This post is written from a position of deep respect. I have followed Charlene Smith’s writing and activism for years, and have nothing but admiration for her. Her work has revolutionised the way hospitals treat rape survivors and she has been instrumental in getting antiretrovirals administered after sexual assaults. Her writing has helped thousands of women. She is a hero and a warrior in the fight against sexual violence.
Smith recently published a Facebook post in response to the #RUReferenceList protests and in particular to the list itself. There are aspects of this post that I find problematic and this is my attempt to engage with them. This is not an attack, but a respectful engagement with someone I esteem highly. I wish to express the hope that this post will not be triggering to her or to other survivors of sexual assault, but to warn of the possibility that it might. In the next paragraph I will briefly summarise the assault Smith endured for those who don’t know the story. My knowledge of the event comes from Smith’s own writings.
In her Facebook post, Smith writes about the #RUReferenceList from her point of view as a rape survivor, but it is important to remember that her experience of rape is not typical in the South African context. Her assault was of the “stranger-danger” type familiar to us from movies and television. A man, who had possibly been stalking her, broke into her house and raped her at knife-point. It is difficult to imagine anything more traumatic, which only increases my admiration for her tireless activism in support of rape survivors ever since. This kind of rape represents a tiny minority of the sexual assaults in South Africa. For the vast majority of women, it is not strangers who attack them, but people they know, often extremely well.
A direct consequence of this kind of intimate assault is that women who have been raped are very often not believed. As horrifying as Smith’s assault was, there was never a time when she wasn’t believed (at least according to her own writings). Her assailant had broken into her house, and it was 1999. It was a situation that even the South African authorities had no trouble understanding. For most women, especially university students, the challenge in being believed is much greater. Rhodes University students have written about the responses they have received in attempting to report a sexual assault. These range from being told to come back the following week, to being questioned about what they were wearing, and whether they made themselves sufficiently clear when they said no. They have been asked whether they really wanted to pursue the charge because they could “ruin” their assailant’s life.
Rape survivors at university often have to sit in the same lecture theatres as their rapists for months on end while the situation is being “investigated”. They have to watch as their rapists rise up through the hierarchies of student politics or academia, or go on to get high-profile jobs, while they remain trapped in the trauma of being unheard and disbelieved. The decision by an anonymous source to release the RUReferenceList – a list of men who have allegedly sexually assaulted women at Rhodes – is obviously deeply problematic. The cases against these men have not been proved and, as Smith argues, the list impinges on their right to be considered innocent until proven guilty.
However, a very clear remedy in law exists for these men. They are free to sue any number of the people or institutions that published the list (including those who tweeted it) for defamation. Should this happen, it is likely that the truth of the allegations will be tested in court because one of the defences against defamation is that the information is true and in the public interest. It will be interesting to see whether any of the men currently protesting their innocence will actually pursue this course.
On balance, I agree with Smith that the publication of the list was morally questionable. But other forms of protest are morally questionable too, including planting a bomb at a post office or opening fire inside a crowded church. Both of these tactics were employed by South African freedom fighters during the liberation struggle. Today we acknowledge that those freedom fighters had no other choice because they were fighting a war against terrible injustice. The phrase, “The War on … ” is in common currency at the moment. We hear about the “War on Drugs”, and the “War on Terrorism”. Both of these are nonsense terms employed by politicians for their own cynical ends. Here is one that isn’t nonsense – the war on women.
The war on women is very real indeed, particularly in South Africa where up to a quarter of men admit to sexually assaulting a woman. Every time a university privileges the privacy of a rape accused over the protection of a rape survivor, that war is being lost by increments. The students of Rhodes University – just like the fallist protestors – have got tired of asking nicely. They are tired of following procedure. They are tired of waiting months for anything to happen. They are tired of being disbelieved. They know that the war on women is real and that they are losing. So they resorted to a desperate and unorthodox tactic by publishing the #RUReferenceList.
In doing so, these women are not guilty of “rape” as Charlene Smith argues in her Facebook post. Their decision might be questionable but it was born of decades of frustration and has certainly been effective in catapulting gender violence to the forefront of public debate. As is the case with the word “holocaust”, using “rape” as a metaphor is highly problematic and should arguably not be indulged in. Only rape is like rape, as someone commented on Smith’s post. It is a very specific term that cannot be used to cover other forms of violation.
There will come a day when sexual violence against women is less common than it is now because men will know they no longer have the systemic support of rape culture to back them up. And when that happens, we will, in part, have the brave women of Rhodes University to thank for their intervention. They got tired of waiting around for the system to change and decided to change it themselves. I salute them for it.