Violence Against Lesbians in South Africa: What It Means for Us, for TV, and for True Equality


Last week The New Yorker ran a deeply disturbing article about violence against lesbians in South Africa, a country that holds one of the world’s highest crime rates, and the highest rate of rape specifically. Fifty percent of South African women are likely to be raped at least once in their lifetime. If you’re a lesbian, the chance is even greater, and — lucky us! — you’re likely to be targeted for a specific kind of rape: “corrective rape,” meant to violently erase your lesbianism and return you to the right and virtuous path of heterosexual femininity. In other words, meant to both punish you and show you what you’re missing.

This topic had already been troubling my mind since viewing the documentary Difficult Love last weekend. It was made by South African lesbian artist Zanele Muholi, who has recently been in the news for having all of her equipment and years of work stolen. (You can help Muholi here, and you can watch Difficult Love for free here.) The entire film, which documented both the good and bad experiences of lesbians in South Africa, was in turn sorrowful and joyful, but the section that packed the greatest punch dealt with this reality of “corrective rape.” When the bruised face of a recent lesbian rape victim whom Muholi was interviewing appeared on the screen, her red eyes almost completely swollen shut, it seemed the entire audience in the theater gasped, suddenly and collectively overwhelmed by the plight of this frightened and defeated girl. The image has stayed with me since. And she is just one of way too many girls.

This violence against lesbians in South Africa was first brought to the forefront in 2008 with the brutal rape and murder of Eudy Simelane, a star of the South African women’s soccer team. She had been in training to be the first female referee at the Men’s World Cup, held in Johannesburg in 2010. While it incited an outcry and two men were convicted in her death, the violence has continued to increase. The New Yorker article included numerous other examples of lesbians who have been raped or killed, all gruesome and deeply upsetting, and one can only imagine the stories that are never reported or that are recorded and ignored, horrors suffered by those who aren’t world renowned soccer players. At least 31 lesbians have been murdered in the last 10 years. Many more have contracted HIV through this “corrective” practice.

If you don’t have the time to watch Difficult Love, you can also watch this short video summarizing the epidemic, produced by The Guardian and Action Aid:

Yet while this article was devastating, it was also confounding in a way. In the midst of this violence, South Africa has also crafted the best political climate for gay rights in all of Africa, a better climate than many places around the world, in fact. While being gay is still a crime in many African nations  — the article included such extra cheery tidbits as gay bodies being dug from their graves and desecrated in Senegal, or Liberia recently introducing a bill which could make gayness punishable by the death penalty — South Africa’s constitution, which was crafted in the hubbub of happy civil-rights and freedom-filled feelings that came with the fall of apartheid and the presidency of Nelson Mandela in the 1990s, has specific anti-sexual orientation and gender discrimination language. There is marriage equality in South Africa. You can serve openly in the military in South Africa. You have adoption rights. There is a Commission for Gender Equality. Just last year, South Africa introduced what was called the first gay-rights resolution to the United Nations Human Rights Council. There are gay pride parades; there are gay and lesbian characters on South African TV shows.

Which all makes me want to say: “But — huh? Wha?”

Similarly, in Muholi’s documentary, there were men and women interviewed on the street who dispensed the most damning words about homosexuality, threatening violence and death; yet the same types of people responded to the story of the rape victim with an equally condemning passion. It seems to be an area full of conundrums and conflicting ideals. While everyone agrees homosexuality is wrong, many people also seem to agree that violence against women is unacceptable, deeming men who carry it out to be the lowest of the low. The ideal of femininity is so highly revered in these patriarchal societies that it is the feminine ideal itself that targets lesbians as a threat — how dare they soil their own identity, how dare they reject what they were meant to be? And how dare they, by doing so, reject the worthiness and power of men?

It seems that even when a government has the best of intentions, it takes a long time to change the actual culture of a nation. This isn’t a new history lesson. On a smaller scale, in our own country, Obama endorsing marriage equality doesn’t mean gay kids are going to stop being beat up at school. These things take time, but still, you can’t help but ask yourself, Why? The article lists a number of reasons for South Africa’s violence, all of which are reasons we are all familiar with — high unemployment, segregation, socioeconomic inequality, a reliance on weapons and violence passed down from colonial times, poor education, a religious cultural tradition, a lack of enforcement from the authorities, yadda, yadda.

South Africa won’t be able to change any of those things overnight, even with the best laws in the world. When I tried to search for ways we could help from overseas, the only petition I found online was a slightly dated one from that was deemed a “victory” last year since the government gave the activists the task forces they had asked for. But lesbians are still being targeted, raped, and killed. So what is supposed to be our takeaway? How do we stop it?

While there aren’t any clear or simple answers to that question, I ask you to take a step back from the horrifying images for a moment, from the brutal crimes that need to be dealt with. Just ponder the basic ideas behind this concept of “corrective rape.”

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

When I read about this practice, something struck a familiar chord in me about this idea that there is something wrong with women who don’t want to sleep with men, something that can be fixed. That we are fundamentally wrong as females to not at least desire it. This of course has been the basic cultural ideology behind gay discrimination for ages, so it’s not like this idea is any kind of epiphany, but this all made me think, once again: We all know it’s bullshit. So why do we keep seeing this ideology in our own media? In the art and the entertainment that is made for us, to represent us — why do lesbians keep having to sleep with dudes?

It is not always that lesbians sleep with men to try to cure themselves of their gayness. Yet these sexual acts are often portrayed as some type of deeply-rooted need that lies within us despite our lesbian ways. We just can’t keep ourselves from the power of the penis. These affairs are often also portrayed in a strangely violent way. This lesbians-sleeping-with-men storyline is seen so frequently, and has been discussed so often in our community, that you probably don’t need many examples, but if you do: the most poignant in my mind when it comes to TV is when Lindsey, of the awful lesbian duo in Queer as Folk, overall a wonderful queer series, partakes in that after-hours frolic with the artist dude during Season Four.

