Michelle Solomon
Michelle Solomon

When journalists silence rape survivors

This week Rhodes University student newspaper Activate published a story titled “Club Etiquette”. The story explains best party practice along the lines of ‘don’t wear heels’ and ‘respect your bartender’. Then there was this:

“Don’t take advantage of the drunken person of your dreams. The next morning, when they wake up next to you wondering how they got there, it could make for an awkward breakfast with the digsmates [roommates].”

This phrase was then directly followed by this:

“That being said, if you have to make the call, rather take them home than feel them up in the middle of the dance floor.”

These phrases in the story were then followed by a lengthy explanation of “what not to do” when using a bathroom at a club. The story was not yet published online at the time that this was written.

I wish I did not have to explain how immensely problematic the above quoted statements are, but it appears (by the simple fact of their publication) that I do have to explain how these statements perpetuate rape culture and enable gender-based violence.

The problem starts with the words “Don’t take advantage of…”. This phrase already denotes a lack of consent on the part of the “person of your dreams”, in that a simple definition of the phrase “take advantage of” is synonymous to unfairly imposing something on someone, as is done by exploiting a weakness. The evident weakness in the above described scenario is that the other party is drunk. This already sets up a scenario where the “person of your dreams” is exploited for being drunk, and clearly without consent. Therefore, when this “person of your dreams” is taken advantage of (without consent), and taken to another person’s home (without consent), and sexually exploited (without consent), only to wake up in someone’s else’s bed and without any knowledge of “how they got there”, the scenario described is one of rape. If someone is so blind drunk that the next morning they cannot remember where they are, how they got there, or what happened during that time frame, and another party ‘takes advantage’ of them, then that someone is the victim of a sexual assault. But – according to the author of this story and by extension, the newspaper that published it – the worst thing about the described scenario is that the perpetrator may have “an awkward breakfast with the digsmates”. According to this newspaper, we should be more concerned about how our peers will respond to an uninvited house guest than the fact that they are living in the same house as a rapist. And we should be more concerned about our digsmates than the traumatised, victimised and exploited person who woke up disorientated and in a strange place with no memory of how they got there.

By publishing this batshittery, the newspaper is not only perpetuating rape culture, but it is tacitly condoning this behaviour by failing to call it out for what it is: rape. Rape, which is criminally sanctioned in South Africa. The Sexual Offences Act (SOA) of 2007 sets out the conditions wherein a ‘complainant’, or the “alleged victim of a sexual offence”, cannot be said to have consented to a sexual act:

Circumstances in respect of which the complainant does not voluntarily or without coercion agree to an act of sexual penetration or an act of sexual violation include, but are not limited to…: (d) where the [complainant] is incapable in law of appreciating the nature of the sexual act, including where [the complainant] is, at the time of the commission of such sexual act – (iii) is in an altered state of consciousness, including under the influence of any medicine, drug, alcohol or other substance, to the extent that [the complainant’s] consciousness or judgement is adversely affected.

Therefore, the scenario described by Activate is not only that of rape, but it is also a description of rape that is criminally punishable within the South African legal system. “Rape culture is diminishing the gravity of any sexual assault, attempted sexual assault, or culture of actual or potential coercion in any way,” writes Melissa McEwan. By failing to call the scenario “rape”, Activate has perpetuated rape culture and given leverage to the idea that there are few consequences when someone “takes advantage of” another (drunk) person. And not only is the newspaper perpetuating the idea that there are few consequences to taking advantage of a drunk person, there is also nothing really wrong with doing so. Other than an “awkward breakfast”.

This rape denialism (a special kind of rape apology) not only enables gender-based violence by denying that it is in fact violence, but condones and seeks to perpetuate it at Rhodes University.

And if, according to Activate, there is nothing really wrong with taking advantage of someone when they are intoxicated, what does this say to survivors of such rape that live, work and study at Rhodes University?

By failing to acknowledge the situation as rape, and by making it appear as nothing more than a laughable mishap with no more consequences than an “awkward” breakfast, this newspaper betrays and silences rape survivors. Rape survivors that were taken advantage of by a rapist while they were vulnerable. This, on a campus which hosts one of the largest anti-rape protests in South Africa: the Silent Protest.

The Silent Protest is an annual event that has taken place at Rhodes University since 2007. The protest seeks to break the silence and cycle of violence against women by providing them with a platform to speak out about the sexual violence they have suffered, as well as show solidarity with those rape survivors silenced by social stigma around sexual violence. The Silent Protest is in less than a month, and this student newspaper has not only condoned rape by failing to call it what it is, they have also given a platform to exactly the kind of rape denialism that silences rape survivors in the first place. The newspaper is not only trivialising the experiences of untold numbers of Rhodes University students, who don’t report their rape for fear of social stigma (the likes of which was published by the newspaper), they are giving credence to the view that what happened to these rape survivors was not really rape at all.

