Dear Fezekile

Dear Fezekile,

I was sixteen in 2006. At the time I was protected from what was happening to you by my self-involved naivety and my various layers of privilege.

In 2006 I did not yet have a close knowledge of rape. I knew it happened, but not that it could happen to me or the people that I love.

I did not know the feelings of shame and discomfort that would flood my body every time I said the words “I’ve been raped”.

I did not know the shock and pity and disbelief that would look back at me.

I did not know that I would feel that my body had been ruined and then returned to me empty and fragile.

I did not know that I would wake up in the night years after it had happened and recall the fear as clearly as I had in those terrifying moments.

I did not know that I would ask myself over and over why I had not done more to stop it from happening.

I did not know that when I heard about others who had been raped that it would burn deep inside me, as a desperate pain, mingled with an unquenchable anger.

I did not know that I would be weighed down by this pain and anger.

In 2006 I did not know the pain and violence that you were subjected to; as you were raped, in court, and afterwards.

I did not know the injustice, the hate, the continuous violation enacted upon your soul.

I did not know the power of men: judges, lawyers, deputy presidents, political leaders, and others, to overlook the harm that they cause.

I did not know that so many others could be complicit in rending this abuse of power acceptable and “normal”.

I did not know that so many could so easily move on from what had happened and ignore our failure to protect you and so many others who have been raped.

I did not know that after reading your remarkable story, I would feel so lost, so desperate and so full of rage.

In 2006, I did not know that your rape would play an integral part in my attempt to make sense of my own rape, as well as the rapes of others.

I did not know that you would give me courage to keep asking difficult questions about what it means to live in a context in which we do not respond (or respond equally) to rape, in which we cast womxn who have been raped as “sluts”, a context in which we do not have the difficult conversations about consent, coercion and violence.

I did not know that both our journeys to heal would be so complex, contradictory and challenging.

I know now.

With love,

Rebecca

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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.

“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.

Raced post-rape subjectivities

I have been thinking for a long time about the way in which my experience of rape is intertwined with my position as a white, middle-class womxn and how this experience contrasts with the experiences of other womxn in our society.

In this presentation that I gave at the Decolonisation, Pluriversality and African-Situatedness in Sexuality and Sexuality-Related Violence Research and Advocacy Colloquium, I explore some thoughts about the ways in which our contemporary understandings of rape are rooted in colonial constructions of race.

A double violation

The nurse approaches me in the waiting room. “Who are you bringing for an appointment?” I look at her confused. “Who is the patient?” she asks. “I am the patient”. “Oh”, she says. She looks surprised.

I am at a government clinic at 9am on a Monday morning. There is a young womxn sitting on the couch opposite me. She looks about eighteen. We are there for the same reason – we have both been raped. This is probably her first appointment. She is holding the care package and the information book that I received when I came in a month ago, a few hours after I was raped. She, like me, is visibly anxious. She is staring at the floor in front of her. We are both uncomfortable to be in the waiting room of the Thuthuzela Care Centre. But the nurse does not ask her who she is bringing for an appointment or who the patient is.  The nurse knows she is the patient.

The only explanation I have for why the nurse questions me and not the young womxn sitting across from me is that our skin is different. Her dark skin is taken as a sign that she belongs here. Her dark skin is seen as part of the reason why she is here, why she was raped. She is seen as “just another black girl who was raped” – just one of perhaps a hundred that the nurse sees every month. My light skin, however, stands out in this place. My whiteness is incompatible with the image of the “rape victim”. It must be a mistake, the nurse assumes. It cannot be me who was raped.

***

I cannot recall the first time that I realised I was white. This is because I grew up in an area where most people looked like me, where I was not teased for the colour of my skin or the texture of my hair. And so I came to understand that being white was “normal” and that the world operated in line with white values and white ways of doing things. Yet my uncritical acceptance of the normality of whiteness occurred despite the glaring evidence that the vast majority of South Africans are excluded from the kinds of privileges my whiteness afforded me. Because of my white skin and the protection it gave me, I did not need to question the status quo. This is how white privilege operates. It made (and at times still makes) it so easy for me to believe that my experience is the experience of so many others.

