Over a quarter of men in South Africa admit to rape

// 18 June 2009

This article, from today’s Guardian, is just horrifying. It highlights research which asked South African men to anonymously indicate whether they had committed rape, and found that 28% admitted to raping a woman or girl, and 3% to raping a man. 1 in 10 men said they had been a victim of rape, perhaps indicating that men were more willing to admit to raping women than other men. Many have attacked more than one victim.

Professor Rachel Jewkes, who carried out the research, believes that the high rape levels are down to ‘ideas about masculinity based on gender hierarchy and the sexual entitlement of men. It’s rooted in an African ideal of manhood.’ I’d say it’s rooted in an ideal of manhood that extends well past Africa.

The President, Jacob Zuma, was himself accused of rape before his election:

His supporters demonstrated at the court house, verbally attacked his accuser and sang “burn the bitch, burn the bitch”. Zuma was eventually acquitted.


[Anti-rape campaignver Dean Peacock says] “We hear men saying, ‘If Jacob Zuma can have many wives, I can have many girlfriends.’ The hyper-masculine rhetoric of the Zuma campaign is going to set back our work in challenging the old model of masculinity.”

The rape epidemic has serious consequences for the spread of HIV:

The study, which had British funding, also found that men who are physically violent towards women are twice as likely to be HIV-positive. They are also more likely to pay for sex and to not use condoms.

Any woman raped by a man over the age of 25 has a one in four chance of her attacker being HIV-positive.

The British Crime Survey, which asks people if they have been a victim of crime, reveals that 1 in 20 women have been raped, and 1 in 10 sexually assaulted in the UK. I wonder what the results of a survey of the kind carried out in South Africa would be in Britain…

Comments From You

Saranga // Posted 18 June 2009 at 10:31 am

Does the report make any mention of how the questions were phrased? For example, did they ask straight out, have you ever raped someone, or did they ask have you ever had sex with someone who didn’t want it, or was drunk, or said no. Or did they phrase the questions in a completely different manner?

I’m just wondering because the way you ask the questions affects the type of answer you get.

Laura // Posted 18 June 2009 at 10:37 am

@ Saranga – yes, that would make a big difference, but the article doesn’t say how the questions were phrased.

Charlotte Cooper // Posted 18 June 2009 at 11:46 am

I think it was interesting that they collected the results on palm pilots of some sort making sure everyone got anonymity and so more honest answers; the idea being, you wouldn’t need to boast, because who would know and you wouldn’t need to lie out of any inferred shame.

Jennifer Drew // Posted 18 June 2009 at 2:04 pm

There will always be a problem with what supposedly comprises the definition of ‘rape.’ Many rape apologists apply the narrowest definition of rape and male sexual violence against women because in this way it skews research findings.

However, what is interesting in this latest piece of research is the fact male respondents were able to provide answers anonymously and hence the men gave honest and accurate answers. These men had nothing to gain in lying because no one would know they had lied about committing rape. There was no male to read what their replies were and hence the research is valid.

But, this societal issue is not limited to South Africa it is global and the primary cause as feminists have been saying and documenting for eons now is the social construction of masculinity and femininity. Women as a group are still not legally and socially accepted as owning and having full sexual autonomy and rights. Men have, for centuries been accorded this right and this is one of the reasons why men engage in raping women. It is about pseudo male sex right to women. Rape is often both about pseudo male right of sexual access to women and also a method of punishing and humiliating women who have supposedly deviated from the ‘feminine inferior role.’

It would be very interesting if a similar study were to be conducted here in the UK wherein male respondents would be able to reply using the Palm Pilot device which guarantees anonymity.

Note too the British Crime figures which show that men rape one in 20 women and men sexually assault one in 10 women are based on legal definitions of what comprises rape and sexual assault.

It is well known, of course that the numbers of women and girls who have experienced males raping/and or sexually assaulting them are far higher but as always these issues are fiercely contested because our society, like South Africa prefers to blame women for men’s sexual violence. South Africa is not alone in women-blaming, it is a global issue and the central reason is men must not be held accountable for responsible for their ‘free choice’ in committing sexual violence against women and girls.

Saranga // Posted 18 June 2009 at 2:33 pm

I disgaree that the research is valid just because the answers were given in an anonymous manner. People don’t automatically tell the truth just because the data is anonymised, for example they may have feelings of shame and so not want to admit what they’ve done, even in an anonymous study. Or there may be other factors. Maybe some respondents were having a bad day and deliberately gave misleading answers to skew the results.

