Victim blaming, patriarchy and defining rape: All you need to know about rape culture

Victims of sexual assault often face the trauma of being blamed for the crime.
Victims of sexual assault often face the trauma of being blamed for the crime.
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She was wearing a short skirt. She was drunk. She was walking alone. Factors like these are still being used to shame victims of rape – as if some part of the crime committed against them was their fault.

“Placing the blame on the victim comes from old patriarchal beliefs that have been enforced through our education and legal systems and have filtered into our homes and work environments,” says Rosie Motene of People Opposing Women Abuse (POWA).

“The fact is, when somebody rapes another person, it has nothing to do with what the victim was wearing, where they were at the time or what they were drinking,” she says.

“The rapist is the only one to blame.” 

This is in the spotlight again after a Makhanda court overturned the conviction of a ex-paramedic after he was found guilty of raping his virgin girlfriend. Because they were having foreplay, he believed she had tacitly consented to sex. 


Shifting the blame from the perpetrator onto the victim can be damaging for many reasons. It can cause a victim to second-guess themselves and possibly feel too guilty or unsure to report the rape.

“But they are my partner,” they might say or “I didn’t put up a fight”.

It can mean that a victim doesn’t get the support they need from family and friends, as they might be considered to have played a part in the crime that was committed against them.

“It’s important for everyone to understand exactly what rape and consent are, both for themselves and for those around them,” Motene adds both these cases, if consent for sex is not given, it’s considered rape. Victim blaming can also cause doubt about a victim’s court testimony. 

Read more | ‘I was raped by my ex and didn’t realise it until 3 years later’ – this woman tells us how she is coping with the ordeal


In South Africa, the law defines rape as intentional, unlawful sexual intercourse with a person without their consent.

Rape refers to penetration (whether full penetration or not) of the vagina, anus or mouth with any body part or object, without the consent of the victim.


Consensual sex is when everyone involved in the act agrees (consents) to the act.  When a  sexual act is forced by physical or verbal coercion onto someone who doesn’t want it or is unable to consent, it’s rape.

Reasons for not being able to give consent include being a child (under 16), being intoxicated, or having a disability that doesn’t allow you to give consent. And even if both people agreed at the beginning of a sexual act, either of them still has every right to change their mind about wanting to engage in sex at any time. If that right is not respected and the act continues, it is rape.

A person who is drunk, incapacitated by alcohol or drugs, unconscious or asleep is by law unable to give consent.

It is still rape even if

You didn’t fight them off People respond to being attacked in many different ways. Some may think fighting back will make their attacker more violent and pose a threat to their life.

Not consenting can be as simple as saying “no” or “stop”, and if the act continues, it is rape. If a gun, knife or verbal threats to your safety are being made, you may not be able to say anything.

If you are forced into a sexual act by violence, the threat of violence or the threat that your standing will be compromised, by anyone – for example, a pastor, teacher or boss, – it  is rape.

It is still rape even if…

It was your partner Just because you’ve had consensual sex with that person before, it doesn’t give them (a current partner, ex-partner or new date) the right to assume sexual contact is okay without your consent.

In South Africa, marital rape is recognised as a crime. This includes when a partner uses threats and/ or violence to coerce sex from their partner.

It is still rape even if…

You were drunk If there’s no capacity to consent and a sexual act is forced, it is rape. A person who is drunk, unconscious, incapacitated by alcohol or drugs, or asleep is by law unable to give consent.

Under any of these circumstances, you can still report a rape to the police and get medical treatment. No consent equals rape.

It is still rape even if…

You wore revealing clothing No matter what clothing covers your body, it has nothing to do with consent. Rape is an act of violence and control and the “attractiveness” of a victim has nothing to do with it.

It is still rape even if…

You are a sex worker Sex workers have the exact same right to refuse sex as anyone else, as they are paid for consensual sex and can choose who to offer their services to.

According to Rape Crisis, in South Africa, one in five sex workers are raped either by people posing as clients, by police officers or by their intimate partners.

Read more | Understanding rape culture and teaching your children about it

It is still rape even if…

You withdrew the rape charge There are many reasons why people decide to withdraw a rape charge. Some may have been pressurised  by their family, friends or even  the rapist.

They may fear for their own lives or that of their children. Or they may not be able to make court dates because of work, for example. But it’s incorrect to assume a rape charge was withdrawn because the rape didn’t occur.

It is still rape even if…

You were sexually aroused The stress of the rape can cause a victim’s body to respond in a natural, sexual way.

It can happen automatically and it doesn’t mean the victim enjoyed it. It can also make the experience more traumatic, as the victim becomes confused about the way in which their body responded. 

It is still rape even if…

You didn’t say no initially Remember, everyone has the legal right to say “no” or “stop” to sex at any point during sexual contact. And no matter at which point and how sexually heated the engagement may be, if the other person refuses to stop, it is rape.

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