Perpetrators of corrective rape: Uncertainty and gender in the 21st century

10th May 2011 By: In On Africa IOA

South Africa is “witnessing a backlash of crimes targeted specifically at lesbian women, who are perceived as representing a direct threat to a male dominated society” according to ActionAid, an international non-governmental organisation (NGO) backed by the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC).(2) The most notable of these crimes against lesbian women is corrective rape. Perpetrators of corrective rape desire to show lesbians “how to be real women.”(3) They manifestly believe that forcing heterosexual intercourse onto lesbians will somehow reinstate a ‘traditional’ hetero-normative sexual identity in their victims. Using violence to attain their ‘goal’ indicates an attitude of hatred towards lesbian women. Unfortunately, support groups report that corrective rape is on the rise in South African townships.(4)

While much can be said about the crime itself and how justice is and should be applied in these situations, the history and system of beliefs which inform corrective rape must be examined. This CAI paper discusses the perpetrators’ desire to enforce ‘traditional’ gender roles, which may appear to set corrective rape apart from other instances of rape. This paper considers French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre’s account of hatred, as set out in his book Anti-Semite and Jew,(5) as a model for understanding the perpetrators’ motivations and for possible approaches to this issue.

Sartre’s anti-Semite and homophobic hate-crimes

There is a major similarity between the situation of the anti-Semite described in Sartre’s account of World War II anti-Semitism and that of perpetrators of corrective rape. Sartre notes that the anti-Semite’s position is one of social and economic uncertainty as part of the “petty bourgeoisie”(6) who “possess neither land nor house nor castle.”(7) He locates anti-Semitism among those who are unsure of their socio-economic position and in a state of flux. This person who would give his/her standing in society “a low valuation”(8) as someone who has not achieved anything noteworthy in society. By identifying and combating a universal enemy – Jewish people – anti-Semites grant themselves a de facto position in the “Union of all Frenchmen,”(9) simultaneously allowing themselves to implicitly possess the whole of France.(10)

A similar situation exists in parts of Africa at the moment - a similarity that allows for Sartre’s account of the motivations behind anti-Semitism to be transposed onto the belief structure of rapists who commit corrective rape. Many post-colonial societies in Africa face an absence of clear, ‘traditional’ definitions of masculinity and femininity. Marc Epprecht notes that “[c]olonial rule and racial capitalism emasculated African men in the sense that they undermined Africans' ability to attain the signifiers of social manhood.”(11) Colonial legislation and the rapid urbanisation and modernisation of traditional societies created uncertainty about ‘traditional’ signifiers of masculinity and femininity. Epprecht cites that the dispossession of land and the enforcement of women’s rights to property by colonial forces deconstructed traditional perceptions of gender.

In many societies, conceptions of manhood depended heavily on socio-economic standing. A physically mature male had to attain a certain socio-economic position, signified by the ability to pay lobola or some form of dowry, before he could be considered a man. By making this socio-economic position practically impossible to attain, colonial governments and the subsequent capitalism which persists in Africa today, have placed African men in a perceived perpetual boyhood in which they can never attain the necessary social position traditionally associated with masculinity. Similarly, the new roles of women in urban societies are not accommodated by traditional conceptions of femininity. Today, richer South Africans are allowed to achieve the socio-economic markers of wealth upon which traditional conceptions of gender rely. People who live in townships or slums, however, still do not have this opportunity. Instead, many working class Africans are confronted by ambiguous and unattainable conceptions of gender.(12)

ActionAid locates most corrective rapes in South Africa’s townships,(13) where innumerable poor citizens live. This suggests that most perpetrators of corrective rape belong to lower income groups. Whilst Sartre’s anti-Semites desire to trump socio-economic uncertainty with anti-Semitism, the perpetrators of corrective rape arguably commit corrective rape in order to fight the general uncertainty which encompasses both their socio-economic situation and conflicting conceptions of masculinity and femininity. Lesbians may or may not embody this uncertainty to their communities, but they are an ‘easy target’ for power-hungry, angry males.

Why attack lesbian women?