Also, there are many other factors which influence the validity of the research. e.g. the number of respondents, the aims of the comissioning researchers, the language in which the questions are framed, the order of questions asked, any cultural differences, and as I said before we don’t know what definition of rape was used, if any.

I’d also like to know if the respondents consider rape in the same manner that we do. We meaning the majority, if not all, of the fans of The F Word. However I get the impression that that question wasn’t included in the scope of the research.

Jen // Posted 18 June 2009 at 3:26 pm

I agree with Saranga, you can get pretty much any result you want from a survey depending on how you do it.

Also, I heard of a survey in a US university where a whole bunch of male students said they would rape. Now, they saw someone from the women’s studies department coming along with a survey, some of them were fratboys… how many of them would have taken that survey seriously? Plus, it was aimed at proving that most men are rapists by nature, so to be honest I don’t blame them for not taking it seriously – of course, it’s not very funny to answer “why yes, har har, I’d rape if given the chance”, but there you go… and definitions of rape are so nebulous depending on who you ask, mainly because the word “rape”, etymologically, and originally literally, referred to the theft of another man’s property or a woman’s capital as a potential wife, rather than how we think of it now, which is a crime involving assault, invasion of privacy, grievous bodily harm (by which I mean the actual act, not any additional violence), psychological cruelty, and a whole bunch of horrible stuff. I think quite often it is seen as a theft or invasion of private property (how often to we talk about our bodies like they are a piece of real estate? think about it), and sex itself is seen as something slightly humourous and embarrassing, so people find it hard to take the concept of rape seriously, a side effect of which is that surveys about rape are going to be incredibly imprecise.

And then to attach this to one particular country or continent’s ideas on masculinity makes me kind of uncomfortable too. This isn’t a wish from me to diminish the importance or the consequences of violence against women, but this way of getting to the reasons behind it seems to be lacking in rigour somewhat.

Elyssa // Posted 18 June 2009 at 4:15 pm

My best friend recently did research on rape in South Africa and as I recall she said that 50% of the female population has been raped and 25% or so before the age of 16.

Saranga // Posted 18 June 2009 at 4:54 pm

Elyssa: I can well believe that, if only based upon a quick straw poll of my female (UK) friends which will reveal that about 50% of them have been raped.

Rape is a problem in every country because pretty much all societies are patriarchal in nature. The thinking surrounding, justification and acknowledgement of the act may change, but it happens everywhere.

I”d like to state that I’m not trying to diminish the findings of the research, (both your friend’s findings and the research from the Guardian), I do well believe that rape is a serious and horribly widespread problem in *every* country, I just wonder about the methodology and how much it truly tells us.

Aimee // Posted 18 June 2009 at 6:13 pm

Really? 50% of UK females?! Really!??

Anna // Posted 18 June 2009 at 7:05 pm

Aimee: I’d say about 40-60% of my friends have been, too, from what I’ve been told (not doubting the ones that have told – wondering if there are more that haven’t.)

Ruth // Posted 18 June 2009 at 7:34 pm


Saranga is talking of her own friends. If I took a straw poll of mine, I would hypothesise that the proportion would be very different, and that the same would be true on a number of other questions.

‘Staw polls’ may be interesting (in this case, not so much interesting as distressing) on a personal level, but do not tell you anything useful about the national incidence of anything.

headey // Posted 18 June 2009 at 8:54 pm

After the iron curtain came down a group from ‘The Archers’ were in one of the ‘Stans (I think) helping them to develop a radio serial. One of the issues they wanted to include was rape. “We don’t have that here.” the men asserted. The women were ominously quiet. When they were alone, every single woman admitted to have been raped.

The other issue that the men insisted didn’t exist in their country was male infertility.

Aimee // Posted 19 June 2009 at 9:04 am

Sorry, I didn’t mean to generalise or anything, i’m just shocked that the number could be that high amongst any population of females! I’m wondering whether or not more people would be inclined to do something about it if they knew that those kind of figures existed, anywhere…

Saranga // Posted 19 June 2009 at 12:34 pm

Aimee: Yes I would say at a straw poll about 50% of my female friends (good friends, not acquaintences) have been raped or sexually abused at one point in their life.

Obviously I can only speak for my friends who have disclosed to me, but it makes me wonder how many of the people I meet every day have been attacked, that i don’t know about.

