A response to Charlene Smith’s #RUReferenceList Facebook post

This post is written from a position of deep respect. I have followed Charlene Smith’s writing and activism for years, and have nothing but admiration for her. Her work has revolutionised the way hospitals treat rape survivors and she has been instrumental in getting antiretrovirals administered after sexual assaults. Her writing has helped thousands of women. She is a hero and a warrior in the fight against sexual violence.

Smith recently published a Facebook post in response to the #RUReferenceList protests and in particular to the list itself. There are aspects of this post that I find problematic and this is my attempt to engage with them. This is not an attack, but a respectful engagement with someone I esteem highly. I wish to express the hope that this post will not be triggering to her or to other survivors of sexual assault, but to warn of the possibility that it might. In the next paragraph I will briefly summarise the assault Smith endured for those who don’t know the story. My knowledge of the event comes from Smith’s own writings.

In her Facebook post, Smith writes about the #RUReferenceList from her point of view as a rape survivor, but it is important to remember that her experience of rape is not typical in the South African context. Her assault was of the “stranger-danger” type familiar to us from movies and television. A man, who had possibly been stalking her, broke into her house and raped her at knife-point. It is difficult to imagine anything more traumatic, which only increases my admiration for her tireless activism in support of rape survivors ever since. This kind of rape represents a tiny minority of the sexual assaults in South Africa. For the vast majority of women, it is not strangers who attack them, but people they know, often extremely well.

A direct consequence of this kind of intimate assault is that women who have been raped are very often not believed. As horrifying as Smith’s assault was, there was never a time when she wasn’t believed (at least according to her own writings). Her assailant had broken into her house, and it was 1999. It was a situation that even the South African authorities had no trouble understanding. For most women, especially university students, the challenge in being believed is much greater. Rhodes University students have written about the responses they have received in attempting to report a sexual assault. These range from being told to come back the following week, to being questioned about what they were wearing, and whether they made themselves sufficiently clear when they said no. They have been asked whether they really wanted to pursue the charge because they could “ruin” their assailant’s life.

Rape survivors at university often have to sit in the same lecture theatres as their rapists for months on end while the situation is being “investigated”. They have to watch as their rapists rise up through the hierarchies of student politics or academia, or go on to get high-profile jobs, while they remain trapped in the trauma of being unheard and disbelieved. The decision by an anonymous source to release the RUReferenceList – a list of men who have allegedly sexually assaulted women at Rhodes – is obviously deeply problematic. The cases against these men have not been proved and, as Smith argues, the list impinges on their right to be considered innocent until proven guilty.

However, a very clear remedy in law exists for these men. They are free to sue any number of the people or institutions that published the list (including those who tweeted it) for defamation. Should this happen, it is likely that the truth of the allegations will be tested in court because one of the defences against defamation is that the information is true and in the public interest. It will be interesting to see whether any of the men currently protesting their innocence will actually pursue this course.

Rhodes University students take part in an anti-rape protest. (Philasande Sixaba/ANA)

Rhodes University students take part in an anti-rape protest. (Philasande Sixaba/ANA)

On balance, I agree with Smith that the publication of the list was morally questionable. But other forms of protest are morally questionable too, including planting a bomb at a post office or opening fire inside a crowded church. Both of these tactics were employed by South African freedom fighters during the liberation struggle. Today we acknowledge that those freedom fighters had no other choice because they were fighting a war against terrible injustice. The phrase, “The War on … ” is in common currency at the moment. We hear about the “War on Drugs”, and the “War on Terrorism”. Both of these are nonsense terms employed by politicians for their own cynical ends. Here is one that isn’t nonsense – the war on women.

The war on women is very real indeed, particularly in South Africa where up to a quarter of men admit to sexually assaulting a woman. Every time a university privileges the privacy of a rape accused over the protection of a rape survivor, that war is being lost by increments. The students of Rhodes University – just like the fallist protestors – have got tired of asking nicely. They are tired of following procedure. They are tired of waiting months for anything to happen. They are tired of being disbelieved. They know that the war on women is real and that they are losing. So they resorted to a desperate and unorthodox tactic by publishing the #RUReferenceList.

