Content Warning: This article contains reference to rape, assault, and violence
The one thing society has reluctantly learned over the past few years is that language has power. The words we use are important. They can cause harm and they can cause healing. They can assign and shirk responsibility.
An example of this is the ongoing use of the word “epidemic” being attached to rape culture. We hear how there is a rape epidemic in South Africa, we hear of the epidemic we have to suffer through, we hear of the epidemic we’ve accidentally stepped into – as if rape is something unsavoury society found while strolling through the park.
Perhaps a good place to start is to discuss what rape culture is and what it isn’t. Rape culture is the ongoing normalisation of rape, sexual assault, and sexual abuse, in which victims are discarded, rapists are excused, and the pain and suffering caused by rape is trivialised. Rape culture is not accidental. It is purposeful, and it is sometimes unconscious, and it has become an omnipresent force in South Africa as well as globally.
We see women being told not to be raped, instead of men being told not to rape. And my mention of the gendered nature of rape is deliberate here. Women’s clothing and behaviour are hyper-policed to the extent that no matter what a woman was doing or wearing, the question of “what was she doing?” and “what was she wearing?” have become automatic second sentences to the statement, “she was raped”.
Rapists are exonerated on stupid grounds. They are described as young and impressionable; and they shouldn’t be punished too harshly because it might ruin their futures, alongside their victims whose lives have been impacted on in such a way that will leave them scarred forever. We tell girls that boys hit them because boys like them. We shame rape victims who did not come forward and we call rape victims who did come forward liars.
In the US one in five women (18.3%) reported having been raped at some time in their lives whereas one in 71 men (1.4%) reported having been raped. There is a double disparity here. Firstly, the fact that – in general – more women are raped than men shows that rape is massively gendered. Secondly, the fact that so few men come forward (experts believe it’s only about a third of men) shows that rape culture does indeed massively affect men as well.
In South Africa, reported rape has dropped from 95 rapes per 100 000 people (2008/9) to 77 rapes (2015/16), according to AfricaCheck. The current culture has made women horrifically afraid of reporting rape, and it’s hardly surprising when only 3% of rapists actually serve a day in jail. While Reddit proudly hosts articles saying, “You just have to make sure she’s dead” when reporting on rape of a 13-year-old Pakistani girl.
At a Wellington secondary school boys are threatening girls who are protesting rape jokes at the school. Boys are threatening to kill protesters merely for speaking up against rape culture.
None of this shouts “accidental”. None of this shouts “by chance”. None of this shouts “epidemic”. An epidemic is something that happens to society. Rape culture is not something that happens to society. It is something that society does – often to its most vulnerable members. We cannot allow the language we use when speaking about rape to reinforce rape culture by shirking society’s responsibility. It is the work of each and every individual of society to make society a hospitable and liveable place in which the most vulnerable and hurting among our number can thrive again.
This may seem to some as being overly semantic. It’s just words after all, right? But then again, if battling rape culture has taught us anything, it is that words have profound power, to change, improve, or harm. We owe it to society to speak accurately of rape. We owe it to ourselves. We owe it to the survivors of rape.
This is no “epidemic” – this is cultural; reinforced by patriarchal notions of gender, by classist and racist abuse, by colonialism that reinforces kyriarchal abuse on the peoples of South Africa and globally to this day. Rape culture is not a virus. It is not a dog turd we stood in. Rape culture is the day-to-day things we do, each and every single one of us, that excuses, normalises, and trivialises rape, and none of that is accidental.
Charl Landsberg is a transgender nonbinary South African writer, poet, musician, artist, and activist. Their work focusses on issues pertaining to feminism, anti-racism, LGBTQIA rights, HIV and AIDS work, and crisis counselling. Landsberg is very involved in the South African art scene having published poetry with Poetry Potion, having had art exhibited in numerous South African galleries, and having performed as a instrumentalist and sometimes-singer on stage across the country. Follow them on Twitter.
*Editors’ note: This article contained an erroneous reference to rape statistics (95% and 77% of reported rapes). This has been corrected.