Wits City Institute Doctoral Presentation

Governing Rape: The Biopolitics of Sexualized Violence

Wits City Institute Mellon Architecture, Urbanism and the Humanities Doctoral Fellow Lisa Vetten presented an extract from her doctoral research ‘Governing Rape: The Biopolitics of Sexualized Violence’ at the symposium WellSexuality: Youth and Contemporary Notions of Sexuality in South Africa.

8-9 March / WiSER in conjunction with Eh!Woza, Wellcome Trust and the University of the Witwatersrand

Words: Lisa Vetten

The two-day symposium inter-disciplinary event utilised a range of different formats: speed presentations, conversation panels, performance art, video, as well as the more conventional panel presentation to explore sexuality in its many guises. As an experiment in interdisciplinarity, the event drew from queer theory, feminist thought, medical history, art and performance theory, anthropology, public health and biomedicine. It also combined practitioners, researchers, and academics as well as a group of high school pupils who’d made two short films, one about their school friends and the other about their neighbours.  As a consequence, the symposium brought together groups often unfamiliar to each other and while this sometimes generated misunderstandings, it also made for interesting exchanges.


In the case of the particular panel I was part of, our different papers contrasted and commented on each other’s fields in interesting ways. Joanne Passmore’s paper presented medical data on the vaginal microbiome and how this could facilitate HIV infection. Still in the biomedical mould, but focused on behaviour associated with HIV infection, was Saiqa Mullick of the Wits Reproductive Health Institute’s presentation, ‘Adolescents and Sex: Types of Risky Sex and Violence.’ My paper ‘The Science of Intervention: Preventing Rape in South Africa’ traced the history of how biomedical ways of understanding rape had become so prevalent in South Africa, with HIV proving decisive to this shaping.

In 1990, on the cusp of the transition to democracy, it became apparent that South Africa was in the midst of an AIDS epidemic. From the outset, rape was employed as a means of understanding how HIV was being transmitted – and deliberately so, as the title of a paper subsequently suggested: ‘Infect one, infect all.’ This period also saw the emergence of what many called the ‘virgin rape myth’. This was the idea that sex with a virgin could cure HIV and it was frequently used to describe the putative increase in child rape during the 1990s. The focus on how rape could result in HIV infection was to result, in 2002, in the provision to rape victims of post-exposure prophylaxis to prevent infection with HIV. This outcome was vital to the health and wellbeing of rape survivors – but it also drew rape into the orbit of then-President Mbeki’s denialism of AIDS, as well as raising old and injurious questions around black men’s sexuality.

The second consequence of this linking of rape and HIV has been the emergence of a set of discursive practices around the prevention of rape. New populations have been identified as sites of intervention – key populations (KP), most at risk populations (MARP), and adolescent girls and young women (AGYW) – who have been provided with new ways of thinking about and acting on themselves and others. Services addressing rape have been altered in a range of ways through the addition of a focus on HIV and the funding accompanying this and – perhaps most significantly of all – rape has been redefined as a problem of men and masculinity. These various changes do not however, represent the inevitable next step in the evolution of our thinking about rape. Nor do they bring us closer to unravelling the mystery of rape and how its puzzle is to be solved once and for all. Rather, they illustrate how rape is created and transformed as an object of knowledge and the range of strategies and relations that then become the effect of this knowledge.