/ 10 November 2017

How courts, media conspire to brutalise us

Thirty years ago Tracy Chapman sang about the veil of silence and collusion that is drawn around gender-based violence.
Thirty years ago Tracy Chapman sang about the veil of silence and collusion that is drawn around gender-based violence.


A lot of women and parents I know raise their children according to the common-sense understanding that men are guilty until they prove themselves to be worthy of trust. This is a sensible approach. In the real world — that of flesh-and-blood humans — men are indeed guilty until proven innocent. Women often keep their eyes firmly on men — even ones we know — because of the terrible things they know men can do. Women often keep their eyes on girls too, not because they don’t trust girls but because they are fearful on their behalf.

In the public world — the world of courtrooms and newspapers and television — the inverse is true: men are innocent until proven guilty. The legal and media professions are founded on strong traditions of “evidence”, inherent in which is the idea that the burden of proof rests with the accuser. Any claim that someone is a murderer has to be proven.

In the world that men have built, accusation alone is insufficient. Guilt is established on the basis of evidence. This evidence does not write itself in tears. The evidence courts want is “verifiable”. Whispered conversations with girlfriends and aunties — the ones who help survivors to clean up, to sit up and drink water, to throw away torn panties — those do not qualify. They may sometimes be admissible as “hearsay”.

Editors also want more than a woman’s word before they can print an article. The most reliable sources are those who speak on the record. Anonymous sources are seen — by the public and by editors — as dubious, as people with agendas.

In the world women inhabit — the real world of flesh-and-blood humans — anonymity is safety. In the real world, women who speak out are rarely believed, and their supporters and friends are tarred as well. The sources who speak off the record do so at great risk. To speak about sexual assault is to risk being violated again by strangers and in the public arena.

These spaces — the law and the media — are not safe for women. They are places where — as in the real world — women are brutalised. Even when there is evidence of violence and abuse against women, when there are bruises and the like, the police actually don’t believe women.

As Tracy Chapman sang 30 years ago: “The police always come late/ If they come at all/ And when they arrive/ They say they can’t interfere/ With domestic affairs.”

So there is a vicious cycle. Women don’t report because they aren’t believed. Women aren’t believed because they don’t report. And when they speak out in the papers after years of gathering courage and confidence, they are questioned. The questions are based on the presumption of innocence on the part of men.

The system by which stories are made public is rigged. Like the courts, our newspapers fashion articles in ways that force women to be on trial and make men seem as though they are victims. The onus is on the accuser to prove she is not lying; she is lying until it can be proven otherwise.

So, in our newspapers and on our televisions and in the courtrooms, we hear how women are honeytraps and liars. They are scheming and manipulative. They ask for it and then change their minds. They grow vindictive and then, years later, claim they were raped. Or, if they speak out immediately, then it is obvious that they only slept with him to trick him.

A man is able to speak in public and not worry about how he is dressed. A man is not the object of sexualisation and shame in the way a woman almost always is. A man is always innocent and a woman is always guilty. We ask the women the questions, not the men. It is Jennifer who must answer, not Danny. He is protected by the law. This is why he can say — through his lawyers — that these claims can only be tested in court. He can say it because it is horribly, terribly true. The law is on his side. In its very conceptualisation, the law is always on his side.

For South African women navigating legal systems and media stories, it is hard not to think that the world is upside down. In real life — in the lives of our friends and families — men are guilty. We teach our girls to cover up, we keep them home after dark, we don’t leave them alone with uncles. We punish them for the sins of men. We do this even though we know men rape grannies and babies and children with intellectual and physical disabilities. We know our efforts will not always work but we live in the real world. Men rape.

We take these “precautionary measures” because we know that men rape and that girls and women are raped. When they come to us and tell us that they were raped, we hold them close and try to comfort them. Or we scold them and ask what they were doing in that field — why they had to take the short cut. We do this, but we do not deny the truth of the claims. We do not need courts of law to know that our girls are telling the truth. We are sometimes angry at them for getting raped. We misdirect our anger. But we — men and women alike — know the truth. Men rape.

So then, when the stories our girls tell us become public, when they explode on to newspaper pages or when they make it into courtrooms, why do we forget the real world and begin to put on strange spectacles?

Why, suddenly, do we say things like: “She just wants attention”? Why do we insist on saying: “Poor man, his reputation is in tatters”? We say these things and yet we know that in real-life men rape. We would know in our heart of hearts if it were our child or the child down the street, if it were our friend or her sister. We would say: “Why are men like this? Why do they rape us?”

What does this mean for those journalists who write about South African lives? It means that the questions they ask are often wrong. The questions they ask are misdirected: aimed at the women who accuse rather than at the men against whom the claims have been made.

It means that sources are important but not crucial. We cannot insist the standards for sourcing on stories of rape and sexual violence should be the same as those for the theft of public resources. Stolen money can be traced. The pain in a woman’s heart is a different substance altogether — it leaves marks but they need a different response. The language of verification does not fit here.

Men rape. In the real world, we all know this. The media need to operate and report accordingly. Not according to old rules about editorial integrity set up by old men who lived in their myths about women.

Men rape. Newspapers must ask them: “Why did you rape? Why should we believe you?”

Sisonke Msimang’s Always Another Country: A Memoir of Exile and Home is published by Jonathan Ball