Marking today

 

Two years ago today I was raped.

On this day last year I had a party. I was determined to celebrate the fact that I had “survived” a whole year. I made a cake and invited all my friends over. I made a tearful speech about how much I appreciated all of their support and how I was proud of myself for re-taking control of my life.

Today I am far more conflicted as to how to mark this day. I have continued to “survive” in this second year. I have given talks, written in the newspaper and blogged about my rape and my “survival”. I think this work has done some good.

I have been approached by friends, family and even strangers who have said that my writing has been important and helpful for them. It has definitely been important and helpful for me. But through this process the idea of what it means to “survive” has become far more complex, multiple and challenging to embody.

I have become emotionally, politically and intellectually interested in what kind of survival is possible in the current social context. I am interested in what it means to “survive” in a context where the blaming and shaming of rape survivors seems to be built into our social fabric – as Redi Thlabi’s recent book ‘Khwezi’ so powerfully demonstrates. I am interested in what it means to survive being raped in a context in which the rapes of other womxn (and children and men) are constantly broadcast. I am interested in what it means to survive in a context in which not all rapes are regarded as equally horrifying, equally deserving of outrage and justice.

I am also interested in how the ways we think and talk about rape make certain ways of surviving possible and others impossible. For example, if I mark today as an important, defining day, do I not reinscribe the rape as a defining feature of myself? If I continue to measure my life by how close or far away my rape is, do I not tie myself forever to this violation?

I am not suggesting that acknowledging pain, trauma and resilience is not important and necessary. But, as has become clearer and clearer to me, this is only one way to survive.

The #metoo campaign has brought forward a wave of survivor confessionals which have been hailed as brave and courageous. But there has been very little engagement with the social factors that make it difficult or impossible for some people disclose and share their experiences of violation. Khwezi’s story is just one example of what it costs to disclose.

I am concerned that if we continue to acknowledge only one way of surviving sexual violence we reinscribe the binary between what is “real rape” and what is not. In this way we continue to make some acts of sexual violence less grievable than others.

I haven’t decided if I will off to the bathroom and cry quietly for a while, ask my colleague for a hug or say nothing to anyone and get on with my work.

These are all ways of surviving.

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“Should we not be talking about rape cultures?”

The idea of “rape culture” has become increasingly prevalent in discussions about sexual violence in South Africa. Black feminist student activists, in particular, have made visible the ways in which university campuses are steeped in “rape culture” . 

The publication of a cartoon by satirist Johnathan Shapiro in April of this year, in which he once again depicts a woman being raped in order to comment on the state of politics, facilitated widespread outrage. There was much talk about this cartoon as an example of rape culture. For example, Kathleen Dey (2017), director of RCCTT, remarked that the cartoon “is a strong example of how rape culture works in our society and how even the most self aware among us are often quite blind to it” .

I have, until recently, regarded the uptake of the term “rape culture” as a positive step towards promoting gender equality (and non-violence) in South Africa. If we can see and talk about the ways in which our every day practises are making violence possible, surely, we can disrupt these every day practises and make violence less possible, even impossible?

However, a comment made by Nomboniso Gaza, the gender and anti-apartheid activist and researcher, at a recent conference on Violence Against Women, has compelled me to think about the limits of the term “rape culture” for explaining sexual violence in South Africa.  Gasa asked, “should we not be talking about rape cultures?”. She pointed out that the notion of “rape culture” was developed within the context of the (white) Feminist Movement in the United States (US) in the 1970s. The origin of then term “rape culture” has been credited to Susan Brownmiller who argued that the US is a “rape-supportive culture”. Also speaking about the US, Buchwald, Fletcher and Roth provide the following definition of “rape culture”:

the complex of beliefs that encourage male sexual aggression and support violence against women. It is a society where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality is violent. In a rape culture women perceive a continuum of threatened violence that ranges from sexual remarks to sexual touching to rape itself. A rape culture condones physical and emotional terrorism against women as the norm.

This definition highlights the way in which the term emerged in relation to a very particular set of gendered relations – those of cisgender and heterosexual rape.

The notion “rape culture” has undoubtedly been significant in developing an understanding of rape as not merely an individual act of violence, but rather as a symptom of a broader socio-cultural system. However, given its rooting in particular social dynamics, should we not be asking more critical questions about the usefulness of “rape culture” beyond this context? Questions such as:

How does the notion of “rape culture” (singular) invisibilise/ trivialise/ smooth over the different patterns of sexual violence in South Africa?

 Does the idea of “rape culture” allow us to think critically about the violence that is perpetrated against queer bodies, against men, against womxn who are positioned unevenly in our society?

 Does this term “rape culture” allow us to think carefully about the inequality/imbalance/variability in responses to sexual violence (for example how we fail to respond or even recognise certain instances/types of sexual violence)?

And

In order to more fully elucidate the complex and contradictory nature of sexual violence in our contemporary local (and global) contexts should we not, as Gasa remarked, “be talking about rape cultures?”

The simple answer to this last question is yes. But the question of how to develop the theoretical concept of “rape cultures” is far more complex. I hope to be able to do this as part of my Phd.

The idea of intersecting “rape cultures” has the potential to challenge how we are currently thinking about, talking about and responding to sexual violence; challenges which are necessary in order to more meaningfully and appropriately counter the tides of sexual violence that continue to wash over all of us.