by Annemarie Paulin-Campbell

Recent protests at Rhodes and Wits, have spotlighted the massive problem of rape and sexual violence in South Africa. Students are calling for an end to rape culture and patriarchal systems and substantive change in how sexual violence is dealt with at Universities. The statistics are horrifying. South Africa is believed to have the highest number of rapes per capita in the world and it is estimated that over 40% of women in South Africa will be raped in their life-time. As a psychologist, I am deeply aware that the potential consequences for each individual are also horrifying. These may include chronic physical health problems like depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, substance abuse, difficulties in relationships and suicidality. It is evident that the systemic problems with the way our judicial and policing systems deal with rape urgently need to be addressed, as well as the way such issues are dealt with in schools and institutions of higher learning.

But how do we address an even deeper problem? Rape is an abuse of power. It takes what in our experience should be most tender, most intimate and most vulnerable – our sexuality – and links it with an act of violence. How has this distortion of sexuality become so prevalent? Why is there a “rape culture?” In part we live in a patriarchal culture in which women and their bodies are easily objectified. It is also a culture in which sex is often linked with violence or coercion. Often portrayals of sex in the media and the ready access to pornography via the internet, all contribute to a distortion in the way we understand sex.

Our sexuality involves all of who we are: our physicality, our identity, our emotions and our spirituality. When we are wounded in our sexuality, as individuals and as society, the impact is profound. Tragically, so many people are survivors of childhood sexual abuse and for many survivors sexuality may become frightening or at least ambivalent. How do we reclaim sex as the language of love?

It is most often in the family that children learn how to relate. Pope Francis writes in his recent Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) that “sexuality is an interpersonal language in which the other is taken seriously, in his or her sacred and inviolable dignity.” While the church still has a long way to go in dealing with its sexual abuse issues, this document is a real affirmation of the life-affirming experience of sex as an expression of love. It highlights the importance of the erotic dimension of love in which sex is the physical expression of the kind of self-giving love St. Paul talks about in his letter to the Corinthians.

If children grow-up experiencing men and women treating one another with dignity, and talking about sex in ways that are connected with respect, mutuality and the experience of deep love, then perhaps our culture will begin to shift. Sex will not be distorted into a language of dominance, power and coercion, but restored to a passion which reveals “the marvels of which the human heart is capable.”

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