I’ve been thinking recently about a quotation I used in my article ‘Patriarchy for Breakfast’. My former teacher always told our class ‘people treat you the way you let them treat you.’ Her words stuck with me and I’ve always accepted this aphorism as some kind of universal truth, apt for teaching young ladies to look after themselves and demand only the best of what life has to offer. The problem that I’ve come to notice, however, is that the logic no longer seems fair when you extend it. Are kids bullied because they ‘let’ their perpetrators do what they do? Are we to scoff at weak women who ‘let’ their partners abuse them? Clearly the statement is a gateway to victim blaming at its worst, and so cannot be true.
The reason this gnaws my mind is because I am currently reading a book which makes me question everything I know about victims, perpetrators, power and blame. Rape by Pumla Dineo Gqola is one of the most difficult essays I have ever read. It doesn’t help that I started the book on the first day of my period – and so I digested the dreadfulness of the topic along with stomach cramps and general feelings of discomfort.
Rape is a topic amongst my peers that is passed around, consumed and forgotten just as casually as the latest YOU magazine.
‘Shame, did you hear about the girl at the party who got raped?’
‘Ugh… I hope I never get raped one day.’
‘That physics test just raped me!’
When I was younger, ‘rape’ was a word too gruesome and scary to mention, let alone mentally conjure. It was beyond me – an idea so evil, unfathomable and foreign that it did not deserve mention. Then I entered a single sex female high school, joined the debating club, got interested in politics and was exposed to stalwart feminist teachers who told us that we need to care about issues that affect women – and the most pervasive of all is rape.
Before I proceed let me acknowledge that my understanding and insight in this area is limited. But I think that the reason the topic of rape as a whole is still so often avoided and distorted, is that people feel overwhelmed by the issue. There is almost an unspoken understanding that unless you are a rape victim or career rights activist, you have no place to take part in these discussions. Well, I am neither, but I still want to be a part of a shifting societal mindset, and so I will do my best to unpack the topic, bit by bit, from the position of my own perspective and experiences.
Let’s talk about rape.
But before that, let’s talk about sex – and understand why relating rape to sex is as discordant as relating apples to oranges. Research in South Africa suggests that by the age of 19, nearly 72% of males and 58% of females have engaged in sexual intercourse. So when our Life Orientation teachers drone on about Thandi saying ‘no’ to Jabu, it’s already too late for at least half the class. In my 5 years of high school sex education, the only thing I have been taught about safe sex is that a condom must be worn by either the male or the female. I have never seen a female condom, but the pictures in the textbook are enough to make me think this looks like some kind of medieval contraption. I have been warned against boyfriends who will use sex as a condition of love. Not once did I see a Thandi-Jabu scenario where Thandi was the one pressurizing Jabu to have sex with her. Jabu was always the irrational, sex-hungry male trying to coerce his innocent and emotionally vulnerable girlfriend to sleep with him. And sex was just a mechanical practice used as a tool between two people, never for pleasure or emotional intimacy, and certainly the details of the actual interaction stopped short at where grade 9 Natural Science left us.
All of this tells us that there are some glaring inconsistencies with what we’re taught, and the real world of sexual interactions between people. I believe this is a problem because when we then move on to the topic of rape in that same LO class, we subconsciously amalgamate the two ideas into one big idea which can occur under different circumstances. ‘I want to consent to having sex with my husband one day. I do not want to be forced to have sex with a stranger in a dark alleyway.’ The latter is rape, not sex. An important point I’ve taken from the book Rape is that rape is horrific violence which takes on a sexual form, and this is different to sex which takes on a violent form. The nuance is small and often missed, but it is extremely significant.
I’ve had many conversations around this topic with friends and family, both male and female. There is one question in particular that my male counterparts like to bring up. I think they do it because they themselves are unsure of the answers. As ill-equipped as I feel delving into the topic of rape, I know that my intelligent, young male friends who have spent much of their lives at elite patriarchal boarding schools traditionally have no place whatsoever in the conversation. But they engage themselves nonetheless, and I do commend them for that.