White colonisers redefined and challenged African conceptions of sexuality through anthropological studies conducted by missionaries, who introduced Western concepts of heterosexuality and homosexuality as binary opposites to societies where definitions used to be more fluid. Epprecht points out that marriage and love were separate institutions in pre-colonial African societies, which allowed for men and women to be married in heterosexual relationships for social purposes while maintaining extramarital romantic relationships, regardless of their sexual orientation.(14) A common perception at the beginning of the colonial era was that Africa was unspoilt by certain ‘European vices,’(15) which led missionaries to ignore homosexual tendencies in African men. The lack of explicitly documented homosexual relationships, in turn, allowed for the false notion that homosexuality is ‘un-African,’ despite a vast pool of evidence to the contrary.(16) Along with conceptions of masculinity and femininity which associated gender identity with childbearing,(17) ideas about masculinity and femininity came to exclude homosexuality. Instead, the myth that one’s role in marriage, gender and sexual orientation are all synonymous took root in literature and missionary-influenced traditions.

When confronted with homosexuality as it is often practiced today – in exclusive, monogamous relationships that mirror heterosexual marriage –the fluidity of masculinity and femininity becomes an issue for those influenced by colonialist gender dichotomy. The ability of homosexual couples to seemingly bypass all the socio-cultural expectations of heterosexual couples, such as producing children, while they form long-lasting, exclusive sexual relationships, represents a freedom from certain gendered issues which many Africans struggle to attain in the context of heterosexual relationships. This freedom challenges the notion of fixed gender identities which many people cling to in an effort to create an illusory stability. Heterosexual relationships, in stark contrast, remain riddled with issues surrounding the conflict between ‘traditional’ and modern values.

By refusing to play the role of child-bearing wife for the men of a largely patriarchal society, lesbian women most obviously challenge ‘traditional’ notions of man and woman. They represent the freedom to deny men their ‘traditional’ role as a dominant partner and therefore may be perceived to cause uncertainty in men about their social status and roles. Why do some men resort to violence to attack lesbian women?

Why violence?

Feeling uncertain means that one may, in some way, be responsible for one’s current and future situations. For instance, if masculinity is not a given from one’s biological form, it follows that masculinity depends on a person’s actions and the choices they have made. Many South African men value a certain socio-economic status as indicative of their manhood, and financially struggling men may therefore feel that they have acted or chosen in ways that granted them a masculine identity of lesser value. These men struggle with the idea that they themselves, as well as historical factors beyond their control, are to some extent responsible for their feeling emasculated.
The violence expressed by men toward lesbian women arguably attempts to create or sustain a certain, unchallengeable definition of masculinity. By clinging to binary, mutually exclusive definitions of gender roles, these rapists retain some sense of certainty. Lesbian women who dare to challenge this certainty must be violently ‘corrected’ so that the rapists’ perception of reality remains undisturbed.

Sartre’s (18) Manichean schema explains how this works. By defining the Jews as inherently bad or evil, and the anti-Semite as ‘not Jewish’ (therefore not bad or not evil) - the anti-Semite follows false reasoning to arrive at the conclusion that he/she is automatically good. In the Manichean schema, “Good consists above all in the destruction of Evil”(19) therefore, all the anti-Semite needs to do to ensure his/her goodness is combat evil as they believe it is manifests in Jews. This way, the anti-Semite can “avoid the anguished search for Good”(20) which requires constant scrutiny and an evolving conception of what ‘good’ means. Unfortunately, this approach towards defining ‘Good’ is fundamentally flawed and deceptive. The negative conceptualisation of ‘Good’ as ‘not evil’ could never achieve the destruction of Evil, for without Evil, Good is meaningless. Without Evil, Good would have to be defined positively, as a set of self-sustaining traits, not as an absence.

Sartre concludes that “Manichaeism conceals a deep-seated attraction toward Evil” (21) because it promotes bad faith, avoidance of responsibility for one’s own position, and “laziness of mind.”(22) The logic used by the Manichean schema is flawed: it fails to explain why something would be evil. According to it, we know that the acts of a certain group of people are evil because they flow from an evil character, yet we are only aware of this evil character through its behaviour. This circular reasoning expresses anti-Semitical thoughts, however, as driven by deceptive motives and relying on false security through illusory stability.

The same can be said of the homophobic reasoning at play behind many current gender constructs on the African continent. Homophobes avoid taking responsibility for analysing and redefining their gender constructs and instead look for unchanging markers of gender identity. Their denial of the fluidity of gender constructs as they are in the modern world is a failure to account for their situation and the roles they play in them in a complete and truthful manner. Both Manichean and homophobic logic appear to rely on negation as the locus of meaning.

