On feminism and surviving rape

There is an American televangelist—Pat Robertson—who shares a birthday with me (22 March and I like chocolate, in case you were wondering). But date of birth aside, him and I have precious little in common. He is a rampant homophobe, sexist and racist; justifying his opinions by cowering behind the cross. He has said things to rival Trump but he hit the nail on the head when he said that feminism “encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians”. I can personally attest to the accuracy of Robertson’s supposition. Since identifying as a feminist I have worn my Che Guevara t-shirt publicly, started dating women and have been called—on numerous occasions by numerous men—a feminist bitch (the ‘b’ replaces the ‘w’ in the antifeminist cis-het-man dialect). And I as I have yet to find a husband or breed—as far as the leaving and the killing are concerned I can’t make any promises. The salient point here is that I am a full-blown feminist. And proud of it.

Now that we have established the strength of my feminism, I’d like to talk about Rape Crisis as a feminist organisation that works with rape survivors. When I started at Rape Crisis, I was confronted by the fact that many of the people who were also training as counsellors were hesitant to call themselves feminists. At the time, I took issue to this. I didn’t understand why anyone somehow at the frontlines of the rape epidemic could still consider feminism a dirty word. It was only when I started counselling that I understood.

My work at Rape Crisis entails sitting across from a person who has experienced rape and trying to navigate some sort of recovery. Sometimes that person cries. Sometimes that person doesn’t show any emotion and sometimes, that person is not a feminist.

Survivors are also at the frontlines; they have experienced patriarchy in one of its most violent manifestations. I believe that rape is a feminist issue and I believe that feminism is key to challenging and fighting it. But I no longer believe that people in this war have to ride the waves or skip the sandwiches or enjoy the feminism that has become my lifeblood. In my hour with a survivor I am not dealing with patriarchy, I am dealing with pain. I can make it an academic issue and apply it to the couch but my belief in feminism is not the message the survivor needs. I cannot prescribe healing by directing a survivor away from the patriarchy. I cannot rationalise what happened to them through academic insights. I cannot decide that feminist empowerment is the only kind of empowerment for a person who has survived rape. In that hour, I am dealing with personal and unique modes of survival. And while this sometimes entails deconstructing destructive and violent systems of masculine control, it always entails a person who is hurting. That hurt is what I have the ability to address. And that ability was honed and cultivated in me by the wonderful feminists and not-so-feminists at Rape Crisis. My job is to equip survivors with tools for recovery and ideally one of those tools would be feminism. But I am not there to dictate or indoctrinate or preach. This b(w)itch will leave that to the Pat Robertsons of the world.


20160920_152926 (002).jpg

Ronel Koekemoer

Ronel is a volunteer counsellor at Rape Crisis and is studying History at UCT. In her spare time she likes to read, knit and visit the love of her life, Yoshi the sea turtle, at the Two Oceans Aquarium. 

‘Sleeping with the Enemy?’: the debate continues

I had decided to stay out of the debate on the Rape Crisis blog between “Fifty Shades of Feminism” and “Burlesque”, posts by the present and former directors of Rape Crisis. Many reasons: remembering being the “angry young feminist”, feeling caught between the older and younger generations of feminists, but most of all, affection for the personalities behind the blogs. I’ve seen Carol dancing with joy in the shepherd’s cottage she calls home, goats and flowers outside. I’ve asked her how the sam hill she keeps up her tireless international advocacy for raped and abused children without losing her mind. Her response is to crank up the music and dance some more.

And then there’s Kath, with whom I go back so far, the letters she wrote me when I went travelling (which I still have) were written by hand. It was a time of boyfriends and breakups and brothers and baked potatoes. Some of the people we loved in those long-gone years are dead now, so she’s become one of my memory-bank friends. And we have the tie of Rape Crisis too, an organisation I’ve orbited since the late 1980s. I’ve never been a member, but I’ve been a researcher and consultant for the organisation on and off since 2001.

Kath is an idealistic pragmatist. Carol is a practically-minded idealist. I have more admiration than words can express for them both.

I’m writing this because Kath specifically asked me to. And because I’ve currently been entrusted with the task of compiling and editing a memoir of the past 40 years of the organisation’s history. This has offered some insights from the past into this current debate.

Two strands emerge from the timeline of the organisation’s long and impressive history. One is that “robust debate” (polite way of saying massive conflict) – between different schools of feminism, between white middle-class members and black members, older members and younger members, members who were parents and who were childless – has always run like a river through the culture of the organisation.

