Corrective Rape refers to the practice of raping women perceived to be Lesbians in order to cure them of their homosexuality. The term originated from human rights groups in South Africa during the first years of the twenty-first century in order to bring to light a series of physical and sexual attacks ostensibly designed to turn Lesbians into Straight women.
The power of rape as punishment (framed as “corrective” or remedial) comes from forcing sexual violence upon a person. “Rape” in this context may not always be overtly sexual, but will have a sexualized context in which violence is performed to humiliate as well as hurt. Corrective rape may include forced penetration of the body with a knife or machete, or violating a woman’s body by beating her for not being appropriately gendered or for flaunting non-heteronormal orientation. Promoting a term that would focus attention on the phenomenon that until then had remained unlabeled (and for the most part unpunished) has been successful in getting the attention of LGBTQ communities, feminists, and human rights groups around the world. “Corrective rape” is moving from a folk term of the activist collective into official legislative and legal language for recognizing and prosecuting hate crimes. The same strategy has been used for murder music: songs with lyrics that call for the rape, torture, and death of LGBTQ people.
Three significant cases in South Africa have inspired members of the LGBTQ community to bring the issue of corrective rape before the South African government and the world: the murder of Zoliswa Nkonyana, the double murder of Sizakele Sigasa and Salome Massooa, and the murder of Eudy Simelane.
In February 2006, Zoliswa Nkonyana was murdered near her home in Khayelitsha, east of Cape Town, by a mob of some twenty men who chased her and a female friend, stabbed her, and beat her with golf clubs. The friend escaped. In July 2007, Sizakele Sigasa and Salome Massooa were threatened at a bar near their homes in Meadowland, Soweto, South Africa. Soon after that, they were tortured, raped, and shot. Police failed to follow up on eyewitness accounts and the investigation was closed. The Joint Working Group (a coalition of LGBTQ organizations) launched the 07-07-07 Campaign (named after the date of the Sigasa-Massooa murders on July 7, 2007) on the second anniversary of the death of Zoliswa Nkonyana to address the lack of response from the authorities and to demand hate crimes legislation.
It was not, however, until the death of a woman with celebrity status in South Africa that activists were able to bring international attention to corrective rape. In April 2008, Eudy Simelane had been gang-raped, beaten, and stabbed twenty-five times in the face, chest, and legs in her hometown of Kwa Thema near Johannesburg.
Simelane, one the few women in Kwa Thema who lived openly as a Lesbian, played football for the South Africa Women’s National Football Team and was an outspoken LGBTQ activist. Her fame, and a report by the nonprofit government organization ActionAid, led the South African Human Rights Commission to declare her murder a hate crime and to criticize law enforcement for not paying more attention to the practice of corrective rape.
Despite the problem of corrective rape, South Africa is one of the most Gay-friendly nations in the world in terms of public policy. Equal rights for its LGBTQ population, including same-sex marriage, have been written into law. South Africa has influenced the creation of LGBTQ communities in neighboring Namibia and Botswana that speak out on issues such as corrective rape through organizations like Rainbow Project (Namibia) and LeGaBiBo (Lesbians, Gays, and Bisexuals of Botswana).
Corrective rape may also be seen in the context of folk beliefs on the healing powers of having sex with a virgin (alternative: sex with a child or baby) as a cure for AIDS. In parts of Africa, this belief has been widespread. Versions of medicinal rape can also be found in China and India.
Besides the heightened feeling of conquest and dominance that some men feel when having sex with a virgin (hence their higher market value in the sex business), the possibility of AIDS has increased the desire for virgins to prevent transmission of HIV from penetrated to penetrator. Since it may be assumed that Lesbians do not have sex with men, they may be special targets for men who want sex but do not want to contract AIDS, or men who are HIV+ and seek a cure.
The activities that constitute corrective rape (verbal assault, beating, stabbing, shooting, rape, and execution-style murder) center on a central theme: men have the right to abuse women who do not comply with men’s needs and expectations. By crystallizing this theme with regards to Lesbians as the epitome of the noncompliant woman, activists not only call attention to the civil rights of Lesbians but to the rights of all women, and to a lesser extent men, especially those men perceived to be effeminate and/or homosexual.
A closer look at corrective rape reveals that it is not always intended to be corrective, but is rather punitive in design. If it were strictly corrective, the victims would not be murdered. There is a range of violent actions that are related to corrective rape. In warfare, the practice of ethnic cleansing often involves raping the women of a targeted ethnic group. This would be corrective in the sense that the rapists were making sure the targeted ethnic group knows it has been humiliated and, by forcing those women into pregnancies fathered by their enemies, supposedly dilutes the ethnicity of the next generation in favor of the rapists. Rape in conjunction with ethnic cleansing, however, is not only a violation of the women but also a means of punishing the men of the targeted ethnicity, a form of social emasculation since those men could not protect their women from sexual attack. Punitive rape of this sort may also involve raping males.
A related form of corrective rape may also be found in folk discourse concerning prisons. Man-on-man rape that occurs during incarceration in a corrective facility is sometimes framed as an appropriate part of the corrections process, but is nevertheless more punitive that corrective. Prison rape, like rape done to men by law enforcement or by military personnel, is corrective in that it puts the raped man in his place as humiliated and inferior to his rapists. Such rape is almost never seen as homosexual or Gay behavior, and may in fact be done against men perceived to be effeminate and/or homosexual as a punishment for not being Straight.
Man-on-man rape may be seen as corrective with regards to those men observing the rape, a warning to them that perceived effeminacy or homosexuality is unacceptable, much as the message behind corrective rape of Lesbians is a warning to all women, regardless of orientation or gender expression. The same can be said about gay-hate lyrics of some murder music songs from Jamaica concerning Lesbians, including lyrics that claim there is nothing wrong with raping Lesbians, as in “A Nuh Fi Wi Fault” (“It’s Not Our Fault”) by Elephant Man.
Festive Rape in Men’s Team Sports
A major impetus for corrective rape is neither correction nor punishment but rather domination. This can also be found in festive rape, transgressive folk speech of sports fans that express their antagonism against the other team by calling for the forced penetration, either anally or orally, of the opposition. Although these taunts are not an actual call for the favored team to sodomize or receive fellatio from the opposing team (i.e. “Fuck Michigan” or “Ohio State Sucks” in Midwestern American sports fan folk speech, both chanted and printed on T-shirts), dominance on the playing field is expressed in sexual metaphors, just as dominance is expressed through physical and sexualized violence in cases of corrective rape.
Turning Gays into Straights through Sex
Further analysis into the discourse informing corrective rape reveals its basis in the folk belief that Gay people would turn Straight if they experienced Straight sex. In the USA, women who are perceived to be Lesbians may be verbally assaulted in public by men who claim to be able to sexually convert them into Straight women.
This belief and its associated speech performance are not restricted to converting Lesbians. There is a notion that the pleasure of having sex with an erotically skillful woman would turn a Gay man Straight. Sometimes, women acting on this assumption may physical assault men in Gay dance clubs, when an occasional inebriated Straight woman aggressively propositions and grabs Gay men she finds attractive.
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Huber-Warring, Tonya. Growing a Soul for Social Change: Building the Knowledge Base for Social Justice. Charlotte, NC: IAP, 2008.
Long, Scott et al. More Than a Name: State-Sponsored Homophobia and Its Consequences in South Africa. New York: Human Rights Watch, 2003.