Break the silence. Speaking heals. This is what sexual health and rights campaigns say to those of us who have been sexually violated.
Silence is part of a culture of secrecy that regulates sex. It is entrenched in the ways in which we live our lives, ways that help us to configure sex as something private, intimate and part of what constitutes the personal. Unfortunately, it also conceals the harmful side of sex, allowing it to go unchecked.
Sexual stigma, which makes those of us who have been sexually violated feel that we are less than real women and men and offers us silence as a tool to mask our inadequacy, is a prime example of how this happens. Stigma would have us believe that the real crime is not that we were sexually violated but disclosure. It threatens gender and sexual status.
To combat stigma, disclosure is important. But calling on us to break our silence implies that we are the problem. By disclosing sexual violence, we are sending the message that we do not fear being found out because we are not the shameful secret. We will not be shamed by our experience of sexual violence.
By the time April 1993 arrived, I had been living in one of the Bantustans for a few months. I was researching the effect of separate development and deregulated labour policies and practices on women working in the factories.
One day I was visiting Dineo at her home. We had met a few weeks previously at the factory where she worked and I had learned that one night a taxi driver had raped her.
We had been talking for about 10 minutes when Dineo hurried to close the door but it was too late. He was already there, threatening her with a rock in his hand. Dineo managed to get out. I tried to follow but he blocked me in. I wasn’t alone with him for very long, probably less than three minutes. But it was long enough for him to hurt me.
I remember nothing about him. What I have not forgotten is the changed way in which I saw myself. I saw ugliness. What I was seeing was the stigmatised representation of myself, the representation that exposed me as the problem.
It was an ugliness that I had glimpsed a few years earlier when I had been groped at knifepoint along Durban’s Golden Mile. I glimpsed it again in a city park when a man climbed on top of me.
I would not have been able to identify these attackers in a line-up. They were the ordinary faces of a kind of violence that has become dangerously ordinary.
As more and more people tell their stories, I am beginning to think that standardised ideas of what counts as credible knowledge of sexual violence are being disrupted. This makes me hopeful that this knowledge can become increasingly ours.
Two days after I walked away from Dineo’s home, Chris Hani was assassinated. And, conscious of an activist tradition that links struggle politics to sacrifice, I felt that day at Dineo’s place becoming more and more of a non-day.
Years later, I asked myself what it would have meant if I had revealed my story at that historical moment, a moment that was consumed by the unspeakable violence that was apartheid. Would it have mattered? I’m not sure.
We continue to be silenced because of how what we disclose acquires importance. Perhaps we need to examine what we understand by voice. Perhaps we need to ask how our understanding of voices that carry speaker status continue to privilege some speakers, and some forms and styles of communication, more than others.
Guarding against this also requires us to think more critically about how well-intended initiatives inadvertently perpetuate the identity stereotypes they are trying to change.
Many people do not disclose sexual violence for a variety of reasons. But does this mean that, in the everyday ways in which we live the minutiae of our lives, we do not do and say things that resist the silencing and making invisible the intentions of this violence? Constructing us as overwhelmingly silent, which is what it seems that “break the silence” campaigns inadvertently do, negates this resistance. I worry that the subtext is that sexual violence does indeed tame the unruly, succeeding in keeping them in their subservient place.
This is not to say that such campaigns have not succeeded in undermining the status quo. But to reach the many who still cannot speak, the question of how to break the silence in ways that break the silencing remains.
Part of the answer lies in promoting disclosure without forgetting that, although sexual violence is silenced, it is neither unspoken nor unknown. The statistics speak. According to the crime statistics for 2016-2017, there were 49 660 reported sexual offences. The people who reported those offences spoke. Civil society speaks. The daily fact of sexual violence is not a secret.
It is necessary to acknowledge this especially when there is a tendency to speak and write about this violence as something that is submerged in totalising silences. This tendency is also part of the mechanics of silencing — especially if it allows us to unknow the horror of this violence, to diminish the voices of those who do speak out and to excuse our relative inaction, particularly at the institutional level.
Zapiro’s cartoon that revisited his 2008 rape of Lady Justice is another example of how sexual violence can be silenced even as we comment on its repugnance. It was the reinforcement of gender and sexual stereotypes that made me flinch. If we are to move away from the horror of rape, should we be drawing on the very stereotypes that contribute to it?
The boss-man image sent the message that men who rape are innately powerful and women who are raped are innately powerless. The message it failed to send is that men whose identities are based on hegemonic notions of masculinity rape to attain the power that these notions tell them they are supposed to have.
If we are serious about disrupting this rape culture, we must disrupt the norms that naturalise men as powerful. We have to think carefully about what we are saying when we proclaim that men are abusing their power.
My grade seven teacher, who stuck his hands down our dresses, wasn’t a powerful man. He was someone who used girls to act out his perceived entitlement to power. Those who are able to influence public opinion must therefore refuse stereotypes that perpetuate the idea that sexual violence is a symbol of power.
I want to know that I am more than a stereotype, more than a rape analogy, more than a headline, more than a stigmatised version of sexual violence, more than my silence or my disclosure. Those who have died and those who live with the scars were and are more: Anene Booysens, Samkelo Mabaso, Fezekile Kuzwayo, Cameron Britz, Eudy Simelane, Rees Mann, Hannah Cornelius, Noxolo Nogwaza …
Veronica Sigamoney’s research explores issues of gender, sexuality, violence and health. Her PhD looks at secrecy and disclosure in the making of sexual health and rights expertise