This makes perfect sense: Rape Crisis was founded in 1976, the year Soweto burned and the struggle against apartheid took on a new urgency and militancy. Feminism was considered irrelevant or viewed with suspicion. Sexual violence against women wasn’t seen as a priority by either the right or the left. Things got worse in the 1980s, the era of “young lions” and “jackrolling”, often in the name of the “struggle”.

In all of this, Rape Crisis members were presented with one urgent moral dilemma after another: did it affiliate with the anti-apartheid movement, and if so, which structures, given that the ANC and PAC were banned, underground organisations? What relationship could it have with state institutions, given that these were racist by definition and culture? How was it supposed to interface with the criminal justice system, which overtly legislated discrimination?

How was the organisation to survive? It needed funds, registration status, relationships with state institutions that could provide satellite support (hospitals, mental health agencies, schools) and more. Issues of language, access, training, location – which were also issues of race and class – had to be faced and dealt with. The range of debates and divides from those years is so overwhelming, I’m amazed that the organisation survived.

There’s also a great deal of pain in the Rape Crisis annals: I was horrified to find that lesbians were not officially allowed to be “out” in the organisation until six years after it was established, for reasons of “credibility” and “image”. Can you imagine it? My brain almost melted.

And the agonies around trying to arrange abortions (then illegal) for rape survivors: those were truly dark times, and the brave band of members and volunteers who kept going regardless of differences, ideological and otherwise, deserve to be saluted.

But that brings the second strand into focus: that in spite of the real and sometimes bitter divides on the ground – and it’s clear from the records that these were handled with vast helpings of humour – Rape Crisis kept achieving amazing things, fuelled by the same passion that drove the debates. A small volunteer group working out of their own homes and later, a series of dingy offices, spread like dandelion seeds all over Southern Africa, establishing sister organisations, and a stellar reputation for being the one safe go-to place for rape survivors of all ages, races and sexes.

For all the in-house divisions and differences, Rape Crisis never abandoned those who needed the support it offered – rape survivors and their families. And that’s the context in which I see this debate.

On the issue of burlesque: my impression was always that it was a form of subverting the strip-club status quo. But I’m aware that this response stems from my own intellectual feminist history: I belong to the post-colonial and postmodern generation, which argued that the oppressed are never silent, but continually fermenting with agency, subversion and creativity from the margins. I once heard a feminist scholar argue that doing “high-end” sex work to support herself as she wrote her PhD was a choice that demonstrated her power. (Interestingly, the one thing she refused to do for her clients was wear high heels: “I’m not risking bunions.”) I didn’t buy her argument, but I did see its logic. But I have no doubt that if I had explained this at a Rape Crisis meeting at many moments in its history, I would have been soundly jumped upon in the honourable tradition of the organisation.

Has Rape Crisis betrayed the radical feminism of its roots? All I know is that I call myself a radical feminist, and don’t believe it is a fixed entity, or necessarily a path to consensus and sisterhood. (Will never forget a very senior American feminist professor demanding to know if I was straight. My BRILLIANT reply – “So far” – didn’t save me from condemnation for “sleeping with the enemy”.)

Has Rape Crisis been “captured by the patriarchy”? It’s a fair question, but the truth is that we’re all immersed in a toxic mix of overlapping patriarchies and structural inequalities. There are no capitalism-free zones, especially not when there are bills to pay.

A look back through the history of Rape Crisis shows that money for the organisation has come from a whole range of individuals and entities, including banks and oil companies – two powerful global players responsible for unimaginable suffering. But we all use banks, and those of us with cars all buy petrol.

So while Rape Crisis may never have slept with the enemy, it’s done a fair amount of strategic table-hopping in its time. It’s always debated practical choices with verve and honesty, and it’s always found a way forward, in spite of legitimate concerns and even rage.

It’s a struggle, finding that balance between trying to usher in that other world Arundati Roy can hear breathing, and saving our own lives – striving for healing and contentment in our own skins.

As I was writing this, a young woman shared her identity as a rape survivor on the blog. Her courage is remarkable, but equally remarkable is that for all the turbulence of its history, Rape Crisis is a space that’s safe enough – even in the notoriously shark-infested online world – for people like her to claim the personal in the political. Having immersed myself in the organisation’s memories, I can attest that this is what it does best.


Processed with VSCO with 4 preset

Pic: Lara Aucamp

Helen Moffett

Helen is a writer, researcher, poet, recovering academic and activist. Her book on sexual violence in the post-apartheid state is awaiting publication. She has described herself as a radical feminist since the age of twenty-two, although her mother claims it started when she was about ten. She loves wearing high heels, but has reached the age where she loves taking them off even more. 

