If we don’t call ourselves victims, they can deny it was a crime.
December 1994 marked the end of a monumental year for South Africa. Apartheid had just come to an official end and Nelson Mandela had just become president.
It was at the end of this year that a young woman named Alison Botha was kidnapped, raped, stabbed, and disemboweled in the small South African city of Port Elizabeth. Despite the severe physical injuries she endured, she survived and went on to write an autobiography about her triumph over her ordeal.
As a South African, I grew up knowing Alison’s story. Her autobiography became ubiquitous and she won multiple awards for her courage. Her story is currently being made into a movie, which will premiere in August of this year.
Like Alison, I’m really public about having been raped: I write about my assaults, I speak about it often, and I’m one of the many vocal activists calling for an end to rape culture.
Because of this, people often call me “brave.”
But I’ve noticed something chilling: the less and less my story seems like Alison’s, the less compliments are bestowed upon me.
Alison has what’s called the “perfect victim” narrative: Her story is the kind people are more prepared to hear, because it reflects mainstream ideas about how rape happens. Her perpetrators were strangers. She wasn’t openly queer, transgender, a sex worker, or incarcerated — all factors which increase one’s chance of being sexually assaulted. She miraculously survived despite her severe injuries, which makes the label “survivor” ring incredibly true for her.
Her rape also unintentionally fit into a set political agenda. For racists mourning the demise of the Apartheid state, her story could easily be appropriated to justify the claim that South Africa was safer under Apartheid.
It should go without saying that every single person who’s been assaulted — whether they’re Alison, or me, or anyone else — deserves love, compassion and support.
But practically, that’s just not what happens. Society cherry-picks the rape stories it wants to hear.
People want to hear about perpetrators that are black and/or mentally ill, to fit their racist and ableist agenda. They want to hear about innocent, feminine, straight, virginal, white, female victims who come to claim the word “survivor” to inspire those around them.
Everyone whose story doesn’t fit into that, I’ve found, is silenced.
When I was in high school, I had a boyfriend who used to love watching me cry. Finding tearful girls beautiful was something I thought was a mark of his sensitivity.
Eventually, I realized he was getting aesthetic pleasure out of my pain, and I, thankfully, had the foresight to high-tail it out of there.
When folks call me an inspiration, I think back to my ex-boyfriend glowing at the sight of my tears. A voice starts rumbling in my head, and I think, My trauma is not for your pleasure. My trauma is not for your pleasure.
For a lot of us, our traumas become detached from us. They become detached from the broader picture of rape culture, too. Instead, they’re used to evoke emotions in others.
We often call this “inspiration porn”: rape stories that are appropriated to inspire the audience. “Inspiration porn” isn’t just created from stories about rape; it also characterizes discussions of poverty and disability. Inspiration porn isn’t intended to help the subject heal or to promote social change, but rather to inspire individuals who’ve never faced that particular hardship.
This is why the media also represents rape stories that tell us about the “triumph of the human spirit,” rather than rape stories that force us to confront our complicity in rape culture.
They want us to “refuse to be a victim,” because if we don’t call ourselves victims, it’s easier to deny that a crime ever happened.
They don’t want to hear about victims like me who become suicidal and “difficult,” because it’s hard to find inspiration in someone who (sometimes) doesn’t want to live any more.
My story isn’t meant to hold a mirror to society and say, “You, too, can be strong like me.” It’s meant to hold a mirror to society and say, “You, too, are complicit in rape culture. Let’s work on that.”
I don’t tell my story because I want to motivate people to ask for a raise at work or run a marathon. I tell my story because I want to fuck rape culture up. My trauma shouldn’t motivate anything but a deep desire to dismantle the patriarchy.
Our braveness doesn’t make us valuable.
Everyone who’s ever been sexually assaulted — in fact, everyone, full stop — has a right to be unapologetically weak. We have every right to shy away from our trauma; this is a natural response to enduring a painful experience. We have every right to exhibit what some may call “cowardly” behavior.
We’re valuable, whether we seem “brave” or not.
We’re valuable when we’re vocal and unafraid, but we’re also valuable in the private moments when we’re scared beyond measure, when we’re tired, and when we want to give up.
I appreciate the love and compliments that are bestowed upon me by well-intended, kind-hearted people.
But I don’t want you to see me as brave.
I want you to see me as the complicated mess that I am, because this is the way rape culture has left me.
Hopefully then you’ll take my hand and join me in this fight.
Comment: How do you feel about the words ‘victim’ and ‘brave’ when it comes to sexual assault?