Writer. Researcher. Editor.

Reclaiming the term ‘rape survivor’

There are times when silence is more eloquent and expressive than shouts of protest, or words spoken in the face of ignorance. The Silent Protest seeks to embody this silence in solidarity with rape survivors who, for whatever reason, are not able to speak out about the violence exerted on them and their bodies. The Silent Protest also serves to make a space for those survivors who know and have experienced the deep vault of secrecy to come forward in a safe space, and make their voices heard. On this day, these survivors who feel they are able to come forward wear a T-shirt identifying themselves as a “Rape Survivor”.

In a post published on Thought Leader last week, Fiona Snyckers makes various claims regarding the effect of wearing this shirt during the protest. Several of her claims are not fallacious as much as they are simply inaccurate. This post will serve to debunk the inaccuracies and problematics of Snyckers’s argument, as well as attempt to forge a path forward.

As a matter of fact

Snyckers begins her post by giving the reader a nostalgic meander through the Women’s Movement she feels she experienced at Rhodes University in the 1980s. She tells us how she and the movement failed to fight for very much, and instead pontificated about rape and second-wave feminism without ever taking much action.

While it is rather unfortunate that Snyckers feels her experience of the Women’s Movement in Grahamstown was so vapid, it appears other men and women who lived and studied at Rhodes University at the same time disagree with her assessment. A document about sexual harassment, authored by Rhodes history lecturer Carla Tsampiras in 2004, offers a different picture to that of Snyckers’s nostalgia. According to this document, the Rhodes Women’s Movement was founded in 1988, and Tsampiras lists stories and incidents published by Rhodes student publications about the campaigns for women’s rights after the movement’s formation. This includes an incident in 1989 where campaigners where assaulted by audience members at the Miss Fresher beauty competition – the same beauty pageant alluded to by Snyckers in her post – when these campaigners attempted to put a stop to the competition. This incident was verified by two senior staff members at Rhodes University who were studying at Rhodes University at the time of the incident, and who also attested to the active nature of the 1980s Women’s Movement.

Tsampiras further details advocacy work done by journalists and feminists at Rhodes University all the way through to the advent of democracy in 1994. So, where Snyckers may remember Grahamstown’s 1980s Women’s Movement as little more than empty chattering about rape, her recollection does not seem to be an accurate reflection of what the movement actually accomplished during that time.

Where Snyckers’s experience of feminism at Rhodes University appears to be rather empty (and even damaging), my experience is vastly different. I work with a diverse group of men and women campaigning for women’s rights in our community. Where the feminist group in Snyckers’s imagining appears to be nothing more than ignorant and misguided young students, we are a collection of experienced activists and academics, young feminists and allies, from LGBTI and straight communities. We are from South Africa’s townships, and we are from Sandton. Where Snyckers and her compatriots debated definitions of rape over (I assume) a glass of wine, we are currently seeking funding for menstrual cups for rural women and engaging with Grahamstown police about the rights of a primary school-going rape survivor.

My experience of the current feminist movement in Grahamstown is nothing like what Snyckers remembers hers to be. In light of this, I think it would be wise to remember that Snyckers’s past experience is exactly that: it is extremely dated. While her nostalgia might have relevance for the roots of Grahamstown feminism, assuming that the movement, our activism, and our thoughts on it have not evolved at all during 18 years of democracy and diversity is not as insulting as it is simply far-fetched. And considering that Snyckers could not paint an accurate picture of the Women’s Movement when she was actually studying at Rhodes, I find it particularly interesting that she would try to describe the situation there now.

Snyckers additionally misleads the reader when she makes the claim that:

The ‘Ceremony of Reflection’ has apparently led to names being leaked to the press of men who have never been charged with anything but are now publicly branded as rapists. These men, who may or may not be guilty of sexual violence, have no opportunity to defend themselves and will carry the smear for the rest of their days.

The implication of Snyckers’s above claim is that rape accused were named at the ‘Ceremony of Reflection’, their names were published in local newspapers and that these rape accused’s lives were ruined as a direct consequence.

