Photo: Yes Magazine
I was 9 the first time a man touched me where I did not want to be touched. It’s probably one of the memories that will be etched in my brain forever. My family and I were on holiday in Durban and I forgot to pack a swimsuit. My mother and I went to swimwear store and the store clerk was showing us the swimming costumes in my sizes. He put his hand on my shoulder and then let it drop. I don’t remember much of my reaction or what happened after that, all I remember is that moment.
Talking about our experiences of sexual violence is something women do a lot. We’ve normalized these discussions, maybe because they’ve become a coping mechanism. We find ourselves sitting in the company of a group of friends and talking about being catcalled and grabbed. Conversations about violence that sometimes fill us with shock and fear and sometimes bring us to the brink of laugher. This violence has become something we wear on our skin.
Recently, a friend and I were walking to a McDonald’s two blocks away from my place. Across the road from my apartment, a drunk man decided to approach me and proceeded to follow me and my friend. He continuously harassed us along the street to McDonald’s even when I politely asked him to leave us alone. It was almost as if my anger made him more persistent. When we reached the entrance of MacDonald’s, he decided to grab me. I turned around and slapped him.
My keys were in my hand so I know I probably scratched him up but fighting back didn’t stop him. In fact, it escalated the situation. He walked into LcDonald’s behind me and started screaming and I quote “that girl has a fresh pussy, everyone should try her pussy”. I broke down. No one stopped him. The security allowed him to go on like this for 5 minutes before they escorted him out. This man I’d known for ten minutes was given entitlement to my body because he was a man.
When I got back to my apartment the first thing I did was shower and then I gave away the skirt I was wearing. My actions, I now realize, were heavily political and problematic. I self-identify as a feminist and I can have discussions about agency and consent. I can scream about how patriarchy intimately affects our lives but when it came to me, a man made me feel so small and helpless, that almost everything I’ve read meant nothing as I was powerless in that situation. I showered as if I was dirty, as if his lack of human decency had somewhat soiled me. I scrubbed my body thinking that what he had done had tainted me. I felt I could remove the embarrassment, the feelings of unsafeness, if I just washed my body enough. And my skirt became a symbol of what happened. I probably blamed myself. Maybe if I was wearing jeans he wouldn’t have grabbed me, right? Wrong.
The hashtag #YouOkSis, is full of women detailing how street harassment and violence affect them. The hashtag is filled with stories of women from all over the globe but they echo the same narrative. Street harassment is but a small part of rape culture. Being a woman means your reality is constantly filled with men you don’t know screaming things like “fine girl” or “my size” at you. In South Africa 563 841 sexual offenses happen in a year but only 62 649 of these are reported.
The older I get, the more discussions of sexual violence become relevant in my day to day life. The reality that some of my closest friends have been raped is nauseating. The reality of being a woman in a society that condones rape culture but does not provide the estimated 1 in 9 women who have been assaulted with justice, can be described as nothing other than absolutely heart wrenching.
Women I think, in an idealistic fashion, tell ourselves that this epidemic can be stopped if we just drink less, don’t wear provocative clothing, don’t stay out late. We find solace in farcical ideas that we can protect ourselves from a violence that exists in our societies. However, our experiences with sexual violence are never due to us doing any wrong but rather with the men who continue to validate their own ownership of our bodies.
In our communities, we need to examine our constant need to validate and coddle patriarchy as a system. Rape culture is in the faces of the men we coexist with and in their conversations about how they coerce their girlfriends into sex. It’s in men buying you drinks at a club to loosen you up. It’s in male family members who touch you inappropriately without your permission. It’s in our disregard for sex workers. Rape culture is living.
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