Interview with Dr. Marcel Londt
Dr. Marcel Londt is a doctor of psychology and a professor in the department of social work at the University of Western Cape. For 25 years, she has worked with victims and perpetrators of sex crimes inside and outside South Africa's prison system. Without a change in public policy and better clinical research, Londt says the country's rape statistics will continue to rise. This interview has been edited for clarity.
Dr. Marcel Londt.
Elena Ghanotakis: South Africa has one of the highest levels of reported rape in the world. What do you think are the reasons behind this statistic?
Dr. Marcel Lodnt: I don't think rape in South Africa is a standalone simplistic problem you can explain with a single explanation. You've got to take into account the history of this country, the poverty, the economic situation... and the fact that a large part of our society are still living under very unsatisfactory circumstances. And many of our children remain highly vulnerable.
From the work that you've done with sex offenders, what are some of the reasons why men rape?
I think in this country, in particular, men have been left with intense feelings of demasculinization -- lots of exaggerated humiliation and shame. We know that men who rape try to gain a sense of power and control. We know that in this country, more than elsewhere in the world, men will continue to rape if a better policy is not developed to deter people. It is easier for men here with problems to get away with rape. [Very few reports of rape end up in convictions.]
In this country we don't really know who the perpetrators are. We don't really know how they entrap their victims. If we don't know this through research, we are not going to know how to intervene.
South Africa portrays itself as a model for democracy and we wear our democracy as a badge of honor because we didn't have a blood bath [when apartheid ended]. But instead, we have these statistics around sexual violence. You can't separate the impact of Apartheid and the long-term impact of what that system did to generations of people and that is still being felt.
Is there enough research and understanding from the perspective of the perpetrator?
There is enough research we can draw from internationally, but we need to generate our own knowledge. Our communities are unique in how we live and how we contextualize ourselves, but to do research here is almost a luxury. In this country we don't really know who the perpetrators are. We don't really know how they entrap their victims. It is anecdotal information. And if we don't know that kind of information through research, we are not going to know how to intervene.
What is wrong with how the current rehabilitation system works?
Here we don't see rehabilitation and the management of sex offenders as key to protecting women and children. Protection for women and children is a standalone issue and rehab for sex offenders is a standalone issue, and neither are seen as a priority. We know that sex offenders can't be cured, but there's enough research that tells us you can teach them skills to reduce the likelihood of another offense. But until there's broad recognition of that, our numbers are going to continue to increase.
What would be an ideal rehabilitation process for convicted rapists who end up in Pollsmoor?
Ten years ago, in [Cape Town] and nationally, we had two sex offender programs. Both were community-based programs and, at the moment, I know that every prison in the Western Cape has a program for sex offenders. Every person sent to prison is not mandated to attend those programs but they exist and are being developed for people that have some level of motivation. But we also need the political will to say to the community that a treated sex offender poses less of a risk. If we can prioritize -- not above victim work or advocacy work -- but make working with sex offenders part of a parallel process, then I think we could create a safer society.
Do you think the rape in prisons fuels the rape outside in communities?
Absolutely. We all know that when men are victimized and traumatized, often because they have problems to begin with and don't have the tools to deal with that, they carry on victimizing others at different levels and in different ways.
With the more dangerous predator, you can't simply lock them up, throw away the key, and wait until they come out hoping that they will not do it again.
What is your experience of the victim becoming an abuser?
There's a lot of conflicting ideas about the victimization of perpetrators... Many men are too ashamed and too humiliated to talk about their experiences in childhood. What we do see is the man who comes out of prison and who has been brutalized will often become violent toward his wife because that's his primary relationship.
This creates a sense of guilt and shame and almost a sense of anticipated rejection. And that's when he starts beating his wife and subjecting her to sexual violence and sexual intimidation, almost believing that she knows about his experiences [in prison], although she may not, or only suspect.
You've mentioned that you have also worked with survivors. Do you notice any difference in the way men and women deal with being victims of sexual violence?
I think women have a tendency to internalize so there is a greater propensity for sadness, whereas with men there is a tendency to act out their pain and trauma. They are not going to use words to ask for help. The difference between the two is in the whole help-seeking process and at what point and how they ask for help, and then able to receive the care and support they need.
