Lisa Vetten
Lisa Vetten

Bullard vs Solomon and the unwritten rules for speaking about rape

With its dredging of historical slights and recycling of resentments nurtured over time, Team Bullard vs Team Solomon has all the hallmarks of a grudgefest. This personalised process of verbal pushing and shoving has not only diminished the sort of ethical public sphere needed for discussion of sexual violence, but also endorsed uncritically the unwritten rules for speaking of rape.

Rule one is that only women who have reported to the police may claim the mantle of rape survivor. But if we take as our test what actual, real rape survivors do (rather than what we would like them to do), then reporting to the police turns out to be a very poor test of credibility indeed because it is the response of an exceptional minority, rather than the norm. Data from the 1998 South African Demographic and Health Survey conducted by the department of health showed one in nine women who had been raped to have reported the matter to the police. More recent data from a 2010 Gauteng community-based survey by Gender Links and the Medical Research Council found one in 13 women who had been raped by a non-partner to have reported to the police. By contrast, only one in 25 of those raped by their intimate partners reported the matter.

The reasons for victims’ silence have also been thoroughly investigated and are collated into a list at the end of the article, along with references to the studies concerned. Note how many are directly related to fear of how other people will respond.

The second unwritten rule addresses itself to what counts as real rape, with this comment from Politicsweb being fairly typical: “And frankly, Michelle Solomon’s story just makes me sick! She woke up alive. Unhurt, and so unsure of whether she had been raped or not that she drove her ‘rapist’ home. This woman is riding high on the coat-tails of the extreme pain, torture and death that real rape victims suffer.”

There are a number of ideas embedded in this set of statements. One is that the well of public sympathy is an exceedingly small one and must be rationed accordingly, with the test for who deserves our compassion, and who does not, being the presence of a brutal degree of injury. Not even our law is this severe. Unlike assault where a distinction is drawn between a common assault and an assault with intent to cause grievous bodily harm, there is no rape common and rape grievous. It is the act of penetration without consent that is the harm, irrespective of how much or how little violence accompanies the act. But perhaps what these statements are also pointing to is the indifference some of us feel towards rape, it now requiring the extreme to rouse at least some degree of fellow-feeling.

If we cast the net more broadly than the Bullard-Solomon exchange, then other conditions for speaking about rape reveal themselves, one of which nuances the index of brutality rule. Consider this review which appeared in The Witness of Scandal actor Candice Derman’s memoir Indescribable: it’s easy to keep a bad secret: “Her inclusion of graphic and often sickening details seemed gratuitous and by the end of the book I was still left wondering how readers or the actress herself could benefit from the inclusion of such vulgar, offensive imagery.” What this reviewer wanted was “more on the psychological effects, and how she learned to cope and finally move on with her life”. The reviewer is not alone; many journalists who call me wanting to interview rape survivors ask for someone “who’ll give others hope”.

So these are rules for publicly claiming to be a rape survivor: report to the police, speak only of the extreme and savage (but not to a degree which unsettles) and reassure the listener/reader that all will be well. Each of these elements combines to a perfect degree in Alison’s I have life, probably the most successful and well-known first-person account of rape written in South Africa.

Alison is indeed inspiring. In 1994 she was raped by two men and left for dead after having been stabbed repeatedly and her throat slit. Nonetheless, she managed to crawl to the road and flag down a passing motorist. Her courage and will to survive are exemplary and testify to how suffering can be transcended.

But rape survivors do not exist for our personal edification and when they speak it cannot be only to tell us reassuring stories about the triumph of the human spirit. Some stories are ambiguous and incomplete, while others are quiet and unspectacular. Others speak to lives left empty and chaotic by anger and self-destruction. None conform to the narrow and exclusionary rules for speaking about rape. Yet if we were to listen and, perhaps more importantly, tolerate the complex array of feelings these accounts evoke, instead of rushing to opine, judge and prescribe, we would not only enrich our own understanding but also provide the acceptance so many rape victims are denied.

Why victims do not report being raped to the police
* Fear of not being believed or being accused of lying;
* Feelings of shame, guilt, humiliation and embarrassment, including feeling responsible for the abuse;
* Feelings of pity and love towards the person abusing;
* Problems of physical access to police or social workers;
* Fear of retaliation or intimidation by the abuser, especially when combined with a lack of confidence that the legal process will result in a conviction;
* Fear of legal processes, including experiencing rudeness and poor treatment by the police;
* Fear of having to relive the trauma in court and during the investigation;
* Fear of upsetting the stability of the family;
* Fear of the power and authority of the abuser;
* Fear of loss of economic support by the abuser;
* Preference for cultural means of resolving disputes (such as the payment of damages by the abuser);
* Fear of ostracism or ridicule by peers; and
* Wanting to avoid the stigma attached to being raped (being labelled as “damaged”).

Sources:
Jewkes R, Penn-Kekana L and Rose-Junius H. (2005). ‘ “If they rape me, I can’t blame them”: reflections on gender in the social context of child rape in South Africa and Namibia’ Social Science and Medicine 61: 1809-1820.

