When I was a student at Rhodes University I belonged to the Women’s Movement, an organisation that was intended to advance the rights of women students on campus and generally spread the feminist agenda.
We were supposed to campaign for things like improved security for women on campus, and to protest against dimwitted and archaic traditions such as the annual Miss Fresher beauty competition. Above all, as an affiliate of NUSAS, we were supposed to be participating in the liberation struggle.
Instead, for four years we sat around and talked about rape. What it was like to be raped, people we knew who had been raped, and whether the sex act by its very definition was always rape. We used to obsess over extracts from the writings of Andrea Dworkin who claimed that women started being raped as babies when their male relatives passed them from lap to lap to stimulate their erections. Instead of concluding that the esteemed Ms Dworkin was crazier than a sackful of rabid weasels, we drank it all in through the pores and repeated her words to each other as true believers.
When one of our members had a personal story of sexual assault to share, our respect for her bordered on awe. I will never forget one of our members bursting out in frustration, “Oh, I wish I could be raped! Just so I could know what it is really, really like.”
No one laughed. No one even raised an eyebrow. We all just nodded solemnly. Because we understood.
I’ll also never forget running into another member a few years later and hearing her confess that she had made up her story of being raped because she wanted to feel accepted by the sisterhood. I couldn’t find it in my heart to blame her because I remembered so clearly the glamour we apprentice feminists had attached to the victims of sexual violence.
It’s not as though we meant any harm. We were just painfully young and inexperienced. But we caused harm nonetheless. In glamourising rape we were trivialising the experiences of real rape victims. By saying, for example, that “the drunken sex I had last night that I now regret was rape” or indeed that “all sex is rape” we were undermining the gravity of real sexual assault.
It’s almost impossible to project myself back into the claustrophobic, overheated atmosphere of that small-town campus, but a recent anti-rape campaign did just that. The R U Silent campaign had already come to my attention through social media, and I was invited to take part in the Johannesburg leg of the campaign.
The RU Silent protest consists of women taping their mouths shut with black gaffer tape for 12 hours to show their solidarity with the victims of sexual violence who have felt unable to speak out about their experiences. Now in its sixth year, the campaign has been described by many as striking, effective and highly moving.
But last year a new wrinkle was added to the protest. As one website puts it, “Those survivors that are brave and empowered enough will speak out about the crimes committed against them by wearing T-shirts describing them as “Rape Survivors”.” This struck me as a somewhat macabre take on the saying “been there, done that, got the T-shirt”.
It’s years since I was a student, but I know the rhythm of the Rhodes University campus like I know the beat of the blood in my own veins. And I know beyond a doubt that issuing “Rape Survivor” T-shirts would have several unintended consequences. On the one hand it would pressurise some women to prove themselves “brave and empowered enough” by blurting out experiences they might not be emotionally ready to share. It would also imbue the wearers of those T-shirts with the kind of glamour that is wholly inappropriate in the context of sexual assault.
I can only imagine the highly charged atmosphere of curiosity, prurience and unhealthy awe that greets the wearers of the “Rape Survivor” T-shirts as they go about their business during the day. This would build to a crescendo of speculation as the protest culminates in a ‘Take Back the Night’ march and a ‘Ceremony of Reflection’ during which women are encouraged to share publicly their personal stories of sexual assault. Grahamstown’s local newspaper Grocott’s Mail describes this ceremony as follows: “People who do not know each other at all, find themselves drawn together sharing smiles and high fives, hugging each other as they cried and shouted their defiance as one collective voice, unified in one belief.”
I find myself irresistably reminded of a confirmation camp I endured at the age of 16 during which scores of otherwise reticent teenagers found themselves overcome by the Holy Spirit and fell to the ground, speaking in tongues, as those around them succumbed to the ambient hysteria. I am also reminded of my days in the Rhodes University Women’s Movement and the misguided, almost worshipful, admiration we projected onto rape victims.
The ‘Ceremony of Reflection’ has apparently led to names being leaked to the press of men who have never been charged with anything but are now publicly branded as rapists. These men, who may or may not be guilty of sexual violence, have no opportunity to defend themselves and will carry the smear for the rest of their days.
The “Rape Survivor” T-shirts are undoubtedly well-intentioned, and one might question what harm they are really doing. My reply would be that they undermine the effectiveness of an otherwise powerful campaign. By making a public spectacle out of rape survivors, they trivialise the lived experience of sexual assault. Rape is not a badge of honour. It is not a status symbol to be earned. Above all, it is not a slogan on a T-shirt.