notes that “when a child is raised she is told it is okay for a girl to have sex with her uncle, setlogolo ntsha ditlhogo. Traditionally sex with young girls was sanctioned through arranged marriages, this tradition has changed but the perception that it is nice for an older man to have sex with a young girl hasn’t.”
A survey early in 2002 among Daimler Benz automobile workers in Pretoria, by the University of South Africa, found that 18% believed the virgin myth.
In a speech on June 20, 2001, Pascoal Mocumbi, prime minister of Mozambique noted: “In Mozambique, the overall rate of HIV infection among girls and young women - 15 percent - is twice that of boys their age, not because the girls are promiscuous, but because nearly three out of five are married by age 18, 40 percent of them to much older, sexually experienced men who may expose their wives to HIV and sexually transmitted diseases. Abstinence is not an option for these child brides. Those who try to negotiate condom use commonly face violence or rejection. In heterosexual sex, girls and women are biologically more vulnerable to infection than are boys or men.
“ The United Nations estimates that 37 percent of the 16-year-olds in my country will die of AIDS before they are 30. In 1994, at the International Conference on Population and Development, and again in 1995, 1999 and 2000, most nations agreed that adolescents have a right to information about their sexuality. We agreed that programs should help build adolescent girls' self-confidence and boys' respect for girls' rights.
“(And yet) parents may themselves condone or perpetrate sexual violence as a legitimate expression of masculinity.” Certainly with child rape, which in 2002 accounted for 40% of all rape in South Africa, the person most likely to be the perpetrator is a close relative including fathers, uncles and grandfathers.
And too, Unicef reports that six times more girl children have HIV in Africa than boys, and 58% of all HIV infections are among women.
BBC’s Focus on Africa reports in it’s April 2003 edition a Human Rights Watch report entitled “Suffering in Silence” that “sexual abuse is a major reason why five times as many Zambian girls as boys under the age of 18 are HIV+. “ It says, “the country’s National AIDS Council estimates that about 1.75 million girls are vulnerable to HIV infection, and one of the main reasons is the growing incidence of sexual assaults…Moreover there is no access to the antiretroviral drugs that do prolong lives in other countries, and without which HIV infection usually means a death sentence. The result? The rape of young girls including babies. Few politicians have spoken out against the ‘cleansing crime’ but Kenneth Kaunda, the founding father of Zambia, has broken the taboo.” The author, Penny Dale, quotes him as saying, “It would appear to me that some people believe that a man who is suffering from HIV and AIDS can rape a child, six months old, one year old, whatever and he’ll be cured. What a stupid belief. You rape a child believing you’ll be healed by this, what madness is this?”
Leclerc-Madlala suggests that, "myths exist to explain the unexplainable. They give meaning to realities that are beyond control. In times of desperation myths (and the behaviours they inform) are more likely to come to the fore as people frantically search for answers, meanings, and solutions. When faced with a protracted and painful death through AIDS (and no accessible modern treatment as an alternative) is it surprising what some people would be willing to try as a possible cure? Childline reports a 400% increase in child rape in the past decade and a half. In KwaZulu Natal there is hardly a community that is not discussing child rape and the idea that one can secure an AIDS cure through virgin sex."
A failure by the South African government to extend universal access to basic HIV treatment - simple medications to counteract opportunistic infections - coupled with the world's highest HIV infection rates and a culture of violence hasn't helped.
A virgin is usually a pre-pubescent girl or an elderly woman believed to have been sexually inactive for sometime, in recent times though the sodomisation of small children, boys and girls has been believed in some communities to have the same “cleansing” effect.
The virgin rape myth has currency across Africa, and more recently in India and the Caribbean as HIV/AIDS, fear and myth combine with a lack of HIV treatment.
In South Africa in 2002, 40% of all rape was reported in children under the age of 12. This is the country that Interpol in 1999 said had the world’s highest rate of rape and the most violent, in September of that same year the SA Law Commission estimated there are 1,6m rapes a year in SA – in March of that year the University of South Africa, in a study on rape, estimated that there are at least a million rapes a year in South Africa. In 2000 more than 21 438 children were raped according to police – more than half of them under the age of 11.
Of the 1 250 rapes reported in Zimbabwe in 1996 of children under the age of 16, more than half were children under the age of 13 with 93 aged two to five years old.
The SA Medical Journal carried a report in December, 2001 of a nine year study by physicians at Red Cross Children’s Hospital (led by Dr Sebastian van As) that showed the highest incidence of rape was in children aged three.
Police rape statistics for Gauteng from October to December last year showed that the incidence of rape went up 30% with most rape reported in children under the age of 12. In unpublished police statistics that I have seen for the first three months of this year in South Africa, the figures are continuing to rise. Margot Davids, director of social services of the Gauteng Social Welfare Department told a child protection week rally in May this year, that “we have found a major increase in child abuse in the inner city of Johannesburg.”
