Still fighting for those wounded by touch

2012-05-03 00:00

CHARLENE Smith, who was raped and stabbed in her Johannesburg home by an intruder more than a decade ago, was a freelance journalist at the time. Her ordeal became something of a vocation, starting with a quest to obtain HIV prophylaxis for other women who’d survived rape, and leading to two books, the second of which has recently been published.

Smith refused to remain silent about being raped and became known as the face of rape survivors in South Africa at a time when this scourge was an anonymous epidemic. She refused to be a victim and fought for herself and other women to become known as survivors. Since that terrifying assault she has become a champion for the rights of those whose bodies are violated and she has counselled thousands.

Proud of Me, her first book aimed at helping rape survivors, was about coping with the aftermath of the rape and her journey in the decade following. But Smith felt that the intimacy issue was worth a book on its own as many rape survivors — men and women — battle with this aspect of their recovery.

“Since I was raped I have counselled thousands of rape survivors, some living with HIV, and the biggest issue is regaining confidence in intimacy. Enjoying sex, and being able to share with their partner fully is the biggest issue because touch was used to harm them, and touch is seen as a weapon — not as a way of expressing love, or being healed.”

Smith, whose second book is called Whispers on my Skin, says that after a rape, doctors and nurses are told not to touch the patient so as not to contaminate evidence. This can reinforce a negative self-image. “When I give talks to doctors and medical schools, I plead with them to touch us often and warmly after sexual assault, domestic violence or after any trauma.

“The book was prompted when a woman in Sweden who had been married for seven years, and another in South Africa who had been married for 18 years, started resisting sexual intimacy, and their marriages were falling apart. It took just six weeks of contact with me to resolve their issues. The book is just one tool. [Rape survivors] can seek counselling or chat to other rape survivors, and the book can help them continue the process.”

Smith says that one of the strongest challenges for rape survivors is to get over the constant fear that the rapist created in them. She says that surviving rape is not allowing the rapist to determine your future happiness.

“We have to be very careful that we don’t allow ‘fear’ to become reality. I say to survivors, ‘Why do you want the rapist/s to win? Why are you carrying him/them with you in your head? Why are you allowing him/them into bed with you and your husband/partner?’

“That always repulses them, as it should, but it is true. Because when the rapist/s walk away they forget us, they move on. They are rarely caught. But the woman traps herself in memories — she carries the shame and the guilt.

“Fear is ultimately within our control. We can allow it to destabilise us and deform our lives. Or we can refuse to let that happen. We go for help. We go for counselling. Improve security around you, but most of all work on healing your relationships, because with happy, well-functioning relationships we are all more powerful.”

Smith says that the culture of silence is just as prevalent today as in the past, and many people stay silent about their sexual attack because they fear their reputation will be damaged. Religious communities especially encourage this conspiracy of silence.

“It is very common. In Orthodox Judaism, the man will break off an engagement if his fiancée is raped. Survivors are seen to be ‘damaged’. It is the same in Muslim countries. I tell women they are lucky to be out of relationships with men who have no compassion.

“But it is very hard. Even those of us who are not in strict religions, we know men don’t look at us in the same way. Men who believe we are damaged have massive insecurities and prejudices. To find happiness one must find love with a good person — this is the greatest blessing of all.”

Smith says her decision to go public about her own rape was a powerfully healing decision and a life-changing one. “I often tell people it has been a wonderful experience. No one wants to be raped. When I began to rewrite the first book for a second release, I found the memories distressing, but I have gained so much. I have discovered so much about myself. I have met incredible people — rape survivors, scientists, doctors, politicians, all sorts of wonderful people.”

Smith has become a champion for rape survivors and this has empowered her and educated her about gender politics. “Before I was raped, I was always politically aware, or so I thought. I was a feminist because I cared about equal status for women, but I was completely desensitised to the masses of prejudice and harm the vast majority of the world’s women experience.

“We who are educated, who have good jobs and equal relationships with those around us are such a tiny, privileged minority of women.”

Smith said it can happen that the survivor can get stuck in victim mode which has negative consequences for the family and her own mental wellness. “No one is interested in a person who never recovers, who is always sad. In the beginning, being a victim can be very attractive because one gets so much sympathy and care ... but it becomes dangerous if we trap ourselves in that.”

She explains that it is essential to move past self-pity into a place where you can be strong and empowered and take control of your own life. Smith is careful to include men as targets of rapists, as a growing number of men are statistics and they also have trouble with intimacy issues. Men may find it harder as they find it difficult to express their feelings.

In her book, Smith describes pornography as a symptom of a bigger problem where men are used to dehumanising women, using cruel and unusual means to obtain sexual gratification. Smith believes that pornography is not responsible for rape.

“Pornography is a false flare. The use and abuse of pornography is so small compared to the masses of abuse and violence toward women in this world. Pornography exists because there is already a system that sees women as less. We need to create a society that values women, then the need for pornography and the harm against women will drop.”

Smith has recently relocated to the United States but stays in contact with South Africans through Skype and e-mail.

She moved away from South Africa after a close friend and neighbour was murdered. “I was offered a job in the U.S. and I just felt I needed to get out for at least a time. I now luxuriate in feeling safe. I have no security in my home. I stay in Cambridge, a mile from Harvard, part of Greater Boston. My backdoor doesn’t lock. I have no burglar bars, alarms ... nothing. Crime is at its lowest since 1962.”

Smith says her move to the U.S. has been scary and invigorating. “Here I am no one. I am nothing. And in a way that is wonderful, and very scary. I am consistently reinventing myself. I am studying for a masters of fine art interdisciplinary studies part time. I am working on a book on prescription drug overmedication and addiction, which is a huge issue here.”

She enjoys leading guided tours of the Boston area and has developed a smartphone application for tourists visiting South Africa.

“I’m also working on a novel. I feel I have become a far better writer and a much nicer person here — safety has meant I have become so placid that I sometimes joke they’re going to put me out to pasture soon and start milking me.”

• The facebook page for the SA smartphone app is

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