Old Wives' Tales
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Claim: The belief that having sex with virgins will cure AIDS has led to a marked increase in the rapes of infants and children in South Africa.
Example: [Collected on the Internet, 2002]
Origins: We first saw this petition circulated on the Internet in March 2002. In July of that year we encountered a version that asserted the rapes were taking place in Russia instead of South Africa (including all of the bit about the baby raped by six men and the child now fighting for its life). That same month versions began coming to us that included in their exhortation to forward the news that "SAPS are trying to close down the CHILD PROTECTION UNIT." (Versions prior to that merely directed signatories to forward the signed petition to the SAPS
We can dispatch one of the petition's claims at the onset — in all our hunting for information about child rape in South Africa, we've found no evidence that anyone is trying to shut down the Child Protection Unit of the South African Police Service (SAPS). The unit have been criticized in that country's local press for being ineffectual thanks to underfunding and understaffing, but no one is talking about disbanding it. It continues to show up in news story after news story as the investigatory arm involved with various cases, with no breath of a rumor about an impending closure.
Indeed, it has addressed this rumor in a statement on its web site.
Yes, rape in South Africa has reached epidemic proportions. Our "Rape Petition" page discusses a 1999
Many of those raped are children, not adults, and not even "children" in the pedantic sense of their being adolescents a scant year or two away from attaining age of majority. Some of these victims are youngsters barely old enough to go to school. At times even babies have been raped. In 2001, about 21,000 cases of child rape were reported to South African police. Some
Some of these crimes have been especially horrifying, as was the October 2001 case involving a nine-month-old girl rechristened Baby Tshepang by the press, a nickname meaning "have hope." It is Tshepang's case that is referenced in the petition; she is the child described as having been raped by six men "recently in Cape Town." Although police initially arrested and held in custody six men, aged 24 to 66, whom they suspected of gang-raping the child, they later released them because there was no forensic evidence linking those men to the crime. The true rapist, David Potse, a former boyfriend of Tshepang's 17-year-old mother, was nailed by forensic evidence after his then-current girlfriend, Lya Booysen, belatedly came forward to describe how she'd caught Potse in the act of sexually assaulting the child.
In July 2002, 23-year-old David Potse was sentenced to life in prison for raping and sodomizing the nine-month-old baby. Tshepang endured surgery to repair her genitals and internal organs, and doctors are hopeful she will be able to bear children when she grows up. The nine-month-old baby the petition describes as "fighting for her life" as a result of the attack is now almost two and is long past the point where her life is hanging in the balance.
Also in July 2002, the country was again shocked by news of another infant raped, a unnamed week-old girl whose mother saw blood on the child's diaper and found bruises on the child's genitals. This report afterwards proved to have been in error (further investigation revealed there had been no assault; the bleeding was a normal hormonal discharge), but the initial reports horrified
The question of what motivates child rape in South Africa is a complex one, and although many news accounts baldly ascribe it to a long-lived belief sex with a virgin will cure AIDS, there's not a strong reason to believe that is even part of the mix of what impels the majority of that country's child rapists, let alone that it is the sole cause. A 2002 study conducted by the Women's Health Project in Galeshewe, a small township in Kimberley, Northern Cape, attempted to get to the bottom of how strong this belief was and how much it predicated attacks. They focused on three theories of what motivates rape: cleansing, prevention, and vengeance. (The cleansing theory is the belief that sleeping with a virgin or a grandmother can cure a man of HIV. The prevention theory leads men to choose young girls as partners because they believe they cannot get HIV from a virgin. The vengeance theory is that rape occurs as a result of men spreading the HI virus so that they will not have to die alone.)
The group presented its findings at the Barcelona Aids Conference in June 2002. Their study found 60% of participants first heard of the cleansing theory in the media, meaning that for the majority this tidbit hadn't been acquired as folk wisdom absorbed from the community. These beliefs were not a discussion point among those living in that area, and many people did not believe the virgin cleansing myth or thought others within their communities acted on this myth. In contrast, the idea of spreading the HI virus so that individuals would not die alone seemed to be fueling the spread of HIV and possibly rape.
The most controversial finding from the study was that nearly two out of ten respondents believed that having sex with a child younger than 10 was not an act of rape. These individuals did not consider it sexual molestation, but merely an act of sex.
