The passing of Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo, the woman who accused President Jacob Zuma of rape in 2005, in October brought a renewed public examination of the victimisation of sexual assault victims and the conditions and practices that promote a culture of sexual violence. For many, it was the first time they had heard Fezekile’s humanity and real name being noted by a national media which had probed into her personal life and the violence that was committed on her for years. Fezekile, an HIV/AIDS activist, was threatened and terrorised after she made the alleged rape public, resulting in her house being burned down. Fezekile and her mother ended up fleeing to Holland because of how they were treated by supporters of the accused (President Zuma was acquitted of the charges in 2007).
The public’s reaction to Fezekile’s case might seem incomprehensible and particularly ruthless considering that Fezekile was the victim. However, rape culture, which our violent patriarchial society guises as nature or sometimes morality, desensitizes us to the violence of sexual assault, street harassment, cat-calling, victim-blaming, sexist attitudes, non-consensual sexual acts between partners, unwanted sexual advances and other appalling acts. Victims are sometimes only afforded performances of empathy when they die or take their lives due to trauma or society trying to protects rapists and the conditions that enable abusers to thrive at the expense of being violated.
Rape culture is not, as the phrase implies, a publicly acknowledged way of life. It is the pervasive norms and practices entrenched in our society that cause us to believe that sexual violence is natural, and in some cases, a desired part of life on earth. The nature of rape culture is maintaining the patriarchal power structure. Rape and other forms of sexual violence are rarely about sex, but about power. Boys and men are socialised to assert their dominance over the planet, women and other men. Sexual violence has been used by men, women and victims who have internalised this conditioning as nature to prop up this oppressive power structure. Rape culture teaches us that preserving oppressive practices at any cost, including intimidating and lying about victims, is more important than the cost in human lives.
Examples of rape culture are quite common in our daily interactions with those of opposite genders and media stories on sexual violence.
Rape culture is isolating and gas-lighting (making victims doubt their experiences or memory of them by manipulation) victims because of the perceived shame their naming of respected perpetrators might bring to communities and families. Rape culture is treating victims, especially women, as defiled, disposable objects because of the violence they have been subjected to and therefore have to be kept at bay or condescended to with performative gestures when we have to deal with them. Rape culture is holding standards of “purity” for women which are not held for men and having those standards inform who we can see as victims and human, and who can never take on that role. Rape culture is withholding empathy because the victims are not suitable victims according to our adopted definitions of morality and personhood. In which case, sex workers, women who are too free with their sexuality and choices and others who do not abide by our standards of morality and personhood are supposedly inviting such violence.
Rape culture is putting the onus of preventing sexual violence on women, vulnerable people and other prospective victims rather than making it hard for such violence to occur by actually supporting victims to out perpetrators, putting harsher penalties in legislation for convicted rapists and rooting out practices that breed a culture of rape. Rape culture is telling women how to dress to prevent rape, when sexual violence existed before “suggestive” fashions were even thought of. Rapists will rape regardless of whether the victim is wearing a robe reaching to the wrists and ankles or a mini-skirt. Sexual abusers do not need to be “tempted” or any other excuse for that matter.
Rape culture is making boy children feel that unwanted sexual advances and encounters are to be welcomed and bragged about. A popular R&B/Pop singer who was molested by an older girl when he was a child recounted his tale as him losing his virginity rather than calling it rape. A big part of this is because boy children are taught that they must be hyper-sexual. Thus, older men around them make comments about their validity, manhood or heterosexuality by basing it on whether they have had sexual encounters. This is also part of rape culture, as boys are sexualised at a young age and are pushed to be predatory toward their female counterparts to be validated as boys and men. The hyper-sexualisation of boy children also plays into the rape of boys and men being dismissed and minimised, because men are supposed to live for sex. Many boys and men get laughed at by their peers and the police when they report rape.
It is a fact, our society is in a state of rot. However, these problems did not start today with the younger generation’s abandonment of morals. Sexual abuse and atrocious acts occurred in the good old days too. The only difference is people now have more rights, knowledge and empowerment to disclose their pain in public. In order for us to get on the road to purge ourselves of oppressive norms and violations like rape culture, we need to be honest with ourselves. Fantasising about an ahistorical, conservative past does nothing but silence those amongst us who feel that they are already an inconvenience because of sexual abuse.
We need to stand with those who come forward and support them without condescension or negating their feelings, no matter how uncomfortable we are with what they say. Rather than look for holes in their story to be pragmatic or objective, offer emotional support. The law will do the adjucating if the victim chooses to press charges. Victims refusing to press charges are no less credible, as many life and death factors inform that decision. You can offer solace to one person while condemning one who has not been convicted. Both are indeed possible. A perpetrator being acquitted of charges does not prove their innocence. In fact, courts are failing victims of sexual abuse as the majority of rape cases that go to court end up getting thrown out. One of the best ways we can support victims is to listen – no unsolicited advice, no prodding, just an ear and a shoulder.