‘Any Man Can Rape’: male students talk about rape.

I squint at the title of my thesis on the PowerPoint presentation as I watch person after person pile into the small room allocated to my presentation. The colloquium is the end-of-year event where the UCT psychology honours students present the research topic they have spent the year working on. I’m scared I may have made use of false advertising. My thesis topic sounds a lot more sensational than I planned. It’s just a comment that one of my male participants made, and now the room is packed beyond capacity because everyone thinks I have something interesting to say.

My study examined how rape is socially constructed and socially defined in men’s everyday talk. I spoke to ten students (one black, one coloured, two Indian and six white) about three different rape scenarios. The first scenario was about female stranger rape, the second scenario took place in an intimate relationship and the third scenario was similar to the first scenario but was of male rape. The whole day my fellow students have been either triumphing or getting ripped to shreds in neatly coordinated thirty minute time slots. At 1pm, I have the second-to-last slot of the day. Despite my knowledge on the topic and all my hard work, I feel unprepared for professional scrutiny.

My mom and stepdad flew up from Port Elizabeth for the occasion. I told them that the colloquium, where I present the first professional research I have ever done, meant more to me than my graduation where you merely walk across the stage and collect a certificate. I feel proud to show them the windowless, airless room where I spent this year being challenged, moved, angered and bored by many a lecturer. I love how my mom hugs all of my friends when she is introduced to them instead of shaking their hands.

This is where I belong, with this strangely put-together group of people who think and feel too much, who come from completely different backgrounds, yet share a depth of intellect, hurt and sarcasm which bound us together in ways we didn’t always understand. Most people don’t study psychology simply because they want to help others. They study psychology because they’ve been hurt, want to understand that hurt and assist others through that pain.

They stand out like sore thumbs, my doting Afrikaans parents. My tiny mom with her wild hair streaming out in a hundred different directions and her carefully applied red lipstick. My stepdad, Medical Doctor Theunis Christoffel Botha, all dressed up in his wool suit and professional tie. I’m worried that my thesis topic might be a bit scandalous for him. He’s a conservative man and he seems ill at ease with the liberal Psychology department where sex and prostitution are brought up casually over a cup of tea. This is a man who uses “Muis!” as a swear word. But there they stand, undaunted by the crowd, their faces shining with pride — and I haven’t even started my presentation yet.

My best friend Ashley strides in and stands with them. “Friend! I can’t believe you came!” I hug her. My blonde housemate is as tall as Oom Theunis. Her confidence creates a space of intimidation around her. Oom Theunis is oblivious to it.

“I ran over from the hospital, but I wouldn’t miss this for the world!” she says. Ashley, a medical student, starts talking to Oom Theunis while my mom and I get a cup of tea. “You look so happy.” She squeezes my hand and beams.

I don’t want to let any of them down. I can’t believe they are all here for me, to see what I dedicated my year to.

I have a passion for research and what I’m doing. The hours I spent hunched alone in dark rooms, confined to a desk with coffee and backaches, are worth it when I see my mom looking at me with blind trust in my abilities. The tears and self-doubt are forgotten when I realise that my project is worthwhile and the people in my life will support me no matter what.

The three of them sit front row centre and wait for me to speak. My body runs on a combination of adrenaline, caffeine and cigarettes. I forgot to eat breakfast that morning. The hazy fluorescent bulbs of the room cast a white, hot light on the blue carpet and I feel the cheap material of my ‘professional’ blouse scratching out sweat from my armpits.

I start: “A woman born in South Africa has a greater chance of being raped than learning how to read …”

I stumble a bit over my words and my hands shake slightly. I look over the sea of blank faces, reassured by the fact that my mom catches my eye and nods as though I make sense. I have no idea whether sounds are leaving my mouth in comprehensible sentences. My head spins with the certainty that my whole thesis is an unmitigated disaster.

I come to the results section of my study. Here I talk about the interviews I conducted and what my participants said. I specifically interviewed male students and spoke to them about rape because I wanted to understand rape from the male perspective. I was tired of rape being a “woman’s problem” – that women have to take responsibility for getting raped and preventing rape. I wanted to know more about how men experience rape. I believed that without the described experiences of the part of society who mostly perpetrates rape, we will never solve the problem. The aim of my thesis was to get a better understanding of how young, modern South African males talk about rape, and whether they perceived rape to be a problem, or something that even affected them at all.

My hands stop shaking. I don’t have to look at my notes to know what I have to say anymore. I know this. I’ve got this. This is my work. This is important. I put down my notes and look into people’s eyes as I speak to them. From my heart, about what I believe in.


Question: Have you ever had to deliver an important speech to a crowd?