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“Showing Roughness in a Beautiful Way”: Talk about Love, Coercion, and Rape in South African Youth Sexual Culture

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Abstract

Sexual violence within as well as outside sexual relationships has far-reaching public health and human rights implications and is a continuing focus of popular debate, media coverage, and research in postapartheid South Africa. Partly because it has been shown to affect individual vulnerability to HIV/AIDS, sexual violence has in recent years become framed as a global public health issue. International research efforts to document the scale of this personally and politically sensitive problem can encounter conceptual, definitional, and methodological difficulties that anthropology is well placed to assist in alleviating. This article offers an ethnographic exploration of the spectrum of practices relating to sexual coercion and rape among young people in a township in the former Transkei region of South Africa. Contextualizing meanings of sexual coercion within local youth sexual culture, the article considers two emic categories associated with sex that is “forced”: ukulala ngekani: “to sleep with by force” or ukunyanzela: “to force,” both usually used to describe episodes occurring within sexual partnerships; and ukudlwengula, used to describe rape by a nonpartner or stranger. The article discusses the semantic content of and differences between these two key categories, demonstrating that encounters described as “forced sex” encompass not only various forms of sexual coercion but also, particularly in the narratives of young men, instances of more consensual sex. Of importance, in turn, in defining an act as “rape” rather than as “forced sex” are the character of the relationship between the two parties and interlinked ideas relating to exchange and sexual entitlement, love, and the importance of “intention,” violation, and “deserving” victimhood.

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