The XX Factor

The Frightening Power of Frightening Statistics

I grew up in Johannesburg; I am amply, almost exasperatingly, aware of its sinister reputation for violent crime. Yet nothing could prepare me for a recent study which announced that one in three men in the Gauteng province, in which Johannesburg is situated, admits to rape. The government-sponsored study was conducted by the Medical Research Foundation and surveyed 487 men.

On hearing this statistic, my first thought was defensive: I wanted to find some glaring methodological error. Who was the sample? And what exactly did the questions look like? I wanted to undo the crushing thought that when I am in my hometown, every time I board a bus or walk along the street or enter a classroom, I’m pressing up against rapist after rapist after rapist.

My second thought was the Broken Window theory advanced by sociologists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling in 1982. Wilson and Kelling found that people were more likely to commit antisocial acts (such as vandalism and robbery) if there was evidence that these acts were already prevalent in their society: Vandalism begets more vandalism, which in turn begets robbery, which begets violence, and on and on it goes.

Now, as the news of the ubiquity of rape reverberates around South Africa, I get chills thinking that for some people, this will amount to an invitation to the grotesque party. I think of rapists, who once felt shame, suddenly deciding that they’re just like everyone else. Of course I am not genuinely advocating that the results of the survey be hushed up: We need alarm, we need awareness, and we need politicians to be shamed by international pressure. But I cannot escape the fear that instead of fighting the normalization of rape, this information will bolster it. How do you begin to ostracize a community which is so brazenly populous?

I remember an anti-rape campaign from a few years ago: Charlize Theron cross-legged and earnest, mocking us with her acquired accent, asserting that Real Men Don’t Rape. Yet here we are with our little piece of paper from the Medical Research Foundation, and it says: Very Many Men Rape.

Photograph of Johannesburg from Wikimedia Commons.