Fortunately, this claim is nothing more than fiction.

I requested on Twitter that Snyckers provide proof of this claim via a link to a story outing a rape accused, and she responded: “There may or may not be a link. The info I received was that names were leaked to the media. I have no idea if they were used.” Not only was Snyckers unsure whether the names were in fact published, she was later also unable to verify whether these rape accused’s names were leaked by survivors speaking to the press in their private capacity or by protest organisers as part of the Silent Protest.

How then, pray tell, can Snyckers possibly claim that these men will “carry the smear [of rape] for the rest of their days”, when she is not even sure that their names were ever actually published? In light of this, her claim seems no more than a sensationalist smear of the protest and its aims. In addition, I find it revealing that Snyckers feels more empathy for the rape accused in her fictional account than she does for the real rape survivors and their experiences.

There is also another minor inaccuracy in Snyckers’s piece that I would like to correct: the closing ceremony of the Silent Protest has never, to my knowledge, been referred to as the “Ceremony of Reflection”. It is the “Breaking the Silence” ceremony, or the de-briefing.

Why the rape survivor T-shirt?

As a survivor who has participated in the Silent Protest and worn the shirt, it is clear that Snyckers has misunderstood the reason why we wear the shirt. We wear it to make visible the fact that we are survivors, and to make visible that we unashamedly speak out about the violence we have experienced. We are unified in this goal. When I wear my shirt, I wear it for all the survivors who cannot speak out, for whatever reason. In my experience as a rape survivor, the worst part of the trauma (other than the event itself) was the immense loneliness, isolation and shame I felt, and sometimes still feel. Every rape survivor shares these feelings of loneliness and shame. And when I wear my ‘rape survivor’ shirt, I do it with pride not because I am a rape survivor, but because I survived, and I refuse to feel shame for another’s crime and I am in solidarity with all survivors. I wear the shirt so that they may know they are not alone, and that being a rape survivor does not define them.

I wear that shirt so that all those survivors still silent may know that I fight for them, and I will continue to fight for them until they have the strength or are empowered enough to speak and fight for themselves. I do believe two of the most crucial points in recovery for a rape survivor is the realisation that a) s/he is not alone and is supported and loved, and b) that s/he is not at fault for the crime and has no need to be ashamed.

There is no ‘glamour’ in being a rape survivor

In her blog post, Snyckers describes the following scenarios:

 I will never forget one of our members bursting out in frustration, “Oh, I wish I could be raped! Just so I could know what it is really, really like.”

No one laughed. No one even raised an eyebrow. We all just nodded solemnly. Because we understood.

I’ll also never forget running into another member a few years later and hearing her confess that she had made up her story of being raped because she wanted to feel accepted by the sisterhood.

It it not possible for me to argue that these incidents did not happen, or in fact that they do not happen in light of the Silent Protest. But if any individual could truly wish they could be raped, s/he urgently needs counselling. If an individual feels the only way s/he could be loved and respected is by pretending to have experienced such a trauma, then that person needs the help of an experienced professional. And I hope that those individuals out there who do feel this way realise that they do not need to make such false claims in order to feel a sense of belonging to a group. Both of these examples cited by Snyckers are extreme, and belie the serious insecurities of those specific individuals: these experiences are not exportable to or representative of the experiences of the majority of Silent Protest participants.

Just by retelling this experience in this manner, Snyckers makes her lack of attendance of the Silent Protest evident. One of the most dreadful experiences of the Silent Protest participants (who are not rape survivors) is that feeling of dread: “When will I be next?” I addressed this in my morning address to the Silent Protest participants:

I stand here with you because I am a rape survivor. I stand here before you because too many of you are survivors like me. Too many of you know the burden and the cost of being a woman living in patriarchy. And too many of you, according to South African rape statistics, will one day join me not  only as a woman, but as a rape survivor. [emphasis added]

It is particularly unfortunate that the author of an extremely insightful piece about the value and meaning of SlutWalk would think it conscionable to attempt to lay blame on rape survivors wearing ‘rape survivor’ shirts. As an organiser of SlutWalk Grahamstown, I am disappointed by Snyckers’s inability to see that advocating for a woman’s right to dress ‘like a slut’ also extends to her right to protest without fear while identifying herself as a rape survivor.

