Research delves into the mind of rapists

Dr Lihle Qulu

Nobody wakes up in the morning and says, ‘I want to rape somebody’. There are many external factors that cause a person to want to commit such an act – including stress and social isolation.

This is the strong view of Dr Lihle Qulu, a senior lecturer with the Division of Medical Physiology who is currently doing research on the neurological and physiological effects of rape.

Qulu, who has a PhD in neuroscience, joined Stellenbosch University in July last year.

This year, in a collaboration with the University of KwaZulu-Natal, she and a team will run a research project with prisoners incarcerated for rape in the Westville Prison outside e’Thekwini to look at the underlying factors related to rape. This research follows extensive research Qulu has been doing with rodents in which she assessed their behaviour in forced and consensual mating situations and in which preliminary findings show that isolation perpetuates aggressive behaviour and sexual aggression towards females.

Qulu’s initial interest was sparked on a visit to Germany where she encountered academics doing rape research. “I had initially wanted to study social stress, but while in Germany I started looking at the statistics and found that SA is the rape capital of the world.

“In Germany they were doing an animal model of rape, using rats. I came back and started mimicking the same thing at UKZN. Some of the findings we found in the animal model is that a normal animal would refuse to rape … but when that animal was socially isolated, it had a huge impact. It dysregulated the levels of cortisol (the so-called “anxiety hormone”) released and reduced the oxytocin (the “love hormone”) which allowed the animal to behave by sexually defeating the female.

“We found that social isolation induces aggressive behaviour, when exposed to a non-receptive female, the male will defeat the non-receptive female if exposed to social isolation.

“We looked at the basal levels of aggression prior to social isolation and there was no aggression. After inducing social isolation we found heightened aggressive behaviour and sexual aggression or sexual defeat and this was confirmed by neurochemistry where we found heightened levels of cortisol and lower levels of oxytocin in the animals.”

For the research this year, Qulu said, “We will administer a questionnaire and take physiological samples like sputum to assess the levels of cortisone in prisoners. We will also look at the background of the prisoners we work with – including early exposure to stress, how they were raised, whether both parents were at home for their upbringing, whether they received affirmation at home, whether there was violence in their homes and what kind of maternal bonding they experienced.

“We want to try and get a background of reasons for rape, to look at the underlying factors before they decided to rape – and see whether the isolation response we saw in animals concurs with the behaviour of the prisoners. We want to see what role their upbringing played in the crimes they committed.

Qulu was born in Lamontville township near Durban and raised by her mother and sister. She went to school in Wentworth and then studied at the University of Zululand where she obtained a BSc degree in Biochemistry, followed by an honours degree at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (Durban-Westville) in 2009. She worked as a teacher at Lamontville High School for five years before deciding she was fascinated by neuroscience and wanted to study further in that field.

She then went on to get her MSc Medical Science (Cum Laude) through UKZN (Durban Westville) followed by a PhD Med Science through UKZN (Durban-Westville) in 2016.

Her passion for neuroscience – and for studying the brain – was hugely inspired and encouraged by the Dean of the School of Laboratory Medicine and Medical Sciences at UKZN, Professor Musa Mabandla, who also offered her an academic position and facilitated training and travelling opportunities abroad.

“The brain is the engine of our behaviour, the engine of everything. No matter how beautiful a car looks, if the engine is not working properly, the car won’t go. It’s the biggest miracle on earth, the computer, the network that creates wars, ends wars and drives the world – and yet we pay it so little attention.”

Qulu said one of the main motivations for this work is her conviction that South Africa has neglected mental health since apartheid. “There is no mental health redress in our country. You can’t expect people who have gone through so much violence, rape and removal of fathers from the home to move into an environment of freedom without psychological effects. There are not enough mental health centres – and none in the townships.

“Having grown up in a township and witnessed first-hand the crime and violence there, I know people do not act outside of normality unless an incident or experience dysregulates how they are meant to behave. I want to raise awareness of this issue; to ask the government what they will do to assist us as a nation as things will only get worse if they don’t.”

Qulu loves going to the beach and spending time with her family. She is also closely involved in her community. “Call me Ms Oxytocin. I believe strongly that love can solve many things.”

Sue Segar