Can you talk about what you feel are some of the critical prevention strategies?
Again, we need to look at our legislation, which we are in the process of doing. We need to look at society and rape-promoting values -- where we allow men to continue their sexual war against women if you want to call it that. And then we need to look at policies and budget allocation and, of course, re-education of our families, our young boys and girls. There needs to be a multilevel intervention. If you take this a step further, we need to ask, what are we going to do with known rapists and how do we develop the best programs? But we can't put the cart before the horse and create programs when we don't have public policy that is informed by research.
What is the answer? What do you do with convicted rapists?
The very act of rape is cruel and dangerous. But there are rapists that are more prone to continue their violence than others. We need to look for those people who are at a lower risk, and work with them creatively, maybe keep them in society, but monitor them closely. And with the more dangerous predator, you can't simply lock them up, throw away the key and wait until they come out hoping that they will not do it again. That is not the answer. We need to develop specific programs that identify the dangerous behavior and work on changing that behavior.
I'm convinced that working with the perpetrator is key to having an empowered community, a safer community, having healthier families, because at the end of the day, blood is thicker than water.
What made you change from working with survivors to working with perpetrators?
I started working with boys because there was a lack of services for them and their families. I started doing assessments with their families and found that the [abuse] problems the boys were experiencing were very similar to the patterns their parents and grandparents had experienced.
I'm convinced that working with the perpetrator is key to having an empowered community, having a safer community, having healthier families, because at the end of the day, blood is thicker than water. Those perpetrators remain part of the family and they go back to their families, most times, certainly in this country. In other countries, if someone molests a child, or their own child, they would lose the right to be in contact [with that child], and to live in the same house. That doesn't happen in this country.
What are some of the inherent patterns you see among sex offenders?
It is difficult to tell, because if you look at the fuller context, you can't separate sociocultural aspects, like poverty or unemployment. You have to look at the whole structure of the family and what support, or lack thereof, families have in this country. You also have to look at the roles gangs have come to play.
The gang structure in this country may be different from gangs elsewhere in that sexual violence is part and parcel of how they operate. Gangs have provided an alternative family to many children and they exert enormous pressure to conform. Often young boys are initiated into the gang through an act of sexual violence. In order to qualify as a gang member and gain status, a young boy would have to rape either a child or a rival gang member, or mother or grandmother. So rape is not only used in terms of initiation, but also as a revenge tool.
Do you think it is a good approach to be explaining to perpetrators that they were victims, putting into their mind that this is the reason why they are committing rape?
I think as sociologists, therapists, psychologists, we need to take responsibility around this issue, because when we are called upon to give evidence in court as to why this person did what they did, the first thing we do is look into their background and say, "Oh it is because this person was abused as a child." So we've made that linkage; and some perpetrators have cashed in on that. When they are confronted during the discovery and disclosure phase with their offenses, they often believe that by disclosing their own victimization, this will shift the focus.
We all know that perpetrators are manipulative and devious and adept at shifting the focus away from the victim. We also know that there's always an element of truth in what they tell us. So we've been complicit in that.
We all know that perpetrators are manipulative and devious and adept at shifting the focus away from the victim. We also know that there's always an element of truth in what they tell us.
There's research that says if you test that objectively, the results might be different, in terms of how many perpetrators were really abused as children. What probably is more true and reflective is that many of them may have had unsatisfactory experiences in childhood and that includes domestic violence or having a range of negative experiences. This could be anything, including child sexual abuse.
Do you deal with any issues connecting sexual violence to HIV/AIDS? Do you see it driving perpetrators to rape or change their behaviors?
It is interesting you ask that question because in terms of my work with men who beat and use intimate violence in a relationship -- often when a woman is asserting herself or when she won't be sexual with her partner because he has had an affair -- he will threaten to have unprotected sex with a sex worker and use the high rates of HIV/AIDS in the community to create fear. A lot of men do go out and have unprotected sex as an intimidation tactic. We don't know how many, but certainly it is anecdotal information we have at this point.