On The Virgin Cleansing Myth: Gendered Bodies, AIDS and Ethnomedicine
This paper is neither an attempt to verify perceived increases in the sexual assault or rape of children, nor is it an attempt to explain these crimes in the context of present-day South Africa. Rather it focuses on the prevalent myth that sexual intercourse with a virgin is an effective treatment for AIDS. The author suggests that the same iteration of psychosocial denial that informs public discourse on AIDS in South Africa also affect public discourses on the virgin myth. It has only been with the increasing media attention given to especially horrific cases of child rape in the past year and the interest shown by overseas press in the issue of rape in South Africa, that the virgin myth has come under closer scrutiny. What follows is an analysis of what may be considered as significant cognitive and metaphoric constructions from which the virgin cleansing myth is derived. As such, it is an exercise that involves contestations of world-views and the challenge of interpreting one highly integrated and systemic medical cosmology (African and Zulu), through the use of symbols and idioms borrowed from a very different but equally integrated and systemic western and biomedical cosmology. Shedding light on the nature of some ethnomedical beliefs that may be informing and underpinning this myth is the intended purpose of this paper. What follows is an unpacking of some prevalent notions and shared knowledge of Zulu-speaking people relating to ethnopathological processes, women’s bodies and notions of illness and illness management. As the virgin cleansing myth relates to the disease of AIDS, a brief analysis is provided of some commonly held ways in which people conceptualise and experience this relatively ‘new’ illness. Studies of HIV seroprevalence amongst pregnant women attendees of antenatal clinics around the country, reveal a 22.8% rate of HIV infection (South African Department of Health, 2001). For the province of KwaZulu-Natal, where research for this paper was undertaken, HIV seroprevalence is estimated to be between 36 and 38%. It
is hoped that by elucidating a deeper understanding of why a man might seek sex with a virgin in the current context of a formidable AIDS epidemic, may 4 contribute towards a more sensitive engagement with the problem of child rape and our ability to address both rape and AIDS more effectively.