An Uncomfortable, Unspeakable Truth

An Uncomfortable, Unspeakable Truth

"I don't know if you've seen Yizo Yizo?" asks Morris (not his real name), a recently released ex-prisoner who has spent close to three decades in South African prisons. He is explaining to us how inmates can tell which of the newcomers have been coerced into "Cape Town". "Cape Town" is a term used in prison lingo to refer to anal sex. "Youngsters who have undergone that, they change their style of walking, you saw it in Yizo Yizo" he says.

The recent outcry over the screening of a prison rape on Yizo Yizo suggests widespread denial about the reality of sexual abuse in South African men's prisons. But those who have any knowledge of life in these prison are only too aware that sexual violence and varying levels of sexual coercion do occur.

For many, however, these facts represent an uncomfortable, unspeakable truth. Yizo Yizo rudely exposed the unspeakable, and provided Morris with a welcome reference to draw on in describing to unversed outsiders, the nature of sex in our prisons. More recently the BBC documentary "Killers Don't Cry" makes burying our heads in the sands of macho myth, more difficult still. Although not a focus of the documentary, we hear, from the mounths of gang leaders, that rape is a gang practice.

Gangs are one vehicle for providing people in prison with the power to coerce or persuade others into sex. Gang-rape is used by some gangs, as a recruitment tool and a means of punishment. In addition, rights to sex are defined relative to gang hierarchies. High ranking members may be entitled to sex, while new recruits and other vulnerables are forced to become their sex slaves.

But coercion is not a constant in sexual interactions in prison and the blurring of the traditionally held boundaries between consensual and coercive sex is particularly stark in accounts of prison sex. These may range from circumstances directly resembling rape to others that appear primarily consensual with sex serving as a means of exchange. Sex is currency in prison: it may be exchanged for a cigarette or protection from possible death.

Sexual relationships in prison have been noted for their close resemblance to heterosexual models, and are frequently linked with ongoing sexual exploitation. Patterns of "man" and "wife" sexual relationships are explicitly provided for in the codes of the 28's gang. They are also apparent in those practiced by other gangs such as the "Big 5s", the 26's and the "Airforce".

These relationships bring with them a set of power relations through which a notion of "manhood" is constructed and also determine who has sex with who. The "man" owns his "wife" who is viewed as his sex-slave and servant. In return, the "man" protects and provides his "wife" with material goods. These goods may be small luxuries, or they may be the basic means to survival such as a food ration or a blanket.

Typically, an older prisoner with power in the inmate subculture will take a young and vulnerable prisoner as his "wife". The latter often have little choice about this. The sex act is usually defined as either active or passive, and a gender status is allocated to the protagonist accordingly. To be a penetrator makes you a "man". To be penetrated strips you of any claim to "manhood" and turns you into a "woman". This merging of gender with a role in the sex act also makes rape, or other forms of coercive sex, a means for the perpetrator to prove or consolidate his "manhood" by simultaneously destroying that of his victim. Often "wives" are initiated into their role by rape, or fear of rape.

Importantly, perpetrators of these acts are overwhelmingly those who consider themselves heterosexual, and who have engaged in heterosexual sex before their incarcerations. The oft terming of these acts as "homosexual rape" is thus inappropriate. Some say that dominant prison subcultures do not tolerate people who consider themselves homosexual unless they become substitute women. It seems too, that they do not tolerate sexual interactions that are not contained within the bounds of the power-defined relationship. "Uchincha ipondo" (to change a pound) is when two men express their own sexual desires with each other, taking turns to play the "man". They are usually the younger ones who are simultaneously other men's "wives". "It's a very big scandal for a young man to do this" Morris tells us. "It's taken as a very serious matter". If two older men do it then, "it's even more scandalous, they can get badly assaulted for that. It's not allowed".

Notions of what it means to be a man together with the power of the inmate sub-cultures are crucial to understanding how sexual abuses can continue largely undisturbed. In prison culture to inform on fellow prisoners constitutes a heinous crime. The notion that a "real man" cannot be raped also silences most victims. A few will report victimisation when they've been released. But experiences like these are usually a source of such immense humiliation that to talk about them is out of bounds. As the furore around Yizo Yizo suggests, the notion that real men cannot be raped is powerful outside prison too.

The prevalence of sexual abuse in prison raises important questions relating to the welfare of prisoners during their incarceration, and also beyond. Coercive sex in prison is one channel through which particularly destructive notions of masculinity gain momentum. It is also a central contributor to the particularly high risk of HIV transmission in prison. Moreover, if offenders are further brutalised during their incarcerations, there may be consequences for their growth and development as individuals, consequences which will continue to play themselves out when prisoners are released from jail. Close to two-thirds of prisoners are serving sentences of 10 years or less (with half of these serving between 2 and 5 years). Whether they resume their lives of offending or rather choose to follow law-abiding ones, they will once again become members of society.

Sasha Gear is a Researcher in the Criminal Justice Programme at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.

Originally published in Mail & Guardian, 25 May 2001.

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CSVR is a multi-disciplinary institute that seeks to understand and prevent violence, heal its effects and build sustainable peace at the community, national and regional levels.

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