Following that day in the waiting room of the Thuthuzela Care Centre, I know that my experience is not the experience of others. This is not to deny that there are aspects of rape that are similar no matter the colour of your skin. My experience of being raped and my experience of being a counsellor for four years at an organisiation that supports rape survivors have shown me that rape is always terrible, it is always terrifying, violating and inexcusable.

But the way we as a society respond to different instances of rape suggests that some rapes are less terrible, less terrifying, less violating and therefore more excusable. Racism is central to classifying instances of sexual violence as more or less deserving of our attention and outrage. We can see this in the way in which the rape of poor black womxn is met with far less public outrage than the rape of other (particularly white) womxn. The case of Sinoxolo Mafevuka, who was raped and murdered near her home in Khayelitsha is just one example of this. Sinoxolo’s rape and murder became visible in the news only after the rape and murder of another teenager, Franziska Blöchliger in the affluent suburb of Tokai. Dan Mtana, Sinoxolo’s cousin sums up the way in which race shaped responses to the two cases. He says: “We saw the Tokai murder on television. But it made us realise that no one cares about us, because we are black. I mean, when the Tokai murder occurred police focused all their energy on it. What about my sister?

Because Sinoxolo is black, her rape and murder received less sympathy, anger and justice. The double violation of rape and racism caused even more pain, anger and frustration for those close to Sinoxolo.

And what about the young womxn sitting across from me in the waiting room at the Thuthuzela Care Centre and all the other black girls and womxn that see what happens to womxn like Sinoxolo? Black girls and womxn are constantly reminded, both subtly and explicitly, that their rapes are less serious than the rapes of other girls and womxn. They are told that their violation is less unacceptable and that the pain, fear, shame and anger that they feel as a result of having been raped is not as valid.

The fact that the nurse was not surprised or curious about the young womxn sitting across from me confirms that it is not shocking that she had been raped – instead it is normal, perhaps even inevitable. Besides the girls and womxn who come into the clinic every day, I am sure that like most of us, the nurse sees the daily news reports about the brutalisation of black female bodies. I’m sure she is familiar with the case of Anene Booysen and the explicit details of her attack. In the case of Sinoxolo, it was widely publicised that her body was found naked, stuffed inside a portable toilet. These gory details, which capture public interest and sometimes spur public outrage, continuously remind us that terrible violence happens to black girls and womxn all the time and so this violence becomes normal and we stop being surprised when it happens.

As a society, we teach black girls and womxn that it is “normal” for them to be raped. We teach boys and men that it is “normal” to rape black girls and womxn. We teach black girls and womxn that they are not allowed to complain if they are raped. We teach men that the consequences of raping black girls and womxn are less serious. We violate the bodies of black girls and womxn after they have already been so deeply violated by denying their trauma and anguish. We deny their humanity and their right to live free from physical and psychological violence.

***

I wish I had said something to the nurse that day that I sat in the waiting room of the Thuthuzela Care Centre. I wish I had said that she should be shocked and surprised every time someone comes through the door of the clinic, regardless of the colour of their skin. I wish I had reached out to the young womxn sitting across from me in the Thuthuzela Care Centre. I wish I had let her know that I too am hurt, angry, ashamed and fearful because of what happened to me. I wish I had explained that her rape, like mine, is not normal, it is always unacceptable. I wish I had told her that I am furious and anguished not only because I was raped, but because she was raped and because hundreds of other girls and womxn are raped every day in our country.

I did not have the words or the courage as I sat in the waiting room to say any of those things. But I write them now. I write them to show how racism affects those who have been raped, and how racism affects the way we as a society think about and respond to those who have been raped. I write to show how we all continue to be complicit in the double violation of black womxn and girls who have been raped. I write to show how immensely far we still have to go before we achieve equality, and that it is only possible if we recognise the multiple and interlinked forms that inequality takes.

