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#WomenofSU: Helping to shift perceptions and (mis-) understandings around sexual violence
Author: Corporate Communication & Marketing / Korporatiewe Kommunikasie & Bemarking
Published: 25/08/2020

Sexual violence diminishes the human dignity of every citizen and wastes the wealth of human potential we have in South Africa. By asking questions about the meanings of sexual attack, Prof Louise du Toit from the Department of Philosophy tries to shift perceptions and (mis-) understandings around sexual violence in the country.

As part of South Africa's Women's Month celebrations, she tells us how her research is helping to change people's views on sexual violence.

Can you tell us more about your research?

My research has over many years focused on the problematic of sexual violence, contextualised within the South African post-colony. My feminist-philosophical approach (rooted in European and African philosophical frameworks and world senses) differs from most other approaches to the problem, in that I ask typical philosophical questions about the phenomenon, e.g. what are the meanings of sexual attack, in war and peace and in transitional societies, for survivors and perpetrators respectively, in institutional contexts, and within nation-states? By asking about the meanings of sexual attack, and how such meanings are mobilised to have real material and power effects in the world, I remain aware of how different contexts rely on different meanings of the 'same' phenomenon; and even within the same event, different meanings may well be at play.

In fact, French post-structuralist philosopher Michel Foucault has famously said, sexuality is 'an especially dense transfer point for relations of power', and I think this is exactly right. Our sexuality is rooted in our life energy, and thus in our primal power to make a difference in the world, to transcend ourselves in the direction of the world and others. That is why sexual attack is potentially devastating: irrespective of conscious perpetrator motives, the logic of sexual attack is that it aims to destroy victims' worlds, voices, and agency, their being and becoming in the world. I thus understand sexual violence as a crude but very basic and very effective means for re-distributing power in the world.

This means that sexual attack usually has very different, even opposing, meanings for perpetrators who typically find it either trivial or exhilarating, and empowering, and survivors, who often experience the 'same' event as world-shattering, as destroying their most basic trusts in the world, in others, and in themselves.

Studying sexual violence has therefore also made me acutely aware of how meaning-making is always contingent and always contested. It is one thing to ask what the dominant meanings of something are in fact (e.g. in what we call a 'rape culture', dominant institutions such as the police, the courts and schools and universities, tend to adopt the perspective of perpetrators rather than of victims of sexual violence), and quite another to ask what the meanings should be. Even though philosophy asks very fundamental questions and may therefore become quite abstract or general at times, at the same time I want to employ the powerful critical tools of feminist philosophy to do something in the world: I want to shift our society's understanding of what sexual violence is and what it does in the world. 

Why or how did you become interested in this specific area of research?

It was 2001 and I was thinking about a possible topic for my PhD. My children were still small at the time, the youngest was 3 years old. Then came the sensational news about the rape of nine-month-old Baby Tshepang in the impoverished township of Louisvale near Upington. At the time, many people were still in the honeymoon daze of our political transition and brand new, progressive Constitution, and I was thoroughly shaken by my inability to grasp what had happened there. Then I decided – in a time when it had not yet been done much – to apply the critical tools provided by my training in philosophy, to the phenomenon of sexual violence in South Africa.

My first important insight was to discover how rape and sexual attack had not really been addressed by the TRC, it not being one of the 'serious human rights violations' people were being called to report to the Commission. Reading through the reports with a feminist lens, I realised that everything political, even ironically the transition to democracy itself, was still in our case understood in masculine terms, with women (citizens) being derivative, secondary, and an afterthought. In fact, in spite of a mass women's movement across race, class and political affiliation during negotiations and transition, gradually we could see a new form of patriarchy simply replacing the older form of it. The sexual violence endemic in South Africa is amongst other things an indication of women's systemic, dire, and continuing, lack of political standing and voice.

One is tempted to think democracy was never meant for women, and has not yet arrived for women. Of course, in making such statements, one has to also take into account how this situation is still vastly differently distributed across women differently placed in our society in terms of race, class, sexual orientation and so on. I have therefore always read the problem of sexual violence in our society alongside the larger national political scene – how does the systemic oppression of women through (fear of) sexual violence keep women in their subservient place?   

