“Virgin cure” myth alive & well

  • Melody Hu - 30 April 2013

The alarming misconception that sexual intercourse with a virgin can cure HIV infection still endures in South African society today, with tragic consequences.

Recent coverage of the alleged rape of a two-year-old girl by her HIV-positive father in The Star is a reminder of the serious dangers of persisting misinformation about the virus.

Of the many HIV-related myths that are still in circulation, the virgin myth – which claims that HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases can be cured by having sex with a virgin – is perhaps the most medieval (indeed, the belief is thought to have originated from 16th century Europe).

And the implications of these misguided beliefs in 21st century South Africa are shamefully regressive.

The nation – which is already notorious for astronomical rates of sexual violence - has recently seen a disturbing track record of child and even baby rape.

In the context of South Africa’s rape culture, the virgin myth has been identified as a contributing factor to this deplorable trend. The rape of the two-year-old daughter covered by The Star is only one horrific act of violence in recent memory that have been motivated by the virgin myth – which also include the gang rape of an nine-month-old baby by six men in 2001.

While it is difficult to quantify just how widespread the belief is across the entire South African populace, there is evidence to suggest that the myth is still alive amongst many communities.

For example, a 2002 UNISA survey of workers at the East London Daimler Chrysler plant revealed that 18% of hourly-paid employees believed in the virgin cure. Public education efforts have only expanded in the decade since – but it is clear that eradicating myths and misconceptions around HIV will take considerable time and energy.

The media can and should play an important role in continuing education efforts.

Coverage of an increase in reported child and baby rape incidents in the late 1990s and early 2000s shone a spotlight on the virgin myth, spreading awareness of its falsity and adding urgency to the problem.

While media outlets should certainly avoid sensationalism, they also should take care to avoid the opposite extreme: becoming desensitised to long-standing issues that remain important. Conscientious reporting – as seen in The Star’s recent article, which included clear and strong comment on the falsity of the myth – can go far in reminding the public about the many unsettling societal issues that continue to require our serious attention and efforts to resolve.  

--Melody Hu is an intern at the Anova Health Institute

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“The Star’s article included clear and strong comment on the falsity of the myth”