Superintendent Nico Snyman of the Meadowlands police station in Soweto, as a further example, reports that 90% of the children raped in that, one of the largest districts of Soweto, are children under the age of 12 with a growing proportion of children under the age of 4. He says that although arrests are made in 70% of the cases, less than 17% go to court because families tend to accept compensation, sometimes as little as R50, to refuse to co-operate with the criminal investigation. Again, the warping of tradition, infringes on the rights of wronged children.
Research from Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia displays disturbingly high levels of child sexual abuse. In Botswana in 2000, more than 60% of all rape was in girls under the age of 12.
23-year-old Kate Mzambo of kwaThema who became HIV positive after being gangraped in her home in 1999, and who was gangraped again in her home a year later, has a young theatrical group of 13 children who perform in churches and community halls and schools across Gauteng, all the children, aged eight to 10, all have been raped, just over half are HIV+ as a result.

But the rape of girl children is so constant it is no longer news. The virgin rape myth came to prominence in South Africa through the rape of babies.
It was the rape of a nine-month-old baby in November, 2001, known as Baby Tshepang that alerted South Africans to the problem. In March, 2002, police arrested 23-year-old David Potse, a former boyfriend of Tshepang's mother. On the day he was arrested Tshepang was undergoing her seventh reconstructive procedure at the Red Cross Childrens Hospital in Cape Town. During court testimony it was revealed that his commonlaw wife, Lya Booysen, watched while he raped the infant. He received a life sentence.
Rachel Swarns reporting for the New York Times in early 2001 reported that the rape of small children had “galvanized (South Africans) into nationwide demonstrations demanding government action” She wrote the higher rates of child rape, were “attributed partly to a popular myth in that AIDS-ravaged country that a cure for the disease lies in having sex with a virgin, and in weakness in criminal justice system; since only about 7 percent of reported rapes result in convictions, most rapists have little fear of punishment; about 40 percent of more than 52,000 rape cases reported in 2000 involved victims under 18, and about 20 percent of victims during first six months of 2001 were under the age of 11.” She gave the case of 8 year old Sinzo from the Eastern Cape, who was raped by a neighbour, “doctors say she is so damaged inside that she will never have children.”
In February this year in Potchefstroom an accused was sentenced to life imprisonment. He was perhaps the first person to have admitted raping to cleanse himself of HIV. His girlfriend,also infected with HIV, brought her own daughter to him for him to rape and sodomise while the mother watched. The child’s perineum was ripped and because she was taken to two hospitals at considerable distances between them, before staff at one finally took her in – those at the first hospital said they were too traumatized … I have the testimony of the police officer who first contacted me – she now walks with a limp and her belly is permanently distended. She is cared for by a very loving, but completely traumatized father who receives no support from state social services, or any other organization. In the area she lives in there are no doctors who are expert in HIV, and when I visited the town’s main pharmacy a short walk from the central police station it had a single box of Retrovir, and no other antiretrovirals. It is the only pharmacy in town to carry antiretrovirals, none are available from the local state hospital. The child’s father has to take a day off work – at no pay to travel with the child for examinations at a Johannesburg public hospital.
The difficulty with proving virgin rape is that neither rape survivors nor courts have the right to ask for the testing of an alleged rapist for HIV. Legislation going before parliament this year has been opposed by the Treatment Action Campaign and the Aids Law Project, they say this law will remove the rights of the perpetrator.
In South Africa, research by Dr Adrienne Wulfsohn in Johannesburg of more than 600 rape survivors has shown that there is a 30% risk of getting HIV if raped by an HIV+ person. Separate research over a smaller sample in kwa Zulu Natal by Professor Ames Dhai, formerly of the University of Natal suggests that the risk in that province, of higher HIV infection, is closer to 40%.
Dr Wulfsohn found that 65% of rape was gang rape, while Dr Lyn Denny of Groote Schuur hospital has reported that 75% of those brought in to that rape clinic have been gang raped. Obviously rape by more than one HIV+ perpetrator increases the risk of HIV transmission, plus too the vaginal walls of children and elderly women are thin and tear easier.
Sylvia Mdluli of the Peace Accord Trust in Port Shepstone reports that boy and girl children are sodomised in southern kwaZulu Natal because it is believed that a child sodomised remains a virgin longer and can be “used” repeatedly for HIV cleansing. In 2002 the Sowetan newspaper carried a front page article about an eight-year-old boy who had been used precisely in this manner by two men and was now HIV+.
Yet there are also researchers who reject the myth and lobby to suppress it.