 

After the worst has happened

It is the end of my Honours year. I am at a party to celebrate. I am shivering, despite the warm evening as I stand with a group of my classmates on the patio. We are anxiously waiting to hear if the two girls who left the party to go for a walk and did not return, have been found. Someone comes running towards us out of the darkness. He takes a breath, “the worst has happened”, a pause… “they have been raped”.

I have thought of those words many times in the last five years. I have been recalled to them again in the past few weeks as another spate of highly publicised rapes (and murders) infiltrate my consciousness:

RAPE IS THE WORST THING THAT CAN HAPPEN TO A WOMXN

I hear this message echoed in the words of Judge Kgomo as he hands down sentencing to serial rapist Christian Cornelius Julies in the North West. “It is unquestionable that if he was not stopped in his tracks, belatedly though, the devastation of girls and women’s lives would have continued”.

I hear it in the numerous posts on Facebook that recur on my news feed which proclaim that “my biggest fear is being raped”.

I am torn as I write this because it was my biggest fear -so much so that at the moment that I was being dragged into the bushes I thought to myself “oh god this – the worst thing – is finally happening to me”.  But what does it mean for me now? What can I do now that the worst has happened to me?

According to this narrative my life has been devastated, I have been violated in the most extreme way imaginable, I am worse than dead. I have struggled under the weight of this for 18 months now. I have tried to reconstitute myself amidst the constant echo that this is not actually possible – that I will never be whole and unbroken ever again.

I am not denying that being raped is terrifying and terrible. How could I deny this? It was terrifying and terrible – so terrifying and terrible that I left my body for a while and just hovered above myself, trying not to look down on what was happening.

BUT I am concerned about how the dominant narratives about sexual violence, including the one that being raped is the worst thing, impact on the ability to move beyond the terrifying and terribleness of rape.  How is it possible to heal when disclosing an experience of trauma is met with “Oh my goodness! That is my worst fear!”? How are those who have been violated supposed to heal when they are constantly reminded that they have been dehumanised in the most severe way?

I am not suggesting that we should not continue to call out the horror that is sexual violence. All instances of sexual violence are unacceptable and need to be plainly rendered as such.

But I am asking that we think more carefully about how we do this so that we do not reinscribe pain and horror on the bodies, psyches and souls of those around us.

I am submerged in violence

I have been feeling very heavy this week, even before the shock and trauma of Zapiro’s latest cartoon.

In preparing to write my PhD proposal I have read what feels like an innumerable number of articles about sexual violence.

I have read about how womxn are submerged from a young age in a culture which makes them responsible for keeping themselves ‘safe’, while simultaneously positioning them as consumable, violateable, rapeable.

I have read about how womxn in a variety of social locations are coerced (not only by their sexual partners, but also by the dominant discourses of our society) to endure pain and discomfort rather than pleasure in their sexual encounters I have read about how many womxn have been raped, and how few of these feel able to speak out about their experiences for fear of further blame, shame and violence.

I have felt nauseous, close to tears, furious, empty.

Last night I woke up in the middle of the night, frightened. On my way back from the bathroom I imagined that I was terrified and screaming, with all the force that my lungs would allow, but nobody came to save me.

Just as nobody came on the night I was raped.

It is not surprising to me that my terror and my panic returned to me so strongly last night.

In fact it is more surprising that it doesn’t return every night.

Because even on days when I do not spend eight hours reading about sexual violence, I still see it everywhere.

I see it in the way that others are objectified, dehumanized, and made into ‘symbols’ for political commentary.

And every time I see I am reminded of the darkest moments of my life, of being terrified, paralyzed, ripped apart. I am reminded of lying there, waiting for it to end and for everything to return to normal.

But how can it ever return to normal when normal is so violent?

Where violence is everywhere, seeping into the poles, the soul, the self

The violence makes me up and also breaks me apart

How to think outside it, against it

How to break free without breaking apart

How to not be preoccupied with whether or not I am “broken”

How to weep but not drown

How to be angry but not lash out

How to be empty but not paralysed

How to be myself?