And as Ruth states, a straw poll isn’t remotely scientific. Probably disengenuous of me to use it as an example when i was banging on about research methods earlier..

Ellie // Posted 19 June 2009 at 1:58 pm

I’ve had a look around the Medical Research Council’s website and did a quick search on PubMed but couldn’t find the research paper, it’s possible it hasn’t been published yet, therefore no research method data is available.

They are a respectable instituion who have done a lot of research into gender, HIV, sexual behaviour, and sexual and domestic violence, however. I think it’s ok to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they were aware of the many issues surrounding research into rape and sexual violence.

It’s true they may not have defined rape as broadly as some of us would, that doesn’t invalidate their results, it can mean that these results are valid for forced penile-vaginal rape only, but this is still and illuminating and worrying study even if that is the case.

Qubit // Posted 19 June 2009 at 3:36 pm

I disagree that the statistics on male rape are inconsistent. I don’t think it is unreasonable to assume a person who has raped one person is likely to also rape someone else. This is especially true if they don’t consider their actions immoral.

While I don’t know what the statistics are for re-offending I don’t think it is that unreasonable that men who rape men average having raped between 3/4 men. While this doesn’t make the problem any less severe I think it is important to remember that in general more people will have been raped than there are rapists.

I think this is why the statistics in a country such as the UK of women who have experienced sexual harassment are so shocking to men. You only need to a minority of people committing a crime regularly for the majority of people to have suffered from the crime.

I do think the results for South Africa are dreadful high but that doesn’t mean I don’t believe them. This depends on the culture, how the media portray women, what men and women expect from a standard sex life and what state of unrest a country is in. I have previously head South Africa associated with a high rate of rape and I believe I have been advised against visiting there for that reason.

I do hope the statistics change for South Africa but hopefully this report will serve to highlight the problem and allow men (and women who support rapists or rape themselves) to consider their attitudes and how they effect people.

Laura // Posted 19 June 2009 at 3:46 pm

Good point, Qubit, I hadn’t thought of it like that, thanks.

Jen // Posted 19 June 2009 at 4:19 pm

Oh, I don’t doubt that the numbers are probably high, regardless of whether you think the statistics are correct or not.

Is there an international legal definition of the crime? Because we always talk about the word “rape” like it has a really precise definition, which it doesn’t, it’s an outdated concept (theft of a man’s property / a woman’s virtue / whatever) applied to a whole range of gender-based assault.

Claire // Posted 19 June 2009 at 5:19 pm

Regarding the debate about rape in the UK, according to the UK Rape Crisis website, around 21% of girls and 11% of boys experience some form of child sexual abuse. 23% of women and 3% of men experience sexual assault as an adult. 5% of women and 0.4% of men experience rape. (Cross Government Action Plan on Sexual Violence and Abuse http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/documents/ Sexual-violence-action-plan)

The MRC should run statistics on rape and sexual abuse in the UK as well as in South Africa and should be putting money into research in to how to look after the needs of UK based survivors and into making sure that the recommendations are followed up. Whilst the research in South Africa points to a truly awful problem there and my heart goes out totally to the women living there who have suffered rape, I do wish the MRC could sponsor more UK based research for the benefit of women in this country. The MRC last month ran an article about how there were so many women entering the medical profession in the UK that the NHS would not be able to cope with demands for flexible working. There was an implication that only women were parents and only women would ever demand flexible working and indeed that all women who became doctors would become mothers and would demand flexible working. I’d like to see the MRC bring their sensitive research skills into their own backyard.

Jennifer Drew // Posted 19 June 2009 at 10:42 pm

Only 15% UK rape survivors report to police a person has raped them. The Crown prosecution Service published detailed figures regarding sexual violence for the two years ending March, 2008 and over 6,700 defendants were prosecuted for rape of which 99% were male defendants. 87% victims were female. Only approximately 5.6% rapists were convicted which means nearly 95% male rapists are being acquitted. Now given only 15% of rapes are reported this means a huge number of women are still not reporting when a man/men rapes them.

The situation is just as bad in the US and The Child and Women Abuse Unit at London Metropolitan has detailed reports in respect of a number of countries they surveyed in respect of successful prosecutions for rape.

Figures in the UK show that overwhelmingly it is males who are committing rape and other forms of sexual violence against women and girls but this fact is constantly ignored, because once again the emphasis is on males who rape other males. South Africa is not unique in experiencing years of a rape culture mentality. A short time ago the media reported South African lesbian women and girls are deliberately being targetted by men who rape them and commit other forms of sexual violence against them.

