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Rape is not a slogan on a T-shirt

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.

Author

  • Fiona Snyckers is outrageously opinionated for a novelist-housewife. She is the author of the Trinity series of novels, and hopes to continue getting paid to make stuff up.

27 Comments

  1. The Creator The Creator 18 April 2012

    Well, is it really any different from “HIV Positive” T-shirts? I’m not sure whether those really work either, but a lot of people used to seem quite chuffed with them.

    But I agree, getting raped is not something to be particularly proud of. I suppose the issue is that you shouldn’t be at all ashamed of it either, any more than you should be ashamed of getting knocked down by a car with a drunken driver.

  2. Graham Johnson Graham Johnson 18 April 2012

    There are no ‘I am an apartheid survivor’ T-shirts, but there are a lot of people who glorify their ‘exposure’ to apartheid in the past. They even speak of ‘strugglista’ and having ‘struggle credentials’.

    What you appear to say is that rape survivors get ‘rape credentials’ and some actually want them.

    Not much difference in my book.

    You are right that it is anappropriate to claim glory from despicable behaviour. But our government does it all the time.

  3. Michelle Solomon Michelle Solomon 18 April 2012

    As an organiser of the Silent Protest 2012, I think it would have useful if you actually got your facts straight before making such ridiculous and dangerous accusations about the Silent Protest. If you had concerns, you could have easily contacted me on twitter or via email, and I would have explained/debated some of these issues to you.

    The protest is not above criticism, not by any means, and we welcome constructive contributions. But most of the above is anecdotal rubbish that you pulled out from your own experiences, and have very little (if any) bearing of the reality on the ground at the Silent Protest.

    Since your column is so fraught with inaccuracies, I will rather right a response to this on Thought leader – a simple comment won’t do. I would offer some advice, however: do your research properly or, even better, engage with the protest organisers. You have never been to a Silent Protest, and have provided no evidence for your claim that a rape accused was “outed” at the protest. As long as I have been involved with the protest, this has NEVER happened. If you have proof, I would urge you to produce it.

  4. Girlfromtheriver Girlfromtheriver 18 April 2012

    Does Rhodes keeps stats for rape offences? Presumably, hopefully, it does now. Few were kept when I was there, over ten years ago now, which prompted me to write a piece about the seemingly unco-ordinated response to rape provided by various campus services. It is easy to think something isn’t a problem if you have no record of it.

    I hope the t-shirt wearing is matched by a quiet and determinded will on all sides to improve services and safety for all – and on all university campuses. This isn’t an issue exclusive to Rhodes.

  5. N N 18 April 2012

    Well, that certainly fills my quota for reading fabulously stupid things on the internet today. Who knew the Silent Protest was tacitly glamourising rape?

  6. Louise Louise 18 April 2012

    you need to visit ru in 2012 to comment on the silent protest. i have never had the guts to take part, but it is certainly not glamorous. it raises a huge amount of debate amongst male and female, young and old Members of the community. it is also a way for women to speak out with grief about friends who have been attacked or deal with their own rape. as young women who occupy the streets of sa we are terrified by rape! i am not a feminist and can not claim to be doing the work of an activist but your article disgusts me! sexual assault and violence are major issues facing women and men in our country and none of the youth are having fantasies about having to overcome that particular ordeal to claim a survivor t shirt, most hide in shame and silence… sis on you, get your facts straight!

  7. Tarryn Tarryn 18 April 2012

    As a rape survivor and someone who wore the shirt this year, I disagree with you. While I may have experienced real catharsis at the protest, the Rape Survivor shirt provides those protesting with a human catalyst and rallying point for the cause. I never felt like a martyr; in fact I felt overwhelmingly supported. The Rhodes campus is a community of warm, helpful people for the most part, real leaders in many respects. I think the protest has much to improve on but it has a sound grounding and does really good work by showing people out there how seriously we take rape. It is no joke. And you claiming it is trivialised by the protest shows that you don’t understand what you’re talking about. If you’ve done the protest on the campus itself you will know the overwhelmingly strong emotion and strength every participant brings and the silent solidarity they offer those of us willing to speak out. No one is ever pressured to reveal their story – I wore the gag in my first year – but through the process of the protest we realise that we are not alone, and that we do not go unsupported. I think you mean well, but I also think you’re missing the point.

