[OPINION] The imperfect victim's code of conduct
Many times, we demand of survivors of abuse to fit in the Perfect Victim doctrine that places certain expectations on them. They must fight back the perpetrator, leave visible scars on their bodies, scream ‘No’ so the neighbours can hear, and if they are unlucky, report the crime to the police. The Perfect Victim is expected to walk out of an abusive relationship, and in the case of Babes Wodumo, speak publicly of the violence, so other survivors can come forth.
However, the human experience of abuse and trauma is a subjective experience which differs from individual to individual. Sometimes you make breakfast for the rapist the morning after.
Many on social media focused on radio host Masechaba Ndlovu’s conduct in her interview with Bongekile Simelane, also known as Babes Wodumo last Friday, and a lot of emphasis placed on her body language during the “ambush” when Masechaba said Babes had been abused by Mampintsha. Even Mampintsha on Metro FM, the Monday after, alluded to her abilities to speak of her abuse without the help of Masechaba and Mo Flava, hinting there never was an assault for she would never be cagey about it.
In a perfect world, survivors can easily come forward and share their stories without the fear of shaming and retribution. Media could simply print their names with the peace of knowing there would be no consequences. But we don’t live in a perfect world, and media journalists are bound by rules and codes of conduct. And as witnessed last week, the anonymity of survivors is not a guarantee. But who governs the actions and inactions of survivors? What then if a survivor rebels against the social codes of the Perfect Victim?
Many congratulated Masechaba for outing Mampintsha in the midst of growing calls to break the silence. The argument often advanced, albeit not new, and undoubtedly a compelling one - Women Are Dying; Silence = Death. And who can forget the chilling warning of black feminist Audre Lorde: “My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you.”
I don’t seek to further demonise Metro FM DJs Masechaba Ndlovu and Mo Flava, nor question their motives and intentions… but to interrogate our obsession with trauma porn and consuming the pain of those who have been abused without taking any meaningful action. It calls to question our gratuitous fixation with the Perfect Victim narrative, and why even in our most noble intentions, we flout the rules of consent. Twice Babes Wodumo’s right to consent was taken away from her. She never consented to be physically violated, she never consented to be emotionally violated, she never consented for her story to be told to the public in the manner that went down.
As a radio producer, some survivors of abuse regularly come to me with their stories, and I always ask what they need me to do with the story; do they want to come on the radio? The response is usually NO, with some saying they just wanted to share with someone but did not necessarily want to go public with it. I then proceed by getting their consent to connect them with relevant NGOs and support groups. As a media practitioner, I am fully aware of the power of our platforms, and as powerful swords of activism, they can cut both ways.
And in my humblest opinion, Babes Wodumo’s case could have been handled with more sensitivity, without the public spectacle, and definitely without the humiliation. But Asikholapho (that’s not what we are debating).
In the hullabaloo of criticism and praise to Masechaba, and the question of when is it appropriate to share publicly somebody else’s story, what are the natural responses of a traumatised person? How can we better understand the behaviour of survivors after an assault?
For many centuries, the behaviour of man in a dangerous situation and how they dealt with fear was explained by the fight and flight response. But recently, a new explanation has been offered that best explanation as to why women defy the codes of the Perfect Victim. An evolutionary driven defence system centred on tend, freeze, appease and befriend, introduced by University of California social psychologist Shelley Taylor.
In this defence system, women can express an affiliative social behaviour, befriend or bond with the assaulter or seek social support from their family members or friends, due to a hormone known as oxytocin. Women, it is argued, will do whatever is needed to survive a dangerous situation and the fight-flight response is thus replaced with freeze, appease, tend and befriend.
According to filmmaker Jade Blair, sometimes the instinctive response for women is to de-escalate the situation by appeasing the abuser, even going as far as taking the blame for their action. It explains why women often don’t remember the full details of the assault, and why it becomes difficult to think and act rationally about the event. It’s a woman in conflict with biological means to survive, and the evolutionary response that involves nurturing.
And so, the rape survivor makes breakfast for her rapist, eggs nicely done, bacon crisply fried just the way she likes them, because she wants to pretend the rape never happened. And when we look at events through this lens, then we understand why Fezekile Khuzwayo slept in the same house she was raped in, why Jennifer Ferguson took a shower before taking a long walk after she was violated, why Karabo Mokoena stayed in an abusive relationship.
We cannot look at the Babes Wodumo incident devoid of the power struggles between herself and Mapintsha. A lot is at stake and we should give her the benefit of the doubt that she was negotiating her freedom, by tend and befriend. She had already left him.
We live in a society that places on survivors the burden to be brave, we cheer them on when they speak out publicly. We want survivors to share their experiences simply to educate misogynists and abusive men about the plight of women and those oppressed by patriarchy. We want to consume the pain of those inflicted, share in their struggles and triumphs, rehumanise the victims… and voila, the tyranny of rape and domestic abuse will end. Because sharing forces society to empathise, and empathy is what moves us to action.
But can empathy alone save lives? What will it take for empathy to make meaningful change? Will it take the witnessing of pain and suffering of others, as Sherronda J Brown suggests? How do we identify the pain of others, in a way that locates their pain with our own feelings of suffering? Many have questioned the ability of empathy to solve all the world’s problems.
When we ask survivors to speak out, what are we asking of them, if not asking them to do the emotional labour on our behalf. Then why do we insist on partaking in trauma porn, if not for the sake of trauma porn itself? To what end are we asking of victims to share their stories, when we do not take meaningful action against the culture of rape or domestic abuse?
Alisa of Healing Honestly, a survivor herself, painfully remarks that trauma porn is not only unhelpful to survivors, but can actually be harmful to them, because it can trigger so many things. Trauma porn can be inappropriate at times, and at worst, futile.
Danny Jordan is still running for Safa president, Mduduzi Manana is still in office, Arthur Mofokate still doing business, reviving 999, and come the weekend, we will be dancing to Mampintsha and Babes’ Amaketanga, and bopping our heads to Jiva Phez’kombhede in our cars. We won’t boycott the radio stations that play any track linked to Mampintsha.
Can we ever find good in silence? Can silence be golden?
One is reminded of Marion Riggs’ poem:
“Silence is my shield, it crushes.
Silence is my cloak, it smothers
Silence is my sword, it cuts both ways
Silence is the deadliest weapon”
Repeatedly we are told that the inability to tell our stories is a living death, that sharing stories will save a life. But just as words are empowering, so is silence. Women will do whatever necessary to survive, even keep quiet. We should never hold it against them, instead, the science of gender differences in how we deal with traumatic situations and fear should be incorporated into our justice system.
Femicide is on the rise and a distressing reality in South Africa, women are literally dying at the hands of their partners. Equally, victim-blaming, both unintentional and unconscious, continues unabated. Abuse survivors can never be at peace, even in their eternal resting place, they are blamed for saying nothing, forgetting that they did what they could to survive, even suffering in silence. While VOICE=SURVIVAL, so is silence. When fear is very important and intrinsic to our survival, so is silence, and sometimes it’s OK to not want to eat at the #MeToo dinner table.
Andiswa Makanda is an award-winning producer at Radio 702 and commentator. She writes in her personal capacity.