In doing so, these women are not guilty of “rape” as Charlene Smith argues in her Facebook post. Their decision might be questionable but it was born of decades of frustration and has certainly been effective in catapulting gender violence to the forefront of public debate. As is the case with the word “holocaust”, using “rape” as a metaphor is highly problematic and should arguably not be indulged in. Only rape is like rape, as someone commented on Smith’s post. It is a very specific term that cannot be used to cover other forms of violation.

There will come a day when sexual violence against women is less common than it is now because men will know they no longer have the systemic support of rape culture to back them up. And when that happens, we will, in part, have the brave women of Rhodes University to thank for their intervention. They got tired of waiting around for the system to change and decided to change it themselves. I salute them for it.

  • Charlene Smith

    Dear Fiiona, I found your post because I was looking for the original piece on what happened to me, which is on thoughtleader. Here it is http://thoughtleader.co.za/charlenesmith/2009/11/24/every-26-seconds-in-sa-a-woman-gets-raped-it-was-my-turn-last-thursday-night/

    You clearly did not follow what happened to me because I was attacked first by Min of Health, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma who accused me in my campaign for ARVs for rape survivors of claiming I had been raped to support Big Pharma. Then I was attacked repeatedly by President Thabo Mbeki, an AIDS denialist who shut down SA’s specialised police sexual offences units because he was also a rape denialist. He interfered with my source of work – personally calling editors and lambasting them if they published anything of mine – a serious income impediment for a single mother http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/3716004.stm

    The police lost all the evidence within a week of getting it from my home – but not the DNA thank God, nor my ID pic. They also told the Minister of Police within a week of me being raped that there was no such case. And then the case was almost derailed because they had not listed a proper chain of evidence.

    An apology would be nice.

    NO RAPE SURVIVOR has had to put up with such unmitigated shit. And it didn’t stop me Helen, and articles by well-meaning, clueless people like you will not stop me now in trying to protect those raped, men and women. Trying to stop sexual violence. I will do anything to stop harm – you, by your ignorance have just contributed to it. Well done.
    And here, for those who haven’t seen are my two FB posts on the issue because you didn’t bother to let people read my words:

    1. Wednesday April 20: A list of alleged rapists has been published at Rhodes University leading to demonstrations and terror for those men listed. As a prominent South African rape survivor who has counselled hundreds, perhaps thousands of rape survivors in South Africa I want to say this – and please post this on the page of any person at Rhodes University:

    such a list is DISGRACEFUL.

    It destroys the presumption of innocent until proven guilty.

    It allows those who have personal grudges to destroy the lives of those named.

    SUCH A LIST IS RAPE.

    Are people so stupid they cannot see that? If you name a person or accuse him or her of rape without a proper investigation you, the lister or advertiser of that name/s, are a rapist. You have as much respect for the rights of others as a person who rapes – which means none.

    The harm of rape is not the physical act – that false perception has caused so much harm. The long term harm of rape is the deep psychological and emotional scarring it causes.

    And if the university has been guilty of covering up rapes to protect its reputation then those academics and students who have knowledge of this need to sue the university and publicize its cover-ups.

    We, who have been raped, have higher standards. We do not adopt the methods of the rapist, of the abuser, of those who seek to destroy.

    What we should be doing is pressurising this corrupt government that cares nothing for the rights of those harmed (and many men are raped too), to bring back sexual offences units (disabled by President Thabo Mbeki),bring back rape courts and build two more DNA labs – the two in existence haven’t been able to cope for years.

    SHAME ON THOSE WHO HAVE PUBLISHED LISTS ACCUSING PEOPLE OF BEING RAPISTS.

    SHAME ON YOU.

    I call for criminal action to be taken against those who compiled this list – their agendas are not truth, they are not protecting women (indeed such lists increase the risk of women being murdered by real rapists so there is none to name them), their agendas must be questioned.

    I appeal to other rape survivors to add their voices to my call.

    And today’s post: Thursday, April 21 – incidentally April 1, 1999 is the day I was raped on:

    I need to explain a little of what I know about rape as a rape survivor, someone who has counseled rape survivors across the world for 17 years now, spoken at huge conferences and small school events, who has written articles and books about it, who persistently researches it, and who still experiences its impact on my life.