In August 2000, the SA Medical Research Council reported that “the belief that having sex with a virgin can cleanse a man of HIV has wide currency in sub-Saharan Africa. In sexual health promotion workshops in South Africa a third of participants indicated that they believed this to be true at the preworkshop questionnaire.” Indeed, after the workshop a fifth still believed the myth. And yet one of the alleged authors of this research has since actively worked to disprove the myth.
There was an extraordinary instance of this when she yelled at this presenter and the head of the Johannesburg Sexual Offences Unit, Supt Andre Neethling and Rose Tamae of Let us Grow an Orange Farm rape and HIV group, during a BBC programme because the three asserted that virgin rape was a growing problem. Some months later she tried to get a BBC programme made by South African born producer and filmmaker Cliff Bestall into the rape of nine month old Baby Tshepang withdrawn from screening by the BBC.
She approached the BBC direct and the SA embassy in London a few days before the documentary was to be screened saying the virgin rape myth was not true.
BBC initiated it’s own further investigations and found the Pretoria based researcher’s assertions to be untrue and screened the documentary. Why did she do this? She is not saying, but there is a belief in some quarters that investigations into the virgin rape myth (and the reasons I will put forward as my hypotheses later) remove responsibility from men for rape. They say high rates of rape in SA are because people are poor – I think that assertion is insulting to the poor who are mostly dignified. I deal with enough rape by the rich, especially of children, to know that rape is not a crime motivated by wealth or its lack.
However, resistance to research into this myth is acute. Some months earlier when Bestall testified to a parliamentary commission into child rape, the commission forgot its task and censured Bestall for having the temerity to make such a documentary and promptly launched an investigation into the making of the film – they later viewed the documentary and acclaimed it.
Discussing sexual violence is uncomfortable at the best of times, but investigating why babies, small children and grannies are deliberately raped is so repugnant to most, the injuries so acute. that many would rather do the most dangerous thing of all: pretend it is not happening.
However, for some feminists, such as the MRC researcher, they would rather fall back on old mythology that rape is perpetrated by evil men. They parrot over and over the 40-year-old mantra from Susan Brownlee Miller, that rape is about power, which in my view is garbage, rape is about impotence on a variety of levels. We will never eliminate rape until we realize that there may be many complex reasons for rape.
The motivations for rape may range from opportunism, to mental illness, to sport, to a dare, it may be culturally condoned – as in cleansing after death or illness or the induction of a girl child into sex, it may be the result of superstition, hatred against another group particularly during times of war or ethnic hatred, it might be an ultimate expression of self-hatred, of impotence, and in some instances like virgin rape it may be an act by the superstitious and the fearful who lack access to basic medical care and medication for even opportunistic infections to HIV and so they take radical and profoundly damaging steps.
At the Red Cross Children's Hospital, head of trauma, Dr Sebastian van As says that long term physical consequences of sexual assaults in small children include dysuria (pain when a child passes urine which leads to them becoming frightened to urinate), temporary urinary incontinence (urine leaks out), perineal infection (an abscess or wound at the perineum that resists healing) and ecopresis (when they are unable to keep the stool in). In the rape of infants the perineum gets ripped and the vagina and anus become a single wound. "If the rupture extends into the abdomen the children develop peritonitis and die within a day. These children have scar tissue that will ensure they will never have a completely normal sex life. If they give birth, it will have to be a caesarean section."

Namibia, South Africa and Botswana have in recent years devoted considerable energy to studying sexual violence. Namibia published fine new rape legislation in 1999; SA will hopefully enact progressive new legislation in 2003 which includes the right of rape survivors to PEP and compulsory testing of rapists. Lesotho has legislation for the compulsory testing of rapists, but little that deals effectively with sexual violence.
Botswana has a ministry devoted to women that does admirable work studying sexual violence, but perhaps not enough to combat it. PEP is available in some locales in Botswana and Namibia. Zimbabwe and Zambia have produced excellent research into the link between sexual violence and HIV, but regrettably, policy has not followed.

Rape is the most silent of four letter words. Few use it easily. The notion of the sexual violation of an indidivual is repulsive. Human rights organizations say that rape is akin to torture. And yet, there is a curious inertia around combating a scourge of "virgin" rape. Even though the World Health Organisation and UNAIDS, jointly reiterated in March, 2003, that sexual violence is a primary causative agent in HIV transmission (a woman or child whose right to say "no" to forced sex or rape is ignored), pathetically little is being done to combat virgin rape.
Shame and horror at what is happening to very small children seems to immobilize action to stop it. Too many say, "how can such terrible things happen", too few, are examining how to stop it from happening and implementing solutions.
Why aren’t we acting to understand and stop virgin rape, the myth that supports it, and the lack of access to medical treatment that breeds it?

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