South Africa: The harm of rape

South Africa: The harm of rape

Date: December 9, 2014
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Grahamstown, 9 December: Despite extensive legislation aimed at tackling the scourge of sexual violence in our country and elsewhere in our region, little progress, if any, has been made to curb this social catastrophe. This shocking reality is comes under the spotlight every year as we commemorate the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence Campaign.

By providing a sketch of the harm that rape perpetuates, we are better able engage with those who are working to reconstruct their lives in the wake of the violence meted out against them. Rape’s harm cannot be explained purely in terms of physical harm, because rape often leaves no physical scars. So, in order to understand what is distinctive about rape’s harm, we can draw parallels between rape and torture.

Exploring his own experience of torture in At the Mind’s Limits, Jean Amery writes, “Torture…is like a rape. I don’t know if the person who is beaten by the police loses his dignity. Yet I am certain that with the very first blow that descends on him he loses something we will perhaps temporarily call trust in the world.” Amery believes that trust in the world is a mutual respect of peoples’ being.

The torturer, Amery tells us, “Forces his own corporeality on me with the first blow. He is on me and thereby destroys me.”

A central feature that holds us together as unitary beings is our ability to move about in the world guided by our own beliefs and desires. When unable to guide our lives in this way, particularly when someone violently takes possession of our bodies, the unity that holds us together is fractured-we may cease to be who we were. The torturer renders us utterly helpless, a receptacle of dissociated experiences.

To better understand this dissociation, we must consider what happens when we experience the uncanny-that weird sensation of no longer trusting our senses, no longer feeling at home in the world, and not even feeling at home in our own bodies.

When evil pays us a visit we often feel that what is happening is not actually a reality. Often, when this happens, our regular train of expectations comes to a halt and we enter an alien space, where all, even one’s own body, is foreign to us.

Typically, the uncanny fades into the past leaving nothing but faint traces, when we learn to reconcile what has befallen us. But when reconciliation efforts fail it becomes entrenched in our present. This is typical in cases of torture and rape.

Amery tells us that, “whoever has succumbed to torture can no longer feel at home in the world.” Many survivors of rape experience similar feelings. We should not be surprised then, that rape and sexual violence are often used as vehicles of torture, because sexual violation is far more than an attack on bodily integrity.

Rape destabilises one’s very identity. Sexuality cannot be reduced to genital stimulation, or to reproductive function. Our sexuality and sexual being shapes our identity as individuals. When, for instance, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people fight for their rights, they are fighting for their right exist equally, and to be recognised as the human beings. An attack on our identities, out sexuality is an attack on our humanity.

Like torture, rape humiliates and shames the victim. Moreover, given that rape is deeply misunderstood and victim-blaming is commonplace-this sense of shame continues to grow and guilt becomes its partner.

The combined effects of guilt, shame, the uncanny and a lack of trust in the world can exile survivors from community. In many societies survivors become literal outcasts but, even where this is not the case, survivors often feel unworthy and deserving of punishment. No wonder suicide often emerges in the minds of survivors as a veritable alternative.

What is truly remarkable is that the vast majority of survivors do not choose this option, but attempt to manage the heinous harm of rape. Most choose to reconfigure their shattered lives in a way that draws them back into human connection and meaning. While we take stock of violence against women during the 16 Days campaign, we must acknowledge rape’s harm as well as the unfair and unjust burden of having to manage, reconcile and overcome this form of torture.

Kim Barker is a gender activist and Ph.D. candidate at the Department of Psychology, Rhodes University; Lindsay Kelland is also a gender activist and Postdoctoral Fellow at the Allan Gray Centre for Leadership Ethics, Rhodes University; and Pedro Tabensky is the Founding Director of the Allan Gray Centre for Leadership Ethics at Rhodes.
This article is part of the Gender Links News Service 16 Days of Activism special series.



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