The thing is, this encounter wasn’t simply a frolic; it was one of the most urgent, rough sex scenes of the entire season. Like, they break a lot of expensive art in that scene. In movies, we probably don’t need a reminder of The Kids Are All Right, that touted feature about lesbians which spent most of the screen time showing one of the lesbians having wild sex with a dude. The female relationship is portrayed as strained, cold, exhausting, whereas the straight sex is where the true passion lies, where Julianne Moore can get the lovin’ she really needs. And on and on.

It is not that bisexuality is not valid; it is not that lesbians should never sleep with men; I am actually all about the discussion of sexuality being fluid. Yet if the fluidity of sexuality was actually being explored in TV and in the movies, there would also be meaningful, tender sex between genders shown in lesbian TV shows, not just these wild, highly sexualized romps, and all those straight people who dominate almost all of media would occasionally have their own trysts with people they’re not “supposed” to be with, too. It is this storyline happening over and over specifically in lesbian media, and not others, that is disturbing.

Straight males on TV rarely have any “Whoops, slept with another guy ‘cause I just couldn’t help myself!” storylines; nor do we frequently see gay men being all, “God, I just couldn’t help myself from sleeping with that chick, oops!” in our favorite shows. It happens sometimes, surely, but not with the predictable regularity with which it happens to lesbians. And if sleeping with men actually was something that occurred frequently in the lesbian community, then they would be authentic storylines and this would be a completely different discussion. But I don’t think it does happen that much.

So why, as our visibility in media continues to increase and the gay political climate slowly gets friendlier, does this misrepresentation keep happening? Why do lesbians always have to “experiment”? It’s not as if every time it happens, the woman then examines her sexuality like so: “Wow, what does this mean? Is my sexuality more nuanced than I believed?” It’s more expressed in the “I just couldn’t stop myself; how embarrassing” sort of way. Ha ha, silly us. I mean, the dude was there, it felt like an okay idea. If this was about true sexuality, women would be shown in these dynamics having control and equal power; instead, it’s often viewed as a weakness. Even when I got caught up with the entire series of Lip Service last weekend, one of the most lesbian shows I’ve ever watched, I found myself wanting to bang my head against the wall when another penis butted its way into our stories, and I wasn’t even surprised when it did. Why can’t we get over this trope?

Even in the numerous novels for teenaged lesbians I’ve now read for my Your New School Library column here on, it’s starting to be hard to keep track of the number of “try to sleep with a dude first to make sure” storylines that I’ve come across. This is something that the protagonist normally gets over pretty quickly (although sometimes it can consume the whole novel), but it still feels like something the author feels they HAD to include, before getting on to the good part of the story where they realize who they really are and who they really want to sleep with. Of course, being a teenager and figuring out your sexuality is a confusing time. It often takes people beyond their teenage years to truly figure it out. People do have to “experiment,” oftentimes, to figure out who they are. I understand this. Authors feel the need to be authentic, to examine what it’s actually like to be a scared and confused queer teenager, and I respect that.

But for each teenager who is unsure of which gender they’re really attracted to or if they’re attracted to both and who needs to figure it out (listen, I was one of them), there is a teenager that knows. That has always known. It’s my personal opinion that the majority of them, and us, know, but they feel they have to try out the other way first, just to make sure — and why? Because it’s how society tells them they should be, and there’s never any greater pressure to be what society tells you to be than when you’re a teenager. It’s how the vast majority of TV tells them they should be; the vast majority of movies, of books.

And it needs to change. We’re getting better, but we need to keep getting more better. The more that homosexuality is portrayed in media as not just “okay,” but as right, as a right way to be, the more it’s shown that sexuality can be fluid but that it is not faulty, the less teenagers will try to have sex with someone they know they don’t want to have sex with, and the more that ideology that women can be changed, that anyone can be changed, that the revered gender structure of what makes a man and what makes a woman is solid and true — because that is what it often comes down to — and the idea that these structures must be adhered to even through such extreme measures as corrective rape — it will start to crumble. Slowly, but we must believe it will.

I must stress that I am not comparing brutal crimes in South Africa directly to a weird sex scene in Queer as Folk. The space between them is vast and not to be taken lightly, and trust me when I say I do not. Yet there is something behind the basic concept hiding underneath both of them that connects in my brain, something that pinpoints lesbians in particular, a patriarchal power structure that refuses to die even within our own progressive climate. Because when I first heard that idea — that if a woman has sex with a man, she will be convinced of her wrong ways — my brain thought, “Oh yeah, I’ve heard that before.” And then I said — wait. I have? Where? Why did my brain even make that connection in the first place?

We need to spread awareness about corrective rape in South Africa and about the abhorrent violence against women around the globe, including looking out for women in our own countries. We have to keep fighting for legal and political equality, yes, but then we have to look beyond that to where the true power lies — in our culture. And yes, the TV and movies that we choose to watch most definitely count as “culture.” And we need to be thankful for the gains we’ve made, and then immediately fight for more. Until the day that all women on our screens and in our book pages are proudly loving and sleeping with whoever they want, with strength and confidence in their sexuality, we need to speak up and let the writers and producers and directors know that we’re pissed off and that we’re not going to shut up about it. Because when media gets it wrong, when they keep making lesbians sleep with dudes when the lesbians do not actually want to sleep with dudes, it’s not just annoying at this point — it’s harmful.

Do you agree? How else can we make it better?

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