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Rape: When the personal becomes political

By Rebecca Helman

Rape is both personal and political. It is a deeply personal violation committed by one person against another. But it is also a symptom of a social context in which inequality, disempowerment and violence continue to shape the daily experiences of millions. Within this context it becomes almost impossible to separate the personal and the political.

I am familiar with the political context of rape. As a researcher with a particular interest in gender I have both read and conducted research which explores how particular, socially salient, versions of masculinity and femininity scaffold acts of violence, including sexual violence by men against women, children and other men. I have listened to countless songs on the radio and seen innumerable movies and adverts that position women as sexual objects. I have read frequent posts on social media which celebrate patriarchy. I have also heard numerous rape jokes.

I am also familiar with rape as personal. As a counsellor at Rape Crisis I have sat with women and girls of all ages and backgrounds and borne witness to their pain, their anger, their confusion, their fear and their shame. Here I have heard how these women are blamed and shamed by those around them and I have seen how this makes their burden even more difficult to bear.

Like many people, I have both engaged and disengaged with this matrix; this personal and political minefield. Some days I have tried to make sense of it, to come up with ways to fix it. Other days I have tried to ignore it, to pretend it isn’t happening. Now, however, I can no longer ignore it. On Friday the 30th of October 2015 I was raped.

I saw both the personal and the political unfold in front of my eyes. I saw a man who was sent by others to prove that he was really a man. I saw myself, the woman that he could exert his masculinity on. I saw his rage and his power. I saw my terror, my anguish. I felt myself break.

I write this partly for myself, to try and make the personal and the political fit together in a way that makes sense. I write this for my family, friends and colleagues who have held me both physically and emotionally during this time. I also write this for all of those who, like me, have survived. I write this for my fellow counsellors at Rape Crisis who bravely guide people to safety every day. I also write this for him, the man who raped me but whom I cannot help recognise as a human being. I write this to break the silence.

I write this to make you think and talk about what is happening in our homes, our schools, our communities. I write this to make you reflect and question how you can help, how you can challenge and change the context of rape.

I try to remind myself every day that I am a survivor and like thousands before me I will claim my life back. I will also continue to fight against rape, both personally and politically. I hope you will do the same.

Rebecca Helman is a researcher at the University of South Africa’s Institute for Social and Health Sciences & South African Medical Research Council – University of South Africa Violence, Injury and Peace Research Unit. She is an unapologetic feminist and a counsellor at Rape Crisis’s Observatory office. This was originally published on the Rape Crisis blog


  • Psychological Society of South Africa

    PsySSA, the Psychological Society of South Africa, is the national professional body for psychology. Committed to transforming and developing psychological theory and practice in South Africa, PsySSA strives to serve the needs and interests of a post-apartheid country by advancing psychology as a science, profession and as a means of promoting human well-being. This blog hopes to engage psychologists and citizens in debating issues, from mental health to the socio-political. Visit