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Kathleen Dey says myths and stereotypes about rape, and public ridiculing, as in the David Bullard/Michelle Solomon case, make it harder for rape victims tostp forward and be believed.

Cape Town - This month has seen extraordinary challenges being thrown across the gender divide by men and women on social networks. Journalist David Bullard challenged journalist Michelle Solomon, who spoke publicly about her rape, tweeting he didn’t believe what happened to her was rape. Supporters from both sides weighed in and several media articles were written as comment on the arguments. But what is the true impact of rape scepticism?

Because so many people subscribe to the myths and stereotypes about rape, many women and men are not believed when they tell someone they were raped.

Often people can’t believe a story that is too horrific for them to imagine, so they regard it as a fabrication, but the truth is that cases like that of Anene Booysen happen all too frequently.

Still, people judge the survivor’s actions before the rape – she’s blamed for wearing provocative clothing, for being promiscuous, for not looking after herself properly, accepting a lift from a stranger or walking down a deserted street at night, for being drunk or being a sexual tease.

But women should be free to wear what they please and to go where they choose. Getting drunk or having sex with different partners is not a crime and it’s not exclusive to women.

The behaviour of the survivor after the rape also leads to questions. This was the basis of the old hue and cry rule in law that has since been done away with.

It implied that if you did not tell someone immediately afterwards, raise the alarm, or report it to the authorities, you were not really raped, but it takes such courage to report rape that victims often take a long time to report and many never do.

Low conviction rates and a lack of faith in the criminal justice system contribute to this reluctance.

“Women say no when they mean yes.”

This myth rests on the idea of women acting coyly and allows men to use various coercive tactics to overcome their resistance.

The truth is that men and women experience ambivalence going into a sexual encounter and should feel free to turn back at any point. Even in marriage. The idea that if you are married to someone, you don’t have the right to refuse to have sex with them, still holds enormous sway.

“If your husband forces you, it is not really rape.” Of course, our law now states that a man who coerces his wife into sex can be convicted of rape. But how many are?

These myths don’t only pertain to women.

Many people believe that if a man wants to, he can fight off a rapist and that is why men can’t be raped, but as many as 10 percent of cases reported at Thuthuzela Care Centres are of men saying they were raped.

Family members believe a beloved father, uncle or grandfather could not possibly have done something abusive to a member of his own family, but many can and do.

People struggle to believe that the wise priest, the compassionate doctor, the kindly headmaster or the brave policeman would rape a woman. Their role and reputation protect them from accusation. Many serial rapists, however, work their way into positions of trust and power to facilitate getting away with rape and abuse.

These essentially false notions about rape are upheld by many across the board, by men and women in all communities and institutions. The effect on the rape survivor is immense. If she does report, she has to suffer a deep sense of betrayal at not being believed on top of the trauma of rape.

Officials don’t take the case as seriously as they would if they did not have doubts, and are often deliberately insensitive in their treatment of survivors.

This kind of bias can extend to how the story of the rape is questioned in court and can have a strong bearing on the outcome of the trial. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and intersex people suffer more because of the additional prejudice they are exposed to as a result of their sexuality.

Add to the fear of being disbelieved, the fact that a rape survivor may be severely traumatised and on top of that, may be dealing with the horror of discovering her positive HIV status or pregnancy as a result of the rape, the shock and pain of her friends and relatives, intimidation from the rapist, the ordeal of giving a statement, submitting to a forensic examination and testifying in front of strangers in court.

Then there are the ordinary stresses of life, of holding down a job, of studying at school, of battling to put food on the table, of unemployment, of a relationship gone wrong or any number of other everyday trials.

Is it any wonder that rape as a crime is so vastly under-reported? And when disbelief causes this degree of suffering, why is it so hard to believe?

* Dey is director of the Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust.

** The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Newspapers

The Star