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of the Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust. We invite anyone reading this to share your opinion and submit your piece to our Director, Kathleen Dey, at kath@rapecrisis.org.za for publication on this site. We hope to spark our own debate to see what feminists of today, and any other day, think and feel.

A Letter to Carol and Anne

Dear Carol and Anne

I am one of the burlesque dancers you seem so intent on dehumanizing and invalidating.

I am also a rape survivor.

When I originally read Carol’s letter, I was hurt, she was after all, effectively telling me that my efforts to support my fellow survivors were invalid simply because our feminisms don’t align. She was telling me that her feminism is better and more valid than mine. But I made an effort to understand where Carol was coming from, her feminism, and how what she was feeling might have some validity based on her background and beliefs.  Despite her very weak attempts to “research” burlesque and her complete refusal to actually engage with a single one of the dancers she was condemning, I tried not to judge. I even considered thanking her for her part in creating Rape Crisis, an organisation that I wholly support today. Even if the organisation and those who operate within it have moved on, moved forward, hers was a vital and necessary role back in her day, and I wanted to acknowledge that.

Then I read Anne’s letter.

Then I read them both again.

Now I am angry.

Now I will tell you exactly what I think, without the diplomacy and empathy I had originally considered, since you clearly have none of your own.

Your radical feminism is just another form of control, your words and opinions are just another form of violence that we survivors have to face.

Anne and Carol, women like you are the reason I did not report my rapes (plural) in 1997 and 1999. Women like you, with your judgement, and your need to dictate how women should and should not express themselves are the ONLY reason I let my rapists get away with what they did to me. You, and all the men like you made me feel guilty and ashamed of my sexuality and sexual expression. You are the kind of women who called me promiscuous and made me feel like I was at fault for my own violation.

That, my friends, is not feminism; that is patriarchal violence. Congratulations!

I have worked for years to recover from my violations. I did the counselling. I did the traumatic muscle memory accessing. I cried through physical memories and the inability to inhabit my own sexual body. I confided in friends and lovers. I peeled away the fear and self-loathing slowly, painfully, constantly. I did it all. And yes it helped. Yes I moved past it. But I never recovered my self-esteem, never truly felt whole and female and sexy and like I had the absolute right to my body, my autonomy and my ability to say no.

Until I started Burlesque.

I get on stage in my “sparkly G-string” with “tassels on my nipples” to “gyrate sexually” for myself. I get on stage for my 72% female audience. I get on stage for every single woman who comes to me after the show to thank me for showing them that a woman, any woman, no matter her shape, size and past traumas can own and be proud of herself and her body. I get on stage in spite of the men who made me feel like an object. I get on stage in spite of the men who made me feel like being called beautiful was dirty. I get on stage in spite of women like you who feel you have the right to police my body and my actions and my intentions. I get on stage because I love it. It makes me feel whole. And it means I get to show women like me that there is life after rape. I do this in service of no man. I do this in service of women and myself.

I am proud to be associated with the Rape Crisis of today, with the women and men who work so tirelessly to make survivors feel safe, heard, human and whole. I am proud to support them and contribute in any way I can. I would have been ashamed to be associated with you. I was. You shamed me.

I hope you are proud of yourselves. Because today you succeeded in making a rape survivor, someone you claim to fight for, feel even less human than her abusers ever did. For a moment, you undid all the hard work I have put into making myself and others feel female, whole, human, valuable and valid. You have dredged up all the trauma and violence I felt once again. Carol you speak of feeling dishonoured, well you have dishonoured me.  Anne you speak of burlesque as being an insult, well you have insulted me. Betrayal by one’s own kind is far worse than any patriarchy, ladies.

Fortunately I have an incredible network of women who support me, who lift me up and who will help wipe away the stains of your nasty, bigoted words through dancing and love. We are women who support women, something you, despite all your proclaimed efforts, apparently still know little about.

You can quote all the accolades and academic distinctions in the world to me, all I read in your words are discrimination and oppression.

Kind Regards,

“Miss Fluffy Kitty”*

“Miss Fluffy Kitty” (*not her real name) is a member of the Rouge Revue Burlesque Company. She is currently pursuing a Masters degree in Social Anthropology with interests in identity, sexuality and gender. She is passionate about issues of LGBTQI rights, body positivity and sex positivity.

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of the Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust. We invite anyone reading this to share your opinion and submit your piece to our Director, Kathleen Dey, at kath@rapecrisis.org.za for publication on this site. We hope to spark our own debate to see what feminists of today, and any other day, think and feel.


Trying to Build Bridges of Understanding


Why I am unhappy about the Rape Crisis association with Burlesque shows.