The main criticism levelled against homosexuality in Africa is that it is ‘un-African’. A lesbian woman is imagined as a threat to the lingering colonial ideal of Africa as ‘pristine’ and ‘free from sin’ before Europe interfered.(23) There is a belief that white people brought vices and sin to Africa, which is strengthened by the appalling actual legacy of colonialism itself. From these ideas, it is easy to see how things that are classified as ‘un-African’ can be regarded as Evil, or at least a corruption of Good. In the Western Cape Province of South Africa, 86% of black lesbians lived in fear of being sexually assaulted by men in 2009 and at least ten new cases of corrective rape were reported to Triangle, a gay rights organisation, every week. "Every day I am told that they are going to kill me, that they are going to rape me and after they rape me I'll become a girl," Zakhe Sowello from Soweto, told The Telegraph newspaper.(24)

Following the Manichean schema, anything that can be regarded as ‘traditionally’ African is good, pure and unspoilt. Ironically, these definitions heavily rely on the missionaries’ accounts of Africa. Homosexuality existed in pre-colonial Africa but was referred to very euphemistically by missionaries, due to the traditional taboos around sex at the time. The missionaries did not discuss or record anything about homosexuality, even when they encountered it.(25) They created a false impression that homosexuality was non-existent in pre-colonial Africa, making it ‘untraditional’ and ‘un-African’ and therefore a corrupting force, or Evil. By positing homosexuality as a threat to ‘traditional’ masculinity and femininity, one is able to define these traditional conceptions as the negation of homosexuality. Corrective rape is the most obvious manifestation of the need to combat homosexuality in order to reinforce traditional gender concepts. The action of corrective rape provides these men with the illusion that they possess the masculinity necessary to subjugate a woman.
Final remarks

Perpetrators of corrective rape often appeal to ‘African’ values (i.e. that which is ‘Good’ and ‘African’) that need ‘protection’ to justify their crime. The simplistic dichotomous idea of two genders presented by missionaries long ago does not accommodate difference or change. In order to combat homophobia and corrective rape, communities need to take an honest look at their gender constructs and the South African Government must pay urgent attention to this issue. South African lesbian activist group Luleki Sizwe has managed to get Government to take notice. The group initiated a national discussion about corrective rape. In just three months, they gathered more than 170,000 supporters for their call on Government to take corrective rape seriously.(26) Hopefully, their work will spread awareness, gain support for their cause and encourage lesbian to stand together against the violation of their rights.


(1) Contact Aidan Prinsloo through Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Gender Issues Unit ( This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ).
(2) Anjali Kwatra, ‘Hate crimes: the rise of “corrective” rape in South Africa’, ActionAid,
(3) Ibid.
(4) Ibid.
(5) Sartre, J.P., 1995. Anti-Semite and Jew: an exploration of the etiology of hate. Translated by George J. Becker. New York: Schocken Books.
(6) Ibid, p.26.
(7) Ibid, p.26.
(8) Ibid, p.28.
(9) Ibid, p.31.
(10) Ibid, p.26.
(11) Epprecht, M., 1998. The 'Unsaying' of indigenous homosexualities in Zimbabwe: mapping a blindspot in an African masculinity. Journal of Southern African Studies, 24(4), Special Issue on Masculinities in Southern Africa, pp. 631-651.
(12) Ibid.
(13) Anjali Kwatra, ActionAid,
(14) Epprecht, M. 1998. The 'unsaying' of indigenous homosexualities in Zimbabwe: mapping a blindspot in an African masculinity. Journal of Southern African Studies, 24(4), Special Issue on Masculinities in Southern Africa, pp. 631-651.
(15) Ibid.
(16) Ibid.
(17) Ibid.
(18) Sartre, J.P. 1995. Anti-Semite and Jew: an exploration of the etiology of hate. Translated by George J. Becker. New York: Schocken Books.
(19) Ibid.
(20) Ibid.
(21) Ibid.
(22) Ibid.
(23) Epprecht, M. 1998. The 'unsaying' of indigenous homosexualities in Zimbabwe: mapping a blindspot in an African masculinity. Journal of Southern African Studies, 24(4), Special Issue on Masculinities in Southern Africa, pp. 631-651.
(24) ‘Lesbians subjected to "corrective rape" in South Africa’, 13 March 2009,
(25) Ibid.
(26) Benjamin Joffe-Walt, ‘”Corrective” Rape Campaign Dominates the Press’, 15 March 2011,

Written by Aidan Prinsloo (1)