Kate Ferreira

Shaming rape survivors and other bull

“What a week for women! First, two of the (very few) prominent political mavens became kissing besties and then spectacularly not, and then that rape-cry-baby Michelle Solomon made a scene and had to be put back in her place by a good ol’ cigar-smokin’ man like David Bullard (for a bet it turns out, classic!) and everyone is freaking out about it. Chicks just see sexism in everything and, besides, can’t you be a little bit more likable on Twitter when you talk about the sexual violence inflicted on you? Nobody wants to follow such a downer … You know?!”

No, honestly, we don’t. And I (and most conscious, breathing women I know) am just a little bit done hearing how hard it is for the men-folk in these days of rampant feminism. Sure, saying “she didn’t report it, so how do we really know?” or “these feminists are so tedious; not everything is sexism”, doesn’t technically make you a rape-apologist, but by perpetuating attitudes like these, you are contributing to and reinforcing a culture that is fundamentally gender-unequal.

Here is what we know: rape is massively widespread and epically under-reported.

According to Africa Check: “In South Africa, a study in 2010 by Gender Links and the Medical Research Council found that in South Africa’s Gauteng province only one in 13 women reported non-partner rape and overall only one in 25 rapes had been reported to the police.” The same study found that “one in four women in [Gauteng] has experienced sexual violence in their lifetime”.

Or Sonke Gender Justice in a Mail & Guardian comment piece: “Some estimates suggest that nearly 1.5 million rapes occur in South Africa annually — that’s two to three rapes every minute. Reports also suggest that in 40% of the cases the victims are children, and in 15% the victims are children under the age of 11.”

Given the above, here are five things that we (women, rape victims or simply right-minded people) are tired of hearing, five statements that feed and support rape culture:

But why didn’t she report it?
There is no legal requirement for reporting, and although it may seem like society might benefit from a survivor doing so, rape is notoriously hard to prosecute successfully. If you get it right, a rapist is off the street — brilliant, but hard and brutal getting there. If not, you’ve held the spotlight up to your wounds in one of the most (necessarily) intrusive processes possible and he walks away. Gender activists and researchers report an incredible lack of empathy and understanding even within our courts: “How do you know his penis penetrated your anus; do you have eyes in the back of your head?” is an actual question attributed to a magistrate hearing a rape case.

Furthermore, rape is no less rape if the survivor never tells anyone in authority or never goes to the police. Why do we fundamentally mistrust this? If someone told you his phone was stolen, but he decided not to go through the mission of reporting it, would you wonder if it had really been stolen? Or maybe borrowed? Or maybe he got drunk and offered it to someone and was all embarrassed the next day…? A rape victim is not obliged to seek “justice” in order to have her rape validated or taken seriously.

She probably had consensual sex and regretted it
This one is often offered alongside a critique of a victim’s story, in this case with the accusation (from her critics) that Michelle’s accounts of her rape were inconsistent. I can’t say whether there are inaccuracies here (having not read every word she’s put out there … have you, Mr Critic?), but if so, there are other explanations for this other than she’s making it up.

Neurobiology is also a factor. Plus, it is a feature in why cops often have (unfounded) doubts about victims’ genuineness, feeding the myth of widespread false accusations. Slate has a great article laying this all out but here are two key quotes: “Sexual assault victims often can’t give a linear account of an attack and instead focus on visceral sensory details like the smell of cologne or the sound of voices in the hallway. ‘That’s simply because their brain has encoded it in this fragmented way,’ says David Lisak, a clinical psychologist and forensic consultant.” And “police officers with no specialised training often antagonise victims as they zero in on discrepancies. It’s understandable: Cops learn to interview victims based on interrogation practices, which emphasise establishing a timeline and key facts. But what may seem like good police work, Lisak says, can lead a detective to press victims in a way that yields misleading or false information, as they prematurely try to piece together fragmented memories.”

Furthermore, false accusations, while wrong and regrettable, are not nearly as prevalent as many believe. I was unable to find a local stat, but a 2009 report by US-based The National Centre for the Prosecution of Violence Against Women (after examining a number of American and international studies) estimates false accusations make up between 2%-8% of reported rapes. The study goes on to remark that “this realistic and evidence-based estimate of 2%-8% thus suggests that the American public dramatically overestimates the percentage of sexual assault reports that are false”.

