The 'She Asked for It' Defense Wins

Editorial, New York Times

Published: May 10, 2006


Jacob Zuma, the former deputy president of South Africa who was once a front-runner for the presidency, has been acquitted of rape. While he still faces charges of corruption, Mr. Zuma retains enormous public support, especially among his ethnic group, the Zulus. Yesterday he apologized for having sex without a condom and announced that he wanted to resume his political career and might still run for president.
The judge in the rape case ruled that the sex was consensual between Mr. Zuma, who is 64, and the 31-year-old daughter of one of his former comrades. But during the trial he admitted to behavior so irresponsible that his future political activity deserves to be limited to voting.
Where do we begin? Mr. Zuma said that his accuser indicated she wanted sex by the way she sat while wearing a knee-length skirt - an idea he repeated yesterday - and that it was his duty as a man to accommodate her. He said he had not used a condom to have sex with the woman even though he knew she was H.I.V.-positive because he thought the risk of catching the AIDS virus was low. He said he had chosen instead to shower after sex to minimize the risk of infection. Mind you, this is the man who once led the country's National AIDS Council.
Unfortunately, Mr. Zuma's views and conduct are not rare in South Africa. Health officials say a sense of male entitlement to sex is a major contributor to the country's high rape rates. The first sexual experience is coerced for one in four women. Rape often occurs within families, and there is tremendous family pressure on girls not to report it. In addition, students report that many teachers demand sex for good grades.
Male sexual attitudes also fuel South Africa's AIDS epidemic. Mr. Zuma's shower comment, which he justified yesterday, lighted up the phone banks at AIDS hot lines with callers hopeful that postcoital showering could prevent H.I.V. infections.
South Africa already had several government officials whose dubious statements about AIDS set back the cause of fighting the disease; now Mr. Zuma joins them. Those who are now welcoming him back to political life - including the secretary general of the African National Congress - are doing the country a disservice. He has been acquitted of rape but is still unfit for office.