The study also found that 12.9% believed people in their community thought women asked to be raped. A quarter agreed with the statement "People in your community believe that a man who is sexually aroused by a woman wearing revealing clothes has the right to rape her."
According to Latasha Treger, a senior programme officer at the project that worked on this study, "All studies on [rape] causation conclude that there are multiple factors. Child rape in South Africa is the result of a complex situation caused by the social dynamics of male hierarchy and violence against women and children. The idea that having sex with a virgin cleanses you of AIDS does exist in South Africa and there have been reported cases of this as a motivating factor for child rape, but the predominant evidence suggests that this is infrequently the case."
The belief that having sex with virgins would cure sexually transmitted diseases is an old one, having been recorded in Victorian England. An upswing in venereal disease in that time and place led to increased demand for unsullied prostitutes, namely girls who had yet to have sex with anyone and thus could be assumed to be clean. At the same time rakes were seeking out untouched bed partners in an effort to safeguard themselves from contamination (which dovetails with the "prevention" rape motivation listed above), the false belief arose that sex with a virgin would cure an existing sexually-acquired illness. It's possible the "virgin cure" theory was born of a muddling of "sex with a virgin will keep you from catching venereal disease" into "sex with a virgin will cure venereal disease" by someone's misunderstanding the function of the virgin in the prevention formula, interpreting the insistence upon a first-timer as being related to her presumed magical properties rather than to her arriving between the bedsheets in a disease-free state. Also factoring in would have been ancient beliefs (some recorded as far back as
South Africa is a land beset with social problems that make it ripe for a rape culture to take root, ones that have nothing to do with folkloric belief in the curative power of virgins. Other factors beyond the three motivations focused on in the study (cleansing, prevention, and vengeance) play their part in building a culture where rape becomes prevalent. Poverty, alcohol abuse, teenage motherhood, family instability, anger in a violence-prone society, male sexual entitlement, the perception of females as lesser beings — all work in concert to create and perpetuate an environment where rape is viewed as a forgivable social evil that will always be with us rather than as a major wrong that needs be stamped out.
Further, in a society where it is common for 21-year-old men to have sex with 12-year-old girls and where girls under 16 see dating men older than 21 as a status thing, the lines get blurred. It is difficult for many in such a culture to grasp that sex with someone younger than 16 is rape, and that difficulty makes it easier to dismiss what seems to be media-trumpeted outrage over rape as folks nattering on about young girls happily getting physical with appreciative older men, with the occasional real assault thrown in when an eye-grabbing headline is needed. Folks see what they want to see, and they don't want to see rape so much as an array of willing sexual partners.
Children are especially at risk in a culture where rape is winked at because they are helpless, and selection of an assault victim often turns upon who can most easily be victimized. Kids are also seen as a commodity, with families exchanging the child's sexual services for the payment of school fees. AIDS has also worked to devastate normal family structure, leaving many households now headed by children who must do what they can to support the younger ones. It's not unheard of for girl children in that situation to turn to prostitution to put food on the table. All of this works to create and maintain a culture where children are seen as appropriate sexual targets. That they are also virgins is almost beside the point.
This is not to say the government of South Africa is turning a blind eye to the problem of rape or the rampant AIDS epidemic in that land. In August 2002, draft legislation was placed before the Lesotho Parliament that provides stringent penalties for sexual offenders and child abusers, including the death penalty for those who commit sexual offences knowing they are HIV-positive.
Yes, it would be wonderful to live in a world where all it would take to cure a problem of this magnitude would be the appending of an
E-petitions are always a bad idea (see our "Internet Petitions: Why They're a Waste of Your Time" article, which is linked to under the "Additional Information" tab on this page), but this one is an especially sorry excuse for the genre in that it both propagates as revealed truth the unfounded claim that child rape in South Africa is the product solely of a belief that having sex with virgins cures AIDS and minimizes a horrific and complex social problem down to one of "ignorant Africans and their life-threatening reliance upon superstition and jungle magic." Nevermind that the petition is to stop a closure that's not happening (folks
Barbara "CPU shutdown unattempted" Mikkelson
Last updated: 15 December 2007
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