Male rape isn't gay

If you’re reading this late on a Friday afternoon—5.30pm, say—then about 180 000 South African male prisoners have already been locked in their cells for the night. Tomorrow morning their cells will be unlocked at about 7.30am.

But because it’s Saturday, they’ll be locked up again even earlier than during the week—at about 2pm.

And as anyone in the know will tell you, “it mostly happens after lockup”: the sexual violence and abuse that characterises the incarcerations of so many.

Yet confused and confusing interpretations of inter-male sex in South African prisons expose our society’s crippling lack of adequate analytical tools to understand these activities. A major result of this lack is that our society fails to distinguish sexual violence from sexual encounters among men generally.

This in turn means we do not recognise that men, like women, can be victims of sexual violence. Consequently, we have direly inadequate social and legal measures to prevent it from happening and to support such victims.

Mostly we think of prisoners as perpetrators: they have broken the law. But growing evidence, especially as heard recently by the Jali commission, is giving us a much clearer picture of the cruelties of prison life.

Only now are we even looking to create a legal definition of male rape (though it remains unclear when the Sexual Offences Bill will be passed).

Parliament’s portfolio committee on correctional services heard in October from the organisation Friends against Abuse about the common “misperception [in prison] that sodomy and rape are the same thing”. Even more damagingly, when prison staff and offenders refer to the “problem of sodomy” and so-and-so being “sodomised” it looks like what’s happening is not a simple equation of “sodomy” with “rape”.

Rather, there is little to suggest that forced or coercive practices are being distinguished from male same-sex practices as a whole.

The Department of Correctional Services has no clear policy here. While our constitutional freedoms concerning sexual choice should prevail in prison, officials and prisoners are confused about what is and what isn’t allowed. Clauses on “indecent behaviours” in correctional legislation are nowhere defined and are differently interpreted.

The Jali commission heard reports of prison authorities punishing inmates for having sex, apparently because it contravenes prison rules. Although neither rape nor mutually agreed sex appears to get much official attention, different official understandings of policy feeds the tendency to conflate two very different things—namely, sex and violation.

Such muddlings are not restricted to prisons. They have been apparent on the rare occasions when the rape of men in prison has entered the public domain. Responses to the notorious Yizo Yizo episode in which Chester gets raped in prison are a case in point.

In the hullabaloo that ensued, what was actually one man raping another was evidently equated with “homosexuality”.

Along the way these muddlings also generate homophobia, and deny or stigmatise same sex desire. Watching the Special Assignment on prison life a few weeks ago (called Art of Survival), I was struck by inmates’ objections to the very same Yizo Yizo episode.

“This thing started at the ... mines,” said one. “I look at this good-looking guy, then I do as in the olden days ... It’s thigh sex, not penetration.”

“Nobody forces you ... It’s two consenting guys,” added another.

Seeking recognition that male on male desire is legitimate, these prisoners target Yizo Yizo because it represents a rare intervention in the silence about the multifaceted stories of sex behind bars.

While we should be concerned by their dismissal of rape, and interrogate definitions of “consent”, they point to a key casualty of our prejudiced muddlings. Their objections call for us to engage with the complexity of prison experiences, failing which vastly different prison sex interactions will continue to get lumped together.

South Africa’s historical criminalising of anal sex among men no doubt has something to do with this. Before 1998 our laws made anal or oral sex between men an offence, regardless of whether it was consensual or forced.

Despite the scrapping of these laws, the legacy of the prejudice lives on. The Independent Complaints Directorate (watchdog over the police) still lists “sodomy” as an offence on its website—without defining it.

Society’s denial of prison rape experiences is reflected in the lack of support and response mechanisms available. The notorious Grootvlei video (2002) showed some prison staff themselves involved in selling targets to other inmates.

Some staff also fear for their own safety or are resigned to rape as part of prison life. Even where intentions are honourable, skills and structures for victim support are largely non-existent. 

The stigma facing victims speaks volumes about our denial. So strenuously do we want to defend the myth that “real men cannot get raped” that victims are commonly believed to have been turned into “women”. It is primarily through rape that a portion of the male prison population is positioned within inmate culture as “women” to be treated as the general and sexual property of other inmates identified as “men”.

Alarmingly, prison rape victims, like their counterparts outside prison, are typically blamed for what has happened to them (in this case for not managing to hold on to their “manhood”).

Similar accusations come from broader society.

“Of course they can’t tell their families!” explains one former prisoner. “The wife and children will think: ‘You’re nothing! You’ve been raped. You are only as good as we women!’”

Conversely, “manhood” is often defined in terms of aggression and violence. This should prepare us for how some men respond to their “loss of manhood”: through violence it can be regained.

Prison gangs demand that those “women” seeking promotion to “manhood” must stab an allocated inmate or warder, so as to prove they are worthy of masculine status. But aggression and violence are by no means necessary responses to victimisation. Yet we refuse to acknowledge the vulnerability of men unless we ourselves feel threatened. (A similar fate befalls ex-combatants, who tend to receive public attention only in so far as they are viewed as “security threats”.)

In the smatterings of public focus on prison rape, we risk unintentionally stigmatising victims even further by foregrounding them as future rapists on the outside (anyway in need of further investigation). We also refuse them the opportunity to be more than just potential perpetrators.

And ironically we leave them as few options as are offered by gangsterism (where “no violence” is equated with “no acknowledgment”). So too does the brutal and repressive “masculinity” that is behind the stigma and gang demands alike.

Simultaneously, those who achieve “manhood” in prison escape our concerns about future violence.

When they are released, however, they will presumably slide relatively smoothly back into being the “men” of outside society. But then women will be their targets.

Sasha Gear is a researcher at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) in Johannesburg. She is the co-author with Kindiza Ngubeni of Daai Ding: Sex, Sexual Violence and Coercion in Men’s Prisons (CSVR, 2002)

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