In this heavy space

Submerged in violence

That seeps into the pores, the soul

The self

Telling stories

The infinitely wise and magical Tracy Chapman’s song ‘telling stories’ begins as follows:

There is fiction in the space between

The lines on your page of memories

Write it down but it doesn’t mean

You’re not just telling stories

There is fiction in the space between

You and me

 

We are always telling stories. It is through the telling of our experiences – to both ourselves and to others – that we come to make sense of them. As one character in Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah remarks: “the story is our escort; without it, we are blind. Does the blind man own his escort? No, neither do we the story; rather it is the story that owns and directs us”. Achebe here suggests that the stories we tell not only make certain meanings of experiences possible, but they also make possible certain ways of being.

At the heart of my PhD study is the question of how being raped has shaped the way I understand and enact my identity post-rape. This requires the telling of the story of what it means to be raped, as well as situating this story amidst, alongside and against the stories of others’ sexual violations.

I am more than apprehensive.

The telling of this story will require the unravelling of many other stories. I know that I will have to unravel the story of the ‘rape victim’ who is forever marked by their violation. I know that I will have to unravel the story of the ‘rape survivor’ who uses their trauma to construct a ‘better’, more robust self.  I will have to unravel the story of the ‘blameless white girl’ – who is unluckily in the wrong place at the wrong time and the story of the ‘silly black girl’ – who puts herself in danger. I will have to deconstruct these comfortable ways of understanding why it is that some people are violated and others are not and why some people are able to ‘heal’ and others are not. And in this process of deconstruction I will have to find new, less neat, less coherent, more troubling ways of understanding myself.

In thinking about how to tell this complex, uncomfortable story I was recently presented with other words by Achebe. About storytelling, he says: “art is man’s constant effort to create for himself a different order of reality from that which is given to him; an aspiration to provide himself with a second handle on existence through his imagination…. [It is] one of the forms he has fashioned out of his experience with language”. The stories we tell are therefore not merely attempts to recreate the ‘facts’ of our experiences, but rather to recreate our experiences in ways that make it possible for us to read them as ‘facts’.

As I write my PhD I write not about what happened to me the night I was raped, or what happened in the days, weeks and months following the rape. Instead I write about what it means to look back on those experiences from where I am now – distanced from the experience, partially reconstituted, partly ‘healed’.

The story I will write has been told and retold, both inside and outside of my head. It has been deconstructed and recreated over and over and over. In the process I have simultaneously deconstructed and recreated myself, as ‘victim’, then as ‘survivor’, as irreparably damaged and then as pieced back together and then as damaged again. Perhaps this is what Stephen Crites means when he says: “a coherent life experience is not simply given, or a track laid down in the living. To the extent that a coherent identity is achievable at all, the thing must be made, a story-like production with many pitfalls, and is constantly being revised”.

If I cannot hope to construct something coherent or to tell the truth of what happened to me, what is it that I hope my story can do?

The answer to this question is complex, multiple and partly formed, just as I imagine that the telling of the story will be. I want my story to move into less certain terrain, to disrupt unitary narratives and unitary selves, to break down the distinctions between the self and the social, to recreate the human in all of its messiness. In these ways I hope that my story can exist in “the space between you and me”.

Beyond ‘survival’

Remember when the days were long

And rolled beneath a deep blue sky

Didn’t have a care in the world

With mommy and daddy standin’ by

But “happily ever after” fails

And we’ve been poisoned by these fairy tales

This is the end

This is the end of the innocence

Don Henley, The End of the Innocence

 

Today marks my transition from being 26 to being 27. It marks six years since I asked my father to sing Don Henley’s song ‘the End of the Innocence’ at my 21st birthday party. At that time it may have been an odd choice of song – a rather morbid message going forward into adulthood. But in the last six years it has continued to play over and over in my mind.

