Don’t call them pests; rapists are criminals

In South Africa, if you are a teacher who rapes a schoolchild, you are called a “sex pest” – not rapist, not criminal, not someone who abused your position of power and authority to assault a child.

Pest (noun): “A destructive insect or other animal that attacks crops, food, livestock, etcetera”, or “an annoying person or thing; a nuisance”.

It is the mosquito that keeps you awake at night, the mouse that somehow got into the pantry, the person at work who uses your favourite mug.

When I read the phrase “sex pest” in newspapers or on media posters, I am confused. In what way is the assault, harassment or rape of a person (usually a woman) the act of a pest?

A pest is an irritation. A person (often a man) harassing, assaulting or raping another person is a criminal. Are we making light of an act of violence and violation, even if “pest” takes up less space in a headline?


Here are some stories, published in newspapers, that I’ve come across in the past few months about “sex pests”:

  • In September this year, the Pretoria News published “Training college cop a sex pest – student“. Do you know what this cop allegedly did to deserve the dubious title? The victim, a sergeant, went to see a colonel, who – according to the newspaper report – “pretended to be passing her the paperwork but allegedly grabbed her, pinned her against the wall and fondled her private parts, she claimed. ‘I pleaded with him to stop, telling him hayi colonel, hayi colonel [no colonel, no colonel],’ she said … The colonel had his penis out. ‘I could feel it touching me,’ she recalled. Realising he had no intention of stopping, the sergeant resorted to being submissive. She was too traumatised to reveal the graphic detail [of] what had happened when she spoke to the Pretoria News.”
  • In October, Eyewitness News reported that a “sex pest” teacher was out on R2 000 bail after he allegedly sexually assaulted a 15-year-old boy on school grounds. The 57-year-old teacher – a man 42 years the child’s senior – was allegedly caught masturbating the pupil. This man, from a position of power, allegedly took advantage of a pupil he was meant to be protecting and educating. And we call this man a “pest”, a mild irritation?
  • The University of Witwatersrand has dismissed a third lecturer for sexually harassing its students. The Times has referred to the most recent dismissal as a “sex pest”. This man stands accused of sending his students sexually explicit texts and making sexual advances. He was found guilty by the university’s disciplinary committee. These three people, who were put in positions of trust and power, violated the rights of their students, putting them in the invidious position of questioning their self-worth and abilities, isolating them from their university community – one student said she did not know who she could approach to complain – and creating a culture of fear. But the abusers are diminished by language. They are not presented as the figures of terror that they are to their victims; to us they are pests.
  • The Sowetan has the sanitised headline “Sex pest teachers”. According to the report, “in Gauteng, where a teacher was recently suspended for allegedly showing two grade 7 pupils a pornographic video and sexually assaulting one, there have been 31 cases. Four teachers were found guilty and three of them were dismissed. The other one was suspended without pay for a month and referred for counselling.” And we call these predators and criminals “sex pests”.

By using this glib title, we make the problem smaller, something controllable. It is not something that a society has to live in fear of. It is not something that we have to warn our children about. “Pests” do not destroy lives, they do not traumatise.

According to rapecrisis.org, in 2011-2012 there were about 27 reported sexual assaults a day, but the reality is that most victims do not speak out – for fear of victimisation, further violence and shame, among many other reasons.

We continue to add to the problem when we, as the media and as citizens, do not recognise these perpetrators for what they are: if you have sexually harassed, assaulted, raped another person, violated their body without their consent, you are not a pest, you are a criminal.

The only way that “sex pest” could be appropriate is if we adopt its archaic use: pest comes from the Latin, pestis, which means plague.

In South Africa, we have a plague of sexual violence and abuse, and these acts are committed by sex offenders, violators, culprits, menaces, trespassers, criminals.

Sarah Wild is the Mail & Guardian’s science editor.

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