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Why sexual abuse is always about power

Girls grow up believing that sexual harassment is part of the lexicon of manhood and they are destined to be its target. And although it makes us desperately uncomfortable and we innately know we have been abused in some way, girls – and indeed boys – need to be given the words and power to deal with this abuse. Joanne Joseph speaks from personal experience, calling for all areas of society to work far harder in changing the status quo on sexual abuse. 

Sometimes I am reminded about injustice in my childhood. Some memories involve teachers who had unfairly disciplined me over schoolwork, or statements relatives had made which were unfair or out of line. I decry my lack of courage in standing up for myself or knowing how to respond appropriately. I relive these scenes in my head and try to fix them; as a child I had neither the consciousness nor the power to do it.

I remember, for example, the husband of a cousin of mine visiting us one Christmas. He asked me how old I was. “Eleven,” I replied. “Wow – you’re so sexy,” he said. Something wriggled like a worm in my gut, but I said nothing. I went to my room, looked at the white shorts I was wearing, decided they were too short and changed into a pair of jeans. I said nothing to my parents or anyone else. I just remember clinging to my younger brother, shoveling my lunch down and quickly leaving the table to sit in my room and read lest anything else was said.

I kept on thinking about his comment. It stung me. I felt shamed by it – not least because it had drawn attention to my awkward stick-figure body which highlighted the tiny, embarrassing little buds blooming on my chest. When I think about that day, I run through the responses I should have had on hand. I should’ve marched straight to my father and mother and told them what he’d said. I myself should have stood up in that moment and asked him, “What did you just say, pervert? Are you a pedophile?” Reality intrudes to remind me that thirty years have passed and that moment is long gone.

These stories are not uncommon. That is what girls suffer the world over. A recent article revealed that most girls have suffered some form of sexual harassment by the age of nine, whether through brazen or subtle comments, or through physical coercion. And alarmingly, society teaches us that when a boy crosses that line, it’s because boys will be boys. Maybe he fancies you. Take it as a compliment. It’s because you’re pretty. It’s better than being the girl no one fancies…

As a result, girls grow up believing that sexual harassment is part of the lexicon of manhood and we are destined to be its target. And although it makes us desperately uncomfortable and we innately know we have been abused in some way, we cannot tangibly verbalise what has been done to us or how belittled and humiliated we feel.

The recent Harvey Weinstein exposé and #MeToo campaigns and the resulting recognition – including Times Magazine Person of the Year – have usefully opened a floodgate of consciousness about rape and sexual deviance and the importance of taking that first step to report sexual crimes. But importantly, they also brought to the fore a better understanding of the power relations inherent in these crimes which millions of girls, boys, women and even some men have experienced in a range of countries and cultures over decades. They have unveiled that unjust hierarchy in which powerful people who sit at the top of the ladder abuse the dis-empowered. It has happened for centuries in societies and institutions structured this way because the system itself puts those on the bottom rung of the ladder in a position to be exploited.

Here in South Africa, we have witnessed some startling allegations and legal cases surrounding rape and sexual molestation. The Bob Hewitt case was a victory for the group of women who, as children, were discouraged from reporting Hewitt’s crimes against them because no one would believe their testimony over an ‘upstanding, credible, renowned’ tennis coach. Thirty years later, he has been convicted of his crimes. Late stockbroker, Sidney Frankel’s alleged victims have recently managed to convince the judiciary that alongside rapes which occurred many years ago and have been tried in court several years later, cases involving other sexual offences should also be permitted to be tried in the same way. The Constitutional Court has concurred. It suggests that many more survivors who have long lacked the courage to speak out for fear of vilification may yet come forward with the help of justice authorities.

But while the legal system gets its statutes in order, most of the work that remains to be done is in society itself. Musician and former ANC MP, Jennifer Ferguson*, who recently alleged that SAFA president, Danny Jordaan, had raped her twenty four years ago, has repeatedly been asked why she waited this long to report it. Perhaps the answer lies in the Jacob Zuma rape trial of 2006 when his rape accuser, Fezeka “Khwezi” Khuzwayo, was demonised in and outside court well before there was a verdict. Effigies of her were burnt. Placards were held up bearing the words, “Burn the bitch”. A woman mistaken for her was attacked. Zuma’s lawyer, Kemp J. Kemp questioned her about a series of previous rapes in exile as a child which were never reported, and the intimate details of her consensual sexual encounters, slut-shaming her. Zuma was never asked about his multiple extra-marital sexual encounters. Fezeka’s house was torched and she was forced into exile in the Netherlands. It is only the corruption allegations swirling around Zuma that have compelled us to re-examine this case.

This signals to us that the work of eradicating sexual abuse must begin in our homes, our schools, our religious organisations and workplaces. It requires a sharpened awareness of how we think, how we speak, and what we teach our children. They must know it is their right to be respected, protected and to speak out against anyone who breaches that. We need to give them the words and the power to do that. It is better than waiting for them to replay these scenes in their heads in a few decades, wishing they had known how to respond. SA.

*The writer is related to Jennifer Ferguson

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.