With its dredging of historical slights and recycling of resentments nurtured over time, Team Bullard vs Team Solomon has all the hallmarks of a grudgefest. This personalised process of verbal pushing and shoving has not only diminished the sort of ethical public sphere needed for discussion of sexual violence, but also endorsed uncritically the unwritten rules for speaking of rape.

Rule one is that only women who have reported to the police may claim the mantle of rape survivor. But if we take as our test what actual, real rape survivors do (rather than what we would like them to do), then reporting to the police turns out to be a very poor test of credibility indeed because it is the response of an exceptional minority, rather than the norm. Data from the 1998 South African Demographic and Health Survey conducted by the department of health showed one in nine women who had been raped to have reported the matter to the police. More recent data from a 2010 Gauteng community-based survey by Gender Links and the Medical Research Council found one in 13 women who had been raped by a non-partner to have reported to the police. By contrast, only one in 25 of those raped by their intimate partners reported the matter.

The reasons for victims’ silence have also been thoroughly investigated and are collated into a list at the end of the article, along with references to the studies concerned. Note how many are directly related to fear of how other people will respond.

The second unwritten rule addresses itself to what counts as real rape, with this comment from Politicsweb being fairly typical: “And frankly, Michelle Solomon’s story just makes me sick! She woke up alive. Unhurt, and so unsure of whether she had been raped or not that she drove her ‘rapist’ home. This woman is riding high on the coat-tails of the extreme pain, torture and death that real rape victims suffer.”

There are a number of ideas embedded in this set of statements. One is that the well of public sympathy is an exceedingly small one and must be rationed accordingly, with the test for who deserves our compassion, and who does not, being the presence of a brutal degree of injury. Not even our law is this severe. Unlike assault where a distinction is drawn between a common assault and an assault with intent to cause grievous bodily harm, there is no rape common and rape grievous. It is the act of penetration without consent that is the harm, irrespective of how much or how little violence accompanies the act. But perhaps what these statements are also pointing to is the indifference some of us feel towards rape, it now requiring the extreme to rouse at least some degree of fellow-feeling.

If we cast the net more broadly than the Bullard-Solomon exchange, then other conditions for speaking about rape reveal themselves, one of which nuances the index of brutality rule. Consider this review which appeared in The Witness of Scandal actor Candice Derman’s memoir Indescribable: it’s easy to keep a bad secret: “Her inclusion of graphic and often sickening details seemed gratuitous and by the end of the book I was still left wondering how readers or the actress herself could benefit from the inclusion of such vulgar, offensive imagery.” What this reviewer wanted was “more on the psychological effects, and how she learned to cope and finally move on with her life”. The reviewer is not alone; many journalists who call me wanting to interview rape survivors ask for someone “who’ll give others hope”.

So these are rules for publicly claiming to be a rape survivor: report to the police, speak only of the extreme and savage (but not to a degree which unsettles) and reassure the listener/reader that all will be well. Each of these elements combines to a perfect degree in Alison’s I have life, probably the most successful and well-known first-person account of rape written in South Africa.

Alison is indeed inspiring. In 1994 she was raped by two men and left for dead after having been stabbed repeatedly and her throat slit. Nonetheless, she managed to crawl to the road and flag down a passing motorist. Her courage and will to survive are exemplary and testify to how suffering can be transcended.

But rape survivors do not exist for our personal edification and when they speak it cannot be only to tell us reassuring stories about the triumph of the human spirit. Some stories are ambiguous and incomplete, while others are quiet and unspectacular. Others speak to lives left empty and chaotic by anger and self-destruction. None conform to the narrow and exclusionary rules for speaking about rape. Yet if we were to listen and, perhaps more importantly, tolerate the complex array of feelings these accounts evoke, instead of rushing to opine, judge and prescribe, we would not only enrich our own understanding but also provide the acceptance so many rape victims are denied.

Why victims do not report being raped to the police
* Fear of not being believed or being accused of lying;
* Feelings of shame, guilt, humiliation and embarrassment, including feeling responsible for the abuse;
* Feelings of pity and love towards the person abusing;
* Problems of physical access to police or social workers;
* Fear of retaliation or intimidation by the abuser, especially when combined with a lack of confidence that the legal process will result in a conviction;
* Fear of legal processes, including experiencing rudeness and poor treatment by the police;
* Fear of having to relive the trauma in court and during the investigation;
* Fear of upsetting the stability of the family;
* Fear of the power and authority of the abuser;
* Fear of loss of economic support by the abuser;
* Preference for cultural means of resolving disputes (such as the payment of damages by the abuser);
* Fear of ostracism or ridicule by peers; and
* Wanting to avoid the stigma attached to being raped (being labelled as “damaged”).

Jewkes R, Penn-Kekana L and Rose-Junius H. (2005). ‘ “If they rape me, I can’t blame them”: reflections on gender in the social context of child rape in South Africa and Namibia’ Social Science and Medicine 61: 1809-1820.

Kelly, L, Lovett, J and Regan, L. A gap or a chasm? Attrition in reported rape cases (Home Office Research Study 293, 2005)

Lievore, D. Non-reporting and Hidden Recording of Sexual Assault: An international Literature Review, (2003) Report produced for the Commonwealth Office of the Status of Women,

Tjaden, P and Thoennes, N. Extent, Nature, and Consequences of Rape Victimisation: Findings From the National Violence Against Women Survey (January 2006), US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice.


Lisa Vetten

Lisa Vetten

Lisa Vetten is a research associate with the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WiSER).

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