Ending institutionalised rape myths. #RUHelping?

Maybe this is why the statistics on gender-based violence have not led to an upsurge of activism, funding, and political action to address the problem in South Africa. Although hundreds of thousands of domestic violence incidents, and tens of thousands of sexual offences are reported to the police each year, these numbers can feel like they’re happening to someone else.

Yet for many women, children, and men, there is no choice other than to think about sexual violence personally. For these survivors, the political is personal, and the personal is political. For them rape was a choice someone made, an act of violence committed against them, and an experience that they may recover from but will never forget. For them, rape is not a number, it is their everyday reality.

At the same time because few rape convictions and fewer expulsions are linked to sexual violence, the sense is that rapists do get to forget. A culture of impunity and acceptance of violence means many rapists live normal lives after a rape. Rape myths help these rapists feel normal.

Institutionalised rape myths in particular excuse their actions in a myriad ways – he was a nice boy, he’s got a scholarship, he’s your tutor/lecturer/father/pastor, you were asking for it anyway with your clothing/behavior/past sexual history. It is these myths that make it possible for management at a liberal university to suggest that “you’ll ruin his reputation” if you report him to the police.

READ: 'You're meant to protect us!' - protesters clash with police at Rhodes University

Rape myths combined with institutional inaction on the matter of sexual violence are a powerful and painful mix. In the face of this response protest seems to me to be an entirely sensible and fair reaction.

As Michelle Hattingh’s incredible forthcoming book I’m The Girl Who Was Raped makes clear, rape myths don’t only cause inaction on the part of society and institutions, they are also incredibly damaging to rape survivors. Rape myths make rape survivors feel that they won’t be believed, feel shame, or feel that they brought the event on themselves. They make an unimaginably difficult and painful experience worse.

In the US, new technologies are being developed that trigger an online police report when two or more people list the same rapist as the perpetrator on an online database. The idea is that many rapists are repeat offenders, not the once off ‘mistake makers’ that rape myth narratives would have you believe. Not all survivors report rape to the police, and many do not want to for a variety of reasons. This decision must be respected.

READ: Higher education dept worried about situation at Rhodes - Nzimande

However that shouldn’t mean they should have to endure their rapist in lectures or tutorials each day. Especially when they have brought this matter to the attention of the university. If a university stands for women’s constitutional rights to be equal, to move freely and to live without fear, to make decisions concerning their body and their reproductive health, then it seems to me that they must listen to the voices of the women affected by rape. It is these women who know best what they need to feel safe on campus again.

The importance of the #RUReference list is that it reminds us that rape is about power, it is about choices, and it is about people. We can no longer think in statistics.

Follow Jennifer Thorpe on Twitter. 

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