By Rebecca Helman

I remember the first time I gave a talk to a group of strangers about that fact that I had been raped. The shame of it felt like a weight, trying to crush me into the floor as I attempted to stand up tall and look unblinkingly out into the room.

In order to understand this experience, as well as the experiences of 16 other womxn that I had interviewed for my PhD study on what it means to be raped, I have been thinking more deeply about how shame works, and particularly how shame is related to social justice.

Tamara Shefer, Ronelle Carolissen, Viv Bozalek and Sally Munt argue that:

shame is central and unavoidably part of the micropolitics and power relations of everyday life. Usually regarded as a generalised negative global self-assessment, shame has been understood as having the potential to silence, degrade, humiliate, isolate, exclude and negate a sense of belonging.

In contrast to guilt, which is directed towards an act, shame is directed towards the self. While guilt is a reaction to what one has done, shame is a reaction to who one is.


‘It’s like a dirty memory’

I have interviewed 16 womxn, from different parts of the country and different material backgrounds, of different ages and sexualities. All of these womxn have spoken about the deep sense of shame that being raped produces. Sarah*, a twenty eight year old womxn living in Cape Town, said “it’s just a mix of shame and disgust. It’s like a dirty memory”.

Sexual violence is a powerful example of how shame works and who gets shamed, but shame has a far wider hold on our society.  In his speech ‘I am an African’ Thabo Mbeki described shame as a central dimension of the African condition:

The dismal shame of poverty, suffering and human degradation of my continent is a blight that we share.
The blight on our happiness that derives from this and from our drift to the periphery of the ordering of human affairs leaves us in a persistent shadow of despair.

The power of shame lies in its capacity to make those who are shamed believe that they deserve to be hurt, ignored or suffering. Shame makes womxn believe that they are responsible for being raped, it makes under- or unemployed people believe that they are responsible for being poor. It makes us all live in constant fear of being raped or becoming poor.  In this way, shame distracts us from social justice, and allows inequitable structures such as patriarchy and capitalism to continue to wreak havoc.

However, shame can also be a critical tool for social justice if it is attributed to the sources, rather than the victims, of inequality.


‘Giving it back’

Elspeth Probyn describes an address where John Howard, the then conservative Prime Minister of Australia, refused to acknowledge the harm that had been done to indigenous Australians, and when he came on stage the audience turned their backs on him. Probyn says:

it was such a powerful gesture of shame. Turning your back on someone means effectively closing down or cutting off any interest. It was a much more forceful and affective way of shaming than, say, booing

In my interviews with survivors of sexual violence I have heard of a multitude of ways in which womxn are resisting being shamed; instead, as Ellenor said in her interview, she is “giving it back” to the man who raped her.

Anna, another womxn that I spoke to, demanded that a family member who had raped her as a child return all the photo albums that he had of her and email the rest of the family to tell them what he had done. Despite her own feelings of shame, Sarah emailed her rapist one year after he had raped and said: “Just a reminder that you raped me”. These reattributions of shame demonstrate womxn’s refusal to be made responsible for their own violation. Instead, they call our attention back to those who perpetrate these violations; the rightful owners of the shame.

Womxns’ acts of resistance are all the more powerful because they occur in a context where it is almost impossible for them to access justice through traditional channels. For example, it is estimated that only 5% of rapists who are tried are eventually convicted. And, as we have seen most recently with the case of Cheryl Zondi, criminal trials often involve explicit attempts to shame survivors of sexual violence.  Like the womxn who participated in my research, Cheryl Zondi has refused to be shamed. When Peter Daubermann, Timothy Omotos’s defence lawyer, said to her that “you are making this difficult”, she replied: “I am not here to make things easy for you”.

As Samantha Vice has noted, shame can be a painful emotion to carry around and it makes a person far less easy in the world. But it is also necessary. In relation to white privilege in South Africa she argues:

shame seems an appropriate response to the recognition of one’s unavoidable privilege. For white privilege does not attach merely to what one does or how one benefits, but more fundamentally, who one is. And one does not wish to be a person who’s welfare is dependent upon harm to others. One does not wish to be a person with vicious traits that are helping, however passively, to sustain privilege and oppression. There is nothing about one’s particular self that makes one deserve special treatment and that ease of moving about the world that comes with being white. When one discovers that one is, after all, such a person, however unavoidably, and insofar as one is morally aware and rational, one can only feel shame

Similarly, in a society in which womxn are raped every day, where people cannot afford to eat while others make millions, where racisms, homophobia and other dangerous prejudices are rampant, we should be uneasy, especially those of us who are complicit in these violences. It is through this discomfort and the reattribution of shame that we may begin to live and interact in more humanising ways.


Rebecca Helman is a PhD candidate at the University of South Africa (UNISA) and a Researcher at UNISA’s Institute for Social and Health Sciences and the South African Medical Research Council-UNISA’s Violence, Injury and Peace Research Unit. Rebecca’s research interests include gender, violence and sexualities within ‘post’-colonial contexts.

*Pseudonyms have been used for all participants


  • 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


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...

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