Trigger warning: This post contains information of a sensitive nature, with reference to sexual violence and rape.
Mothers always seem to be the first offenders when it comes to children’s bad or aberrant behaviour. Literature gives more space and typeface to the shortfalls of mothers – a collective portrait of pathogenic mothers, as noted in an enlightening article in the Washington Post – than their co-parenting partners, the fathers.
Mother-blaming arises from several factors, not least of which is the fact that females birth babies and, therefore, society assumes (incorrectly or unfairly) they are best suited to mothering. Most parenting is then carried out by mothers who become the natural target for any blame. (We needn’t mention an absence of applause for mothers who have raised successful children the world over – not sensational enough, it won’t drive traffic.)
It seems that boys are not being raised (by mothers, fathers, extended family, society in general) to consider gender equality or their potential capacity to parent – as adults – alongside their female counterparts. Social constructs about what constitutes women’s work and what remains the domain of men’s work serve to maintain an imbalance of power in society between men and women. Mother-blaming thus feeds a mechanism of social control.
And still, in 2020, mothers are being held accountable for heinous crimes committed by adult men. But it is far more complicated and nuanced than that.
Let’s talk rape then. What is it and what do we know about it?
Rape is the unlawful and intentional act of sexual penetration without consent. It is an act of power and violence. It is not rooted in a failure to instil discipline.
Who is the rapist?
Rapists come in all sizes, shapes and colours. Research as far back as 1970 showed that rapists do not have an easily identifiable profile. However, over time, common traits of rapists have been described. These include men who believe non-consensual intercourse is not rape or men who use hostile language to describe women. Narcissistic tendencies have also been shown to be associated with men who rape. Research has even shown overwhelming evidence that, above all other reasons underlying rape, men do not believe they are the problem.
In response to the opinion that mothers are to blame for men who rape, studies have been conducted on convicted rapists and their parental relationships. Results showed that the nature of the mother-father relationship and the parents’ inadequate capacity to develop trust and respect between each other and with their children leads to dysfunctional family relationships, rendering the children at risk of developing dysfunctional behaviours. This could be considered a contributing factor when attempting to define a rapist. This study further noted difficulty in establishing fathers or mothers as more primary in their effect on their adult children committing rape – with different studies favouring one or the other in seemingly equal measure.
Blame shifting and its dangers
Blame shifting is never okay and neither is the perpetuation of misinformation. Adult men who commit rape should be held accountable for their actions. Unfortunately in South Africa, with 42 289 reported cases in the period 2019/2020, we face a reality of 116 reported rapes a day. Only one in seven or nine women report rape (depending on your sources). One of the reasons for this is fear of blame or further victimisation. Survivors of rape fear they won’t be taken seriously or believed. When one removes the blame from the adult perpetrator of rape and shifts it elsewhere, this feeds the problem of under-reporting. Survivors immediately feel their trauma is not validated and this just adds to the many reasons survivors do not report rape. Blame-shifting perpetuates the problem and perpetuates rape culture. Rather, we need to hold adult perpetrators accountable.
The broader social context
In Peter’s opinion piece, he likens a little boy helping himself to chocolates without permission, to a man helping himself to sex without consent. Matters of discipline are not the same as matters of force. Rape is not about a lack of discipline. Rape is about violence and power. Discipline is about learning how to obey rules or a code of behaviour. It is about getting up every day and doing your work, brushing your teeth, paying the bills, listening to advice. Many rapists are more than capable of these actions. Even the most disciplined man can still commit rape – because it’s about power and dominance; a feeling of superiority.
Peter’s analogy further suggests objectification and commodification of women. Women are not objects without a say about what happens to them. Neither are they to be held singularly accountable for raising children when the children are a product of two participants – who each have equal influence on their children, either by their presence or as a result of their absence. Such a leap is dangerous and only provides evidence that patriarchy thrives, as do misogyny and toxic masculinity. Gender bias cannot be permitted in a world that seeks to be inclusive, nor in a country like South Africa that seeks to recognise the equality and dignity of all its citizens.
Trigger warnings when reading sensitive material
Survivors of rape remain at risk. Their trauma is a part of their everyday life and can be triggered by a range of cues, leading to re-experiencing the event or parts of it. In a context in which women in South Africa are more likely to be raped than find employment, many readers may be triggered by content related to their trauma. It’s worth bearing this in mind when relaying any thought or opinion on the matter.
Bottom line: The only person to blame for rape is the rapist. And it should be reported and condemned, not excused.
Author’s note: Thank you to fellow Safrean, Niki Moore, for assistance with editing.
Disclaimer: the views expressed herein are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAFREA or the SAFREA Chronicle.