The reason is because many South African men believe raping a lesbian will automatically turn her into a ‘good heterosexual woman.’ One need look no further than Darfur and the Congo to see that male sexual violence against women occurs in war as well as peace (sic). But many in our society continue to deny the extent to which male sexual violence is committed against women and girls, solely because they are female. Scotland’s rape convictions are still an appalling 3% which means 97% men charged with rape are still being acquitted. This has led the Scottish parliament to pass new legislation widening the definition of rape and changing the definition of ‘consent’ to free agreement.

The South African research is important because for once it focuses on the male perpetrators not the victims. Feminists have empirically documented for decades now the main causes of rape and central is the social construction of masculinity which gives male belief in entitlement to unlimited sexual access to any woman or girl if they so wish. South African males are not immune from the dominant ideology of masculinity so why should we be surprised that so many men admit they are rapists.

Nicola // Posted 20 June 2009 at 1:59 pm

From the Guardian article:

“South Africa’s government has been repeatedly criticised for failing to address the crisis. Only 7% of reported rapes are estimated to lead to a conviction.”

Yet, unsurprisingly, no mention of the conviction rates in the UK… which, I believe, are around the same mark, if not lower in some areas.

MrK // Posted 25 June 2009 at 8:41 pm

The problem I have with the study is manifold. First, are still no details available on how the questions were asked, or how rape was defined (my guess is that the definition was overly broad and does not coincide with what most people imagine when they hear the word ‘rape’). Even if it turns out to be some kind of hoax, the web is now inundated with ‘25% of South African men are rapists’ articles. The problem of underreporting is real, but at the same time it is no mystery either. Statistics South Africa had already asked such a question, and 43.8% of women who had been raped said they did not report it to the police. * (Of course, the broader the definition of rape, the higher the incidence of not reporting it to the police.) Then, Statistics South Africa’s definition of rape was very narrow **, and in line with both South African law and what most people imagine rape to be – penetration with (I guess) the actual use or implied threat of force (‘unlawful’). I pretty much guarantee you that if this MRC study used the same definition, they would not have had these results. However, what gets me most is that these extraordinary findings were explained by Rachel Jewkes as ‘an African ideal of manhood’. To this Black man, she is just another White woman accusing black men of being rapists – in South Africa, the land of apartheid. She would not be able to get away with this in the UK. I would hope.

* Source: Quantitative research findings on

RAPE in South Africa (Statistics South Africa)


** In the StatsSA research, rape was defined in the following way: ” Rape, according to South African law, ‘consists in a man having unlawful, intentional sexual intercourse with a woman without her consent. Sexual intercourse presupposes penetration of the female sexual organ by the male’s penis’. (South African Law Commission, 1999, p.69). ”

David Kames // Posted 25 June 2009 at 10:57 pm

This story might interest:


MrK // Posted 26 June 2009 at 12:38 am

So you mean there are rapists in South Africa? How would this ‘story’ be of interest? Does it prove the statistics coming out of the MRC? Besides, the BBC article even cites this ‘study’.

What I think could be going on, is an attempt by the DA to smear the reputation of the South African ANC president. A lot of people are very worried that South Africa will have the same land reform as Zimbabwe, something they think Jacob Zuma is more open to, as a former liberation fighter. The same neocolonial reason that all of a sudden you see stories appear about Zimbabwean ‘blood diamonds’, as the country is under a neoliberal takeover.

Back in 2000, the MRC was agitating againt President Mbeki because he wouldn’t give free reign to the farmaceutical corporations over ARVs. It was the MRC that came out with the country’s new statistics on how devastating the HIV/AIDS epidemic was supposed to be – it turned out they were simply holding up the new health statistics of the unified South Africa (RSA plus the ‘independent homelands’), instead of the old white middle class health statistics. (See: NOT-SO-YOUNG, NOT-SO-GIFTED AND DEAD WRONG!

Noseweek August 2000)


This story as repugnant as it is, does not prove the statistics from the MRC survey. He could even be a plant. :-/

David Kames // Posted 28 June 2009 at 3:09 pm

For all those of you who didn’t follow the link – it’s the personal story about a South African man who, as a 15 y.o. took part in a gang rape. He (rightly) felt guilty about and, many years later, went back to meet his victim in an attempt to give her justice – he says that he would have been ready to go to jail. I thought it was an interesting as an individual story along side the statistics.

