Don’t Mind the Gap: The Truth About Cape Town’s Passion Gap

By Abduraghmaan Fisher

The most stereotypical identifying trait of Coloured people has to the ‘Passion Gap’: the absence of the top front teeth (Figure 1). This unusual ‘trend’ often puzzles many non-locals, and people living on the Cape Flats (where the practice take place) know very little about the practice, just that it exists. Some say it originated as a way to silence slaves in the Cape, while others say it offered a sexual advantage to prisoners (hence the term Passion Gap).

But what is the actual story surrounding this seemingly bizarre practice; what would be the motivation behind purposefully removing one’s front teeth and how common is it? These were the questions posed by Dr Jacqui Friedling and those she set out to find the answers to. Any correlations between the practice of this form of dental modification and age, gender, race, and socio-economic class were also investigated.

A survey was performed in the Northern Suburbs of the Cape Town Metropole in the Western Cape. The survey was conducted by means of a questionnaire. The sample population had a wide age range of 15 to 83 years old. A total of 2167 individuals participated in this study, 1196 females and 971 males.

The questionnaire was answered anonymously. It included questions revolving around dental modification, such as whether they themselves or family members had their teeth extracted, which teeth they had extracted, who extracted the teeth, at what age they had their teeth extracted and why they had their teeth extracted. It also included questions pertaining to self-identification such as race and religion, as well as socio economic class (housing type, salary bracket, highest academic standard achieved).

A total of 888 (41%) individuals in the study population had modified their teeth. More males (44,8%) than females (37,9%) were involved in this practice of dental modification. The average age of extraction is in the late teens, about 17-18 years old. There were four reasons in the study for dental extraction: peer pressure, fashion, gang-related and medical or other reasons (Figure 2). Peer pressure (42,6%) was the main reason for dental extraction and followed by fashion (36,3%). This was followed by medical or other (11%) and gangsterism (10,1%). None of the individuals in the study group stated ‘better sex/ kissing’ as a reason for extraction.

Figure 2: A comparison of male and female data, with respect to the four main reasons given for dental extraction (Friedling & Morris 2007)

The motivation for dental extraction is overwhelmingly peer pressure and fashion during adolescence. This is supported by the fact that majority of the individuals who had their teeth extracted done so before the age of 20. Therefore, removal of the front teeth can be seen as a rite of passage in the poor socio-economic communities of the Cape Flats. This study debunked the myth that individuals have their teeth extracted for ‘better sex/kissing’

Despite the recent decline in the practice and the present-day negative attitude toward it, the Passion Gap will always remain a part of the Coloured identity and culture.  The study done by Dr Friedling was only just the beginning of research into understanding the practice from an anthropological viewpoint.

References

Friedling, L. J. & Morris, A. G. (2007). Pulling teeth for fashion: dental modification in modern day Cape Town, South Africa: scientific. South African Dental Journal62(3): 106-113.

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