Rape survivors like *Holly, who spoke at the 2011 Rhodes Truth Commission about her rape and the social stigma she suffered once she reported it. Holly told the commission that in her first year she went to a digs formal with friends, only to be “taken advantage of” while drunk at the party. She was raped by one of her peers. And Holly is not alone. Every weekend at least one more of our fellow students will have a similar experience to that described by Activate and experienced by Holly, and they will have been raped, and they will be rape survivors.

The newspaper follows the problematic rape scenario with a piece of advice: “If you have to make the call, rather take them home than feel them up in the middle of the dance floor”. Then you can sexually assault someone in privacy, and without those pesky witnesses.

By publishing this rape apologia the newspaper has potentially silenced those survivors who doubt the validity of their own trauma, and the reality that they were in fact raped. They have shown those rape survivors exactly how society responds to their trauma: with nothing more than an “awkward breakfast”.

*not her real name.

This statement was written by Michelle Solomon on behalf of Rhodes University’s Gender Action Project (GAP) and Slutwalk Grahamstown. Solomon is the chair of GAP at Rhodes University, as well as the co-organiser of the 2012 Silent Protest and Slutwalk Grahamstown.

In addition, she is also the editor of Rhodes University student newspaper The Oppidan Press, a professional journalist and Masters candidate at the School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University.

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    • CJ

      After actually having read the article in question, (which someone else provided the link to) I have to agree that this post smacks of mud-slinging. You never mentioned in the blog itself that you had contacted Activate on more than one occasion for a response. I have to wonder why you didn’t think that was important to mention?

      I agree that self-regulation may in fact save us from a Media Appeals Tribunal etc, however, isn’t a right of reply still valid in this senario?

      Is this really the best we can do regarding self-regulation? For instance, I wonder if it was really necessary to mention Activate specifically, which is a student newspaper, and in effect a training ground for young journalists, some of whom are first year students. Why not also look to the way gender and gender-based violence is represented in national publications – which let’s be honest – has a wider reach and impact than a tiny student newspaper.

      I agree with you on the issues. How you’ve gone about it is where I have a problem. The problems you outline in your post are wider issues and they should have been treated as such.

    • Max

      This article is pure slander, it is trivialising the term ‘ rape’ and demeaning it and the power of the word. Solomon has used a variety of out of context quotes to attack her rival newspaper. May it be notes that the Activate article was written by a women. In addition the Activate Editor was only given a few hours to respond to this article.

      Solomon is attempting to draw attention to The Oppidan Press in an unethical manner which is not only inflamatory but is considerably more ‘rape denialist’ than the original article.

      Activate was simply rasing awareness as to the fact that people can make bad decisions while under the influence. First year students need to be aware of the nature of decisions made under the influence.

      Solomon has crossed the line, she is placing the name of Rhodes University into disrepute and demeaning the value of our Academic Degrees.

      in addition she has failed to proved the context for the article which is not avalible online. Nor does she provide any link to the full article or directions on how to acquire it.

      This article is pathetic and demonstrates that having an undergraduate and postgraduate degree does NOT imply social awareness nor any particular type of intelligence.

    • Loon

      Samantha Cook’s post: could not have put it more succinctly or articulately myself.I think she got down to the crux of it.

    • http://http:/walterpike.net Walter Pike

      I am shocked at some of the comments. Michelle’s point is absolutely correct. I understand the attempt at humour by Activate, but it’s not funny. Like Rush Lindbaugh is not funny.

      What Michelle describes as rape denialism is exactly that, the perpetrators are still rapists even if they didn’t hold a knife to thier targets throat. No amount of light hearted journalism can change that.

    • Graham

      My sister’s ex-boyfriend used the excuse when he cheated on her – “I was blind drunk and could not help myself”. Did not save the relationship…

      If you are prepared to get sloshed to the point of lapse in judgement, YOU have to deal with the consequences.

    • Rich

      @Robard – I agree with you on that. To detrmine the level of intoxication is difficult at times. In the case discussed in the article one cannot make sweeping proclamations as to what is and what is not. The level of intoxication is important as to whether consent is given or not. It is NOT a case of one glove fits all and that an important point missing from the article.

    • Rebecca Davis

      The need for commentary like Solomon’s piece in South Africa is all too starkly exposed by the comments on this thread, predictably. “Solomon is over-sensitive about the rape issue” – doesn’t that just say it all? Forget the inane sniping about whether Solomon being involved with another student newspaper constitutes a conflict of interests: the fact that there appear to be *many* commentators here denying that what the article describes (and indeed legitimises) amounts to rape CLEARLY shows that it was a piece worth writing. It is a thoroughly chilling indictment of social responses to gender issues that a writer who criticises what is essentially a rape apology is subjected to the kind of attacks on this comment thread! And the argument that it is somehow “unfair” to critique student media is also bizarre – these publications aim for professionalism and have large, impressionable readerships. Thanks, Michelle.

    • Mandy

      What happens if both parties were “blind drunk” and both had WTF moments when they woke up the following day?

    • http://www.collegefootprint.ragireland.ie/free-sex/ Keeley

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      Imagine doing the same ole positions and same ole routine%u2026night after night. She arrived at her destination, and discovered it was in an industrial area, and the office was in fact a real estate office.