A significant component of the national outcry following the horrific gang rape and murder of 17-year-old Anene Booysen highlighted the extent to which South Africans shift blame and culpability on the raped, and not the rapist.
This manifests itself through the lazy recourse in our national dialogue to primitive and antiquated explanations for rape: broken families, a lack of family values, the absence of strict curfews, acceptable dress codes, being in acceptable places at acceptable times, drug and alcohol abuse, poverty and unemployment, and the list goes on.
All of these are no different from saying Anene, and the scores of men, women and children raped daily “asked for it”.
It is not just a cop out, but an insulting form of victim-blaming that turns every individual into a victim of circumstance instead of human beings who endured a gross, conscious, intentional human-rights violation.
This also assumes rape as a given, an inevitability, forcing all of us to passively accept this reality and reducing our efforts to combat rape to merely navigating through life in constant fear and hoping we don’t do anything wrong to subject ourselves to rape.
Rape, like the weather and changing seasons, becomes unavoidable. People don’t have to take personal responsibility for committing rape or for participating in a culture that condones it — it is beyond us. Like the weather, the only way to temporarily dodge rape, is to shield ourselves from it and run away or hide from it.
Failure to avoid being raped becomes no different from getting wet because you didn’t carry an umbrella: it is your fault, not that of the rapist. Only those lucky enough or those who can run fast enough can escape when they fail to protect themselves from rape.
It is in this context that rape is subconsciously treated as a justified or legitimate response inflicted against someone because s/he didn’t play by the rules of the game. Our society invents and prescribes these rules instead of critically challenging the game and its underlying culture.
As a nation we accept and celebrate the dominant aggressive masculinity, chauvinism and patriarchal attitudes that feed a culture of rape. Those of us who do not accept it simply distance ourselves from it or bow in submission to it.
When an opportunity comes along calling us out on this and highlighting this naked masculine aggression and patriarchy — like The Spear and its characterisation of the archetypal contemporary embodiment of it all did — we are readily bullied into submission by brute force and strength in numbers. This is, after all, the modus operandi of aggressive masculinity and patriarchy.
When rape becomes unavoidable and is an unchallenged extension of a dominant culture our responses to it and attempts to deal with it falter. This in turn explains, to a large degree, the inability of our society, state and government to deal with South Africa’s rape crisis.
Well-intentioned as it may be, we fall into the trap of seeking statutory and state-driven fixes through, for example, overhauling and bolstering the criminal justice system’s capacity to detect, investigate, prosecute and convict rapists. Rape is, by statutory definition and nature, not a detection-heavy crime (like drug-related crimes). There is also the temptation to magically legislate changes to social attitudes and conduct into existence.
Piling the burden of responsibility for combating rape on the shoulders of state and statute is similar to the Jackie Selebi-era shift to hiding rape under broad sexual offence crime statistics: we say we don’t know how to and are failing in dealing with it and shove it into a corner where we’re not as vividly and regularly reminded of it or our responsibility to fight it.
We are tempted to tinker around the edges of the problem and address its symptoms instead of systematically dealing with a culture of rape emanating from a dominant aggressive masculinity and patriarchy that permeates our society.
Calling it out, critically debating and consistently challenging its underlying features and implications, and arguing against and opposing victim blaming in all its forms is but one way of doing this.
The first and critical step in this is for each and every one of us to acknowledge that the only person ever to blame for rape is the rapist.
It is also time that we men start calling out other men who make sexist remarks or promote behaviour that undermines the dignity and integrity of women. None of us would tolerate any man cat-calling our spouse, sister or daughter at the taxi rank or in the local bar. Why are we sanctioning such behaviour — through silence or even participating — when our friends do it to strangers? This type of objectification is not just just some harmless fun, it is linked to the way men are socialised to see women’s bodies: the way they see and believe they can legitimately treat your wife, sister or daughter.
Rape is a common instrument of war which seeks to hollow out and humiliate the target, to reduce it to nothing ensuring compliance, submission and neutralising any threat. Our society’s propensity towards victim blaming continues this process, silencing rape survivors and making their humiliation and submission a lifelong feature of their daily existence.
Failing to challenge the game, its rules, its participants and its supporters makes us all guilty of supporting, perpetuating and entrenching this rape culture.