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OPINION: Growing bacteria is a ‘culture’, but rapists rape

Our mum passed away last year after an eight-year tussle with cancer. Her funeral was not our first farewell, but it was our final. Supported by silent mourners and friends, we waited for the hearse to leave the church ground. It didn't move. The driver's seat empty. Behind us, a restless congregation started chatting and shushing each other as my feet cemented themselves to the tarmac. I planned to lead the march behind the hearse, but now I couldn't. How could everyone move on with their lives from the church to the tea? How could the undertaker not feel the severity of our moment? I knew the answer, this was his job. His bread and butter. Each funeral procession the same. The wait was as awkward as our grief raw.

I can only imagine the aftermath of thoughts spiking the injured mind and broken body of someone invaded by a rapist. The sometimes, mechanical responses of the people in charge of assisting the survivor influences the accuracy of the incident report and must influence whether or not a prosecution is pursued. To the unaffected, rape is simply an incident. To each victim, it will be the exact moment their life changes for the rest of it.

We discovered later the undertaker, in the course of his duties, was mingling among the mourners, handing out the CV of a young unemployed woman he knew. Would my mom have found this amusing? Probably. Was it necessary for us to report him? No. He was unprofessional, we were annoyed and shocked; mostly we were shamed by his insensitivity. That was enough to manage on that day. When it is you or someone close to you being treated like a number, the impact is harsh.

Empathy is the most underrated competency in most circumstances involving lives and losses. It is a life skill which should be natural, but often has to be nurtured. Aloofness may be a defence mechanism, but in positions of service indifference is what cannot easily be tolerated or accepted.

"Death and taxes are the two guarantees we have in life". And now clawing its way into our reality is rape.

It is an uncomfortable conversation. Many survivors live with its scars for a lifetime. The impact wide and uncountable, everyone affected differently, family, friends and love relationships. In modern day South Africa, rape is one of those indefatigable evils. Until it happens in our family, our friendship circle, our neighbourhood, we remain largely disaffected to yet another scourge in our society.

The term ' rape culture' is being popularised through various sources. For me, rape is rape. It is not a culture; it is a crime against humanity. The word 'culture' finds its home in defining refinement, ways of life, customs, good taste, sophistication or accomplishments. Rape and culture directly contradict one other. The opposite of rape, according to a visiting rape crisis coach is: "the most pleasurable, memorable orgasmic sexual experience of your lifetime". These two experiences then make rape and culture extreme opposites.

Recently a judge pronounced rape a part of "black culture". This is abhorrent and a chance to single out of a myriad of crimes, the high prevalence of rape. A judge is seen as a protector of our Constitution, our legislation, our human rights and any violations thereof. I see this judge as a victim of circumstance too. We don't know what we don't know. It is never too late to be rehabilitated to an informed opinion.

Low conviction rates relative to the amount of incidents implies that more and more rapes are not being reported.

I know of a rape which involved a teenager, coaxed out of her home late at night by a new boyfriend and some friends. Clean fun and mischief, they presumed. She and the boy ended the evening alone, as she was dropped off last. He drove off route and stopped in the middle of a massive parking area at a deserted beach. He repeatedly raped and assaulted this young woman through the night. He tied her up, had a nap and told her if she made a run for it, he would run her over. She had no way of making it to safety on foot. That she snuck out of the house and that they were white cannot be collapsed with the fact that he raped her. Many people make bad choices without being raped.

I know of a man who raped his girlfriend to "damage her and avoid paying lobola". Ironically, she fell pregnant and they married. After he abandoned her and their daughter, she said she still loved him. I understood, and yet I didn't understand.

It is a well-kept secret that many middle-class women across race groups are raped by their husbands or partners. Too many middle-class teenagers are date raped by 'respectable' young men, in what could be described as safe places to be.

Seldom are these rapes reported. In the belly of this beast is not protection, but shame, fear, societal blame, threats from the rapists, economic dependence, emotional depletion, and the uncertainty of justice. A report won't undo the rape or damage and the common yet unspoken collaboration with rapists: Boys will be boys. What was she doing there? You know she's flirtatious. We all know how she dresses. All these possible responses can influence a survivor to avoid further humiliation by retreating rather than fighting. Rape is a tale of loss and loss. Rape survivors need assurance that it is always the rapist's fault. They are not the rape; they are not what happened to them. If the law takes its course, there may be some relief that one rapist is off the streets.

While it is common for victims who do speak up to be judged, interrogated and doubted, it will be hard to redefine how rape is rejected by every community.

Anything nonconsensual involving your right as a human being must leave you powerless and broken. In an ideal world, less emphasis would be placed on how to avoid being raped and 100% should be spent teaching adults and children that rape is wrong.

Rape, as pervasive as it is, can be well camouflaged by status or abundance, most of it by poverty and disempowerment. We need to teach and learn that no means no. From the time they are children, to the time they are decision-making adults. This includes not forcing kids to kiss adults when greeting, no involuntary hugs and definitely no girding and giggling as they are tickled by others while yelling, "no", "stop it", "I don't like it". Their NO must mean NO and our NO must mean NO.

The glazed-over robotic reactions of people placed to care for victims is unacceptable and for as long as we stay silent about the non-negotiability of rape, change is not inevitable.

A researcher once reported she had interviewed hundreds of convicted rapists serving prison sentences and when asked what they would do if the victims fought back, 99% of them said, "She won't." This was alarming. She also highlighted that when you are attacked you have a few seconds to save your own life. Amazingly, some victims lost their chance to get away because their automatic response was to question themselves about how the rapist got into their home, car or office. The majority of women didn't leap into survival mode; their instinct was to take responsibility for being raped.

The researcher reported that many survivors who, in that split second decided to defend their lives, did something extraordinary. One lady rolled down a hill at a bus stop as she realised what was about to happen, as she rolled she saw the red socks of the rapist as he chased down the hill to meet her when she landed, and as she reached the bottom, she went on all fours and barked. The rapist fled the scene and she lived to tell this frightening story. Another victim opened her flat door when a man knocked; he punched her in the face and forced his way into the passage, locking the door behind him. She stood up, wiped the blood off her lips and asked him to have a shower first. He did, as he came towards her, she shot him. Dead.

Death and taxes are inevitable, rape must be worse than either of these options. Although there are victims on either side of this despicable act, we have to call a person who rapes, a rapist. It is a choice that a person makes, not a precedent set by a culture. Judges are human, but judgements need to be informed. Racists are racists, and rapists are rapists.

Lisa Joshua Sonn is a social activist. Follow her on Twitter: _ @annalisasonn_

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