I don’t say that this story “proves” the MRC stats; but I think it’s just as likely that the SA MRC survey is (broadly) accurate and this man is genuine as it is that the Democratic Alliance fabricated or manipulated these rape stats in order to smear Jacob Zuma.

MrK has linkined to an HIV/AIDs “revisionist” (code for denialist) website.

MrK // Posted 30 June 2009 at 2:01 pm

From correspondence with dr. Rachel Jewkes:

” men responded to 7 questions framed in various ways around whether they had ever “forced a woman or girl against her will”. ”

This seems a little different from ‘a quarter of men in South Africa admit to rape’. It would be more accurate (before reading the questionnaire) that they were tricked into admitting that they may have sex without full consent (as in they were both drunk, for instance). Rachel Jewkes continues:

” I recognise that men in the survey may not see themselves as having “raped’ ”

Which would be another hint that they just came out and said: of course I raped someone. (Which would go to the ‘acceptability’ of rape in South African society – which doesn’t exist.)

According to her, a full report will be available at the MRC website on July 9th.

Laura // Posted 30 June 2009 at 2:21 pm

Thanks for the further info, MrK. However, forcing a woman against her will is rape, end of.

MrK // Posted 30 June 2009 at 5:20 pm

Hi Laura,

That depends on how broadly the phrase “forced against her will” is interpreted – and the notion that ‘most men do not see themselves as having raped” is a red flag. I would think anyone would know whether they were forcing someone to do something (anything) against their will.

There will be more clarity when the details of this report are released. The fact that it is taking so long is highly irresponsible, in my opinion.

MrK // Posted 18 July 2009 at 4:49 pm

Hi Laura, everyone,

Ok, the questionnaire is finally available – in English, I can’t say anything about the Xhosa translation. (Was there no Zulu translation, considering a large number of the interviews took place in KwaZulu Natal?)

I would say four of the questions have nothing to do with stranger rape, and one of the acquaintance rape questions (wife or girlfriend) is open to being interpreted as being the same as the previous question on acquaintance rape.

Considering that most people have sex while having had something to drink, at best the questions dealing with intoxication are ambiguous. How drunk is ‘too drunk to consent’? Too drunk to drink more? Or too drunk to know better?

Contrary of what the screaming headlines would lead you to believe, only *two* of the seven questions deal with stranger rape (essentially the same question, once asked in the singular, once in the plural). Two deal with acquaintance rape, two with intoxitation, and only 6/7 deal with stranger rape, although they are subject to the same ambiguity and lack of definition of the previous questions.

What does ‘didn’t consent’ mean. If she said no, that would be obvious. But what if she consented before, and didn’t re-state her consent? ‘Didn’t consent’ doesn’t mean ‘dissent’.

Although question 5 explicitly states that it refers not to a previous girlfriend or wife, in questions 6 and 7, “a woman or girl” does not explicitly state a stranger, therefore it could easily be interpreted as still referring to the “wife or girlfriend” of the previous questions.

I don’t want to look like I’m defending ‘rape’ (however generously defined) however we are not dealing with experienced question takers, just ordinary people.

Also, the questionnaire does not show the results of the survey.


1) How many times have you slept with a woman or girl when she was too drunk to say whether she wanted it or not?

2) How many times have you and other men had sex with a woman at the same time when she was too drunk to stop you?

3) Did you ever force a girlfriend or your wife into having sex with you?

4) Was ever there a time when you forced an ex-girlfriend or ex-wife into having sex?

5) Did you ever force a woman who was NOT your wife or girlfriend at the time to have sex with you?

6) How many times have you slept with a woman or girl when she didn’t consent to sex or after you forced her?

7) How many times have you and other men had sex with a woman at the same time when she didn’t consent to sex or you forced her?

Laura // Posted 19 July 2009 at 11:05 am

Hi MrK,

Thanks for providing us with the questions, however I cannot agree with your analysis. You seem to think that only ‘stranger rape’ is worth including in the study, whereas I, the researchers and most commenters here recognise all the questions as reflecting situations where rape has occurred, or may very well have occurred. None of these ‘types’ of rape can be deemed any worse or of less importance than others as it is not up to us to define how a woman should react to rape. I don’t want to get into a discussion along these lines here as we’ve been through this before in other threads and it is potentially upsetting to survivors of rape.

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