The song speaks of the crumbling of a safe, protected world. For me the song captures a lot of what I have felt in the past few years and particularly how I have felt since being raped. The song speaks to my feeling that the life I had occupied before the rape was over, that I would never be the same person that I was before I was raped (both to myself and to others), and that I would never get back the view of the world, the innocence, that I had held before the 30th of October 2015.

These feelings have filled much of the past year.  On reflection, 26 was predominantly taken up by a constant battle to ‘survive’, or rather to do a particular kind of ‘survival’. I fought frantically to recapture the version of myself that I had been pre-rape – in my intimate relationships, at work and when I looked into the mirror. A lot of the time it felt like I was succeeding. I carried on with the research and the writing that I had been doing before the rape, I maintained my intimate relationships with my friends, my partner and my family, and I was able to look unflinchingly back at my reflection. Being able to carry on as I had done before was immensely comforting and it allowed me to feel in control of my life again.

In many ways this period mirrors what is referred to as the ‘outward adjustment’ phase of recovery. According to the You & Rape information booklet : ‘In this phase, most survivors try to carry on with their lives as normal. To anyone looking at you from the outside, you may seem to be coping. You might even feel this way yourself. You need to go through this phase to reassure yourself that you can cope. During this phase, you test your ability to survive the experience’ (p.42).

But this kind of survival left very little space for me to process what I had lost, what had been fundamentally changed and ripped away from me by being raped. I was so busy surviving and carrying on that I did not have time to mourn, or to rage or to just be still.

I remember one day breaking down in front of a friend about something unrelated to the rape. I became completely overwhelmed and sobbed hysterically for about 20 minutes. She gently stroked my back and said: ‘I think this is the first time you have allowed yourself to cry all year’.

I have struggled to allow these kinds of moments. I think this is partly because of the dominant narrative of ‘rape survivor’ that I have tried to embody. Even before I was raped, the term ‘survivor’ was deeply inscribed in my subconscious. Since training as a volunteer counsellor at Rape Crisis in 2013, I have adopted the use of this term.  After the 30th of October 2015 I automatically appropriated this term when describing what had happened to me.

The preference for using this term is outlined in the You & Rape booklet: ‘we use the word “survivor” to indicate any person – man or woman – who has been through a rape and lived. We use this term not only because many victims do not survive and are killed during a rape, but also because many fear that this will happen even if the rapist does not intend to kill his victim. We also use this term because it does not feel helpful for any person to be labelled a victim – it makes that person seem more weak, helpless and passive than she or he may already be feeling. In fact, that person may be very strong, resourceful and resilient’ (p.3).

I am not for one minute denying the importance or usefulness of the term ‘rape survivor’. This way of seeing myself has allowed me to retain hope in my capacity to live beyond the rape. It has given me something beyond the helplessness, the passivity and the powerlessness of being a ‘victim’.

But this term has also prescribed a certain way of experiencing and processing being raped. The term ‘survivor’ inherently implies growth and transforming the rape into something ‘positive’.

Michelle Hattingh in her book, I’m the girl who was raped, speaks of her own discomfort with the term survivor. She says: ‘I absolutely, positively, loathe the term “rape survivor”. Survival to me, is a verb. It is something you choose to do. I did not survive being raped. I was raped. I am neither a victim nor a survivor. I feel like I have become rape’ (p. 112).

I know now that I was frightened of relinquishing the little bit of control that I had regained in the aftermath of the rape. I was frightened of delving into the deep, dark, overwhelming hole filled with memories, shadows and horrifying, shattering pain. I am still afraid.

But I have been able to say to myself at least once in the past year: ‘what happened to you is immensely terrible’. I have been able to cry and say ‘I am afraid that I will never be the person I was before’. I have been able to admit that I am different, not more or less, but different from the person I was before I was raped.

In beginning to acknowledge these shifts I feel that I am becoming more myself, or rather a version of myself that I want to be. I am not merely ‘surviving’ but rather I am re-learning the process of ‘being’ – with all its inconsistencies, instability and vulnerability.

So today, on my 27th birthday, I wish to acknowledge what has come before, and want to also reach out to a place beyond ‘survival’.