Kelly, L, Lovett, J and Regan, L. A gap or a chasm? Attrition in reported rape cases (Home Office Research Study 293, 2005)

Lievore, D. Non-reporting and Hidden Recording of Sexual Assault: An international Literature Review, (2003) Report produced for the Commonwealth Office of the Status of Women,

Tjaden, P and Thoennes, N. Extent, Nature, and Consequences of Rape Victimisation: Findings From the National Violence Against Women Survey (January 2006), US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice.

Tags: , ,

  • South Africa’s rape crisis
  • Men that rape are our fathers, lovers
  • Shaming rape survivors and other bull
  • Breaking my Bullard silence
  • 13 Responses to “Bullard vs Solomon and the unwritten rules for speaking about rape”

    1. It took me more than 20 years to “speak” about being raped. The reasons that held me back were many and complicated and different from the psychologists lists. One that is not discussed is that I should have not have been as stupid and naive as I was. (As I still am?) As for reporting it if I knew then what I know now. Never!

      February 13, 2014 at 12:19 pm
    2. hippiegoth #

      Intelligent and insightful. Thank you.

      I’ve wondered about the “requirements” that underly many opinions of what constitutes rape, and am baffled by the idea that if an incident wasn’t accompanied by grievous physical violence, it doesn’t qualify as rape.

      The way I see it: Rape = rape. Being beaten/cut/tortured/bound and raped = rape and assault. So-called “corrective rape” = rape and hate crime. etc.

      February 13, 2014 at 2:55 pm
    3. Erika #

      Thank you, Lisa, for a sane and thoughtful piece of writing.

      February 13, 2014 at 8:58 pm
    4. Barbra #

      One of the best and most level headed pieces that have been written on the Bullard Solomons issue, and rape in general. Thank you.

      February 14, 2014 at 8:59 am
    5. Sikwane Matlala #

      I am not sure about reasons people advance for rape victims’ lack of desire to report their suffering.What I know for sure about human nature is that what happens to us becomes part of us.The rapist is not always a male as it appears.My own experience with men has been that early in their lives when they were too young to understand older girls have had sex with them and made them had sex with younger girls who were not willing but forced by the older ones.I am telling you what I see often missed in research studies.

      February 14, 2014 at 9:22 am
    6. Terry Dale #

      I wish your intelligible piece had been the nature of discourse on Twitter between the two parties in mention and those who joined in on this delicate topic…mature debate that produced something positive for those who have fallen prey to the horrific crime of rape. The only thing accomplished by these parties has been a display of hubris and promoting of one’s self/own agenda.

      February 14, 2014 at 10:25 am
    7. Alan Watkins #

      Lisa, THIS a sensible, impartial, discussion of the issue. Well Done

      February 14, 2014 at 10:47 am
    8. Conrad Steenkamp
      Conrad #

      Bringing sense to a bitter discussion and the ignorance that underpins it. Excellent.

      February 14, 2014 at 12:53 pm
    9. Momma Cyndi #

      This is exactly why I don’t feel that the likes of Bullard should be censored. Without his rather obscure views, this kind of article would never have seen the light of day. In a strange way, he has done the country a service by bringing this kind of information into the public eye.

      Whilst my heart goes out to Michelle, she missed a great opportunity to educate. I understand why the comments rubbed on a raw nerve (and I don’t for a second blame her for her very understandable reaction), but there are a lot of ‘Bullards’ out there and making one of them be quiet isn’t going to change their perceptions

      February 14, 2014 at 6:10 pm
    10. bernpm #

      Thanks for your moderation initiated by the Solomon histrionics and hate speech towards Bullard and his support team.
      Some of my moderating comments were systematically deleted which imho reduced the credibility of the discussion.
      Thanks again for your perspective.

      February 15, 2014 at 5:33 pm
    11. Fiona Wallace #

      Thanks, Lisa. Clarity and well-researched data, as always.

      For me your greatest contribution to the debate is:

      “But rape survivors do not exist for our personal edification and when they speak it cannot be only to tell us reassuring stories about the triumph of the human spirit. Some stories are ambiguous and incomplete, while others are quiet and unspectacular. Others speak to lives left empty and chaotic by anger and self-destruction. None conform to the narrow and exclusionary rules for speaking about rape. Yet if we were to listen and, perhaps more importantly, tolerate the complex array of feelings these accounts evoke, instead of rushing to opine, judge and prescribe, we would not only enrich our own understanding but also provide the acceptance so many rape victims are denied.”

      Perhaps missed by Terry Dale in her/his wish for a “mature debate that produced something positive for those who have fallen prey to the horrific crime of rape. The only thing accomplished by these parties has been a display of hubris and promoting of one’s self/own agenda.”

      And seemingly glossed over by bernpm’s “Solomon histrionics and hate speech towards Bullard and his support team”.

      Isn’t this type of judgment of Michelle the crux of your piece?

      February 15, 2014 at 8:22 pm
    12. Philip van der Merwe #

      Ya.

      February 17, 2014 at 11:17 pm
    13. Terry Dale #

      To answer Fiona Wallace’s question, my judgement was placed on the lack of (positively) fruitful discussion, action and outcome – not on persons (with whom I have no acquantaince). This piece by Lisa Vetten provides a platform from which to build, repair, improve.

      February 19, 2014 at 10:57 am

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