  8. Carina Truyts Carina Truyts 18 April 2012

    Oh come on Michelle, you come across as hot- tempered and immature in your response. She said ‘apparently’. And anyway, the impact of this well- written piece is about the tone and the drama of the whole thing. I attended the protest in first year and had a very similar feeling about it, the initial hesitation for people to speak at the reflection, but after the first few brave ones were applauded mightily, it kind of became a trend, and if you had a sad rape story you sort of got made into a pseudo- hero by your peers. Of course, it is never okay to silence anyone and thats not what this is saying. You clearly take this issue to heart, fantastic, but the author makes a valid point. Instead of launching into an accusatory fluster and going off on a rampage, I think it would be very helpful if you engaged what what being said here, and discussed this side of the story that doesn’t often come to light.

  9. Activist Activist 18 April 2012

    “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.” This shows the sometimes strange conflation of the personal with the political. It reminds me of Jean Genet protesting for gay liberation with his brothers in arms The Black Panthers – assuming they were both equally persecuted minorities and thus had something in common. The joke of course is that the lefty bra-burning feminists (and this is no discredit to the valid issue of stopping rape) were supporting a patriarchal, misogynistic, socially conservative, tribal struggle – which is probably an uncomfortable truth they now face.

  10. Katherine Katherine 18 April 2012

    I haven’t heard much about Silent Protest but I a ‘survivor’ of sexaully assault.

    A t-shirt isn’t glamourising the topic at all – it makes me rather annoyed at how nagging and unsubstantiated your story is by not only lacking information but something deeper and for insightful other than you tales as a 20-something year old Rhodes student in an activism group (which sounds more like book club).

    The reality and facing it has no glamour. I think the t-shirts are a great idea. It is the meaning behind that and really what I believe, the meaning to the person wearing it, if it’s something to show that they can finally except wearing that at the shopping mall (where ever) for everyone to stare at – then I believe their feelings of being ashamed and blaming themselves may have subsided. It’s not for everyone, but a t-shirt is obviously a personal choice to put on. I think that getting the message out there, seeing that there are people around you who’ve been through something they have have nothing to be ashamed about it a good thing.

    My mother was raped when I was 11, I was there. I experience it in so many ways and nothing make me angrier that this article, and your mediocre university activist group. So rape isn’t a slogan on a t-shirt, it’s more than that and so is what R U silent campaign is about. What would you know.

    This comment has been edited.

  11. Louise Louise 18 April 2012

    Nice, Well done!!! You removed all criticism and real engagement! Leaving one comment…

  12. Amy Goodenough Amy Goodenough 18 April 2012

    Many years separate me from the experiences you describe, and while some of the issues raised regarding the Women’s Movement resemble (very) vaguely some of my own, most of it is foreign to me. So I will not judge the actions of that movement – I fear that would be an injustice.

    Yet I feel that your comments regarding the Rape Survivor t-shirt are unfounded. I have never seen that shirt worn with pride, and it is never worn with ease. It is a difficult day, filled with dirty looks, misogynistic jokes and threats.

    I have never worn it, have never wished to, don’t believe I ever could. Perhaps I admire those who do: not because they were raped, but because they are brave enough to make visible something that surrounds us, and is forced down, kept invisible. 1 in 20 women who are raped will never report it. The purpose of the protest is, then, to make the issue visible. That shirt is not a badge of pride. It is a symbol of trauma, worn bravely.

    Finally, I have never heard the name of a supposed rapist uttered at what you call the “ceremony of reflection” (“debriefing” to us), and I would be interested to know how and when names were leaked to the press. I would be even more interested to know what journalist would take it to print.

    I am aware that the protest has, but I have participated in it 4 times, and despite my criticisms, I intend to continue. If what you describe here is actually happening, then that would be cause for concern. But I have never seen it.

  13. Sekata Ramokgopa Sekata Ramokgopa 18 April 2012

    In Afrikaans rape is translated as verkrag, it means someone overpowered or you forced themselves onto you! Rape is far too common in South Africa. this protest to me is about giving a voice to women who have been overpowered, had their voices silenced even though they had said no. too many women are unable or unwilling to speak out because of the stigma that is attached to being a rape survivor, and the chances of the perpetrator being convicted are slim. Please for goodness sake just come to Grahamstown and be a part of it or even observe because if you did you would not even think to write such. Yoh! Your words are infuriating; I really hope you are just seeking attention and that this isn’t how you think because if this is how dark the caverns of our mind are then I fear for you. I will pray for you!

