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Big Brother Mzansi revealed how little we know about rape

by: Jamie Petersen - 24 April 2015

Does our society understand what rape is?

When news broke that a Big Brother Mzansi contestant had been expelled from the house because of “sexual misconduct”, social media was abuzz with various opinions. In a nutshell, after a night of drinking on Saturday April 11, one of the reality show’s female contestants, Axola Mbengo, passed out in the bedroom. Male contestant Siyanda Ngwenya went into the room, and got into the same bed, where the rape allegedly took place. The next morning Siyanda also known as “Adams” bragged to fellow housemates that he had “dipped her”. Axola nicknamed “Bexx” became aware of this, and said she didn’t remember any of it. Adams was “expelled for misconduct” and Bexx was “removed for her own well-being”, according to a statement from the channel, Mzansi Magic.

On Twitter, Big Brother die-hards weighed in, asking why the police have not been involved while other protested that violence against women was unacceptable, and others accused “Bexx” of looking for attention.

A few tweets that highlight just how problematic our thinking about rape is.

A few tweets that highlight just how problematic our thinking about rape is.

More troubling were the comments that exposed misconceptions and ignorance about rape. Here’s what the law and the experts say, and what you need to know about rape.

It’s still rape even if the woman is your lover

The Big Brother incident has exposed a common misconception about rape, that it is aggressive and violent. Last week, for example, I listened to radio presenters on 5fm having an intense debate about the incident. One of them (who happened to be a previous contestant on the show) argued that although Big Brother may not broadcast everything, they do see and record everything. In his opinion, if the incident looked like rape they would have intervened. The news reporter challenged him, asking him to explain how something “looks” like rape. She rightly went on to add that just because an incident isn’t aggressive, it doesn’t mean it isn’t rape.

Rape isn’t only an attack by a stranger, it can take place in a family home or be perpetrated by an intimate partner. Gemma Hancox raises this point in a 2012 article Marital Rape in South Africa. “Another myth is that a woman was not really raped if she did not fight back and has not suffered any physical injuries”. She also points out that victims are less likely to report a rape by an intimate partner and that people tend to not believe women who say they were attacked by a husband or wife. Gemma goes on to say that it’s a common belief in South Africa and the rest of the continent that it’s not rape if the perpetrator is your husband or partner. This belief couldn’t be more wrong.

Rape can also be perpetrated by an intimate partner or a family member.

Rape can also be perpetrated by an intimate partner or a family member.

Know what the law says

In 2007 the Sexual Offences Act was amended, stating that rape is not something which is exclusive to female victims (as the previous act stipulated). Rape can occur to anyone: children, males, females, or the mentally disabled. The act reads: “Any person (‘‘A’’) who unlawfully and intentionally commits an act of sexual penetration with a complainant (‘‘B’’), without the consent of B, is guilty of the offence of rape”. So rape can happen to anyone regardless of age, gender or mental state and the perpetrator can be anyone too.

The 2007 amendments to the act also included ways in which rape can take place. Penetration by an inanimate object or animal genitalia is rape. Also, rape includes oral, anal and vaginal penetration forced upon the victim. A good resource for further understanding the law on rape is a 2014 article titled Rape and Other Forms of Sexual Violence in South Africa by Lisa Vetten, a gender rights activist on the Institute of Security Studies Africa website. Lisa differentiates between the types of rape as stipulated by law.

Compelled rape “refers to incidents where a third party coerces two people into having sex”. So, if two people are forced into sexual activity by another person, it’s rape. She also writes about sexual assault, compelled sexual assault and compelled self-sexual assault. “Sexual assault includes sexual acts that do not involve penetration (like groping), compelled sexual assault, is where one person is intimidated into sexually assaulting another. Compelled self-sexual assault is where one party is pressurised into masturbating or touching themselves in sexual ways on the command of another”.

It’s not clear at this point whether the allegations against Siyanda will land him in court. We also haven’t received all the exact details of the “sexual misconduct” which allegedly took place. What we do know, is that there’s a gaping hole in South Africans’ knowledge about rape.

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