Why do you think this is such an important area of research for South African women?

There is not a woman or girl in our beautiful and sad country who has not personally experienced the fear or reality of sexual attack at some point. This is our lived condition. I have tried to describe above why sexual attack cannot be reduced to a purely personal or private matter, or ascribed to a few evil men and their few unlucky (unwise?) victims. It is a systemic problem, and a large part of the problem lies in institutional complicities. Our institutions too often take the side of perpetrators, protecting them or treating them leniently (often also protecting their 'brand' or 'image' in the process), and blaming victims for their own injuries.

Those inclined to sexually attack others are time and again reassured by the fact that statistically, they have roughly a 95% chance of getting away with it. The dice are loaded against victims in our society. We know how devastating rape trials are to the victims, not the perpetrators. Typically, rape trials are structured in such a way that they discourage victims from reporting and seeking justice. Once victims of sexual violence are convinced that societal institutions (the police, the courts, our workplaces) do not recognise sexual crimes as crimes, there is no longer any point in seeking justice for oneself. Effectively, the crime disappears in that the injustice is doubled.

Not only are victims attacked in the most crudely disempowering way, but the harms they suffer, are also not acknowledged, do not register properly as harms yet in our society. But I do want to add a point here that I feel very strongly about. In our society, it is not only women and girls who are sexually attacked, and although male perpetrators are the overwhelming majority, some women are also guilty, either of personal or institutional complicity, or even of direct perpetration.

I feel we can really illuminate the nature of the crime and its harms if we thoroughly integrate both in our analyses and in our responses, the thousands of male victims who are at the moment invisible and inaudible – even more so than the female victims. Vulnerable boys in our societies get sexually exploited, and prison rape seems to be pervasive, the rule rather than the exception. There is also some evidence that gangs use rape to punish members. Male on male rape seems to make it easier for people to understand how sexual attack functions to redistribute power, to shore up power for the perpetrators, and render the victims vulnerable to further exploitation.

The full inclusion of male and boy victims in our analyses and policies around sexual violence has the potential to shift our discourses on sexual violence in necessary and important ways. So, both directly (as victims and potential victims) and indirectly (because most men have mothers, sisters, nieces and daughters), this research is also of great importance for South African men.

What would you consider the greatest impact of your research on women in the country?

The hope is that my work helps to gradually start to shift perceptions and (mis-) understandings around sexual violence in the country. Because sexual violence is everybody's problem (although it is often turned into a narrow 'women's issue') and ultimately diminishes the human dignity of every citizen, and severely diminishes and wastes the wealth of human potential we have in this country, I always try to engage both men and women on this topic, in particular those in positions of power and decision-making (most often men).

Moreover, it is not only men who misunderstand and trivialise sexual violence; often women are guilty of this, too. Often even survivors of sexual violence buy into patriarchal understandings of their experience and internalise the guilt and blame themselves. These are the types of distorted meanings that I target through my critical work. It has potentially transformative implications for how the first respondents such as police officers and medical personnel treat sexual violence victims; for how rape trials are conducted; for trauma therapy; for how institutions such as churches, schools, colleges and universities, and even international criminal tribunals and peace commissions, should respond to victims of sexual attack. I see my work as speaking to a range of different disciplines, theatres and contexts.    

Do you have any message for the next generation of women researchers?

What has helped me enormously in my career as a female and feminist researcher, have been supportive networks of women researchers. Sometimes one has to seek out these comrades-in-arms further afield than simply in one's own institution; sometimes they are close at hand. I have had inspiring groups of researchers sharing the same passions and interests, who have helped to bring out the best in me. Such environments in which feminist creativity and solidarity flourish, typically combine two crucial aspects, namely safety and challenge in just the right balance. Find, or create and invest in such networks, friendships, and spaces, the incubators of intellectual creativity.