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Those of us who are involved are here because we believe that a change in culture starts with a conversation, writes Sarah Britten.
Johannesburg - Just over two months ago, a writer for men’s magazine FHM made a joke on Facebook about corrective rape. Max Barashenkov wrote: “I propose correctional (sic) rape and sterilisation for any white person who twerks.”
His colleague Montle Moorosi added: “I think rape can be quite fun if executed in a romantic manner. Like saying ‘I love you’ before you slip a roofie in her Earl Grey tea.”
It was the sort of private exchange that happens around braais and in bars all the time. Only this time it was on Facebook, so the joke was seen by people who didn’t think it was funny.
The outrage that dominated Twitter for the next couple of days took the traditional form: feminists in one camp, okes in the other. Max and Moorosi wrote a rather pious defence in which they pointed out that the outrage over their joke was far in excess of the response to the brutal rape and murder of Duduzile Zozo. It didn’t help; they were shown the door.
I think that was a mistake. For once we had an opportunity to have a real conversation about rape culture, one that might result in the same thing most of us want: actual behaviour change. The rape statistics are terrifying and depressing, and the roots of gender-based violence are deeply enmeshed in poverty and culture. But we have to start somewhere.
Maybe that starting point is Slutwalk, which has just taken place in Johannesburg on a fine September day. Slutwalk is a global movement that started after a Toronto police officer told students that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised”. It is a claiming of a word that demonises and marginalises women, turning it from an epithet into an expression of pride.
What I loved about Slutwalk when I first participated two years ago was how happy everyone was. We were out there on the streets of Johannesburg telling the world that we saw a different version of it. A better one, where we are all free to express ourselves as we choose, without fear of censure or assault, or worse.
It was the celebratory, open atmosphere that appealed to me and why I am so excited about Slutwalk, not just as a feminist or a citizen, but also as a marketer. I am a feral academic who works in advertising and specialises in social media. People like me spend our days working out ways to get people to buy products and services: to adjust their behaviour as a result of prompts from us. We talk about social objects that drive conversation, about how brands no longer control messages, about how marketers must listen, not tell. The same principles apply to any campaign, and that includes one aimed at promoting social change.
Slutwalk is a social object, something for people to talk about. Those of us who are involved are here because we believe that a change in culture starts with a conversation.
“Of course Slutwalk is not going to stop rape,” says Karmilla Pillay-Siokos, who has been involved with the event from the beginning. “For me it’s more about the victims and how society perceives us. Slutwalk is about helping people see that the victim is never to blame. It’s about highlighting the in-sidiousness of rape culture.”
Walter Pike got involved in Slutwalk because his daughter was becoming a woman and he wanted a better world for her. Pam Lourenco has years of experience walking the streets of Johannesburg to catch taxis, dealing with whistles and catcalls. She wants a campaign to get men to start teaching other men to respect women.
This is why I would not have fired those FHM writers for their brain-dead, tone-deaf jokes.
I’d have made the punishment much more fitting. I’d have got FHM to start talking to its readers about rape culture and how to change it.
If we’re going to combat sexism and rape culture, it will be because the people who perpetrate it stop doing it – not because they have been told to, but because they understand why it is wrong. This means we have to tackle it with the Maxes and Moorosis of this world. It will be by listening, understanding and finding solutions together. When a joke about rape at a braai is met with uncomfortable glances and comments of “No dude, did you have to go there?” we’ll have made some progress.
Here is the crucial point. A conversation requires that we listen to each other. That we empathise. That we take ourselves out of our own heads and inhabit, for a little while, the worldview of somebody else. Hear what others have to say, and find a solution together. Slutwalk Johannesburg 2013 is over, but it’s just the beginning. We have to walk before we can run.
To continue the conversation, go to slutwalkjhb.co.za and or tag us #slutwalkjhb on Twitter.
* Sarah Britten is a communication strategist based in Johannesburg.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.