Rape myths inflict more harm on victims

BODY LANGUAGE

There is something worrying about how some people who have been sexually violated prefer to conceal their identity. It is almost as worrying as those who remain silent. What kind of society are we that people are afraid to seek justice out of fear of humiliation?

Reading the story of Khwezi (Fezekile Kuzwayo), who accused President Jacob Zuma of raping her, has made me ponder about this.

Recent figures released by Statistics SA indicate that reports of rape are up by 117%.

According to Lisa Vetten, author of Rape and Other Forms of Sexual Violence in South Africa, the majority of sexual offenders are never held to account: “Only 4.1% of cases reported as rape resulted in convictions for rape.”

Statistics provided by the nonprofit Rape Crisis found that the figures for the incidence of rape could be more than 500 000 a year. According to police statistics, 30 069 cases were opened for the period April to December 2016.

What these conflicting figures primarily indicate is that not all people report being raped. They are silenced by societal prejudice, lack of support from their community or family, secondary trauma and rape myths.

Vetten says rape myths complicate the “implementation of law and policy”. She also found that myths “worsen the plight of victims of sexual offences”, which “trivialise the harm of sexual victimisation and blame victims for its occurrence”.

The “responses to victims by society in general, as well as at each stage of the criminal justice process” are “unsympathetic, disbelieving and inappropriate”, she says.

In an article titled Cultural Myths and Supports for Rape in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Martha Burt describes rape myths as ‘‘prejudicial, stereotyped or false beliefs about rape, rape victims and rapists’’, which serve to create an environment that is hostile towards rape victims.

Rape myths influence how society treats victims of different sexual offences, such as acquaintance rape, the rape Kuzwayo complained about.

One rape myth is the belief that there is a prevalence of false rape charges and that women are vengeful. Another is that a “real” rape is one when a stranger jumps out of the bushes and viciously attacks and rapes a woman in the veld.

Kuzwayo’s story reveals the shame associated with sexual violation. She, like many women who are brave enough to report their experiences to the police, have to use pseudonyms to protect themselves.

My friend Joanne (not her real name), who was raped about two years ago, says that concealing your identity is to protect you from the humiliation associated with rape. Intercourse, whether consensual, forced or coerced, remains personal. “When forced, it is even more personal because it is dirty and unnatural.”

She says the fear of being called a liar and of having ulterior motives can follow you for the rest of your life. A person’s community can be unsupportive, and even family can turn against you.

“During the trial, humiliation is standard because your sexual history will be exposed. There is a vehement attack on your person and you will be portrayed as a whore,” Joanne explains.

Kuzwayo was not spared this — there was an attempt to portray her as promiscuous. It was implied that she consented to sex with a man who was in his 30s when she was a five-year-old. This, apparently, was relevant to the case, the court found. But the accused’s sexual history is irrelevant to prove or disprove a case.

The fear of retaliation is also great, says Joanne. Kuzwayo experienced this and had to leave the country because she feared for her life. You think about your future, you fear your career will be harmed, she says.

At what cost would seeking justice come? Joanne feels it was not worth it and that moving on (silently) is a better option.

Our society is generally hard on those who have been sexually violated. The trauma of rape is immense but living in fear, shame and humiliation is as traumatic.

Palesa Lebitse is a law student with an interest in human rights

Palesa Lebitse
Palesa Lebitse
Palesa Lebitse is a liberal feminist who regularly writes for the M&G.
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