A culture of responsibility
By: Simone Chiara van der Merwe
On Friday 17 February the ANC Women’s League held a march in the Johannesburg CBD to protest against the sexual harassment of two women at the Noord street taxi rank in December. Reading media reports of the incident itself certainly makes my blood run cold. However, what I’ve found most interesting is the way people have responded to the march.
I was sad to see that a considerable portion of the comments made on internet forums still focused on assigning responsibility and/or blame to the women and to their behaviour, in this case what they were wearing. On the one hand there are those (thankfully I haven’t come across many) who adopt an attitude of ‘Well, she was dressed like a slut.’ This is straightforward and blatant assigning of blame, which I hope the majority of people in most of our societies are able to see past and reject.
But then there is the more subtle – and therefore more difficult to address – assigning of responsibility. This is an aspect of our reaction to harassment and sexual violence that I believe needs attention. The fact that it came up time and again in readers’ comments on internet forums shows that this issue is still a part of our society. The basic idea is: ‘Well, she should’ve known not to dress like that. I’m sure she’s learnt her lesson now.’ While perhaps not blaming the victim for the harassment itself, this still places the responsibility for the event on her shoulders, in the sense that she was the one who should have prevented it.
Some say that a woman should take care not to place herself in a dangerous situation. See, for example, this contribution on MyNews24. At first glance this seems like a very reasonable argument. But does walking on the street in a skirt that exposes your legs really qualify as irresponsibly placing yourself in a dangerous situation? Crossing a busy highway without checking for oncoming traffic is irresponsibly putting yourself in danger. As is bungee jumping with an old and worn-out cord.
What this argument fails to take into account is that, in the first place, the harassment, the intimidation, the abuse is directed at the women for possessing female bodies, not merely for showing them off. I think most women will know from personal experience that it’s not necessary to wear skimpy clothing to attract unwelcome and abusive comments on the street. Therefore, the abuse happens and exists whether or not women wear miniskirts. The responsibility lies within the mind and heart of the abuser.
The concept of responsibility goes to the heart of many rape myths. For many centuries, the responsibility for men’s transgressive behaviour was not placed on the male perpetrator’s shoulders, but on the victim’s instead. Even if the victim was not blamed wholesale, the responsibility to have prevented the transgression still rested on her shoulders.
Thankfully, this has already changed to a great extent and is still changing progressively. The concept of responsibility is reflected in the Sexual Offences Act. For example, if a person is under the influence of alcohol, drugs or any other substance when she or he is penetrated, that penetration is unlawful and constitutes rape, as the person under the influence is not capable of ‘appreciating the nature of the act’, and therefore not capable of consenting (Section headed Rape, page 3 to 4). In this way, the law recognises that responsibility for a rape does not lie with the victim for placing her/himself in a compromising position. This holds the perpetrator responsible for his actions, regardless of the victim’s behaviour.
For a woman to become incapacitated due to alcohol or drugs that she ingested willingly, is an unfortunate and, arguably, silly thing to do. That woman is responsible for the negative consequences of her intoxication, such as banging her head on the floor if she falls off a chair, having a hangover the next day, and so on. But – and this is the very important crux of the matter – being raped is not a natural and normal consequence of her intoxication. It is the consequence of a rapist’s actions. The responsibility for the rape, committed by the rapist, lies squarely at his door.
Let’s take the example of a woman deciding to wear a miniskirt. If it’s a cold day and she starts shivering, that is her responsibility, as it was her choice to wear a miniskirt. If her legs get sunburnt, that is her responsibility. However, and this is something that many people seem to not understand, harassment is not a normal and natural consequence of her choice to wear a miniskirt. It is a consequence of the values, mindset and psychological make-up of the harasser.
I wonder if this tendency to assign responsibility to the victim is a remnant of the old and antiquated worldview where men, their sexual impulses and behaviour were untouchable and not open to question. Male behaviour was legitimised by the view that “men have their needs”, “boys will be boys” and so on. That was quite simply just the way things were. It was, in a way, comparable to the laws of nature, such as the fact that exposure to the sun equals sunburn, or that wearing skimpy clothes on a cold day means you will be cold. In that same way, men’s behaviour and sexual attitudes were seen as inevitable, unquestionable.
Thank goodness that this is changing, and that it has changed so much already. The world is developing in a way that emphasises the individual’s responsibility for his or her actions and decisions. Every day we are encouraged to take responsibility for our behaviour towards the environment, our choices as consumers, our actions as parents, lovers, spouses, friends. In the same way, this culture of responsibility puts the ball in a man’s court. What the miniskirt march was effectively saying, is: ‘We have female bodies. It is your responsibility as men to behave decently.’
Speaking at the miniskirt march, Angie Motshekga said that women have the right to wear what they want. A simple statement, but one with profound implications. And one that can only really become a reality in a society where individuals take responsibility for their own actions. However, while some of us, more privileged, live in communities where the culture of responsibility is a reality, a great many people in our country still live in communities and societies where life is a totally different matter. All this talk of taking responsibility is utterly meaningless in a community where everyday life is a struggle to survive against the odds, and where dog eats dog.
Lastly, a salute and a bravo to the women who marched. For centuries, perhaps for millennia, the female body has absorbed guilt and blame. So much so that it is a singularly brave thing for a woman to stand up and say: ‘This is my female body. I am proud of it, and it deserves respect. I should not have to hide it in order to protect myself.’ That’s what I read in the actions of the women of the miniskirt march. I do hope that many others can see it that way too.