    Everyone thinks rape is sex. It is not. It is awful for the rapist and rape survivor. An astonishingly high number of men that rape have erectile dysfunction – if they get it up, it can’t stay up.

    The real horror of rape is that another is using his or her body as a weapon against you. They’re like suicide bombers, they’re destroying themselves in an attempt to destroy you. And you need to be very clear, the rapist doesn’t care about you, you are simply an object – and that in itself is what makes rapists and suicide bombers so terrifying. Their lack of compassion for themselves and us.

    Among my voluntary work with men in prisons who have committed violent crimes, mostly murder, around 90% were raped BEFORE the crimes and as children. That is cause to reflect on about what rape does to the psyche.

    All pedophiles were themselves raped as children and they will rape a child at a similar age to the age they were raped at.

    Among all of us raped we are at high risk after for later abusive behavior, alcohol or drug addiction, or body issues (eg extreme weight gain or loss) – so we have to monitor ourselves very carefully. We do best if we are open about the rape and have supportive people around us, who are also not enablers of bad or self destructive conduct. You don’t know what it is like, even if you yourself have been raped, don’t say you understand, just listen and love.

    Rape is a HUGE issue on university and college campuses globally and to not include rape survivors – who have coped with the incident well – on panels is a big mistake. Instead academics and psychologists staff them and mess up. There always needs to be a criminal investigation, always.

    I didn’t recognise the person who raped me even though he worked for the people who lived next door, my dear friends, and I’d greeted him in the absent-minded way one does in passing. But I didn’t recognise his telephone messages – he was a stalker – nor him when he raped and stabbed me. I did an ID-kit that nailed him along with DNA, but we went down a lot of false paths as we tried to figure out who it might have been that did this to me.

    The sexual register system in the USA is a crime against human rights. Men who have consensual sex with underage girls go onto it for life, it means they cannot get work, are often refused accommodation and are labeled forever. There is a town in Florida called Miracle, which is populated only by sex offenders, many of whom have sinned by having loving, consensual sex with someone underage – often the person they later married.

    In the town I live in a man obtained work here, someone discovered he was a sex offender, his picture and details went up on posters throughout the town. He lost his job. What are we thinking? We are forcing these people into corners and that is always dangerous. How can we keep destroying people? What does that solve? It damages us all.

    People can reform and change. I know, that is why I work in prisons on reformative justice programs, it is the lesson of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. I have counseled rapists in South Africa and here. I want this crime to stop and if I as a woman who has been harmed cannot reach out to those who want to stop and help them, then who will?

    We do not use the tactics of the rapist to end rape.

    We do not hate.

    We do not harm.

    We fight the universities, the police, the medical services industry, the criminal justice system, the judges, and the government to give the money and services to combat this crime.

    And most of all as mothers we love our sons, we treat them in a way that ensures they will never harm another woman.

    As mothers, we love our daughters, we speak to them frankly about sex and sexuality (as we do our sons), we counsel them about the dangers of drinking too much, of walking with earplugs listening to music or on the phone at night. We behave in a way that gives them an example of how to behave as women.

    Fathers show goodness to the mothers of your children, be respectful (I don’t care how awful the divorce). Set the example your boys will follow and that your girls will choose when choosing men to go out with.

    And parents, listen to your children, take the time, it is the biggest lack in children today. No one has the time to sit and thoughtfully listen. Make the difference.

    Know that there is still evil out there, but be part of the solution.

    I am writing this with so much love in my heart and I hope it makes a difference for someone. xx

  • Fiona Snyckers

    I am sorry to hear that you had to endure being doubted and having your words mistrusted on top of your assault, Charlene. That is secondary victimisation at its worst. I am also sorry that my post doesn’t acknowledge that. Thank you for joining the conversation and setting the story straight.

