A short, powerful lesson on the function of shame in rape culture

'Sexual assault is your fault' is a falsehood too many girls believe – and their attackers know it.

When I was a kid, I was sexually assaulted by a man who relied on my silence to keep him safe.  Weird how that works. He knew what he did was wrong, but he didn’t need to do much to keep me quiet. He knew I would be ashamed, therefore I would own his crime.

I wasn’t yet old enough to spell the word ‘shame’, but I was old enough to know if I spoke out, I would be marked.  I would be seen as the kind of girl who liked sex, who asked for it, who knew too much.  So I stayed quiet. 

A few years later – when I was still a kid – a boy called me a ‘monkey’ at school.  It was an embarrassing experience, but I went home and told my parents.  I knew that he was wrong, that what he said was racist and he needed to apologise. I did not own his slur.

When you call a black person a monkey or you mock the shape of an Asian person’s eyes, you are just plain racist, something is wrong with you. This is because there is a cultural acceptance that racist sentiments belong to racists – those sentiments do not define black and brown people in the same way shame defines a victim of sexual assault. 

He knew I would be ashamed, therefore I would own his crime.  

Our culture’s understanding of misogyny is not yet as evolved as our understanding of racism. Why? Racism affects both men and women. When people of colour experience it, men and women of colour stand united to defeat it. But women are overwhelmingly the victims of sexual assault.

Gender-based shame works at every level of misogyny, from name-calling to sexual assault. When you call a woman a gendered slur – a bitch, say – you make her think she has done something to deserve the insult. Similarly, when a girl is raped, she blames herself. 

When you are a girl, sexual attention is always your fault.  Whether you are walking down the street in a short skirt or long pants, or whether you are attacked by a lover or a stranger, it is because you did something to deserve it.

There is work being done to change rape culture. So far, our focus has been on getting girls to understand that sexism and sexual assault is never their fault. This is important work because shame is powerful and deeply, deeply scarring. But the real work begins when men and boys start taking responsibility and stop attacking women and girls. After all, it is not how women respond to rape culture that is the problem – it’s the fact it exists at all. 

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Sisonke Msimang is the author of Always 'Another Country:  A memoir of exile and home'. She writes about sex, race and politics, and will be speaking at the Sydney Opera House's Antidote Festival on September 2