Post-rape subjectivities: A PhD study

Two rapes and murders that happened worlds apart have the same tragic thread that unites them. Both Sinoxolo Mafevuka and Franziska Blochliger were young women whose lives were cut short by senseless brutal violence. On either side of the divides of race, class and location, two families have experienced the sudden and unexpected loss of loved ones whose lives had barely just begun.

While many commentators have been quick to point out the glaring disparity between the media coverage, the difference in efficiency of policing and the progress made (or lack thereof in the case of Sinoxolo Mafevuka) in these two murders, one cannot weigh the life of one woman as more or less valuable than that of another. We should be angry in both cases and we should all pray for justice to prevail for both Sinoxolo and Franziska.

– Xego Melikhaya

There is a cost – a huge, devastating cost that comes with rape – an invisible wound that remains long after the physical scars (where they exist) have healed. And what a cost to us to have so many of our people walking wounded.

-Pumla Dineo Gqola

It is widely known that rates of sexual violence in South Africa are among the highest in the world. However, this kind of violence continues to be acknowledged in uneven ways.

Xego Melikhaya alludes to the ways in which race and class shape public responses to rape in significant ways. In particular, the rape of poor black women does not generate the same kind of public outrage as the rape of other women. Pumla Dineo Gqola, in her book Rape: A South African Nightmare, argues that this is because, through colonial discourse and slavocratic social practices, black women have been hypersexualised and  constructed as “impossible to rape”. This means that when black women disclose that they have been raped they are either not believed or it is seen as a less ‘serious’ violation.

The endless portrayal of violated black bodies across the pages of various media also positions these instances of sexual violence as inevitable, and therefore unworthy of much response. And so people like Sinoxolo Mafevuka, who are ‘destined’ to have violence acted upon their bodies,  do not make the front page.

The disparate acknowledgement of sexual violence is also evident in responses to a number of rapes which occurred at the University of Cape Town (UCT) last year. The rape of several UCT students near the campus between November 2015 and March 2016 received wide media coverage, a R10 000 reward was offered by the university for information regarding the case and significant resources were directed towards capturing the perpetrator. However, as one student wrote on a blog intended to raise awareness about sexual violence on campus: “over the weekend, as the arrest of the suspected serial rapist dominated the news, we as UCT Survivors ask ‘What about all the perpetrators of sexual violence in their class rooms and residences that UCT has not offered a reward for?'”

It is within this context, where certain rapes are seen as more horrific and deserving of attention than others, that I entered a police station on the 30th of October 2015 to report that I had been raped at approximately 18h45 that evening.

Subsequently I have been trying to make sense not only what it means to have been raped, but what it means to have been raped in a context in which certain kinds of sexual violence are normalised, disregarded or omitted entirely.

As both a personal and political act, I have decided to make these questions the central focus on my PhD, which is entitled “post-rape subjectivities”.

Chris Weedon defines subjectivity as “the conscious and unconscious thoughts and emotions of the individual, her sense of herself and her ways of understanding her relation to the world.

This project centers on my personal experience of being raped, my experiences of accessing services (including the police and the hospital) following the rape, as well as my relationships and subjectivities post-rape.

It aims to explore how these experiences, relationships and subjectivities are shaped by problematic understandings of what counts as rape, who can be raped and who can rape. It also aims to examine how my post-rape experiences, relationships and subjectivities are shaped by my intersecting position as a feminist, cis-gender, white, middle-class women.

Alongside my personal experience of rape, this project will also draw on the narratives of other women who have experienced sexual violence. This is in order to analyse what is common as well as what is distinct for different post-rape selves.

I hope that this work can help us as a society to understand better how those who have been sexually violated negotiate, integrate and challenge dominant discourses post-rape, as well as how we can better support these difficult processes.

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