A woman accuses an older, politically powerful man of raping her. He denies the charges, and offers to pay her off to drop them. When she persists, his defense lawyers put her sexual history on trial, including her experience of child sexual assault. They accuse her of lying about being a lesbian. They add that her behavior, including sending him text messages and wearing revealing clothing, were an invitation for sex. Supporters of the perpetrator stand outside the courthouse with signs saying, “How much did they pay you, bitch?” He is acquitted and returns to his everyday life. She and her family are forced to relocate due to death threats. Source.
It could be a snapshot from anywhere in the U.S., but this particular scene unfolded in South Africa between 2004 and 2006, and the accused was Jacob Zuma, who was inaugurated last week as South Africa’s new President.
This trial had another unfortunate twist: the accuser, nicknamed Khwezi (star) by her supporters, was HIV positive. Despite his previous role as head of South Africa’s National AIDS Council, when asked the (irrelevant) question of whether he was worried about contracting HIV, Mr. Zuma testified that, "Chances were very slim you could get the disease” from having unprotected sex with an HIV positive woman, and that he showered after having sex with her to "minimize the risk of contracting the disease," grossly misleading statements that have perpetuated myths and possibly cost lives.
Despite a persistent cloud of scandal, Jacob Zuma has remained popular in South Africa due to his ties to Nelson Mandela and the anti-apartheid movement, his role as the country’s first post-apartheid Zulu leader, and what many describe as his charisma.
Regardless of the verdict – or whether it was rendered after a fair trial – Mr. Zuma’s response to the charges provide alarming evidence of how he will approach South Africa’s women – and particularly the growing pandemic of violence against women – during his term. Also disturbing is the lack of attention in domestic and international media to the rape accusation, Zuma’s response, and its implications.
South Africa has been called the rape capital of the world, with an estimated half a million women raped every year. It is also home to the highest number of people living with HIV/AIDS in the world – approximately six million.
So why hasn’t Zuma’s complicity in perpetuating these twin pandemics prevented him from assuming leadership?
The short answer is democracy, and by all accounts this was a fair election. In fact, the African National Congress – Zuma’s party – won by nearly 50 percentage points. But as advocates of women’s health and empowerment in Washington, D.C., we should be concerned about the more difficult answer.
Because the women of D.C. are also suffering from the twin pandemics of violence and HIV/AIDS.
Survivor blaming at home
Recent surveys indicate that between 10-15 percent of women in the U.S. are raped in their lifetimes, while an additional three percent of women report surviving attempted rape (stats here and here). This amounts to a woman being raped every two minutes in the U.S.
The statistics on sexual assault in D.C. are much harder to come by.
According to the DC Metropolitan Police Department, there were 375 reported cases of sexual assault in 2008.
But Denise Snyder, Executive Director of the DC Rape Crisis Center (DCRCC), puts this statistic in perspective, explaining, “The general belief is that about 10 percent of rape survivors ever report the incident to police, so if you multiply this number by 10, you are probably getting closer to the truth in D.C.”
DCRCC’s rape crisis hotline received over 3,200 calls during the 2007-2008 fiscal year, but Snyder points out that crisis hotlines, “are not even the primary contact for most rape survivors, who are more likely to tell their family and friends after an incident occurs.”
There are many reasons for the overwhelming failure to prevent and address sexual violence globally, in the U.S., and in D.C. Unfortunately one of the most important reasons might be that policy-makers – and the public in general – just don’t believe its happening.
Survivor blaming is a term used by advocates and researchers working to combat sexual violence to describe the tendency – of law enforcement agencies, legal systems, and even family, friends and acquaintances – to doubt or blame the survivor of sexual violence.
In reality, it is very rare for a woman or man to lie about being raped. The Rape Crisis Federation of Europe estimates that false reports of rape occur at the same rate as other crimes – only about two percent of the time, which means that 98 out of 100 women and men are telling the truth when they say they were raped. And it makes sense, given the continued re-traumatization that survivors must undergo when they do come forward, as evidenced by Jacob Zuma and his supporters’ treatment of Khwezi.
As a former volunteer hotline and hospital counselor for the DC Rape Crisis Center, I witnessed the devastating impact of survivor blaming on women and men in D.C. who were grappling with their experiences of sexual violence. The frequency with which I heard phrases such as, “Thank you for believing me”, or “Why did this happen to me?” underlined the all too common experience of disclosing an incident of sexual violence only to be met with doubt and blame.
A recent study conducted with U.S. college students found that negative social reactions (e.g. blame, stigmatization) of family members and friends toward a rape survivor reduced other people’s support, reduced blame for the perpetrator, and reduced sympathy for rape survivors in general. The same study found that people were more likely to blame survivors of date rape than stranger rape, and that men were more likely to sympathize with the perpetrator than the rape survivor.
Another recent study, "Effects of Offender Motivation, Victim Gender, and Participant Gender on Perceptions of Rape Victims and Offenders"– also conducted with U.S. college students – found that participants were less likely to describe an event as rape and more likely to blame the victim when they were told the perpetrator’s motivation was sexual rather than violent.
Our tendency toward survivor blaming – often relieving the perpetrator of responsibility – goes a long way in explaining why so few incidents of sexual assault are ever reported to police.
As a rape crisis counselor, I was also responsible for having the difficult conversation with survivors about whether it was worth pressing charges, given the fact that only six percent of rapists ever spend a day in jail, and the inevitable negative impact on her or his life, including exposure of their sexual history and other destructive attempts by the perpetrator’s defenders to call their character into question.
Allowing this cycle of victimization to continue for survivors of sexual violence is unacceptable in itself.
More broadly, when survivors can’t come forward to a supportive and empowering environment, we as a community lose the opportunity to provide them with needed services, identify and convict rapists, and prevent sexual violence in the future.
So if we are serious about combating sexual violence, if we do not want to see one out of six women in the next generation spend their lives trying to recover from this trauma, then our first step must be to start believing the survivors.
Unfortunately, they are telling the truth.
As Khwezi insisted after (now President) Zuma was acquitted, “I am not mad. I am not incapable of understanding the difference between consensual and non-consensual sex. The fact that I have been raped multiple times does not make me mad. It means there is something very wrong with our world and our society.
Stephanie Psaki has an MPh from the Harvard School of Public Health. In 2007, she spent two months in Durban, South Africa conducting research on women’s empowerment and sexual partnering behavior among university students. She also had the privilege of volunteering for the DC Rape Crisis Center, a Grantee Partner of The Women’s Foundation, as a hotline and hospital counselor from 2004 to 2006.