  • Michael Osborne

    Fiona Snykers – I find appalling your claim (in an otherwise measured piece), that the tactic of “opening fire inside a crowded church” was legitimate, because “those freedom fighters had no other choice because they were fighting a war against terrible injustice.” The ANC’s own stated policy was not to attack “soft targets.” (The St James attack to which you refer was committed by PAC “freedom fighters” – what a repulsive locution!) This is not entirely a side issue; it does relate to your ends-justify-the-means reasoning. History suggests that, to the contrary, the means contaminate the ends.

  • Bev Bouwer

    While I agree that there may be legal repercussions for the people who published the RUReference List, this is exactly why the students are protesting the rape culture that exists at most tertiary institutions.

    The law protects the alleged rapists, and provides no protection for the alleged victims. This is wrong. And this is why the students are pushing the boundaries to draw attention to their cause. Of course there may be instances where the alleged victims are shouting rape because they don’t want to admit to having consensual sex, but with only one in five rapes being reported, because the law provides no protection to victims, I would strongly suggest that the number of these instances is so small as to not warrant our attention. Besides, there is legal recourse available to those wrongly accused.

    So let’s give everyone the benefit of the doubt, and let’s make it personal. Your daughter says she’s been raped. She does the brave thing and reports it. She is made to feel like a whore. Her alleged rapist sits across the lecture hall from her every day of the week, with his friends, who all know. Your daughter has to walk the safe (and long) routes to every lecture so that she can call campus security if necessary, who may or may not respond. She knows she still cannot give up, and must face this again if and when the trial happens, whether or not the rapist is found guilty.

    On the other hand, maybe you’re the parent of the son wrongly accused. He gets called out of res late one night, and shouted at in the presence of an angry mob. He has to endure their taunts, and wrongful accusations. He feels victimised and is angry. He is also embarrassed that his name is on a list with people who he would dissociate himself from, under normal circumstances.

    I know which parent it’s easier to be, and in which case, under the current dispensation, it is easier to follow the legal process to its conclusion. There is more protection for one than the other. That is why things need to change.

    It is completely unacceptable that, at a university where the best educated young men in our society are in attendance, that the ladies need to be warned to stay in groups for their own protection, and behave in a manner that, even in South Africa, is not normal. On the other hand, “boys will be boys”. Sorry, this is not good enough for me.

    I agree with Fiona. Only rape is rape. And if the culture that takes no action against alleged rapists, while warning potential victims to “be more careful” persists, the young ladies taking their tops off will stay angry. They have every right to be.

  • RSA.MommaCyndi

    I disagree on so many levels!
    – A “having loving, consensual sex with someone underage” is actually called ‘ grooming’.
    – There are thousands of paedophiles who were never sexually abused
    – There has NEVER been a cure for paedophilia. NEVER has a paedophile been ‘cured’. A paedophile is always a danger to every child that he is near.
    – Whilst I will agree with the philosophy of ‘the axe that cuts the tree is also damaged’, it ain’t half as damaged as the tree is

    Your experience was horrible and traumatic. Rape always is. When you have to explain that you were wearing shorts and that you voluntarily went back to his room …. well then you were ‘asking for it’. Then deal with the idea that a rape victim has to PROVE that her rapist ‘intended’ to rape her.
    22 REPORTED (remember that few actually report) rapes, in a little under 3 months, in ONE institution points to one hell of a problem. Something has to change. We cannot allow our young sisters to be broken this way … and rape breaks us. As much as we try to deny it, it fundamentally changes who we are.

    NO! I do not agree with the list. I think that was taking it too far. Is it, however, any different than the old word of mouth method? Men have been branded as being ‘leaches’ or ‘cads’ for longer than living memory …. just the same way as women have been branded as ‘teases’ or ‘easy’. Is this not just taking the old conversations into a different arena?

  • Rory Short

    Charlene you make so much sense. As I see it we are all first and foremost human beings and thus prone to failings of many different kinds. Our particular gender makes us more prone to particular failings than other failings that is all. The agent of any particular failing still needs to be recognised as a human being from start to finish even though their particular failing, like raping someone, might be the non-recognition of another person’s humanity, society must not join them in their failing whilst at the same time it must take the necessary measures in respect of the failing. Because we are imperfect as individuals our society is collectively imperfect so we have to continuously work at reforms. I am humbled by the work that you are doing in this regard.