Universities are well placed to educate students in a myriad ways about identifying and tackling rape culture, writes Dr Elisabet le Roux of the Unit for Religion and Development Research in the Faculty of Theology in an opinion piece published on The Conversation website on Thursday (14 April 2016).
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'Rape culture' ingrained in society
Elisabet le Roux
In the past few weeks, the terms 'Stellenbosch University' (SU) and 'rape culture' often appeared in the same headline. There seems to be shock and, in some cases, resistance to this. Staff, students, alumni and inhabitants are dismayed to see the picturesque town associated with something as revolting as rape. But what is not quite clear is what people are shocked about: the existence of rape culture, or the fact that it is present in Stellenbosch?
Maybe the best place to start this discussion is with the term 'rape culture' itself. It immediately makes people uncomfortable, which could be why some resist the label. Coined in the 1970's, rape culture refers to the pervasive ideology that supports or excuses sexual assault. Rape culture is created and enabled by patriarchy, which empowers men at the expense of women, and supports a hegemonic, idealised version of masculinity that does not easily allow for alternative expressions of being a man. This is why not only women and girls are victims of rape culture; men and boys are sometimes too.
So if we talk about rape culture, we are talking about the societal attitudes regarding sexuality and gender that normalises sexual abuse. In various ways society normalises sexually violent acts. Through jokes, song lyrics, advertising bill boards and bestselling novels, among others, we create a culture where sexual violence becomes permissible. Coercive sex, groping, indecent exposure, wolf whistling, and lewd remarks: all of these are a result of rape culture, and in turn strengthens rape culture.
The existence of rape culture cannot be determined by merely relying on statistics of reported rapes – which is in any case incredibly underreported – but by the daily lived experiences of marginalisation, objectification, stigmatisation and discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation. Rape culture is the sexual remarks a young woman hears when she walks past a group of men; rape culture is the lewd jokes told around a braai. But we also see the presence of rape culture in societal responses to rape. Victim blaming, the denying of sexual violence, and stigmatisation of victims all attest to the pervasiveness and strength of rape culture.
You do not even have to be very informed to be aware that South Africa has a rape culture. On the extreme side of the spectrum of rape culture are the sickeningly common headlines screaming about the latest atrocious rape of a four-year-old girl, or the gang rape of a 16-year-old while her mother is forced to watch. Literally not a day goes by without the media reporting on sexual violence perpetrated somewhere in South Africa. But we also see rape culture in Jacob Zuma accusing women of complaining about harassment too quickly, and stating that single women are a problem in society.
Rape culture is also revealed in the way our elected male leaders respond to their female counterparts. Remember how Helen Zille's cabinet members were said to be her "boyfriends and concubines", or how Lindiwe Mazibuko was labeled a "tea girl", and her dress and hair-style discussed and criticised in parliament? Rape culture is not only in the vicious sexual acts perpetrated; it is also in what is seen as acceptable in how men address and interact with women. The fact that our government leaders can talk about and to women in such a way shows how accepted and ingrained rape culture is.
If the existence of rape culture in South Africa is nothing new, why then did people expect Stellenbosch University to be different from the rest of the country?
In fact, university campuses are prime locations for rape culture. In 1985, Mary Koss, an expert on gender-based violence, did a seminal study on rape culture at 32 university campuses in the United States of America (USA). She found that university campuses are the perfect site for rape culture, as they are closed institutions, much like the military and prisons. People live, study, work and play in the same environment. A university campus has particular norms and practices, and living in such a closed environment means that one is constantly exposed to it. Within such settings it is very hard to counter whatever is considered as normal and acceptable.
This does not mean that SU can do nothing about the rape culture on its campus. At other universities, especially in the USA, various interventions have been launched to address rape culture. Some focus only on rape – teaching women how not be raped, and men how not to rape – but the majority aim to unmask and counter the beliefs and practices that create rape culture.
Thus there has already been some hard work done on how to address rape culture at universities, on which SU can draw. Furthermore, without denying that rape culture is difficult to challenge on campus, such an enclosed university environment arguably makes for an easier setting in which to challenge rape culture, compared to, say, South Africa at large. As it is such a closed environment, instating formal and informal practices that counter rape culture will be easier and arguably have an impact sooner. It will take considerable effort, and a long time, but SU can address rape culture, particularly through education and consistently implementing sanctions. This has not been done adequately in the past. Hopefully, it will in the future.
Looking at rape culture in South Africa, and on university campuses, has led me to conclude that, in the current debate on SU and rape culture, the issue at stake for many is not so much rape culture, but Stellenbosch. The shock and reaction is due to public attention being brought to the fact that rape culture is present at Stellenbosch. Did people think that SU is above 'all that'? Would there have been less of a reaction if it were on a predominantly black campus, say in a big city?
We should be shocked about the rape culture at SU. But in responding to it, we should be careful that our interventions are about addressing rape culture, not about restoring SU's reputation. It is good that the issue has been raised. The University's management should not delay in addressing it comprehensively and decisively on a long-term basis. Steps have been taken in that direction. But it remains unfortunate that there is not the same outcry when we see rape culture in action in South Africa at large. Why are so many people only dismayed when we see it happening at SU?
*Dr Elisabet le Roux is Research Director at the Unit for Religion and Development Research in the Faculty of Theology at Stellenbosch University. She specialises in faith and development, with a particular focus on gender-based violence.