In a Twitter debate about her post, I told Snyckers that there was no ‘glamour’ in wearing the ‘rape survivor’ shirt, as survivors were often subjected to some form of abuse on that day. For instance, one of the survivors was told that “if you survived rape once, you can survive it again”. Snyckers’s response was the following: “But why expose protesters to that kind of abuse?” as well as this: “They would be pointed at, sniggered at, speculated about and threatened. All in the name of being ‘brave and empowered’.”

Instead of admonishing those men and women that abuse rape survivors wearing this shirt, Snyckers lays blame on the protest organisers for apparently putting the survivors ‘in the line of fire’. This kind of blame-shifting tactic is only a hair’s breadth from full-on victim-blaming those survivors wearing the shirt for any violence they experience during the day. It is also dripping with paternalism that denies survivors their agency and self-determination to make their own informed choices, which only serves to victimise them further as they are denied control of their own destinies and how they choose to protest against the violence they have experienced.

In last week’s post Snyckers further argues that the Silent Protest would “imbue the wearers of those T-shirts with the kind of glamour that is wholly inappropriate in the context of sexual assault”. She further suggested that, by wearing the ‘rape survivor’ T-shirts during the Silent Protest, we were tacitly glamourising rape. I queried this with Snyckers on Twitter, to which she responded: “Glamour is in the eye of the young and fervent beholders. Yes, my evidence for that is anecdotal, but no less valid for that.” This argument for the ‘glamourisation’ of rape is similar to the ‘pornofication’ of women critique put forward with regards to SlutWalk. In her SlutWalk post, Snyckers wrote the following in response to these critiques:

 Again, this is only valid if you accept the narrowest, most literal-minded interpretation of the movement, which is that it supports a woman’s right to dress in skimpy clothes [or to identify herself as a rape survivor]. In fact, the movement is much broader than that. It is an angry protest against all the victim-blaming and slut-shaming [or the rape survivor shaming and silencing] that goes on worldwide, across all creeds and cultures, when a woman is sexually assaulted. The entire legal process, from reporting the crime to acquiring a conviction, is skewed towards an attempt to detect blame in the victim for her own rape [or to shame her for another’s crime committed against her]. [I have included my own notes.]

Snyckers’s same argument above is translatable to the Silent Protest and our aims. In essence, I agree with Snyckers: rape is not a slogan on a T-shirt, just as SlutWalk is not merely about a women’s right to “dress in skimpy clothes”. In the context of the Silent Protest and SlutWalk, wearing those items of clothing is an act of protest against societal values that prescribe how women can and should behave. Values that say women should not “dress like sluts” in order not to raped, and values that say rape survivors should not wear ‘rape survivor’ shirts in order to avoid victimisation and (in Snyckers’s words) to avoid being “gawked” by making rape a “public spectacle”.

Freedom of expression for rape survivors, not just for ‘sluts’

In her SlutWalk post, Snyckers wrote the following:

Only those with very literal minds understand the SlutWalk movement to be principally about a woman’s right to dress as provocatively as she chooses. It is about a woman’s right to wear WHATEVER she chooses, and to express her sexuality HOWEVER she chooses, without fear of oppression.

So, I can expect Snyckers to campaign against victim-blaming if I dress like a slut, but not if I publicly identify myself as a rape survivor? SlutWalk is not only about a woman’s right to wear whatever she chooses: it is broadly about a woman’s right to freedom of movement, association, and expression without fear of oppression. When I wear the ‘rape survivor’ T-shirt at the Silent Protest, I am exercising my right to freedom of expression and freedom of association, and if I am attacked for wearing that shirt the blame falls squarely on my attacker – not on me or my comrades, as Snyckers suggested on Twitter.