  14. Sinesipho Sinesipho 18 April 2012

    I am completely stunned! The RUsilent protest is not sacrosanct, it still is growing & I believe criticism should be welcome. But having participated in the protest for 3 years your account could not be more inaccurate. More than anything it is completely ignorant & shows you have not done any research on it of any kind. I’m sure your intentions are good, but this is completely irresponsible & a betrayal to those who have found a voice through the protest. Wow! Please! just do your research.

  15. megan megan 18 April 2012

    This is the most ridiculous piece of crap I have ever read. As a Rhodes graduate and (unlike yourself) participant in the 1 in 9 campaign, as well as a journalist, I am shocked by the lack of critical engagement, clear thought and integrity with which you wrote this horribly innacurate piece of frankly, embarassing writing. You fail to quote participants, engage with the organisers or even visit the “stifling” Rhodes campus and base your whole ‘piece’ on your own misguided feelings about a protest you appear to know very little about. Please don’t disservice those who coulld learn from and be helped by 1 in 9 by spewing anymore stories about such matters. My use of the word ‘stories’ is intentional.

  16. Aimee Aimee 18 April 2012

    As a rape survivor who has worn the t-shirt for the last 4 years I find it incredibly insulting that you consider this to be even remotely glamorous. No one is ever pressurised into wearing the t-shirt to somehow prove that they are “brave and empowered” the wearers of the t-shirt are women who independently chose to put the t-shirt on. And as far as not being emotionally ready, survivors are cautioned time and time again about the emotional repercussions that may be triggered by wearing the t-shirt to ensure that doing so does not cause any more suffering for the survivors.
    These women have survived rape, they have come out victorious and are now strong enough to not only speak out but wear this horrific label in big bold writing across their chests, giving fellow survivors the courage to speak out themselves. How can you even suggest that in doing so the t-shirt wearers are attaching glamour to the horrific act that they have survived?

  17. Melanie Melanie 19 April 2012

    This debate raises many issues, as a woman first, and secondly as an ex Rhodes student I’m glad that these issues are being raised. Back then as a student the word ‘Rape’ had a certain association: to be ‘raped’ at that time (in the early 90s) if you conducted a basic word association exercise you’d hear the words: “violent, angry, stranger, hate, random, weird, aggression, violated, criminal….etc. My point is, is that back then Rape was a crime you saw on TV. It was a hard-core crime.

    Fast forward to varsity and we were exposed to the word ‘Date Rape’….semantically, this softened the act, it almost glamourised it – ‘Date’ is a word that makes most women think of roses and music….pop that in front of the HARD word RAPE and it automatically reduces the harshness of the ‘Rape’ word by at least 50%.

    I was ‘Date Raped’ at varsity; Got drunk, chatted to that boy, flirted with boy, then woke up with my clothes and underwear lying in random odd, uncharacteristic places (before you say passion took over) we all have ‘safe’ habits – mine was that, when I was in an unfamiliar place (drunk or sober) I made a point of folding my clothes in a neat pile.

    I woke up disorientated & sore, I knew something was wrong, it felt like somebody had taken a hammer to my thighs & forced my legs apart. I gathered my belongings & ran out that house. Years later, I know I was raped but my argument won’t stand cos I ‘asked’ for it earlier. BULLSH*T.

  18. L L 19 April 2012

    thing is this protest seems pointless! every year since i have been at Rhodes is a constant reminder of what happened to them(people that do not want to wear those t-shirts “Rape Survivor”) Last year at the protest some people went to the point of saying screw men in the Cathedral which is disrespectful to the place where i worship because people are swearing and degrading other people. Its like the protest is against men! Sorry you got raped and all but if there was a solidarity group that was for safety on campus amongst other things then that is what should be done! Protest for a solution not a reminder of what happened in the past! Talking about my rape experience will not stop a Guy from raping me! what needs to be achieved from this are solutions to make campus more safer to reduce chances of being raped not a constant reminder every flipping year of what happened in one’s past.