The question they often pose has to do with the clothing of the victim. No person is ever asking for it, but if this is the country we live in, then surely it is in a woman’s best interests to do what she can to look after herself? I remember one of them relating a story of a campus rape to me, and him ending off with an agitated side comment that the young woman ‘really shouldn’t have been walking around at 2 am’. When I confronted him on this, his answer was similar to what I’ve heard from other males – he hates rape and believes that any rapist should be held accountable; women should receive the justice they seek, but… Well, surely, if a woman knows that the way she dresses will attract certain kinds of behaviour, she should avoid it? Surely she should avoid walking alone in unsafe areas in the middle of the night? While we might not like the restrictive nature of these safety precautions, would we rather have bold women being raped or clothed women being safe? And that is the gist of it.
Most males feel very uncomfortable bringing this point up because they know they will be bombarded by their feminist peers who will tell them that a woman should be able to wear whatever she wants and go wherever she wants. And this is an answer I too have often provided. But I see now that it doesn’t tackle the issue nearly deep enough. So to illustrate my thoughts, let me provide the same example that Gqola uses in her book: Anene Booysen.
Anene was the victim of perhaps the most horrid rape and murder incident that South Africa has seen in a long time. On 2 February 2013, while walking home from a tavern with her brother’s friend, Anene Booysen was raped near a construction site. Police found her dead in the morning with her body broken, battered and disemboweled. But she was subject to this horror even after she took all the right precautions. That evening she had chosen to go to a local tavern close to home – a community drinking spot. She was not surrounded by strangers. She was with people she knew; people whose names and faces she recognized; people who posed no threat. She even made sure not to walk home alone. She had been warned of the dangers of women wandering the streets at night, and so asked her brother’s friend to accompany her – again, someone she knew who stood in proxy for a person who would protect her. Anene ticked all the boxes of a young women with street smarts looking out for herself. But that still wasn’t enough. The very person who she had chosen to protect her, raped her and left her dead in a pool of her own blood.
This proves that these ‘precautions’ are not precautions at all, but rather a desperate attempt by males and females alike for a misplaced solution to a misunderstood problem. If grandmothers wearing skirts down to their ankles are raped in broad daylight on a Sunday afternoon, then clearly the idea that women have some sort of responsibility to protect themselves, is misguided. Furthermore, it insinuates that rape is a product of sexual arousal, and therefore understandable in some cases, when victims have ‘asked for it’ through their dress or behaviour. The issue at hand is not that certain appearances attract certain types of behaviour. It is that this behaviour exists in the first place. Rape culture is a disease that permeates almost every area of our society. It is borne out of patriarchy, hyper masculinity and the desire of those with control to keep things that way. We trivialize the problem and invalidate people’s trauma when we teach lessons on adjusting women’s behaviour and restricting their access to public spaces. Women should not have to fear for their safety wherever they are, whatever they are wearing.
Unfortunately, it seems that this is a message many people still struggle to accept. Males especially are caught in a system of entrenched patriarchy, which blinds and numbs them to these issues. I’ve seen the hesitancy so often – at the dialogues my youth organisation hosts, at the youth conferences I’ve attended, and even in casual conversations. I’ve felt the tenseness of the male next to me when the speaker in the room asks the audience to raise their hands if they consider themselves feminists. I’ve seen the exasperation on their faces in our group discussions when they tell us that they no longer know what is appropriate behaviour and what is not. This ranges from ‘should I open the door’ to ‘what if she did first say yes, though?’
It saddens me that me that feminism is so misunderstood and in fact ignored at most high schools. My friends from local co-ed schools tell me that they never have conversations on gender issues in class. For me, coming from a girls-only school, this is a complete norm. It was my English teacher who recommended that I read Gqola’s book in the first place. How different I would have been had I not had these influences throughout my life. It comes as no surprise then that the people I know who are not exposed to these conversations, reading material and ideas, are the people who are so ill-equipped in navigating topics as pervasive and disturbing as rape.
In her book, Pumla Dineo Gqola quotes Mark Neal when she says that what we need is to perform ‘publically witnessed [instances where men] break ranks with patriarchy’, where individual men ‘challenge the conventions of patriarchy, particularly when doing so in the name of … women and such men also have to consciously police [yes, police] men’s own patriarchal privilege’.
We need to talk about patriarchy. We need to talk about rape. We need to strip away the layers of taboo, discomfort and privilege. Only then will we begin to understand the dynamics of what is slowly, invisibly, silently tearing apart the fabric of our society.