And it is not possible to argue that the survivors are not adequately informed about what to expect on that day. Several of the more ‘veteran’ survivors organised a group briefing for ‘new’ survivors to explain what they should expect, and how painful it can be to wear the shirt. We also had private sessions with survivors that requested a more intimate setting. I also spoke directly to the abuse protesters could expect in my opening address when Silent Protest participants collected their T-shirts:

“Whatever your reason for being here, be it as a survivor speaking out, or as a friend in solidarity, hold on to that. The Silent Protest will test your resolve, your patience and your courage. But no battle this important will be easily won. Our forebears lived and died in the struggle of our times, and now it is our turn to struggle. To struggle against misogyny and patriarchy that silences women and survivors. We must struggle against the patriarchy that leaves battered and broken men and women in its wake. We must struggle against those that would deny us our humanity…

During the day, the Gender Action Project – of which I am chair – also led a campaign for individuals to contact us directly if they experienced abuse, and we would lay charges against the abusers in order to protect the victims’ anonymity. (We have since lodged two complaints with the University.)

Snyckers writes in her SlutWalk post that:

“SlutWalk is rather about robbing gendered epithets of their power to insult by campaigning for a woman’s sexuality to cease being a measure of her worth as a human being.”

Similarly:

“The Silent Protest is about robbing the words “rape survivor” of their power to shame and silence by campaigning for a woman’s sex to cease being a measure of her worth as a human being.”

It is disappointing that Snyckers is unable to see that women’s freedom to act without fear of oppression is unconditional. This fight for women’s rights and freedoms does not fluctuate according to or depend on whether or not we wear a ‘rape survivor’ shirt.

Where to from here?

There was only one point Snyckers made in her post that I feel is an issue that needs to be grappled with in light of the Silent Protest:

On the one hand it would pressurise some women to prove themselves “brave and empowered enough” by blurting out experiences they might not be emotionally ready to share. [my emphasis added]

This is a concern and unfortunately not one that we, as the Silent Protest organisers, can readily or easily resolve. We make a sustained effort to engage with the rape survivors prior to the Silent Protest, and we inform them at length of what to expect. We have also encouraged some survivors not to participate in the protest at all – never mind wear the ‘rape survivor’ T-shirt – if we didn’t feel they were ready. Sometimes we are able to assist in such cases, but ultimately survivors must make the best choice that is right for them. The Silent Protest should be an empowering space for rape survivors, not one that would prescribe how survivors participate in the protest.

In line with the concern for rape survivors’ well-being we have ‘wellness reps’ on standby throughout the Silent Protest events. We also published a special edition of The Oppidan Press (of which I am editor) that detailed where survivors can get help should they need it, as well as emergency contact details for Rhodes University’s Counselling Centre.

This year, we had several survivors who decide to participate as silent protesters that had their mouths taped shut and wore “Silence = Sexual Violence” T-shirts. By the end of the day, at the “Breaking the Silence” ceremony, several of these survivors came forward to tell their stories, all of them starting with: “I am wearing the wrong T-shirt”. The importance of their breaking their silence about their abuse in a safe space like the Silent Protest cannot be overestimated.

The Silent Protest is not above criticism, and last week we had a three- to four-hour-long meeting about the protest and changes that need to be made. We have since uploaded a public document to our Facebook page where participants are encouraged to critique the debate and add their voices before the Silent Protest 2013. We will continue to engage with anyone that has concerns or contributions to make about the format of the protest. In line with this, we would like to extend an invitation to Fiona Snyckers to attend the Silent Protest 2013, so that she may speak from experience about the protest rather than outdated anecdotes.

But what we not do, now or ever, is silence our rape survivors who want to wear the ‘rape survivor’ T-shirt.

Originally published on Thoughtleader on 23 April 2012.

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Categorised in: Opinion, Writing

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  1. SlutWalk – RVA style…. come out and advocate against victim blaming « Anti-Violence Advocate
  2. The rights of rape survivors: access to free PEP | Michelle Solomon
  3. The rights of rape survivors: access to free PEP | Gender Action Project