It has been so difficult writing this blog, I have begun it and deleted it a number of times. As Kath Dey stated in her blog there are different forms of feminism, I want to expand on that.

I care about the women who work in Rape Crisis and I admire the achievements of the organisation. As old as I am I’m a very current, relevant type of feminist, my politics are radical feminist and this aspect of the feminist political spectrum has made a significant impact over the years on exposing the horrors of the global patriarchal culture of rape and femicide. Even in this time of backlash against feminist politics radical feminists all over the world are fighting back.

This particular analysis lead to the anger and energy that formed rape crisis organisations, battered women’s refuges, exit programs and safe houses for prostituted women attempting to escape pimps, brothels and traffickers throughout the world. Radical feminist research informs and assists with the creation of special police units, created to stop sex trafficking and rescue and rehabilitate women and girls. These liaise with each other and Interpol across continents.

Radical feminists challenge the patriarchal belief that women’s bodies are there for men to posses and use however they choose and to fundamentally challenge the patriarchal murderous sense of entitlement. The radical feminists’ political agenda is primarily to identify and stop violence against women, girls and children in the many forms it takes, and obviously to stop violence against men and boys. It’s clear from the Rape Crisis training modules that this organisation understands these challenges very well.

The socialist feminists’ political agenda is to expose the exploitation of particularly women and girls in the area of labour and to create economic equality. This is on the radical feminist agenda too but the socialist feminists focus more on the exploitation of labour.

The liberal feminist agenda appears to be more individualistic and focused on the promotion of personal empowerment, personal pleasure and exploring and getting in touch with individual sexuality. Of course it’s accepted that there must be equality in the work place and that violence against women must be stopped but the belief is that women have the individual right to do things like sell their bodies in prostitution and pornography, euphemistically called “sex work”, and the right to indulge to the hilt in the fashion and cosmetic industry. This is not understood to be oppressive but a right to personal choice and personal freedom; the patriarchal commercial manipulation behind it is not recognised. There is denial that these industries are run by males attempting to mould women into servicing their male sexual fantasies, predominantly fantasies of the type that get heightened by the sexual domination of pubescent girls who show no resistance and are compliant with the job of servicing of patriarchal narcissism.

This kind of thinking appears not to show solidarity with the vast majority of women who cannot indulge the illusion of personal choice and who have to comply with the full weight of patriarchal oppression and simply try to survive.

Anti-violence feminists oppose the sexual exploitation of women and demand the total transformation of the dominant/submissive sexuality of male supremacy and the recognition of the rights of women everywhere to fulfill their potential and not waste their precious lives in the service of men.

So as a radical feminist abolitionist, who sees the enormous international sex trafficking industry, controlled by criminal syndicates, as a modern day slave trade and as some one who has attended:

  • The United Nations International Women Year Conference in Mexico City,
  • the International Tribunal on Crimes Against Women in Brussels,
  • worked for 12 years setting up Rape Crisis in Cape Town,
  • worked in England in a London NGO which exposed the violent face of the sex industry,
  • attended the National Conference on the Harms of Pornography in Chicago US, (this was addressed by Andria Dorkin and Catherine McKinnon),
  • attended an The International Feminist Conference in Brighton, England   returned to South Africa
  • participated in the First National Consultative Conference Against the Sexual Exploitation of Children, (and put the conference report together)
  • Worked for the Institute for Child and Family Development at the University of the Western Cape, part of a team who worked on the streets of Cape Town researching what was happening to prostituted women and girls, focusing on girls below the age of 18. (see Child Victims of Prostitution in the Western Cape 1999).

I should know a thing or two about patriarchal violence.

When I look at the three intelligent faces of the women on the cover of the Rape Crisis Annual Report 2016 and I think of the possibility of them gyrating on the stage with tassels on their nipples, glittering G-strings and feather boas, “getting in touch with their sexuality” I feel that it’s an insult to their intelligence and sexual integrity. Yes! Dance, sing, have fun, send yourself up but don’t parcel yourself up as an infantile “Miss Fluffy Kitty” to fit into a male sexual fantasy of a submissive woman.  Don’t believe that burlesque is healthy, liberating fun. We need to look for other ways to have fun, like the hilarious line dance at the Rape Crisis birthday celebration and things like that!

The human sex drive is powerful, personal and anarchistic. To attempt to commercialise it is to oppress it and distort it. It can never be destroyed; it’s a fundamentally strong life force!



Anne Mayne

Founder of Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of the Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust. We invite anyone reading this to share your opinion and submit your piece to our Director, Kathleen Dey, at kath@rapecrisis.org.za for publication on this site. We hope to spark our own debate to see what feminists of today, and any other day, think and feel.