Is having conversations about sexual violence enough?
“He had an entire team behind him”, is the statement that is repeated whenever the sexual assault accusations against R. Kelly come up. During the six-part docu-series that looked at the laundry list of sexual assault accusations against the singer, a woman named Lizette Martinez unpacked her experience with R. Kelly. Martinez told the story of how Kelly found her at the mall where she worked when she was 17 and coerced her into a sexual relationship where she would routinely perform sexual acts for him while his friends stood guard. What Martinez describes, in that episode, is a rape factory. That factory is bigger than Kelly and his camp: it is an endemic problem that has been brewing in society for as long as men have had power. It is now a year post- Surviving R Kelly and two years after #MeToo turned the page on how popular culture talks about sexual violence. The conversation at the centre of the entertainment world has been about “how and why”. Why did this happen and how did the industry let it happen? The answer isn’t hard to find. We live in a culture that supports violence against women at almost every turn.
In the early weeks of September, a now-defunct anonymous account called @helpsurvivers garnered the names of, estimatedly, 9000 perpetrators of sexual violence. The account, which was started in response to the murder of Uyinene Mwretyana and the staggering rape statistics of this country, garnered mass attention in its short lifespan. Among the 9000 named and shamed were local presenters, designers, photographers, models and influencers who are well known in both the Johannesburg and Cape Town creative environments. While shocking to some, the revelation that predatory behaviour exists is not an epiphany to those who live, work and socialize in these circles.“What had surprised me” said artist, DJ and trans rights activist Khanya Kemami , “is how many people were actually surprised at how many people were partaking, enabling and defending this foul play”.
Since the initial callouts, social media has felt like a wildfire. It is rare that a day goes by where one isn’t reminded that little real-world consequence has befallen those who have been accused. In a year where 41583 rapes have been reported to police but only 6% have ended in a conviction, it is believable that social media would become a tool for small-scale justice. Apart from the consistent backlash against accused perpetrators who dare to post their selfies online, the other mainstay tweets of the timeline are those imploring people ‘not to forget’. In many ways, this moment, in which the initial rage seems to have given way to a darker anger, seems like an opportune moment for people to reflect on what they know now and what they will do moving forward.
Rape culture in South Africa’s creative industry is not unique, if anything, it might be a microcosm of the wider society. In 2006, former president Jacob Zuma was on trial for the rape of Khwezi, the daughter of his family friend. In Khwezi’s court testimony, she stated that Zuma had raped her at his family home in Johannesburg in November of the previous year. Allowed to spectate the trial from inside the courtroom were only accredited media and Zuma supporters. The first day that Khwezi entered the witness box, a crowd of mostly women (many of them from the ANC women’s league) stood outside the court holding signs that read “HOW MUCH DID THEY PAY YOU, NONDINDWA”. While her anonymity was protected in court proceedings, protestors outside blew up A4 posters of her face with her full name attached and screamed “BURN THIS BITCH” during the trial. The violence inside the courtroom was replicated inside where Khwezi (without legal precedent) was questioned on her sexual history, had her childhood journals shown in court, had her mental health weaponized against her and her injuries she sustained during the rape doubted because ‘the damage could have been caused by a nail’. The violence of the court was similarly replicated in the violence that the media did to Khwezi. The trial was the focal point of news media for months. But that focus was not on Khwezi and her suffering or her survival. Rather, South Africans were pushed to focus on Zuma through cartoons, stand-up comedy and a 24-hour news cycle that thought him the more interesting actor in the court case. Save for a few protests on her behalf, Khwezi, remained a figure largely looked over and then later: almost forgotten about. In this case, Zuma was protected by his supporters and a nation that endorses rape culture at almost every turn. Almost a decade later, it is hard to imagine the Khwezi would be any better off finding justice in 2019.
The rise of #MeToo has seen rape culture conversations trickle down from Women and Gender Studies departments to daytime television. Despite our nation’s current standing as one of the worlds ‘rape capitals’ the same has yet to happen in South Africa. In small part, because of the strangely conservative nature of South African politics. In much larger part, because there seems to be a kind of cultural commitment to rape that exists. Nowhere is this more evident than social media. Those who have been accused have been able to deactivate their accounts and escape direct contact with scrutiny, waiting for the moment to die down. ‘The Rapist Thread’ showed young South Africans on Twitter that rape culture and popular culture are not divorced in their cities. Since then, thread after thread and retweet after retweet have been dedicated to continuing to highlight accused perpetrators and their support systems who have enabled this cycle to continue for years. The question then, is what do we do after everyone has been called out?
Canceling popular public figures has been widespread in the last few years. In the scenario that we see play out time and time again, a public figure offends the general public and then is forced into temporary hiding for as long as the digital outrage lasts. In a time where our consumption of news does not match our retention of information, ‘canceling’ does not work. Our collective attention span is too short and, unfortunately, not enough people are ready to believe victims at first opportunity to make drawing an X over a perpetrators name more effective. Ultimately, all that canceling people online amounts to is talking. While the efforts to keep the conversation going through this method are necessary and admirable, it’s worth wondering if there will be a cultural shift when all the conversation is done. And if so, what will be the things that push the needle forward?
In her book, Bad Feminist, Roxanne Gay advocates for ‘rapist culture’ instead of rape culture. In the book, Gay writes “perhaps we too casually use the term ‘rape culture’ to address the very specific problems that rise from a culture mired in sexual violence. Should we, instead, focus on ‘rapist culture’ because decades of addressing ‘rape culture’ has accomplished so little?”. What Gay is asking us to do, is find a way of focusing on the people that rape implicates rather than just the act itself. In renaming the culture and focusing on the people: we admit that rapists exist, and that rape is not an abstract cultural phenomenon, it is something that an individual does to another. In re-focusing the gaze from the act to the perpetrator, we might also find a way to centre the experiences of those who have been raped in a way that allows us to view them as people that a trauma happened too, not abstract terrible experiences floating above us and clouding all our nights out.
By developing a culture that focuses rapists and victims/survivors instead of simply condemning an act, we might all be forced to think about the roles we play in society that facilitates this kind of behaviour.