And they conclude: “Again, one of the most important challenges for successfully investigating and prosecuting cases of non-stranger sexual assault is the idea that many — or even most — reports are false. As long as this belief is accepted by law-enforcement professionals, prosecutors, jurors, and others, our efforts to improve the criminal justice response to sexual assault will have only limited impact.”

Plus, if you will forgive my flippancy: Despite the very real and documented prevalence of rape in SA and the world, you still think the rape “less plausible” than regretted consensual sex? It’s 2014. I am sure we all know lots of women (and men) who wake up after a one-night stand, thinking they shouldn’t have done that. It was basically the over-arching plot line of Sex and the City, Girls and Californication. Regret doesn’t necessarily prompt targeted and vengeful deceit.

I might have more sympathy if she wasn’t so aggressively single-minded on Twitter…
A victim has every right to process their experience publically. Like any other trauma sufferer, a rape victim might feel compelled to remain silent — shame and horror and denial or any combination of these and other emotions quelling her — or have a need to vocally and publically process what they have experienced, to reach out to a counsellor, a friend, the Twittersphere, and so on, anonymously or otherwise. You don’t have to listen, read or follow. Please opt out rather, especially if you are inclined to troll.

Secondly, writing people off as table-thumpers, myopic or single-minded — hell, thoroughly detesting the writer with every fibre of your being — doesn’t negate the violent crime perpetrated against them. She has every right to be angry and motivated on this topic. Disliking someone and finding their politics tedious doesn’t make it reasonable to belittle the violence inflicted on them.

Ranting about Michelle is distracting from the real bad guy, the guy who publically derided her rape in pursuit of a few extra Twitter followers. And often the distraction steers the topic swiftly to comments, like the above, questioning the veracity of her story based on very little at all. All these diversions do is detract from the important conversations we as a society need to have about our attitude towards rape and rape survivors.

This is also linked to: Not everything is sexism/racism.

Two responses:

Firstly, it is very easy to make this claim from a position of intrinsic privilege. Contrary to popular belief, women are currently — in this country and internationally — not treated equally to men. Constitutionally, maybe, but not in real terms. Women are more likely than men to be unemployed or earn less than R1000 a month. StatsSA also finds that “women with tertiary education earn around 82% of what their male counterparts earn”. They are more likely to be on the receiving end of physical or sexual abuse. SA is ranked 121 of 186 ranked countries of the UN’s Gender Inequality Index. There really is a need to talk about this, to name the inequality for what it is.

Secondly, the corollary of asking women to give you the benefit of the doubt, to hear you out and not assume sexism from the get-go, is extending the same courtesy. Some people are making excellent points out there.

The media is so biased about this. Why don’t they give the other side equal weight?
This particular grumble was a direct reference to the Business Day article on the topic. The man I was Facebook-debating with said it was “unbalanced”. Firstly, Bullard declined to comment. Further, it is a myth that journalistic articles have to give equal column inches to opposing views. They should acknowledge opposing views and give right of reply, but if a theory is profoundly less solid than another (say retrovirals vs garlic and potato, or medical sciences vs the vaccinations-cause-autism argument) journalism isn’t obliged to give them equal credence in the pursuit of “balance“.

Your casual words on social media and around the braai matter: When someone like Bullard is obviously trolling, and we pause to ask how likeable a rape victim is (because clearly it’s not rape if we find the victim to be obnoxious or opinionated) or question the validity of her claims, we are clouding the issue and misdirecting blame. This makes our society one in which it is easier for rapists to operate and harder for victims to speak out.

So, enough, now — okay? An outspoken feminist or rape survivor is not a threat against you personally. It isn’t “unladylike” to be pissed off and vocal about an attack on your person and physical integrity. And being a pissed-off “bitch”* doesn’t make your rape fair game for public attacks by fools looking to gain Twitter followers or just for kicks.

*Not my opinion. I have a lot of respect for your bravery in speaking out, Michelle.

NOTE: An earlier version of this post mistakenly stated that Michelle Solomon had been drugged at the time of her assault. This error was mine only. I apologise.

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