  19. Brett Sacks Brett Sacks 19 April 2012

    Wow…

    First and foremost, regarding your university experience and glorifying rape; I’d like to express my shock, horror, disgust and downright amazement that an organisation of feminists or an organisation that is supposed to promote woman’s rights are so short sighted that they are actually blind to the point where they want to be raped. Yes, girls got together, and convinced each other that rape was so cruel and ghastly that it was something they needed to experience. I am speechless as to what that says about the minds of educated young women.

    Secondly, to think that a woman’s rights group should be campaigning for such things as “no beauty pageants” is also outrageous… You have no right to impose your views on others. It’s the equivalent of a girl who enjoys participating in a beauty pageant telling other girls they shouldn’t be allowed to play soccer or rugby.

    Finally, just because of your disturbing experiences at university regarding the “campaigns” or “meetings” regarding rape, you can’t bash an honest and genuine attempt to raise awareness and to show strength and solidarity for rape victims and survivors. A t-shirt branded “rape victim” is the same as one branded “HIV positive” or shaving your hair for cancer; it’s to show support.

    It seems your warped ideas and experiences are still getting in the way of the real issue; this isn’t about you or your opinion, it’s about raising awareness and showing support.

  20. Khalsa Singh Khalsa Singh 19 April 2012

    A long convoluted story……….but the last paragraph was the clincher. I agree.

  21. Justin Mackie Justin Mackie 19 April 2012

    Well said.

  22. Dave Harris Dave Harris 19 April 2012

    Just like these T-shits tend to diminish the violence associated with sexual assault so too does the the use of gang-rape by Jonathan Shipiro (aka Zapiro) to engage in self-serving gutter politics. Many of these organizations that profess to “promote” women’s causes, will NEVER utter a single word in protest against our media desensitizing us to gang-rape. These are the kind of “satirical” cartoons our media subjects our children to on an ongoing basis.

    Yet these organizations are quick to point fingers at African traditions e.g. polygamy or are ready to defend endangered species yet ignore the plight of our landless millions still mired in grinding poverty – its these shameful double standards that’s also the source of much of our societal problems.

  23. Pete Rooke Pete Rooke 20 April 2012

    The OP’s anecdotes are:

    1. Irrelevant and self-centred.
    2. Very difficult to believe.

    Namely:

    “Oh, I wish I could be raped! Just so I could know what it is really, really like.”

    Followed by a convenient encounter with a former member of said group who apparently divulged voluntarily (as you do) that she had fabricated her account of being raped.

    Really? Has this extraordinary claim been verified by an editor?

    Preposterous.

  24. Peter Joffe Peter Joffe 21 April 2012

    Whatever you want in South Africa you can have! “Method A) All that’s needed is violence!”. Higher wages are there or the taking just use violence to get them, strike, loot trash and burn.
    Don’t like the mayor, don’t vote him out of office use method A). Sex, don’t ask nicely just use violence. Service delivery use method A). Don’t like the town council that was elected ‘democratically’, use method A). Don’t like the way the courts try to prosecute suspected ANC criminals? Use method A) but boost it with a ‘political’ settlement. How can you enforce laws in a lawless society where failure and crime are rewarded with promotion or dropped charges. Men don’t rape women! Women just object to dishing out their favours to all and sundry but hope that in the process they don’t get killed! The rapists get away with it most of the time and as even cops openly rape women, what hope is there for women and for the country? The new South Africa came into being on the back of violence and so it has remained.
    There are too many people who are ‘above the law’ to discourage those who are ‘below the law’ to see the error of their ways? Crime pays in South Africa – big time, and all will suffer in the long run. Justice is served when charges are dropped of files are lost – or so it seems.

  25. nguni nguni 22 April 2012

    Methinks the ladies protesteth too much, ie there more than a grain of truth in your report, Fiona. Instead of debating issues worthy of a university such as global warming, students are being forced (because of real problems on the ground) to deal with the stone-age issue of gender violence. This is how our violent society in the New SA is degrading the quality of higher education.
    ‘been there, got the T-shirt’ -indeed!

  26. isabella vd Westhuizen isabella vd Westhuizen 23 April 2012

    Michelle coudl you all remind us where exactly is Grahamstown.

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